h i s t o r y obsessing about how Russia could get Turkey into the war in order to launch an offensive against the Straits. The principal war aim she articulated at that time, in other words, concerned a power that was not yet even a belligerent. When the Ottomans entered the lists later that year, London and Paris, sore pressed by the Germans on the Western Front, were only too happy to promise the Russians Constantinople in order to keep them in the war. As McMeekin shows, the famous Dardanelles campaign was driven by this imperative at Russia’s request, and in March 1915 the Allies formally agreed to cede the Straits to Russia once Germany had been beaten. In short, the author argues,
and much longer book, of course, but it does mean that the author is unnecessarily perplexed by the willingness of London and Paris, so long hostile to Russia’s ambitions in Turkey, to indulge her in 1914–16.
The key is the pan-Entente fear of Germany, a country whose agency disappears almost to vanishing point with McMeekin. This is surprising because his previous book made her responsible for much of what has gone wrong in the Middle East since 1900. If, in The Berlin–Baghdad Express, the German glass is generally half-empty, in The Russian Origins of the First World War it is generally half-full. McMeekin also misses the extent to which the Tsarist Empire itself was preoccupied with Germany, above and beyond the Straits: the initial estrangement had begun in the 1860s and 1870s with fears for the security of the western border, after all, and the vast majority of Russian troops – as the book’s ownmaps show – faced west or southwest throughout, not south. In short, while there is no doubt that Sean McMeekin has greatly advanced our understanding of the origins of the First World War, especially with respect to Russia, the just measure of the overall cause of that conflict must await another book and another author. To order this book at £22.95, see the Literary Review Bookshop on page 57
even a watered-down version of the Fischer thesis, set against what we now know about Russia’s early mobilisation [and everything else] … can stand no more. There were at least as many men in St Petersburg who wanted war in 1914 as there were in Berlin – and the men in St Petersburg mobilised first.
McMeekin makes a very persuasive case, canvassing and dismissing alternative arguments as the story unfolds. Russian motivations and actions are so copiously sourced from the documents, many of them previously unpublished, that there can no longer be much room for doubt that the role of St Petersburg was far greater and far more baleful than most historians have allowed. All this makes The Russian Origins of the First World War an important book that deserves to be widely read and to grace every school and undergraduate booklist on how Europe came to blows in 1914.
Unfortunately, there are also problems. The author makes some odd comparisons, for example when he argues that writing about the Armenian tragedy [sic] without serious discussion of Russia is ‘akin to writing about the “bloodbath in Budapest” during the ill-fated Hungarian Revolution in 1956 without reference to the Soviet Union’. More seriously, there is also a perspectival distortion arising from the narrow focus on Russia and the Straits. The major actors in the July Crisis are dealt with in relation to St Petersburg, but not each other. To have done otherwise would have necessitated a different o a we s ta d
Cold Hands, Warm Heart Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances: How Personal Politics Helped Start the Cold War
By Frank Costigliola (Princeton University Press 533pp £24.95)
What role does emotion play in modern diplomacy? Would the US reaction to 9/11 have been different if George W Bush had not needed to act as a Texas cowboy in order to hide his privileged East Coast upbringing? Would the Serbs have got a better deal in the post-Yugoslavia settlement if Slobodan Miloševic had had less of the dark about him? And would the Cold War have ended peacefully if not for Ronald Reagan’s immense personal charm and ability to fuddle the issues?
All historians worth their salt have accepted the role that emotion and personal politics play in international as well as domestic affairs. Sitting around the table negotiating with other world leaders is, after all, not so very different from being at a company board meeting or (God forbid) discussing an inheritance with relatives. In each case anger and confrontational behaviour close down possibilities, while smiles, flattery and (on occasion) liberal amounts of alcohol open them up. Getting anything done is dependent on getting along, or at least on continuing to talk.
The start of the Cold War was no different, claims the eminent US historian
Frank Costigliola in Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances. President Roosevelt had been able to hold an unlikely wartime coalition together because of his ability to charm his partners, including the surly Russians. When Roosevelt’s successor Harry Truman replaced charm with an angst-filled desire to discipline and punish, the alliance collapsed and the Cold War ensued. Had FDR been in charge the Cold War could have been avoided. With Truman (and his key advisers, Averell Harriman and George Kennan) taking over, the form the conflict with Moscow took was if not unavoidable, then very predictable.
Costigliola’s challenging book is much richer than this one conclusion, of course, but it is the author’s main message, and he brings together a wealth of evidence to prove it. FDR treated the Soviets as he treated reluctant senators or hesitant love-interests at home: he bamboozled them, overwhelmed them and left them thinking they had established a very special personal bond with the President. ‘The President is a MAN – mentally, physically, & spiritually – What more can I say,’ one of his girlfriends wrote.
But there is of course more to say.
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