The Russian Origins of the First World War (a criticism of a book promoting this theory)

Sean McMeekin. The Russian Origins of the First World War

n his third book in four years, Sean McMeekin, an assistant professor of international relations at Bilkent University (Ankara, Turkey), rekindles interest in Russia’s responsibility for unleashing the great catastrophe of 1914. Based on Russian, Turkish, French, German, Austrian, and British documentary repositories, including the Archive of Imperial Russian Foreign Policy (AVPRI) and the Russian State Military History Archive (RGVIA), the study forwards a courageous interpretation that stimulates interest in Russia’s path to war. Focusing on political designs and military events in the eastern theater, the book argues that the constellation of circumstances in July 1914 triggered Russian plans to overthrow and expel the Turks from Constantinople, extend dominion into eastern Anatolia and Persian Azerbaijan, and secure predominance in the Black Sea. While not entirely new, the thesis is told with vigor and boldness, based on fresh AVPRI findings. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov appears center stage as the astute and charming, yet shallow and deceitful mastermind behind an intricate manipulation of British and French foreign policymakers to secure Russia’s bid for world power. . . .

In evaluating the reasons that Russia opted for war, McMeekin diminishes the symbolic interest of the Bosnian Crisis of 1908. He dismisses its memory “in the minds” of Russian statesmen. He pays scant attention to Russia’s fragile domestic morale and the influence of the popular press. Yet after Russia’s ignominious bow to Austrian and German threats in 1909, Russia’s political and military elite believed that Russia could not sustain yet another humiliation on that scale.

The absence of discussion about the archduke’s assassination in a handful of diplomatic papers does not conceal the deep-seated concern for Balkan affairs. The matter in Serbia was not “some silly Balkan bagatelle” or “phantom issue” to the Russian Foreign Ministry (pp. 101, 232). If Russia remained passive in the face of the destruction of Serbia, it would be humiliated and its long-held prestige among the Slavic peoples of southeastern Europe would dwindle into insignificance. The Russian ministers feared that the domestic results of such a fiasco would be incalculable. Action entailing major sacrifices would be better than skulking away in shame. McMeekin’s inspection of the July record rests on ample speculation over a few consular reports, incomplete diaries, and self-proclaimed insights into the “actors’” minds. Absent from the war plans and consular papers employed are the enormous, astoundingly complex details behind a descent on the Turkish capital and its effect on millions of people.

An emphasis on the drama of the Russian Revolution has diminished historians’ appreciation for events directly connected to the eastern theater of the war. Building on the work of Norman Stone, the central chapters of The Russian Origins of the First World War provide a brief narrative of Russian military action in the eastern front, including the southern Caucasus, Anatolia, and Persian Azerbaijan. In the opening month of the war, Russia’s infantry-divisional advantage coupled with Austria’s botched mobilization enabled tsarist forces to score major victories in the Southwest. . . .

There is a tiny kernel of truth in McMeekin’s analysis; since Sazonov’s time, the Russian General Staff had maintained that mobilization was the equivalent of war. General mobilization was consequently a bellicose act directed at both German states. Yet time was a prized commodity and the Russian leadership had no reason to postpone the inevitable. Austria’s declaration of hostilities against Serbia indicated that war was at hand. Most Russian leaders believed the war would be short, and key figures among the military and civilian elite were acutely aware of Russia’s unpreparedness. Russia’s strategies for war were dependent on incomplete, hastily conceived plans and tense cabinet meetings chaired by all too human actors, not a cohesive strategy for the Ottoman inheritance.