The Russian Origins of the First World War

As usual on every Armistice Day, I got out one of my unread World War One books off the shelf.

Review: The Russian Origins of the First World War, Sean McMeekin, 2011.

The thesis of this book is that Imperial Russia, using the criteria of Fritz Fischer’s famous Griff nach der Weltmacht aka Germany’s Aims in the First World War) bears as much responsibility for starting World War One as Imperial Germany.

McMeekin, using research into Turkish, Russian, French, German, and English archives, shows that Russia was anxious for war to pursue two objectives: the seizure of Constantinople and Persian lands on the other side of the Caucuses.

Russia consistently pursued those aims to the detriment of its allies almost to the end. The only time it abandoned them, during the post-Revolution Kerensky government, was probably the one time it should have continued them to help prevent a Bolshevik take over.

The reason for the long-term Russian goal of seizing Constantinople wasn’t just a symbolic significance as indicated by the names sometimes used for that city: the Second Rome or Tsargrad. Constantinople and the Bosporus Straits were key choke points that could be used to limit Russia’s trade. Roughly half of it passed through the area. The vulnerability it represented was brought home when Russia lost access to them briefly in 1912 during the Italian-Turkish War.

The Sick Man of Europe was, of course, already on the ropes by 1914. McMeekin even goes so far, with justification, to say that we could rightly dump the name World War One in favor of the War of the Ottoman Succession which lasted from 1911 to 1923. Already in 1910, Russian planners were developing plans to seize Constantinople, and they included an amphibious landing.

As to the standard story of Russia entering the war because of alliances with Serbia, McMeekin shows the Russians were perfectly willing to go against the Serbs when Russian interests were at stake. Protecting Serbia was an excuse. There is evidence, despite denials, that Russian knew in advance of the plot to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand. (McMeekin frequently points out contradictions between Russian Foreign Minister Sazonov said in his memoirs and actual archival records.)

That Russian mobilization for the war was unexpectedly quick was because Russia had already decided to go to war before July 24, 1914, possibly towards the beginning of the month.

The Russian defeat at Tannenberg was not falling on its sword for France. In its alliance with France, Russia explicitly claimed the right to not concentrate its forces to repel a German attack. It is true Russia met its commitments in invading East Prussia – but it used only a third of its military resources in the European theatre to do that. Throughout most of the war, Russians used most of its forces for was taking on the Austro-Hungarians in Galicia. Russia had the whip hand over its allies. It could always threaten a separate piece with Germany.

Very early in the war, Russia rejected a peace offer with the Ottoman Empire. That would have freed up forces for use against Germany. But Russia had no plans to remove troops from the Caucuses. They were to be used to move on Constantinople.

Gallipoli is a prime example of the Russian Empire using its political leverage. Russian begin requesting an invasion of the Dardanelles in November 1914. Not that they would contribute any forces though they had estimated about 300,000 men would be required to take Constantinople. The only thing definitely conceded by the Russians is they would stop violating British territory in Persia to pursue Turkish troops. On February 24, 1915, the Russians did concede to send a corps to assist with British and French operations. Ultimately, though, the only thing Russia did to assist the invasion was some insignificant naval bombardments on the Black Sea coast on April 25, 1915.

In regards to the Armenian Genocide, McMeekin sees Russian aid and incitement of the Kurdish and Armenian citizens of the Ottoman Empire– before the war and during it – as a typical example of following its own interests and letting allies take the hit for Russian goals.

Russia did the same in the Persian theatre of its war with the Turks. To gain Russian assistance, British policy went from no Russian intervention in Persia to begging for it. But, even after they entered Persia, they didn’t bother to relieve the siege of the British at Kut though they had forces only 150 miles away. While their assistance was requested in January 1916, they didn’t move for three months. On April 25, 1916, they were only a five-day march from Kut, but the British surrendered on April 29, 1916.

Kerensky’s government really did fall on its sword to protect its war allies. McMeekin suggests that, instead of the disastrous Galicia Offensive of 1917, the loyalty of the troops might have held with another push on Constantinople. Future White Commander Kolchak maintained the loyalty of his troops by advocating that.

This is an excellent book at the complicated politics proceeding the war, Russia’s goals and concerns, as well as how those affected the course of the war. McMeekin’s prose is clear and very readable with frequent attention called to how facts contradict later histories and memoirs. Even in its kindle edition, which I read, the maps are plentiful and useful. There’s also a very good index and some photos of the principals involved.

It stands as a needed revision to dominant accounts of the war and its origins.

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