The Russian Origins of the First World War by Sean McMeekin“The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
- Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, on the eve of Great Britain’s entrance into World War I
Do you want to play a game? The game is called Who Started World War I? It is very simple. This is how it is played:
First, meet me at the bar. Second, buy me a beer. Third, repeat step two. Fourth, we argue about who started World War I. Finally, after retuning to step two a few more times, you call me a cab. I assure you, it will be fun.
Forget what your parents might have told you. It matters who started it. Whatever the context, the aggressor is typically the more culpable party, morally, ethically, and legally. The responding party is given a certain benefit, for being thrust into a situation not of their making.
World War I was the 20th century’s epochal moment. It not only set the stage for the convulsions of World War II, but it arranged the map of the world in ways that still bedevil us today. Thus, it matters who is to blame for lighting the fuse that set off the powder keg that blew the peace and stability of the world into little pieces that we are still trying to fuse together.
The standard line, adhered to by most historians, is that we should lay responsibility at the feet of the Germans. There is much to recommend this line of thinking. At every turn, they were as German as possible. When the situation called for subtlety, they blustered; when tact was required, they responded with aggressiveness. They never met a person they couldn’t alienate. Germany’s questionable leadership did not help, with an unstable Kaiser and a chief of staff on the verge of breakdown. Also, that full-heel turn in the 1930s sort of makes it hard to view Germany as anything but belligerent.
Sean McMeekin wants to change this. The Russian Origins of the First World War is a sweeping reinterpretation of German war guilt. It posits, first and foremost, that Russia bears the onus of war. Sure, the Germans played a role, as did Serbia, Austria-Hungary, France, and Great Britain. But McMeekin argues – rather convincingly – that Russia wanted war as much as anyone.
The chief accusation against Germany in 1914 is that they were just looking for a reason to unleash the hounds. Situated in the middle of the continent, surrounded by hostile powers, the Germans feared encirclement. When Gavrilo Princip killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the Germans – it is said – used their treaty obligations to Austria-Hungary as a reason to act before it became too late.
McMeekin isn’t buying it. His central argument is that Russian aims drove the outbreak of war. For centuries, the tsars had dreamt of Constantinople and the Straits, which would provide Russia access to the sea. (They also hungrily eyed Galicia, a tantalizing piece of Austria-Hungary that drew a great deal of Russian attention, even as France begged them to focus on Germany). When Serbia squared off with Austria-Hungary, the Russians eagerly backed their Serbian ally, sensing that a conflict presented them with an opportunity – backed by France – to achieve their goals.
The title of this book is a bit misleading in the sense that it seems to refer to the beginning of the war in 1914. However, that is only part of it. Indeed, the bulk of these 243 pages of text is devoted to events occurring after the actual beginning of hostilities.
McMeekin uses this space to reevaluate the course of the war by looking at it from a Russian perspective. (Though battles are mentioned, McMeekin is more interested in diplomacy than battlefield strategy). Thus, in one chapter, he presents a revisionist view of the Dardanelles operation. Instead of hammering Churchill for embarking on a foolish gambit, he points an accusing finger at the Russians. McMeekin believes the Russians (spearheaded by foreign minister Sergey Sazonov) essentially tricked the Allies into attacking at Gallipoli, extracted promises that they would be given Constantinople, and then sat back and let the British and New Zealand troops do all the bloodletting. In another chapter, McMeekin takes us through the Armenian Genocide, arguing that Russia set the stage for tragedy by arming Armenian irredentist groups, and using them as human pawns in their geopolitical chess match. There is also a fascinating chapter on Sykes-Picot and the surgical dissection of the Ottoman Empire that gives an excellent primer on a topic with modern-day relevance.
McMeekin presents a forcefully argued and clearly presented argument. The problem, of course, is that revisionist histories tend to overstate their cases. Was Edward Grey really as gullible and ineffectual as McMeekin presents him? Was Sazonov really that brilliant? I can’t answer that. I’m not an expert. Yet, as I read, I had to keep reminding myself not to swallow everything hook, line, and sinker. McMeekin is not unbiased, he just has different biases than previous author/historians. Certainly, he has a few axes to grind, namely Russia and Great Britain. (France comes off only marginally better; Germany is barely critiqued; Austria-Hungary and Serbia are almost nonexistent).
To be fair, I do think McMeekin has the evidence to make a case. Certainly, he has the resume. He is a professor in Turkey, and claims to have done all the French, German, Russian, and Turkish translations on his own. His endnotes are impressive and well-annotated, giving the interested reader many other titles for later perusal.
There are times, though, where it felt like maybe he was trying a bit hard to impress. Or perhaps he was trying to assure himself that his argument holds water. For instance, there are pictures in the book of Russian memoranda that McMeekin has found in various archives. According to McMeekin, these pages represent newly discovered evidence to bolster his point. To me, with absolutely no facility with the Cyrillic alphabet, they are just nonsense. It could be the menu for the Russian House of Pancakes and I would not know the difference. Their inclusion is telling, as though McMeekin is preemptively engaging with the historians who will attack his thesis.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am predisposed to buy what McMeekin is selling. It’s not just my contrarian nature, either. Rather, ever since I began my literary journey through World War I, I’ve been bothered by how the Great Powers acted and reacted to the Sarajevo assassination. The mechanistic view, that each of these nations had treaty obligations that they had to execute, only makes sense in a vacuum. In reality, every nation involved in the outbreak of World War I decided, at some point, that war was in their best interest. The idea that the massive Russian Empire would get dragged into a fight by little Serbia, against its will, is preposterous. The Russians wanted to rumble, because they saw a benefit to themselves (Constantinople and the Straits). Similarly, France cheered them on, because they saw a benefit (Alsace-Lorraine). You can pick any of the nations involved in the war’s outbreak – Germany, Austria-Hungary, Serbia, Russia, France, and Great Britain – and lucidly argue for their culpability.
The reality, though, is that no nation is fully and singularly to blame. This is a matter of comparative fault. It took the combined mistakes of a lot of different people to trigger World War I.
The Russian Origins of the First World War definitely oversells its argument. In fact, I’m pretty sure McMeekin recognized this himself. In July 1914, published two years after this book, he presents a more fully formed picture of the critical month when Europe abandoned peace. He still lays heavy criticism on Russia, but he does a better job developing the flaws in Germany as well.
I think McMeekin’s perspective – whether you ultimately agree or not – is an important one to recognize if you’re interested in World War I. My advice is to read July 1914 first (it’s my favorite book in the vast sub-genre of titles devoted to the July Crisis). Once you’ve finished that, The Russian Origins of the First World War is an excellent follow-up. It gives you all the ammunition you need to be the guy at the cocktail party who surprises everyone by saying that Germany’s role in causing World War I has been grossly exaggerated, and that for a full accounting of this terrible event, one must look to the East.
What's Coming Next In Your LOVE Life? ??(Pick A Card)??
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What is Tarot, anyway?
Skip navigation! There are many ways to read tarot — the practice of drawing cards from a tarot deck to find guidance in your life. The cards can give insight into your career , the year ahead , and, yes, your love life.
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