The Russian Origin of the First World War

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Sazonov

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Sazonov

I am currently reading Sean McMeekin’s The Russian Origins of the First World War (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2011), Michael Reynolds’s Shattering Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, 1908-1918 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011) and Barbara Jelavich’s Russia’s Balkan Entanglements (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991) for a comparative empires seminar focused on the European land-based empires (Habsburg, Ottoman, Russian).

These books about the Russian and Near Eastern origins of the War have me recollecting some of my previous conclusions about the origin of the First World War. In August of 2003 I read John Keegan’s The First World War (New York: Knopf, 1999) and at that time I composed some incomplete notes of my takeaway from Mr. Keegan’s description of the events and deliberations of the July Crisis. My conclusion then was that greater emphasis on Russia as an instigator of the First World War was warranted. I also thought, along with these historians listed above, that there needed to be a strategic motive more plausible than mobilization timetables and Slavic solidarity for Russia’s involvement. Here is a lightly edited excerpt from what I wrote then:

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Having read thus far, there are a few things that puzzle me:

One of the necessary conditions of the war was Russian resistance to Austria-Hungary’s plan to punish Serbia. Keegan shows how the crisis was nearly avoided before gaining any momentum:

By the following morning, Saturday 25 July, both the British and French delegations in Belgrade reported home that Belgrade would agree to the Austrian demands, excepting the condition that imperial officials be admitted on to Serbian territory to supervise the investigations.

Even on that sticking point, however, the Serbians had not yet made up their minds. (56)

Keegan here establishes a check-point (or perhaps tries to make more painful the sense that all this could all have been avoided — baby, guess my name [I had been using the Rolling Stones’s “Sympathy For The Devil” as a foil for the tone of Keegan’s narrative —ed.]): “Even at noon on Saturday 25 July, therefore, five hours before the time limit attached to the Austrian note would expire, the crime of Sarajevo remained a matter between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, diplomatically no more than that” (57). What was it that transformed this local squabble into the war that would draw in nearly all of Europe?

Then, during the afternoon, word was received from their [Serbia’s] ambassador at the Tsar’s country palace that the mood there was fiercely pro-Serbian. The Tsar, though not yet ready to proclaim mobilization, had announced the preliminary “Period Preparatory to War” at eleven o’clock. The news reversed everything the Serbian ministers had decided. In the morning they had agreed to accept all ten Austrian demands, with the slightest reservations. Now they were emboldened to attach conditions to six and to reject absolutely the most important, that Austrian officials be allowed to take part in the investigation of the assassination on Serbian territory. (57-58)

It was these Russian actions preliminary to mobilization ordered by the Tsar that prompted the German Prime Minister to instruct his ambassador to issue the next day, Sunday 26 July, his first warning that mobilization “would mean war.”

Later, Keegan will quote L.C.F. Turner (“The Significance of the Schlieffen Plan” in Paul Kennedy, The War Plans of the Great Powers [London: Allen & Unwin, 1979]) in his assessment that the Russian decision to mobilize was “perhaps the most important …taken in the history of Imperial Russia and it effectively shattered any prospect of averting a great European war” (62). The Germans believed that every day of Russian mobilization not matched by Germany brought the Schlieffen plan closer to failure, for the premise of the plan was the France could be knocked out of a war in the time that it took Russia to mobilize. Each day’s lead Russia acquired was one fewer day in which to defeat the French.

I am going to tentatively advance the thesis here that the First World War was primarily a conflict between Austria-Hungary and Russia with the entire Western Front being fought merely for reasons structural to the European concert (e.g. the Schlieffen Plan, the Triple Entente). In support of this thesis, I would offer that the main locus of negotiation in the July Crisis was Germany, Britain and France trying to convince Austria-Hungary to accept mediation with Serbia and Germany trying to convince Russia to leave Austria-Hungary to destroy Serbia unharried by outsiders.

The question that needs more attention in this analysis is why were the Russian so “fiercely pro-Serbian.” There are a few passing remarks in Keegan. His suggestion that, “Russia, a great Slav brother, had tender feelings towards the Serbs…” is thankfully quickly qualified, “…but feelings are different from vital interests and certainly no motive for war” (53). Later he offers a more realistic reason, that Foreign Minister Sazonov “possessed in an acute form the Russian neurosis over control of the Balkans, with which went fears of a hostile power dominating the Bosphorus, Russia’s Black Sea exit to the Mediterranean and the wider world” (65). This is better, but still the emphasis is on feelings — neurosis and fears — and the reasons are confined to one man. If it is true that, as Keegan quotes approvingly, Russia’s decision to mobilize was “the most important …taken” and if the thesis that I am drawing from his presentation is correct — and he does come down on it pretty hard — then he is woefully short on its analysis. We get Sazonov’s fears, but what were the arguments employed by him and the rest of the Russian command on that 30 July afternoon at the Tsar’s summer residence? The Tsar was waffling. He issued and then rescinded a mobilization order, rescinded it owing to dire warnings received from the Kaiser. After the 30 July meeting with Sazonov he reissued the mobilization order. What did the Tsar believe? What strategic considerations overruled the Kaiser’s warnings of war?

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Undoubtedly my assessments of the origin of the War are going to change considerably in the coming months and years. I saw Samuel R. Williamson, Jr., author of Austria-Hungary and the Origins of the First World War (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1991), this week at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars talking on “July 1914: Revisited and Revised—or The End of the German Paradigm“. He closed his remarks joking that the theory that he favors varies from one day to the next. Hopefully I will follow this post up once I complete these books and this course. My 2003 thoughts serve as a benchmark for subsequent assessments of the situation.

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One thought on “The Russian Origin of the First World War

  1. What are your conclusions thus far as for the ‘ Russian origins of the First World War claims ?

    I also read Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, and more recently McMeekin’s ”July 1914: Countdown to War” (where he repeats more or less the same as in his previous book in regards to Russia).

    A few days ago I wrote Annika Mombauer to ask about her opinion and she answered:”No, I do not agree with Chris Clark or McMeekin on Russia , although I would concede that Russia ’s decisions are also important in aggravating the July Crisis after the ultimatum.”

    As for Samuel R. Williamson Jr I was hoping one would hear something more of him upon return from his planned trip to Vienna during the Summer of 2012, yet the latest I have seen of him was his Tuchman review (http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/sewanee_review/v121/121.1.williamson.pdf) anything else more recent, or upcoming, you know of?

    I am a student at the University of Hawaii Manoa campus.

    Thank you for any response,
    Irene

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