International Finance and the First World War in the East

The two things I’m working on right now are:

  1. Non-state actors and the First World War contest over areas of the near eastern empires — Hapsburg, Ottoman and Russian competition over the Balkans, Galicia, the Caucasus, Central Asia (“the Great Game”), the Adriatic Sea, the Black Sea and the Turkish Straits; and
  2. International financial and monetary economics in the late Long Nineteenth Century, namely from the late 1880s to the turn of the century. Specifically I am researching on a Master’s thesis on the classical gold standard, the Goschen Conversion, British international investment, “the economic taproot of imperialism”, the Long Depression of 1873-1896, the Baring Crisis, the U.S. Panic of 1893, the depression of the 1890s and the Morgan-Belmont Syndicate of 1895.

Do these have anything to do with one another beyond chronological adjacency? My interests here have been partly inspired by a few observations made by Samuel R. Williamson, Jr. at a Wilson Center discussion (July 1914: Revisited and Revised—or The End of the German Paradigm, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, D.C., 19 March 2012). In an answer (to a question posed by one of my advisors) during the question and answer period, he said, “The financial thing is one of those subtexts that needs to be studied” (at 1:09:31). Then in his concluding remarks he spent some time looking ahead, assessing what about the origin of the First World War remained understudied, returning to the issue of finance:

As we were talking about the financial thing, I was thinking about an injunction I was given in 1962 on the way to England by Ernest May, Sam Wells and my mentor, which was, “Look for the finance papers. You’ll find that’s what you need to be looking for. Look for the finance papers.” Well, I didn’t find the finance papers, but I found a lot of other good stuff. But the finance papers, there’s some real loads of stuff that are going to change the way people look at this and about the interaction. What’s interesting is, is whether many of the banks will not have destroyed this simply over the course of passage of time. The banks, just like about everybody else, prunes papers. And so this may be one of the things we will never know as much as we want to know about, but it’s an important subtext for the future. (at 1:22:10)

In this regard there are two research projects in progress that I can hardly wait to get my hands on:

  1. The first is that of Jennifer Siegel, an Associate Professor of modern European diplomatic and military history in the Department of History at Ohio State University. Her dissertation, completed at Yale University under the guidance of Paul Kennedy was published as Endgame: Britain, Russia and the Final Struggle for Central Asia (I.B. Tauris, 2002). She is currently working on a book to be titled For Peace and Money: International Finance and the Making and Unmaking of the Triple Entente, which will be “…an exploration of British and French private and government bank loans to Russia in the late imperial period up to the Genoa Conference of 1922…”
  2. The second is history doctoral candidate Hassan Malik’s dissertation, Bankers and Bolsheviks: International Finance and the Russian Revolution, 1880-1930, to be completed this year at Harvard under the supervision of Niall Ferguson. A longer description of what his dissertation will deal with can be found at the Social Science Research Council Dissertation Development Fellow page for his project. His twitter feed is here.

From these two projects, it seems that Professor Williamson’s assessment that finance remains one of the fecund future areas of research on the First World War era is an astute one (presumably it’s based on his finger on the pulse of research underway, not just proscription or surmise).

As long as I’m on the topic, I may also mention a third, related work that I am on watch for. In the new Preface to the 2010 reissue of Feroz Ahmad’s The Young Turks: The Committee of Union and Progress in Turkish Politics, 1908-1914 he writes that he is working on a sequel to cover the war years. His faculty page at T.C. Yeditepe Üniversitesi also lists a work, Turkey and the First World War, 1914-1918 as forthcoming. There have been a few recent books on the role of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, but one by Feroz Ahmad could be the most significant of the crop.

For a student such as myself, the next few years are on a course to be promising ones.

Update, 19 May 2013: And Sean McMeekin’s forthcoming book on the Russian Revolution of 1917 will focus heavily on financial aspects as well.

Update, 26 March 2015: Jennifer Siegel’s For Peace and Money: French and British Finance in the Service of Tsars and Commissars was published by Oxford University Press in December of 2014. According to his page at Harvard, Hassan Malik’s Bankers and Bolsheviks: International Finance and the Russian Revolution, 1892-1922 is under contract to be published by Princeton University Press in 2016.

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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:

*  *  *

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?

*  *  *

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.

The Wolf-Girl of Chita

Wolf-men (or Mowgli Syndrome) seem like legends left over from the Nineteenth Century, but in fact a few turn up every decade, most famously the case of Genie, discovered in Los Angeles in 1970 and most recently Dani Lierow / Danielle Crockett in Florida in 2005 (DeGregory, Lane, “The girl in the Window,” St. Petersburg Times, 31 July 2008). The most recent case is from Chita, Russia (Wikipedia | Google Maps | “Feral Girl in Siberian City of Chita Was Brought Up by Cats and Dogs,” Times, 27 May 2009):

“For five years, the girl was ‘brought up’ by several dogs and cats and had never been outside,” police said in a statement. The child refuses to eat with a spoon, insisting on lapping up her food straight from the plate, and has taken on many other behaviours of the animals with which she lived, police said. “When carers leave the room, the girl jumps at the door and barks,” the police said. … The girl could understand Russian but could not speak it and tried to communicate through barking instead.

As if in an attempt to tip us off to some Times / BBC fabrication by taking the story over the line, the city where this story originates bears the name, Chita, of the sidekick to that most famous, fictional wolfman, Tarzan.

Auto-Impalement

When I was in college and struggling to get postmodernism in philosophy, I asked a friend who was a writing student what postmodernism in literature meant. His very brief description — he was dismissive like that — was that in modernist literature, ordinary, every-day occurrences drove the drama of the story. In postmodernist literature, extraordinary events drove the plot of the story. The example that he made was that a story might start one morning when a man realizes that there’s a tree growing out of his leg.

Today, Komsomolskaya Pravda Daily reports that Artyom Sidorkin of Izhevsk, in the Ural Mountain region of the Russian Federation, went for surgery to remove what doctors had believed to be a tumor, but in fact turned out to be a five centimeter tall spruce tree growing in Mr. Sidorkin’s lung (“5 cm. Fir Tree Removed from Patient’s Lung,” MosNews.com, 13 April 2009 [Warning: Images Not Safe For Dinner]).

Two observations:

  1. Life imitates art — and vice versa. It’s not just philosophy and literature that are post-modern. They are merely middling indicators. They have become so only to the extent that actual lived life has become post-modern. Trees are actually growing out of people. I’m concerned that tomorrow I might read news of a man who woke up to find that he had turned into a giant beetle, or that the latest trend among young people was to turn into a rhinoceros.

  2. Life is fucking relentless. I used to find it bizarre that a mile out into Lake Washington on the 520 floating bridge, weeds grew in the automobile soot that had accumulated in the crevices in the asphalt and spiders had spun webs amidst their stems and apparently caught enough food to survive. Here you have a tree that actually tried to make a feeder-log of a man.

Update, 2 May 2009: On Monday, Steven Colbert picked up the story for his segment, Craziest Fucking Thing I’ve Ever Heard. He offered that that’s why he uses Roundup Nasal Spray.

A Caspian Balance?

Again, the trump argument in the debate over whether the standard predictions of realism, that hegemony always produces a balance, applies as well to Twenty-First Century U.S. unipolarity as it has all other hegemons, is to ask, “Where is the balance?” Realists have been hard-pressed to answer this question and have made recourse to the notion of the “soft balance.” This has evoked a bit of ridicule from their neoconservative opponents, who reply that there is no such thing as soft balancing, or if there is such a thing it doesn’t count.

Well, how about last week’s Caspian Sea Leaders Summit for a hard balance (Fathi, Nazila and C. J. Chivers, “In Iran, Putin Warns Against Military Action,” The New York Times, 17 October 2007)?

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said at a summit meeting of five Caspian Sea nations in Iran on Tuesday that any use of military force in the region was unacceptable. In a declaration, the countries agreed that none would allow their territories to be used as a base for military strikes against any of the others.

Later he had a meeting with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in which he said he had expressed a desire for “deeper” relations between the countries, Reuters reported.

[Mr. Ahmadinejad said,] “The goal is to keep the sea clear of military competitions and keep foreigners out of the region.”

The article concedes that, “their statements appeared to have more political than military significance, and were not a departure from the status quo.” It looks to me like a departure from the status quo in so far as while it is not a clear-cut case of hard balancing — there were no mutual defense pacts signed or declarations that an attack on one would be viewed as an attack on all — a couple of states banding together in a show of solidarity to compel the hegemon to back down seems like a pretty far cry from soft balancing too.

Attack on Peoria

One might be prone to get worried about the fact that after fifteen years of dormancy, Russia has resumed regular, long-range bomber patrols (Troianovski, Anton, “Russia Resumes Its Long-Range Air Patrols,” The Washington Post, 18 August 2007, p. A7). Soviet era prop-driven TU-95 “Bear” bombers have been intercepted by Norwegian and British fighters (“British Jets Intercept Eight Russian Bombers,” Reuters, 6 September 2007) and have buzzed Guam and other U.S. targets.

One might be so inclined — were the United States not buzzing itself with nuclear bombers. On 30 August 2007 a B-52 took off from Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, and flew to Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, unknowingly carrying five (or maybe six, but what’s a nuclear warhead between friends) armed W80-1 nuclear warheads (5-150 kiloton yield) in under-wing mounted air-launch cruise missiles (Hoffman, Michael, “Commander Disciplined for Nuclear Mistake,” Military Times, 5 September 2007). The missiles were being transported to Barksdale along with 400 others to be decommissioned and should have been without any munition but were somehow — no one knows how yet — inadvertently loaded with the nuclear armed variant. The most disturbing part is that to accomplish this fuck-up a number of heretofore though foolproof safeguards had to be foiled. Presumably no malfeasance was at play — which would only go to show that stupidity is a significantly greater danger than ill will — but a huge investigation, rising all the way to Defense Secretary Gates, the President and Congress has ensued. And rightly so. Though the probability of a nuclear detonation even in the event of a crash was vanishingly small, this is the first time since 1968 that armed nuclear weapons have flown and there is some concern that international treaties may have been violated.

Here (Philips, Alan F., “20 Mishaps That Might Have Started Accidental Nuclear War,” NuclearFiles.org) is a list of nuclear accidents, including the 1968 Thule, Greenland crash that brought U.S. armed airborne alert flights to an end. It’s a fairly disquieting list that just grew to twenty-one.

Some Other Books that Bush Should Read

The White House press office and has periodically made it known what books the President is reading. On a few occasions even the President himself has staged a mini publicity stunt to show off the same, for instance when he very deliberately paraded around with a copy of Bernard Goldberg’s book Bias to demonstrate his low opinion of the press or Eliot Cohen’s Supreme Command to signal to the military that the administration wasn’t about to be pushed around by a bunch of generals with their dictates of military requirement.

I am currently reading Adam Zamoyski’s Moscow 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that a work was not written with an eye to current events. And sometimes they are. Robert Massie has specifically said that he wrote Dreadnought, his book about how the naval arms race between Britain and Germany precipitated the First World War, in part to illustrate the dangers of the Regan nuclear arms buildup.

When I read passages like the following, it is hard not to think that Mr. Zamoyski doesn’t have a certain contemporary swashbuckling world leader in mind. With the La Grande Armée fully ensconced in Moscow, harried by marauding Cossacks, Napoleon contemplates his next move:

Napoleon was far too astute not to realize that his strategy had gone badly wrong, and that Caulaincourt had been right all along. But he did not like to admit it. And he recoiled from the only logical next step, which was to withdraw. He liked neither the idea of retreat, which went against his instincts, nor the implications of such a withdrawal on the political climate in Europe. He also had an extraordinary capacity for making himself believe something just be decreeing it to be true. “In many circumstances, to wish something and believe it were for him one and the same thing,” in the words of General Bourienne. So he hung on, believing that Alexander’s nerve would break or that his own proverbial luck would come up with something.

He had studied the weather charts, which told him that it did not get really cold until the beginning of December, so he did not feel any sense of urgency. What he did not realize, in common with many who do not know those climates, was just how sudden and savage changes of temperature can be, and how temperature is only one factor, which along with wind, water and terrain can turn nature into a viciously powerful opponent.

The unusually fine weather at the beginning of October contributed to his complacency. He teased Caulaincourt, accusing him of peddling stories about the Russian winter invented to “frighten children.” “Caulaincourt thinks he’s frozen already,” he quipped. He kept on saying that it was warmer than Fontainebleau at that time of year, and dismissed suggestions that the army provide itself with gloves and items of warm clothing. …

With every day Napoleon spent in Moscow, the harder it was to leave without loss of face, and the usually decisive Emperor became immobilized by the need to choose between an unappealing range of options on the one hand, and a stubborn belief in his lucky star on the other. He fell into the trap of thinking that by delaying a decision he was leaving his options open. In fact, he only really had one option, and he was reducing the chances of its success with every day he delayed. (pp. 351-352)

For the outcome of this story, one need only consult Charles Minard’s famous chart portraying the destruction of the French Army. Substitute a few terms and this sounds strikingly like the current situation of the United States in the Middle East. For those of you who object to the comparison in the first sentence of the excerpt, “Napoleon was far too astute not to realize that his strategy had gone badly wrong,” I ask, do you really think that CIA director Michael Hayden told the Iraq Study Group that the “instability” in Iraq seems “irreversible” and that he could not “point to any milestone or checkpoint where we can turn this thing around,” (Woodward, Bob, “CIA Said Instability Seemed ‘Irreversible’,” Washington Post, 12 July 2007, p. A1) but that he has been telling the President in his daily briefings that everything is coming up roses? President Bush has been told the situation in Iraq, and in some dark corner of his mind he knows what it is — altogether too often one can see this in his broken, impromptu remarks to the press where his pleading, too strident by half tone seems addressed as much to himself as anyone else in the room. He just doesn’t have the strength of mind — and that is what it takes — to come to terms with the truth.