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 Other Forgotten War

D.C. World War Memorial, Armistice Day, 11 November 2009

One could be forgiven for not knowing that there is a memorial to the First World War in Washington, D.C. (Wikipedia | Google Maps). The first time I stumbled across it, it was as an exploration of a curiosity. I wanted to figure out what that unknown building was, barely visible through the trees along Independence Avenue. To approach the memorial is to get a sense of what it must have been like for a Renaissance-era scholar on grand tour of the continent to come to Rome for the first time, when the ruins of Rome were still that: ruins — mysterious, forgotten, pillaged, unkempt, crumbling, ignored. The First World War Memorial is lost in a grove of trees on the south side of the Mall. It’s like coming across an abandoned temple in a forest. The flagstone paving stones of the walk up to the memorial are lose, scattered, broken and on their way to gravel. The memorial itself is blackened with mildew, its marble cracked and stained. It is like a mushroom that popped up in a forest clearing after a rain. Completed in 1931, its archaic inscription simply reads “The World War.”

Our wars aren’t merely matters of fact, narratives or parables from which we are to take the vaunted historical lesson. Our wars are tropes: they represent certain touchstones of the American consciousness. The Second World War was the good war: the forces of good arrayed against the forces of evil, proving the directionality of history. The Vietnam War is central figure in the right wing Dolchstoßlegende. They are all morality plays. The First World War is a forgotten war because it does not signify anything that fits easily into the American mythos. It is an amorality play. Its obvious meta-narratives of miscalculation, system effects, the amorality of state interest, the fleetingness of progress, the shabbiness of war, the divisions of class interest and the meaninglessness of our social conventions around war don’t figure in U.S. discourse on war. So the event is simply excised from the national consciousness, not a part of the pantheon of nostalgia writ in Neoclassical white marble in the nation’s capitol.

Mediocrity as the Camel’s Nose of Monsters

Though a central category of the critique of Modernity, the phrase “the banality of evil” is, owing to its origin, mostly associated with the Second World War and Hitler’s circle of power. John Quiggin takes the opportunity of Armistice Day to point out the relevance of the concept for the First World War (“Armistice Day,” 11 November 2009):

The cataclysm of the Great War brought forth monsters like Hitler and Stalin, who killed millions. But the War itself, with the millions and tens of millions of lives it took, directly and indirectly, was loosed on the world by political leaders more notable for mediocrity than for monstrous greatness.

The names of Asquith, Bethmann-Hollweg, Berchtold and Poincare are barely remembered, yet on any reasonable accounting they belong among the great criminals of history. Not only did they create the conditions for war, and rush (eagerly in most cases) into it, they carried on even as the death toll mounted into the hundreds of thousands and beyond. Even as the original grounds for war became utterly irrelevant, they continued to intrigue for trivial postwar benefits, carving up imagined conquests among themselves.

The First World War no longer seems like the nadir of civilization after the horrors of the Twentieth Century that were to follow — the collectivization and the famine, the purges, the Holocaust, Barbarossa, Stalingrad, Bataan, the area raids, the atomic bomb, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. But the First World War set the conditions. In this regard, mediocrity often prepares the ground for monsters.

Civilization is fickle and an inopportune mediocrity in governance is a great danger. Unhappily, this is probably the realm where ken pales and Fortuna runs amuck.

Destroy This Mad Brute

H.R. Hopps, U.S. Army First World War propaganda poster, "Destroy This Mad Brute — Enlist", 1917

Jill Filipovic at Feminista and Erica Barnett at The Stranger both think the cover of the April 2008 issue of Vogue (above, right) is some weird racist adumbration to King Kong (“I Know Vogue Isn’t Exactly Racially Conscious, But…,” 15 March 2008; “The LeBron James Vogue Cover Controversy,” 26 March 2008, respectively). In comments a lot of people discount the idea by pointing out the faint resemblance and go on to suggest that making such a leap when the source material is so vague is suggestive of some racist machinery at work in the minds of Mses. Filipovic and Barnett. SLOG has made it a poll with 88 percent of respondents — in crunchy Seattle even — declaring it not racist.

Every time I’ve walked past this issue of Vogue it has caught my attention — it’s a striking, if not attractive, photograph — but I haven’t been able to say why and just dismissed it as some visual itch that I can’t scratch. Then I read Ms. Barnett’s post on SLOG and recognized it immediately. Mses. Filipovic and Barnett are right about what’s going on here, they just have the wrong source material. The resemblance to the King Kong cell may be distant, but it is more than unmistakable that the reference to this poster is intended. The posture, the facial expression, the basketball in place of the club, even the color of Ms. Bundchen’s dress all match. In fact, to get such a resemblance I imagine that Annie Leibovitz must have had to show them the image that she was trying to recreate.

While fielding PC service calls at Amazon.com in the late 1990s I came across this H.R. Hopps U.S. Army First World War propaganda poster hanging in someone’s office (the 4th floor of the 2nd and Pike building) and immediately fell in love with it. It’s one of those images has managed to distills the worldview of an era into a single flash of the eye. And it rewards deeper viewing. I have had it hanging in my bedroom for years now and careful consideration rarely fails to inspire some new thought about the perversities of the American worldview represented therein.

In the distance the crumbling ruins of old Europe, strangely suggestive of the outcome of the air power attacks still 30 years in the future. A gorilla with a Kaiser Wilhelm II mustache and a German Pickelhaube emerging from presumably the Atlantic Ocean onto the shores of America. The helmet says “Militarism,” the bloody club “Kultur.” That Europe is portrayed as decrepit, barbaric and militaristic. What can it mean that culture is considered on par with militarism among the horrors that this mad brute visits upon the shores of America? Or that the proper metaphor for culture is a bludgeon? Is it any wonder that Americans are such philistines with a history like this?

And race imagery was common in these old propaganda pieces. Witness the exaggerated, flabby lower lip on the gorilla above (do gorillas even have large lips?).

It’s fairly obvious that this imagery derived parts of its power from tapping into that same set of ideas as the verbal formulations of white mans’ burden, mission civilisatrice, the dark continent, et cetera. People imagined a spectrum running from Christian, white European civilization to black, pagan African barbarism. Much of the dialog in the segregated U.S. partook of this scheme with a considerable discourse around the relative levels of sexuality, animal vigor, impulse control, intellectual capability and moral sociability of the races.

So whenever the time came for the denigration and dehumanization of an enemy people, this stock of tropes, civilization and barbarism, Europe and Africa, white and black was rolled out. And to add to the sense of barbarism and the anxiety of the viewer, an image of sexual peril was often thrown in. Here you have Germans depicted as an Africanized gorilla. During the Second World War depictions of Japanese in the propaganda posters were routinely made with what were then referred to as “negroid” features — dark skin, large lips and broad, flat noses — though today we might conceive Asian people as being farther down the spectrum from Africans than are Europeans. The depiction of Japanese as posing a sexual threat to white women was also a common theme.

One of the brilliant aspects of this propaganda piece is its ironic turn of the civilization and barbarism narrative against the Europeans themselves. White Americans have always considered themselves superior to their European forbearers. Set apart by the Atlantic Ocean from the corrupt realpolitik of the Continent, protected by its manifest destiny from the national compromises foisted upon a people by the necessities of maneuver against peer competitors, the United States could cultivate virtue and prosperity in peace. Purified of the distractions of vulgar kultur, America would be the new Jerusalem, the shining city on the hill. Against this development, Europeans were the first gradation of barbarism on the way to Africa. And within Europe there has always been a discourse regarding the relative levels of civilization of the various white races with the Germanic and Slavic people on the defensive. So depicting the Germans as African was natural in this context.

These are all tendencies that persist to this day. Witness the uproar over Donald Rumsfeld’s dismissal of “old Europe” or the dialog on the right where the characterization of the United States as “the last, best hope for humanity” has become a constant cliché (President Bush used the phrase in a Commencement Address at Ohio State University on 14 June 2002; William Bennett used it for the title of his two volume history of the U.S.; John McCain has used it about three dozen times on the campaign trail). On the true right — and its mirror image in fundamental American culture, the left — Henry Kissinger is reviled: a German import: too much Metternich and Talleyrand for America.

It is exactly this cultural reservoir that the imagery of the propaganda poster and through it, the cover of Vogue magazine draw. Ms. Bundchen smiles, easing the element of sexual peril — at least on the part of the participants, if not all viewers — but Mr. James lowers himself from the upright, slender man that he is to the same hunched-back incoherently yelling thug of a century ago.

Are our race perceptions so firmly entombed in the past that it’s safe to break out such images, tongue in cheek? With media spectacles of dog fighting and sex with underage groupies even among the economically successful in the African American community, horror movies depicting Eastern Europeans and Central Americans dismembering innocent Americans on vacation and constant real life stories of nice young blond American girls going missing amidst the brown peoples of the world still sewing questions in the minds of white people, does Vogue really feel that homage to some antique propaganda dredged from a crude and anxiety ridden past is in order? Or do they just channel the Zeitgeist? It would seem to me that just below the level of official or explicit statement is a raging discourse of symbols and narratives, whose points lay between the lines, regarding race which is not too far removed from the uglier, more explicit discourses of the past.

Whenever something like this happens — some ridiculously non-PC image making it into the mass media — I wonder how it was that it came about. Is some smarty-pants photographer pulling a fast one on an under-educated editor — intentionally selling them a bill of goods? Or was everyone in on the joke — it’s just that everyone top to bottom signed off on it. Or are there just cultural coincidences of this magnitude? Is it like some mental urp of the collective unconscious? Or — most likely — are our media mandarins really so cynical that something like an homage to a gang rape à la the Dolce & Gabbana advertisement seems like a good way to move product. No publicity is bad publicity.

I can understand LeBron James and Gisele Bundchen being too dense to see what’s going on in this poster, but how it is that Annie Leibovitz participated in the production of such an image is completely beyond me. I seriously wonder what Susan Sontag would have had to say about it. She certainly wouldn’t have discounted such visual allusions. Oh, to know what the state of discussion was around their apartment.

The Last U.S. Veteran of the First World War

In May of 2005 The Economist chose as the subject for its obituary Albert Marshall, the last British cavalryman of the First World War, who had died on 16 May 2005 at the age of 108 (“The Last of the Mounted British Cavalry,” smarties, 3 June 2005). Mr. Marshall is only one of a series of such last survivors of the First World War. This Armistice Day both The New York Times and The Washington Post (Rubin, Richard, “Over There — and Gone Forever,” Kunkle, Fredrick, “World War I Veteran Reflects on Lessons,” 12 November 2007, respectively) ran stories about Frank W. Buckles, at age 106 the last remaining U.S. veteran of the Great War. From The New York Times:

But even more significant than the remarkable details of Mr. Buckles’s life is what he represents: Of the two million soldiers the United States sent to France in World War I, he is the only one left.

This Veterans Day marked the 89th anniversary of the armistice that ended that war. The holiday [was] first proclaimed as Armistice Day by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919 and renamed in 1954 to honor veterans of all wars … But there’s a good chance that this Veterans Day will prove to be the last with a living American World War I veteran. (Mr. Buckles is one of only three left; the other two were still in basic training in the United States when the war ended.) Ten died in the last year. The youngest of them was 105.

Four years ago, I attended a Veterans Day observance in Orleans, Mass. Near the head of the parade, a 106-year-old named J. Laurence Moffitt rode in a Japanese sedan, waving to the small crowd of onlookers and sporting the same helmet he had been wearing in the Argonne Forest at the moment the armistice took effect, 85 years earlier.

I didn’t know it then, but that was, in all likelihood, the last small-town American Veterans Day parade to feature a World War I veteran. The years since have seen the passing of one last after another — the last combat-wounded veteran, the last Marine, the last African-American, the last Yeomanette — until, now, we are down to the last of the last.

It’s hard for anyone, I imagine, to say for certain what it is that we will lose when Frank Buckles dies. It’s not that World War I will then become history; it’s been history for a long time now. But it will become a different kind of history, the kind we can’t quite touch anymore, the kind that will, from that point on, always be just beyond our grasp somehow. We can’t stop that from happening. But we should, at least, take notice of it.

If I may quibble a little bit, the First World War is not “history”: we live with its consequences every day. In fact, one might say that we still occupy its long shadow.

That aside, I concur that the notion of living memory and a direct lineage to events is significant, especially psychologically so. Plowing a field behind a team of animals, however primitive it may sound, is a part of our world owing to the presence of certain grey-hairs who will recount years of having performed such a labor. The Crimean War is something else entirely. It may as well be the Siege of Troy. The transition from living history to the history that is relegated to documents and artifacts and books and nothing else is dismaying. As Carl Sagan pointed out, we are all orphans abandoned on the doorstep of time. But we are not abandoned once. We are abandoned over and over again every time one of our own passes.