HALF A CENTURY ago, the controversy over which country was responsible for the outbreak of World War I seemed to have been settled. The “war guilt” clause of the Treaty of Versailles, which put the blame on Germany, had long been discredited. German and French historians had met and agreed that history textbooks in their respective countries should make it clear to students that no one country was to blame more than any other. Surveys of international relations, most notably A.J.P. Taylor’s classic The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918, published in 1954, tended instead to portray the plunge into the twentieth century’s seminal catastrophe as an automatic process in which decision-making was largely taken out of the hands of politicians and statesmen by the military plans each country had in place: contingency planning became ineluctable reality once mobilization orders, involving complex and elaborate troop movements across large distances by railway, had been issued. In Taylor’s phrase, it was “war by timetable.”
Then, in 1961, the consensus was broken by the German historian Fritz Fischer. Fischer’s appointment to his post at Hamburg went back to the Nazi years (he had avoided too close an involvement with the regime), and his Protestant conscience prompted him to question the orthodox version of events. Gaining access to the Reich archives, then located in Potsdam, in Communist East Germany, Fischer and his assistants plunged into the voluminous manuscript sources that documented Germany’s aims, and the fierce internal political battles fought over them.
To their astonishment, one of the documents they discovered, drawn up shortly after the outbreak of the war, the so-called “September programme” of 1914, gave official German government backing to a vastly ambitious set of objectives, including huge territorial annexations in western and eastern Europe, extensive colonial conquests, massive economic demands to be made of the countries the Germans expected to defeat, and much more besides. Surely, Fischer reasoned, if these aims were there in September 1914, they must have been in place in August too, if not earlier. So World War I did not begin as a kind of automatic process—to quote the title of Fischer’s book, it represented Germany’s “grasp for world power,” a conscious war of aggression.
When Fischer’s book was published, it caused an uproar among German historians. The controversy exploded above all around the relatively short account that Fischer gave of the origins of the war, rather than the many hundreds of pages of detailed scholarly analysis of war aims that followed. Senior historians in Germany denounced the book as unpatriotic and persuaded the German Foreign Office to cancel a lecture tour arranged for Fischer in America; outraged in their turn, senior historians in America, including Fritz Stern, Klaus Epstein, and Gordon A. Craig, raised the money and the tour went ahead anyway. In 1964 the annual congress of the German Historians’ Association was dominated by the row over the book.
The implications of Fischer’s arguments went far beyond 1914. They opened up the troubling possibility that Germany’s war aims in 1914 were not so very different from what they were in 1939, when Hitler was in power. In the wake of the controversy, the issue of continuity in modern German history and the longer-term roots of Nazism, hitherto portrayed by leading German historians as a short-term reaction to the humiliations of Versailles, moved to the center of the picture. Fischer and his assistants produced a second volume, War of Illusions, focusing on the run-up to the war and relating foreign policy to political, social, and economic structures in Germany. Others entered the fray with the thesis that the war had been launched to deflect an impending and possibly terminal crisis in the authoritarian rule of the Kaiser, the military, and the elites.
By the time the controversy receded in the 1970s, the study and teaching of modern German history had been transformed, freed from the need felt by an older generation of nationalist historians (writing about a war in which some of them had been personally involved) to defend Germany’s honor, and liberated from the shackles of a purely political and diplomatic approach to the history of foreign policy and war aims. Among younger generations of German historians, Germany’s primary responsibility for the outbreak of the war became a virtually unchallengeable dogma.
Fischer’s more extreme thesis of a deliberate bid for world power by force of arms had failed to win many adherents, but even after factors such as human error, misunderstanding, and chance had been allowed for, there was still a general consensus that the brunt of responsibility for the catastrophe had to be borne by Berlin. Fischer and his followers had narrowed the focus of the debate by confining it to Germany and placing it within a longer-term account of the origins of Nazism that argued Germany had trodden a “special path,” or Sonderweg, to modernity, involving the enthronement of domestic authoritarianism and international aggrandizement at the center of power. So robust was this narrative that for a time it carried all before it.
In this picture, the role of other powers’ war aims confirmed their limited and reactive character. Time and again, research into the origins of the war from other angles besides the German one showed that, as D. C. B. Lieven’s book Russia and the Origins of the First World War, published in 1983, concluded: “Study of the July Crisis from the Russian standpoint indeed confirms the now generally accepted view that the major immediate responsibility for the outbreak of the war rested unequivocally on the German government.”
In this brief new study, however, Sean McMeekin seeks to overturn this consensus. He wishes to do for Russia what Fischer and his assistants did for Germany. Has he succeeded?
McMEEKIN POINTS OUT correctly that for a century or more, Russia had been seeking to expand southwards at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. Many of the relatively few international conflicts experienced by nineteenth-century Europe revolved around this issue: wars launched by Russia in 1811-1812, 1828-1829, 1853-1856, and 1877-1878 resulted in the acquisition of much of the coast of the Black Sea, along with a large part of the Caucasus, but the intervention of the other European powers, nervous about Russian expansionism, restricted further gains and stopped the Russians from penetrating into the Balkans and thence to the Mediterranean. Russia, if one is to follow the argument of Richard Pipes in his book Russia Under the Old Regime, had a built-in, permanent drive for expansion, and when it was frustrated in the south, it more than compensated for this by acquisitions in Central Asia, Siberia, and the east. But the search for a warm-water port in the Pacific eventually brought the Russians up against the newly modernized power of Japan, which inflicted a stunning defeat on them in the war of 1904-1905, closing off the possibility of any further expansion in this region for a generation. And so Russian expansionism turned back to south-eastern Europe.
It has often been claimed that the Russians embraced the ideology of Pan-Slavism, which sought the cultural and in some versions the political unity of all Slavs. The trouble with this claim is that there were major Slavic nations, notably the Poles, who saw it merely as an excuse for Russian imperialism, while the complex alignments of rival nationalisms in the Balkans meant that Bulgaria, a key player in the region, had no truck with the ideology either, and launched a war against Serbia in 1914 in pursuit of territorial gains. McMeekin rightly dismisses Pan-Slavism as a red herring in the search for the causes of World War I.
But he is far less convincing when he tries to downgrade the Russo-Serbian alliance as a factor in the run-up to World War I. The defection of Bulgaria, which entered the war on the German side, left Serbia as the sole ally of the Russians in the Balkans, one that Tsar Nicholas II and his government could not afford to abandon. True, as McMeekin points out, the Russian Foreign Ministry did not go along with Serbia’s policy of territorial aggrandizement, opposed the Serbs’ drive towards the Adriatic, and initially urged restraint on Belgrade during the July crisis in 1914. But as he concedes, “Russia had no wish to see ‘heroic little Serbia’ carved up by hostile neighbors such as Austria-Hungary or Bulgaria.”
So when McMeekin writes that “to assume Russia really went to war on behalf of Serbia in 1914 is naïve,” he is making a leap too far: the Austro-Hungarian conquest of Serbia would have been an unacceptable blow to Russian prestige, a factor not to be underestimated in 1914, at a time when aristocrats and elites in Russia, Germany, France and Austria-Hungary still fought duels over “affairs of honor;” it would also, more pertinently, have cordoned off the southern Balkans from Russia with a band of territory controlled by Germany’s allies. Moreover, as McMeekin concedes, Pan-Slavist propagandists did have at least some purchase on Russian foreign policy by warning that any setback to Serbia would encourage Polish nationalists to rise up against Russian rule. And the obvious decrepitude of the Habsburg Empire, made manifest by its lamentable failure to exercise any influence in the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, encouraged policymakers in St. Petersburg to consider seizing the ethnically Polish territory of Galicia, on the southern flank of Poland, from Austria-Hungary in any future conflict, to bolster its control over the Poles.
Brushing all this aside, McMeekin argues that Russia’s real aim all along was to use any and every opportunity finally to gain access to the Mediterranean by destroying the Ottoman Empire and thus winning control over the Bosporus. Russian military exercises and war games already envisaged the seizure of Constantinople, the destruction of the Ottoman Empire, and the subsequent rolling-up of hostile Balkan powers from the north and east. By the early twentieth century the Ottoman state seemed to most European powers to be in a condition of terminal decay. But it had already begun to arm itself against the Russian threat as best it could, especially after the Young Turk revolution of 1908 brought about reforms in the administration.
This only went so far: in the war launched against Turkey by Italy in 1911, which ended with the Italian annexation of Libya and the Dodecanese islands, the Italians had completely destroyed an Ottoman naval force off Beirut. Still, the Turks had started to modernize their navy, with the aid of British naval instructors, whose first action was to insist that Turkish naval officers had to learn how to swim. Petty officers were made to play English team games, perhaps in homage to the Duke of Wellington’s boast that the Battle of Waterloo had been won on the school playing fields of Eton. And, rather more importantly, the Turkish government put in orders for five state-of-the-art Dreadnought battleships, with delivery dates well before that of the first Russian Dreadnought ordered for the Black Sea fleet. Cruisers, minesweepers, and submarines were also ordered, and the British were brought in to modernize the naval facilities at Constantinople. Taking all this into account, McMeekin argues that Russia was propelled into war in 1914 for fear that the opportunity to take over the Straits would soon be lost.
Yet there is no convincing evidence to support this charge. It is possible, of course, to point to the furor in 1913 over the German military presence in Turkey, incorporated by the appointment of Liman von Sanders and forty other German officers to organize the defenses of the Straits. Russia’s Foreign Minister warned that “the state which possesses the Straits will hold in its hands not only the key of the Black Sea and Mediterranean, but also that of penetration into Asia Minor and the sure means of hegemony in the Balkans.” A furious press war broke out between Russia and Germany with journalists on both sides urging military action. But McMeekin massively over-interprets the significance of this episode, reading the proposed joint action with France and Britain to expel Liman’s mission as “in reality a prelude to partition.” In fact, the Russian Foreign Minister was only talking about facing down Germany, not deliberately planning a war. And indeed a compromise was eventually reached over the Liman affair, though one which still left a strong German military presence in Constantinople.
Russia’s military and naval planning in 1913-1914, McMeekin points out, was concerned above all with the Straits, not with Serbia. The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand came as a surprise to everyone. Still, the Russians did have contingency plans in place for an Austrian conflict with Serbia. Their key aim in such a situation, it was agreed in November 1912, would be to announce an immediate general mobilization, so “that the actions of the Russian armed forces should be fully developed at a time when Austria had still not finished its struggle with Serbia.” This would force the Austrians to deploy a large part of their army to the north, to defend Galicia, thus weakening their thrust in the south and giving the Serbs a chance. On July 31, 1914, the Russians ordered a general mobilization, fearing the consequences if they only mobilized on a partial basis, given the complexity of the operation and the amount of time it would take to have every part of their armies in the right place. But far from making war inevitable, this came at a moment when war was already well on the way to breaking out, thanks to the bellicose mood in Berlin and Vienna.
In any case, contingency plans, military scenarios, and war games are not evidence of actual intentions, not even on the part of the generals and admirals who habitually engage in them, let alone of the politicians ultimately responsible for making war and peace. Armed forces constantly have to mount exercises of one kind or another; their choice of enemy only has very limited implications for the realities of policymaking. Unlike Taylor, however, McMeekin does not ascribe to military planning the automatic function of propelling states into war: he sees them as the deliberate expression of a conscious will on the part of the entire policymaking apparatus of the state.
Yet in the end it was the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia that set off the process that ended in the outbreak of World War I, not Russian ambitions in the Straits. Even the official Russian declaration of war on the Ottoman Empire as an ally of Germany and Austria-Hungary, several weeks after the outbreak of the war in Europe, failed to mention the Straits but referred instead to “Russia’s path towards the realization of the historic task of her ancestors along the shores of the Black Sea.” Moreover, and crucially, Russia’s opening shots in World War I were fired not against the Turks but against the Germans, when Russian forces invaded East Prussia, forcing the Germans to transfer significant forces from the western front, thus fatally weakening the force of their blow against the Anglo-French army.
McMeekin’s argument that “it was Russian statesmen who unleashed the war through conscious policy decisions based on imperial ambitions in the Near East,” and that “the key to the outbreak of violence lies in St. Petersburg” and not in Berlin (to quote the blurb on the book’s back cover), has other problems as well. It is not even borne out by the book itself, which more reasonably gives the Germans equal standing by concluding that “the First World War was the inexorable culmination of a burgeoning imperial rivalry between Wilhelmine Germany and tsarist Russia in the Near East, each lured in its own way down the dangerous path of expansionist war by the decline of Ottoman power.” Just as Fritz Fischer extrapolated back from the German war aims put forward in September 1914 to what he thought must have been the German war aims of July and August, though there was no direct evidence that they had been the same, so much of the evidence McMeekin adduces in support of his argument is drawn from aims developed only after the conflict had begun.
Fischer and his followers were aware of the many divisions and conflicts within the leadership of the German Empire. One leading figure in the Austrian government asked rhetorically, “who rules in Berlin?” after receiving contradictory messages from the German capital during the crisis. But McMeekin, after concluding that the peace party in the Russian leadership, such as it was, had been ousted from power well before the war began, treats all segments of the policymaking apparatus in St. Petersburg as if they were working together as part of one vast conspiracy pushing Europe towards war. In reality this was no more the case in St. Petersburg than it was in Berlin. In every European capital there were furious arguments and debates during the crisis, and it was by no means inevitable that the war party in any of them would triumph. In portraying the outcome as the result of deeply laid plans for territorial aggrandizement, McMeekin goes too far, just as Fischer eventually went too far in the similar arguments he applied to Germany.
NOWHERE IS ITS author’s tendency to see history in terms of plots and conspiracies more apparent, and more tendentious, than in this book’s portrayal of the role of Ottoman Turkey’s Armenian population, which appears here as a Russian fifth column seeking to destroy the Ottoman Empire from within. McMeekin shows how Russian war games envisaged Greeks, Armenians, and other Christians rising up against the Turkish government in the rear, burning down Muslim settlements and destroying bridges and other arteries of communications. But identifying this aspiration is a long way from proving either that the Russians actively fostered uprisings before the war or that the Armenians took part in them.
McMeekin’s bias on this issue is breathtaking. The story, he claims, began with the Armenian uprisings and massacres of 1894-1896, which he blames on Armenian revolutionaries, guerilla groups, and assassins. In 1897, he writes, “a new wave of Armenian sedition led the sultan to initiate violent countermeasures.” But historians generally agree that what was only a minor revolt against Ottoman exactions sparked wholly disproportionate reprisals, leading to 100,000—in some versions, 300,000—Armenians being massacred by Ottoman troops, Kurdish irregulars working for the Sultan, and Muslim mobs incited by Ottoman propaganda. What seem to be the best contemporary estimates put the figure of the dead at around 90,000. Hundreds of thousands of Armenian Christians fled from their burning villages, or were forced to undergo conversion to Islam. Atrocities were committed by the score, including the burning of a church with a thousand Armenians inside. McMeekin’s attempt to pin the blame on the Armenians is absurd.
The massacres were driven forward by the Ottoman Sultan’s paranoia, which saw Armenians as agents of foreign powers—a view apparently shared by McMeekin, who describes British prime minister Gladstone, author of a pamphlet denouncing the massacres, as “the first and greatest British ventriloquist for Russian imperial designs on Ottoman Turkey.” These designs, according to McMeekin, matured into fully fledged plans for an Armenian uprising. When it finally came, the uprising, provoked by the Russians, and described by McMeekin with much lurid detail of alleged Armenian atrocities against Muslims, was what in his view sparked the Ottoman policy of deporting the Armenians in 1915.Under the impact of continued Armenian partisan activity, he says, this got out of hand, leading to around 664,000 deaths, the “vast majority” of them, however, from “starvation or thirst,” not from deliberate murder by Turks.
In fact, however, there is abundant contemporary evidence for massacres in which Ottoman troops burned Armenians alive, raped, shot, and beat them to death, and committed numberless atrocities against wholly innocent civilians. The transports themselves were carried out with brutal and murderous violence. The starvation was deliberately caused by the Turks denying food and water to the deportees. Some non-Turkish, non-Armenian scholars have put the number of dead as high as 1,500,000. Almost every serious historian outside Turkey agrees that this was a genocide in which vast numbers of innocent people were killed for racial reasons alone.
It is unfortunate that, perhaps because he teaches at a Turkish university, McMeekin seems to think it necessary to take the official Turkish line on the Armenian genocide. In many ways his book is yet another salvo, this time in words only, in the centuries-long conflict between Turkey and Russia. As in his previous books, he is far too prone to see conspiracies and plots everywhere, especially where there were none. He writes not like a historian but like a prosecutor in a criminal court. He shares with Fischer an almost monomaniacal obsession with a single country and its behavior before, during, and after the crisis of 1914, rather than seeing it in the broader European context.
Every now and then, however, France crops up in this narrative too, and any historian who writes on Russia and the origins of World War I surely needs to give the French alliance more careful consideration than it is accorded here. In January 1914, the French Prime Minister told Maurice Paléologue, about to depart for St. Petersburg to take up the post of French ambassador there, that “war can break out from one day to the next … Our [Russian] allies must rush to our aid. The safety of France will depend on the energy and promptness with which we shall know how to push them into the fight.” In the Russian capital in mid-July 1914, a top-level French delegation was enthused by displays of Russian military strength. “There’s going to be a war,” the wife of the man who would shortly be appointed Russian commander-in-chief told Paléologue: “There’ll be nothing left of Austria. You’re going to get back Alsace and Lorraine. Our armies will meet in Berlin. Germany will be destroyed!”
In London, too, the anti-German mood was in the ascendant, fuelled by worries about the German threat to Europe and the Empire. More generally, the whole spirit of the age, which affected the actions and the attitudes of the statesmen in whose hands the fate of Europe lay in 1914, was imbued with what a century later appears as an irresponsible, almost frivolous attitude to war, regarding it as a sort of duel on a gigantic scale, fought for honor and glory; or an inevitable outcome of the Darwinian struggle for survival and supremacy between Anglo-Saxons, Germans, Latins, and Slavs. Few saw the terrible nature of the mechanized mass slaughter that was to come.
Richard J. Evans is Regius Professor of History and President of Wolfson College at Cambridge University and the author of numerous books on modern German history. He is currently writing The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914, a volume in the Penguin History of Europe.