In this book, author Sean McMeekin effectively fills a large gap in the historiography of the First World War. It is of course well known that control of the Straits of Constantinople (which led from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean) was the overriding objective of Russian foreign policy. Even a cursory glance at the map shows why this was so. The great industrial and manufacturing centers around the shores of the Black Sea needed an outlet to Europe and beyond. Czar Alexander III expressed this secret agenda quite succinctly in the Arkhiv Vneshnei Politiki (Archive of Foreign Policy):
“In my opinion we must have one main purpose: the taking possession of Constantinople, in order to establish ourselves once and for all on the Straits and to make sure that they remain permanently in our hands. This is in Russia’s interest; and it is to this that our efforts must be directed; everything else that happens on the Balkan peninsula is of secondary significance from our standpoint. We have had enough of seeking popularity at the expense of the interests of Russia. From now on, the Slavs must devote themselves to the service of Russia, not we to theirs.”
Virtually all of the Russo-Turkish wars, beginning in 1776 and ending in 1878, had been fought to loosen the Ottoman grip on Constantinople. For much the same reason, Russia had dabbled in the murky and complex affairs of the Balkans by supporting various intrigues in Bulgaria as well as Slavic independence movements in Bosnia-Herzegovina—then controlled (and finally annexed) by Austria-Hungary. Not so well known or appreciated is how very large the Straits loomed in Russian strategic planning. McMeekin writes:
“To understand the overriding importance of the Straits question for Petersburg, however, we must go beyond numbers. Russia's principal Black Sea export was grain. Over 20 million tons was shipped in both 1911 and 1912, of which nearly 90 percent was exported through the Bosphorus to world markets: the health of her entire agricultural economy now depended on unfettered Straits access. Stimulating grain production was, moreover, the key to Stolypin's social reforms, which envisioned the creation of a stable class of successful peasant producers who would serve as a bulwark against anarchic social revolution. Ever since 1907 (and particularly following Stolypin's death in 1911) these reforms had been overseen by Stolypin's star protege, Agriculture Minister Krivoshein. Krivoshein was universally believed to be the most powerful policymaker in Petersburg in 1914.”
But eclipsing even such serious economic concerns was the immense geo-political problem as McMeekin notes:
“In view of Russia's increasing export-economy vulnerability and burgeoning Germanophobia in the Council of Ministers, it is not hard to see why rumors about the imminent appointment of Liman von Sanders (and forty-odd other German officers) to command the Ottoman Straits defenses in November 1913 struck Petersburg like a thunderclap. Already on high alert lest the ungrateful Bulgarians usurp Turkish authority in Constantinople, Russia was now faced with the frightening prospect that her most powerful enemy would soon possess a chokehold at the Straits over her export economy, on which depended everything else. In discussions of the Liman affair, Sazonov's famously belligerent reaction to the news is sometimes dismissed as exaggerated because of his personal anger at having been duped (he had recently passed through Berlin, and Bethmann Hollweg had not told him of Liman's upcoming appointment). In fact Sazonov was legitimately terrified in November 1913, and not simply because a German officer was being sent to strengthen-and possibly take over-Ottoman Straits defenses. In a series of dispatches from the Porte that month, Ambassador Girs informed Sazonov ominously that the Turks were arming themselves to the teeth to avenge recent battlefield losses. The new government, dominated by members of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), had just signed a new deal with Krupp for guns which, presumably, would be mounted onshore at the Bosphorus and Dardanelles. The Italians, despite the recent hostilities, were now selling guns and even three small warships to Turkey.”
Even worse . . .
“Most worrying of all were the two state-of-the-art dreadnought-class battleships being built for Turkey in British shipyards, the launching of even one of which, the Naval Staff had pointedly warned Sazonov as early as 1912, would immediately make obsolete Russia's entire Black Sea fleet. These dreadnoughts were expected to arrive in Constantinople, Girs informed Sazonov in an urgent 27 November 1913 dispatch, by March or April 1914. All this, coupled with the prospect of an experienced German officer directing the shore defenses of the Bosphorus, meant that Russia's window for seizing the Straits might soon close forever. "In the event of a crisis, which must sooner or later transpire in Turkey," Girs warned Sazonov, "the [improved] Turkish fleet will be able to strike a decisive blow against us. This blow will not only be devastating to our Black Sea fleet, but to our entire position in the Near East, the unassailable right to which we have acquired through centuries of immeasurable sacrifices and the shedding of Russian blood" (bezspornyiya prava na kotoroe priobreli vekovyimi niezmerimyimi zhortvami i prolitoi za nikh'russkoi krov'yu).”
Sean McMeekin. The Russian Origins of the First World War (Kindle Locations 362-368). Kindle Edition.
Added to these compelling reasons was the fact that Russia was certain of strong French support and reasonably certain of support from Great Britain. These were the considerations that motivated Russia to roll the dice by issuing the fatal order for general mobilization at 6:00 P.M., July 30, 1914.
Sean McMeekin. The Russian Origins of the First World War (Kindle Locations 347-351). Kindle Edition.
McMeekin also weighs in on the current state of the “kriegschuldvrage” (war guilt question). He writes:
“In a real sense, historical understanding of the First World War may be said to have regressed after the Fischer debate taught several generations of historians to pay serious attention only to Germany's war aims . . . It has been fifty years since the publication of Fritz Fischer's Griff nach der Weltmacht in 1961 (literally "Grab" or "Bid" for World Power, published in English as Germany's Aims in the First World War) and, judging by the Fischer-esque tone of a recent boomlet in popular books on the First World War, historians are still in Fischer's shadow, massaging the same basic argument about German responsibility for the conflict. Although few scholars accept any longer Fischer's extreme thesis that World War I was a premeditated ‘German bid for world power,’ histories of the war's outbreak still invariably focus on decision making in Berlin and, secondarily, Vienna.”
Sean McMeekin. The Russian Origins of the First World War (Kindle Locations 49-70). Kindle Edition.
The “Fischer thesis” continues to be cited despite a veritable mountain of statistics which confirm that in the summer of 1914, Germany was fat and happy. In virtually every conceivable category - economic, cultural, military - Germany was first among equals according to numbers provided by (among others) the International Monetary Fund. Why would Germany attack a vastly superior military combination in order to gain continental hegemony, which she already possessed in spades and was increasing year by year? But the Fischerites remain undeterred. They cling to the “Fischer thesis” like a life preserver lest they be submerged by the looming questions: If hegemony was not the German motive, what was it? If Germany did not start the Great War, who did?
Russian leaders ordered general mobilization in the full knowledge that this would trigger a European war. They issued the fatal order even though Bethmann-Hollweg was leaning heavily upon Vienna to submit to some form of arbitration and even threatened Austria with abandonment if she refused. Russia was in no military danger from Austria and certainly not Germany. The July crisis of 1914 seemed on the cusp of a diplomatic solution when Russia pulled the trigger even as Bethmann-Hollweg was awaiting an answer to his urgent telegrams from Berchtold, promised for the 31st. She would never have done so without strong support from France and the consent of silence from London, as German leaders (Wilhelm II, Bethmann-Hollweg, von Jagow) have correctly pointed out. Why did France incite Russia into escalating the crisis beginning on July 20th? Why did Great Britain fail to moderate Russia as Germany had done with Austria starting on July 28th? The answers to these questions will address the riddle of who started the First World War. The approaching centennial commemoration of the First World War seems an appropriate occasion to finally lay the “Fischer thesis” to rest - right next to Article 231- in the proverbial dustbin of history.