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The Russian Origins of the First World War Paperback – 3 May 2013

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Product details

  • Paperback: 344 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (3 May 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674072332
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674072336
  • Product Dimensions: 3.2 x 15.2 x 22.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 298,450 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"Going against a century of received wisdom, Bilkent University professor McMeekin offers a dramatic new interpretation of WWI...Rifling the archives, analyzing battle plans, and sifting through the machinations of high diplomacy, McMeekin reveals the grand ambitions of czarist Russia, which wanted control of the Black Sea straits to guarantee all-weather access to foreign markets. Maneuvering France and England into a war against Germany presented the best chance to acquire this longed-for prize. No empire had more to gain from the coming conflict, and none pushed harder to ensure its arrival. Once unleashed, however, the conflagration leapt out of control, and imperial Russia herself ranked among its countless victims." --Publishers Weekly, 26th Sept 2011

" Casting a contrarian eye on the first major conflict of the twentieth century, Sean McMeekin finds the roots of WWI inside Russia, whose leaders deliberately sought--for their own ends--to expand a brawl that the Germans wanted to keep local. The author tracks the fallout of these antique plots right down to the present geopolitical landscape. Barnes & Noble Review 20120113 An entirely new take on the origins of World War I comes as a surprise. If war guilt is to be assigned, this book argues, it should go not only (or even primarily) to Germany--the long-accepted culprit--but also to Russia...Bold reading between the lines of history." -- Robert Legvold, Foreign Affairs, 1st Jan 2012

" As Sean McMeekin argues in this bold and brilliant revisionist study, Russia was as much to blame as Germany for the outbreak of the war. Using a wide range of archival sources, including long-neglected tsarist documents, he argues that the Russians had ambitions of their own (the dismantling of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, no less) and that they were ready for a war once they had secured a favorable alliance with the British and the French." -- Orlando Figes, Sunday Times, 1st Jan 2012

"The book is a refreshing challenge to longstanding assumptions and shifted perspectives are always good." --Miriam Cosic, The Australian, 3rd March 2012

About the Author

Sean McMeekin is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Bilkent University in Turkey.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

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This book is well researched and offers perspectives that were missing from the history taught when I was at school in the 1970's. Worryingly, the same incomplete story fed to my generation is still being stated as 'fact' in schools today. A History of WW1 should include all sides. Russian involvement in WW1 was and still is largely ignored in most accounts. The October 1917 revolution obscured the events that occurred before it and many of the events that followed it, for far too long. The Western Front would have been very different if the Russians had not been fighting on the Eastern Front. Read this book !
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By G. R. Townsend on 27 May 2013
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Western histories on the origins of the war tend to use a very western European perspective; a tinder box of Central Powers vs Triple Entente with Sarajevo as the spark; and German agression demonstrated by the Schlieffen plan. The Russian and Turkish angles are played down. In this account we have the view that Russia really wanted a war with Turkey to meet its long-standing desire to control the Straits; and the Russian mobilisation started early. Russia is shown to be very much prioritising the achievement of its aims before the general aims of the Entente.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Erik on 19 Aug. 2014
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Magnificent read. A different view at long last on the origins of the Great War. Anyone interested in this period of our history should pick this one up. Well written and documented. Is this "revisionist" ? No, the author is doing what a historian is supposed to do. Try to understand and step away from well publicised views to get to a more accurate picture of our past. Will this be the final world on this painful episode of Europe's nations living together ? Definitely not. But it's a huge step forward in gaining a bit more of an insight.
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Terrific stuff. It would have been 5 stars were it not for the author's strange ideas about naval history: imaginary purchases of Chilean and Argentinian battleships by Turkey (I can find no reference to this elsewhere, and it's not footnoted) and the Russian battleship Empress Catherine II launched in November 1916, rather than June 1914.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 2 reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Sean McMeekin explains why Russia rolled the dice on July 30, 1914. 19 April 2014
By Peter Hof - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
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.
Recommend it. 29 Dec. 2014
By Alison OBrien - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Much more informative than I expected. Recommend it.
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