on 4 July 2013
McMeekin is right in one respect. All the big powers made disastrously bad decisions during the July crisis. Most readers will go along with that conclusion but McMeekin is a revisionist. His book forcefully lays out why it was Russia that surpassed the others in the wilful badness of its decisions and Russia is to blame for the outbreak of the war.
This is strongly reflected in his various comments on the leaders in the driving seat in each of the three most closely involved powers. You can summarise them by saying Berchtold (Austria) is a fool, Bethmann (Germany) is a tragic fool, and Sazonov (Russia) is a cunning fool.
Whoever you think is to blame, it is Russia that reacted to the decision of Austria-Hungary, fully supported without qualification by Germany, to destroy Serbia as an independent state and give large parts of it to its neighbours.
McMeekin is saying it was right for Austria-Hungary and Germany to do this, and in Germany's case it was deceived into allowing the situation to get out of hand, and let Russia, encouraged by the French, plunge Europe into war.
The author supports his analysis with a rather large number of dubious accounts and blatant errors. Examples are given below.
## Bethmann's knowledge and state of mind when he and the Kaiser met the Austrian envoys at Potsdam on 6 July [p100, p104]
McMeekin portrays Bethmann, the German Chancellor, as not being in touch with what was going on when the Austrian ambassador called on the Kaiser at Potsdam to get German support. He arrived at the last minute probably too exhausted from his trip to perceive how acute the situation was.
This contradicts what other historians say. The discovery of Bethmann's travel expenses in the German archives shows he was at Potsdam with the Kaiser every day between 29 June and 6 July apart from on 1 July and 3 July. It is inconceivable they did not discuss what might result from the Sarajevo assassinations, and both man knew what the other thought.
## The Austrian ultimatum to Serbia was not what the Germans expected [p142, p143]
According to McMeekin the ultimatum that Austria gave to the Serbs was not what the Germans wanted. Berchtold did not show it to them because it was so draconian the Germans were unlikely to have approved it.
This is complete nonsense. The Germans knew exactly what was intended by the ultimatum, namely an excuse to go to war with Serbia. And the Germans were pushing Austria to get on with it! What could be more draconian than that! In that light, the harshness of the note is irrelevant.
Albertini catalogues [Vol. 2, p263-268] as thoroughly as he usually does the communications between Vienna and Berlin regarding the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia, and the German attitude to it. At one point Berchtold, the Austrian Foreign Minister, even asked the German Foreign Minister for his advice though Jagow responded by saying "As to the formulation of the demands on Serbia we can take no position as this is a matter for Austria". And it is clear the Germans had a good idea of specifically what was in it before it was delivered.
Albertini also reports a quote given by Bethmann in February 1915 to Theodor Wolff, the editor of the Berliner Tageblatt. ".... I deliberately avoided acquaintance with its contents. I did not want to make any amendments in it - if one makes amendments it always proves afterwards that the mistake that was made was one's own, and I had no desire for that."
## Mediation à quatre and the four-power conference proposal [p215]
McMeekin has a very poor opinion of the British four-power conference proposal. Nicolson, the British Under Secretary, was less then even-handed in his discussions with the German ambassador on the day the proposal was made.
In fact, Nicolson had good reason to be circumspect at the very least, as he knew by this stage of the crisis the Germans were just going through the motions of calming Austria.
McMeekin complains the four-power conference would have been biased as Italy who with Germany would have represented the Austrian side was known by everyone to be fundamentally hostile to Austria.
If that was the case, why did the Germans throughout the crisis take the position that Austria could bring Italy on side to play its part as a member of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria? Germany and Austria could have easily ensured the support of their formal ally.
The idea for the conference did not come from Grey overnight, who was at his cottage in the country. Nicolson came up with the idea after reading various worrying telegrams when he went into the Foreign Office that Sunday morning.
Immediately after being told about the conference idea Lichnowsky, the German ambassador, did not wire Grey at his cottage to agree to it saying "my government accepts your suggested mediation à quatre". [See Jannen, "The Lions of July", p117]
The phrase quoted was in a note Lichnowsky delivered to the Foreign Office that morning before he knew about the conference idea and it referred to Grey's earlier suggestion to Lichnowsky that the powers not immediately involved (i.e. Britain, France, Germany and Italy) might mediate at St Petersburg and Vienna if the matters became critical. An ambassador's conference in London along the lines of the one in 1912 used to solve problems springing from the Balkan crisis was something else.
## Dismissal of Sazonov's proposal for a peaceful solution [p212, 220]
On Sunday 26 July Sazonov put forward a very sensible proposal for solving the crisis to the Austrian ambassador in St Petersburg that recognised Austria had a case, even a very strong case, against Serbia.
It accepted seven out of the 10 demands made in the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia and suggested a way to deal with the others. McMeekin believes the Austrians were right to ignore this proposal. It was rendered moot by Russian military preparations which furthermore Sazonov had been instrumental in initiating.
This is an odd view. It was quite clear that leaders in all the powers were not surprised by military preparations and even expected them. Diplomacy could continue. It was a line but not a red line. It would be, if war was declared, borders crossed, or hostilities commenced such as the Austrian shelling of Belgrade.
And, of course, Austria has already decided on the 25 July to mobilise against Serbia. Military things were happening on both sides.
## It was Grey's own fault that Bethmann deceived him, pretending to support mediation [p235]
McMeekin can't avoid the conclusion of most historians that on Monday 27 July it was for Germany to decide between European peace and war. They choose war passing on a British mediation proposal to Vienna, while on a back channel telling the Austrians to ignore it - they had to appear to be helping so Britain would remain neutral - also knowing the next day Austria was going to declare war on Serbia and saying nothing about that.
It is incredible how McMeekin wriggles around this to make Germany the victim of events and the ill-will of others.
It is really Grey's own fault that he was deceived by Bethmann. He was being one-sided threatening Bethmann that he must mediate (or else!) while ignoring the fact that his Entente partners had spurned mediation.
This is wrong. The latest proposal from Grey had been transmitted the evening before. Allowing for the time it took for messages to be coded, sent and decoded it might be fairer to say the recipients had only just begun to consider it.
In fact, on Monday morning Jules Cambon the French ambassador in Berlin called on Jagow, the German Foreign Minister, to support the British proposal for a four-power conference.
And, that same morning Buchanan, the British ambassador in St Petersburg called on Sazonov to put forward the conference idea. Sazonov said he preferred direct talks on the ultimatum which he thought he was arranging with Austria-Hungary. He said if they failed he was willing to accept the British proposal if accepted by other powers or any other that would resolve the conflict. [See WhoStartedWWOne]
McMeekin has Bethmann attaching enormous importance to keeping the British neutral. He makes no mention of the Russians who Bethmann must have known to be "secretly" mobilising. What were the Russians going to do when Austria declared war on Serbia the next day?
Did Bethmann not care! Was he ready and willing for war with Russia?
McMeekin goes on about Grey making misleading statements (out of ignorance rather than intention) about Russian military preparations, and thus undermining Bethmann's confidence in him. You have to ask would the German Chancellor not have the sense to hold judgement on what the British Foreign Secretary has to say about a hostile third party until he gets confirmation from his own sources? And might it not cross his mind that the third party had misled Grey?
## Berchtold declared war on Serbia contrary to German expectations [p244]
McMeekin tells us "It was [Berchtold] who had decided Monday .... contrary to German expectations, to declare war immediately." Where he gets this novel information from is not explained.
Albertini says: That Berchtold did not mean to go to war with Serbia after the breaking off of diplomatic relations is beyond doubt. [Vol. 2, p453] Albertini goes on to quote a telegram to Berchtold from Szogyeny, the Austro-Hungarian ambassador in Berlin.
"Here it is universally taken for granted that an eventual negative reply by Serbia will be followed by a declaration of war from us and military operations. Any delay in commencing military operations is regarded here as a great danger because of the interference of other Powers. They urgently advise us to go ahead and confront the world with a fait accompli."
To make sure he understands it Berchtold immediately checks with the German ambassador in Vienna, who reports to Berlin. "Count Berchtold read out to me Count Szogyeny's telegram saying that to avoid risk as far as possible of intervention by third parties, Berlin regarded the greatest speed in military operations and the earliest declaration of war as advisable."
## Bethmann met the Kaiser on the 28 July and was scolded by him on the 28 July and on the 27 July [p252]
On the 28 July, that watershed day when the Kaiser made a proposal that could have solved the crisis, the Austrians declared war on Serbia, and Bethmann undermined the Kaiser's proposal in the version he forwarded to Vienna, McMeekin has Bethmann called to Potsdam during the afternoon and reprimanded by the Kaiser.
Though the account is a single paragraph the author obviously thinks it is of great significance as he calls the whole chapter, "You have Got Me Into a Fine Mess" which is what the Kaiser is supposed to have said to Bethmann.
McMeekin gives Jannen as his source and there is a very similar paragraph in Jannen ["The Lions of July", p149] though McMeekin gives additional information or he has embellished what Jannen says. The Kaiser apparently had heard of the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia. [Jannen himself in another part of his book, gives the time the news reached Berlin as 6.39 p.m., not the afternoon.]
Jannen's source is Wolff's "The Eve of 1914" and if you go to this book [p472] you discover Wolff never says there was a meeting, he simply says "[The Kaiser] is reported to have said to Bethmann after his return: "Sie haben mir die Suppe eingebrockt" [You have got me in a fine mess]". The Kaiser returned on Monday, the day before. There was no meeting on Tuesday.
Jannen misconstrued it and McMeekin takes it at face value, embellishes it, and gives it the status of a chapter title.
As well as all this, there is the sheer improbability of Bethmann being severely reprimanded by the Kaiser in the afternoon, and specifically told to lean on the Austrians, and that evening, a few hours later, nullifying the Kaiser's proposal when he sends it to Vienna!
When you see the German words for this expression you realise that McMeekin has turned one error into two! He has the Kaiser on his return to Germany on Monday [p266] when greeted by Bethmann giving him another reprimand saying "You've cooked this broth and now you are going to eat it".
On reading the Monday account one's suspicion is immediately aroused as the reprimand seems out of place according to McMeekin's own description of what was going on. As far as both the Kaiser and Bethmann knew matters were developing as Germany planned, and that was the general feeling at the Potsdam meeting including the military that both attended that afternoon.
This remark on Monday (not Tuesday) attributed to the Kaiser may well be apocryphal related later by one of the Kaiser's sycophantic courtiers to retrieve the image of the Kaiser when it was clear everything had gone wrong.
## Moltke, the German Chief of Staff, was shocked on the 30 July to learn the news from Tsar that Russia had been "mobilising" for five days [p288]
It is recognised by historians that on the 30 July Moltke's attitude changed from wait and see, to Germany must act now, and declare "State of Imminent Danger of War " which led to mobilisation.
McMeekin puts this down to a message from the Tsar to the Kaiser which mentioned (almost in passing) that Russia had started military preparations five days previously. He says "Moltke was floored to learn that Russia had begun preparing for war five (now six) days earlier". Russia's secret mobilisation of over 1 million men had finally been rumbled.
This is a ridiculous. Moltke was very well informed. He had all the warnings from German diplomats and military representatives which started coming in within hours of Russia's first military steps, and of the intelligence gathered by the formidably efficient German General Staff, the information gathered by the "tension" travellers, for example, whose activities had been designed to deal exactly with this kind of situation.
There was no "secret" Russian mobilisation.
It is more likely that Moltke's sudden change was entirely brought about by his discovery that day that the Austrians were still concentrating their military effort on Serbia leaving Russia free to concentrate on attacking Germany from the east.
## In summary
The key to this book is the author's job. He is Assistant Professor of History at Koç University in Turkey.
One can understand why he might take the line that Russia had no right to defend its interests in the Balkans and thus the Turkish Straits, accounting for over half of Russian trade, and Germany, whom Turkey allied with in the Great War, was completely right to encourage and push Austria to remove Serbia, Russia's friend, from the Balkan map.
A special place of scorn should be reserved for the publisher, who prints on the book's dust jacket "McMeekin draws on surprising new evidence from archives across Europe to show the worst offenders were actually to be found in Russia and France".
If there is a shred of "new evidence" in this book it doesn't show. All we have is McMeekin's dubious interpretations, mistakes, and his problematic guesswork at what the Russians and French really intended.
McMeekin is entitled to his view that Russian mobilisation was the disastrous turning point. But it seems as if he is prepared to tell any old story to support his case.