Russia’s Role in the Outbreak of the First World War

Conventional Wisdom on the Origins of the First World War

Constantinople during World War I

Conventional wisdom, among both scholars and general readers, is that the war of 1914 was essentially “Germany’s war” and histories that describe the outbreak of the war focus largely on Berlin and, secondarily, Vienna.  Russia is often viewed in a passive role and the blame for the war rests largely on Kaiser Wilhelm and his military advisers who were fearful of the “Slavic hordes” of Tsarist Russia.  In order to meet this threat, the Germans took preemptive action by mobilizing their forces, which caused a chain reaction that pulled England, France and Russia into the conflict.

A new study by Sean McMeekin, The Russian Origins of the First World War (Harvard University Press, 2011), dramatically challenges this conventional wisdom and, aided by the newly opened archives in Russia, offers a startling new perspective.  McMeekin points out that “the gap in public knowledge of Russia’s war aims owes much to the deep freeze into which her revolution and civil war thrust historical scholarship on the war generally” (p. 2). Soviet scholars were reluctant to examine too deeply the reasons why the Bolsheviks pulled the country out of the war and surrendered to Russia’s enemies.  This subject was so awkward that in the seventy years of Soviet rule no official history of Russia’s military performance was ever published.  Nor has it been even today, although military history is slowly emerging in Putin’s Russia.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian and western scholars have discovered vast documentary collections in the tsarist archives – in fact, there is now more formerly secret material available on Russia’s war aims in 1914 than on those of any other power.  Current reports from Russia indicate that the first volume of Russia’s official wartime history will not appear until 2015.  In the meantime, Russian and western scholars now have access to these secret archival materials, so a fuller story is now being told.
Russia’s War Aims

Conventional wisdom makes the case that Russia chose to defend Serbia, for reasons of “Slavic honor,” after Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and his wife were murdered in that country on June 28, 1914, and a putative response by the Hapsburg leadership in Vienna to punish Serbia for this crime was announced.  Public rhetoric aside, McMeekin argues that defense of Serbia and “Slavic honor” had nothing to do with why Russia chose to go to war in 1914.

For Russia, the war of 1914 was always about dismembering the Ottoman Empire, which controlled the area that now includes Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Iraq.  To secure this great strategic prize, 1914 seemed ideal for enlisting French and British power to neutralize the growing German threat to Russia’s ambitions, while Russia went after its long-time goal – Constantinople and control of access to the Black Sea.   The Ottoman Empire, known as the “sick man of Europe,” was clearly dying and the Russians seized the opportunity.

We now know that five full days before the Germans made the critical decision to mobilize their forces, the Russians had secretly mobilized their army bordering on Austria-Hungary and their naval fleets in the Baltic and Black Seas.  To blame Germany for mobilizing to gain a battlefield advantage simply does not square with what scholars have discovered.  In fact, the Russians never did concentrate their forces on the eastern front against Germany, to the great frustration of the French and British.  Less than one-third of Russia’s forces were deployed in the European theater, which meant that France, with a population base one-fourth the size of Russia’s, had to bear the brunt of the battle against the Germans. 

As early as November 1914, Tsar Nicholas II laid out his vision for the postwar world to the French Ambassador, and in the record of this meeting, the Tsar is very clear that Constantinople must be made an international city under Russian protection and that the Ottoman Empire would be reduced to a “mere Asian rump.”  The Russians did not hide their war aims – conquering Constantinople and the Straits were their clear goals – and Russia’s principal allies, France and Britain, had little choice but to accept them. 

When Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire on November 2, 1914, and the Ottomans followed suit eight days later, it was a “rare sort of war,” according to McMeekin – a war everyone wanted.  For Tsar Nicholas II, Russia’s date with destiny had arrived and it would now be a struggle – a Holy War — between Christianity and Islam.  Russia’s desire to expand their empire was now justified as a war against a pagan and hostile religion.  

The End Game 

The dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, as planned by the Russians, French and British, never occurred as the Russian Foreign Ministry had hoped.  The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and the subsequent decision by Lenin and his advisers to withdraw immediately from the war ended all hopes of annexing Constantinople and securing control of access to the Black Sea. 

Here’s McMeekin’s conclusion: “For decades, historians, politicians, and arm-chair strategists have focused their fire on Imperial Germany as the primary instigator of the European conflict [World War I]. . . . It is high time that Russia, too, receive its fair share of scrutiny for its role in unleashing the terrible European war of 1914 and for helping to spread this war into the Middle East. . . . 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.  In the end the war destroyed both regimes. . . .” (p. 243). 

I agree with McMeekin, “to tell the truth about the origins of the war of 1914 is the least we can do to honor its victims.”  This is true of all wars and war’s innocent victims deserve at least this much respect.  Working hard to prevent armed conflict would even be a better course of action.