I love history books that cast light on the modern turmoil in the former Ottoman Empire and beyond. The trouble is I often get bogged down in the details, and the pile of unfinished, pencil-scored volumes has long been steadily rising by my bedside.
Not so with historian Sean McMeekin’s new book The Russian Origins of the First World War (Belknap/Harvard, 2011). I raced through its 323 pages and put it down thoroughly satisfied that my understanding had been much broadened with new explanations of how Turkey and its Middle Eastern neighbours got into the mess that they remain in today. The book also challenged many of the myths I have long believed about a conflict that cut a traumatizing swathe through my own extended family on the Western front of the war.
Myth #1. “The Germans started the First World War”. I didn’t even know there was a debate about this. But McMeekin convinced me that Russian leaders wanted the war more than their counterparts in Berlin, London, Vienna and possibly even Paris. The French seem to have been just as much to blame, but the skill of their statecraft in allying with Russia turned out to be a pyrrhic victory for their country as Russia’s war aims turned out to be very different to those of France.
Myth #2. “The First World War was mostly triggered by competing ambitions in the Balkans”. This all came to a head in Sarajevo with the assassination of Crown Prince Ferdinand of (Germany-aligned) Austro-Hungary by a (Russia-aligned) Serbian conspirator. Balkan frictions did exist, of course. But McMeekin shows that the war was much more about competition for the best parts of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, and in particular the Russian war aim of conquering Constantinople (Tsargrad, in Russian). While Britain and France no longer took the Ottoman Empire seriously, “for Russia”, McMeekin says, “the war of 1914 was always, ultimately, about Turkey”. (Indeed, Stalin’s same aim of controlling Russia’s main warm-water trade route through the Turkish straits was behind Turkey’s decision to throw its lot in with the West during the Cold War. It probably is also why Russia today shows no sign of putting at risk its one port asset in the Mediterranean, Tartous in Syria).
Myth #3. The “Armenian genocide”. It’s not often one sees the Armenian genocide put in inverted commas these days, especially in a respectable book. I nearly fell off my chair recently when a former chief of the Turkish foreign ministry calmly told his fellow dinner guests that he now used the word “genocide” on Turkish TV shows. But McMeekin deploys plenty of new evidence that – despite the Ottoman excesses against Armenian civilians, especially in 1915, which he condemns as wholeheartedly as anyone – the Armenian nationalist movement was indeed a willing fifth column for Russian war aims and that the Russian command was even embarrassed by the Armenians’ willingness to massacre Muslims. The tragedy for the Armenians was that the Russians promised much more than they were able or willing to deliver, were cynical about others’ casualties, attacked where they thought resistance would be least, were mostly late for battle, or simply didn’t show up for the campaign at all. Thus when the Russians finally conquered eastern Anatolia in 1916, there were few Armenians left to be rescued. “The Armenian revolutionary movement received most of its arms from Russia and aimed above all to provoke armed intervention from the same”, McMeekin says in a chapter that should become required reading on the Armenian question, “and Russian [officials] sought intentionally to exacerbate ethnic tensions as a prelude to invasion.”
Myth #4. “The British know what they are doing”. If Britons think it is only in recent years that the British policy elite has been asleep at the wheel, McMeekin’s findings can make them squirm from a much earlier date. Complacent British diplomats were blind-sided by aggressive French-Russian scheming in the run up to the war; the British Mediterranean fleet was unable to capture two German warships before they took refuge in Istanbul at the war’s start, a strategic game-changer; and the British failed to prepare militarily for a successful Gallipoli campaign in a way that was matched by the topsy-turvy politics of the enterprise. Britain and France attacked Gallipoli to help their Russian allies, but the Russians never turned up to do their share of the fighting. The Entente also explicitly promised that Russia would be handed the prize of Constantinople afterwards, even though, as McMeekin points out, the idea of Russian control of the Turkish straits “had been a full-on British casus belli as recently as thirty-six years [before, in the Crimean War].”
All this iconoclasm is lively and well-written. McMeekin cites diaries, long-secret documents, memoirs and letters to make the reader feel like an intimate from Choristers’ Bridge (St Petersburg) to the Ballplatz (Vienna) to Whitehall (London). The portrait that emerges of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov is particularly compelling, showing how misleading it can be to believe what people say about their own role in history – in Sazonov’s case, in his post-war memoir, which sought to airbrush out Russia’s warlike intentions.
I liked the polemical, clearly argued tenor of McMeekin’s prose, even if the language did sometimes border on the patronizing and Russophobic. St Petersburg’s policy is said to be “grasping” and characterized by “guile and procrastination”, while Russian suffering is dismissed because “Russians are inured to the cold”. Caustic critique is reserved for almost every actor in this drama. There are slippery Ottoman ministers (who were probably quite right to be evasive, since the Russians had spies even in their Cabinet meetings), rival historians who pay insufficient or no attention to Russian sources, and uncounted British leaders and officials who, McMeekin believes, acted as unwitting “ventriloquists” for Russian policy.
One thing that this up-and-coming, Ankara-based historian keeps returning to is that everyone should be very wary of the stated war aims of great states, whether it is supposedly “Slavic honor and the Serbs” (aired by the Russians in 1914) or “to reconstitute the internationally recognized boundaries of Kuwait” (used by the U.S. in 1991). Behind the fig leaves of such language, McMeekin clearly believes everyone should check for “cold, hard national interest”.
The world has waited a century for someone like McMeekin to demonstrate scientifically the centrality of the Turkish Straits question as it propelled Russia into the First World War — although McMeekin notes that the Bolsheviks, “mad political savants” that they were, did keep drawing rhetorical attention to this imperialist fact. I hope we will not have to wait so long to learn the real reasons why the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2002, or the hard interests propelling the zig-zags in Washington’s current Iran policy. The U.S. is clearly still in a strong position against the main autocratic powers of our days — China and Russia, again – and no new great war seems to be looming (fingers crossed). Nevertheless, some parallels can be drawn between the U.S. today and the struggles back then of liberal, democratic, public opinion-respecting Britain, which lost its global pre-eminence in the First World War. As McMeekin concludes:
“The bamboozlement of the British by clever Russian diplomats like Sazonov has much relevance for our own age. The cardinal weakness of a democratic power in the international arena is not so much inconsistency as naivete.”