Friday, September 2, 2016

Book Review: The Russian Origins of the First World War

I was perusing the history section of a local bookstore when I stumbled across a book entitled The Russian Origins of the First World War, by Sean McMeekin.  Lately I'd been refreshing my memory on the subject of WWI, and reading in greater depth about the Eastern Front, so I decided to purchase and read the book.

Though the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria were the ones branded with responsibility for the war in minds of much of the world (reinforced by Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles), it has long seemed to me that Serbia and Russia deserved at least part of the blame. It was Serbian military intelligence that had sponsored and supported the group responsible for the assassination that sparked the crisis that ultimately led to the war.  It was Russia that offered unqualified support to Serbia in defying the ultimatum Austria-Hungary issued in response to the assassination.  To my mind, those actions made Russia and Serbia at least as culpable as Germany and the other Central Powers, despite the interpretation taught in history classes I'd taken, where German imperialism was cited as the cause of the war.

Nothing I read in McMeekin's book detracts from German imperialism as a cause of the war, but rather it supports considering Russian imperialism as a similar cause for the war.  McMeekin makes strong arguments based upon Russian sources that Russia had major territorial ambitions and sought to take advantage of weaknesses of both the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, even before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

An understanding of Russian aims helps to explain other aspects of the war.  For example, the Dardanelles campaign makes somewhat more sense when viewed as a preliminary to assist Russia in taking Constantinople.  Germany's massive victory at the Battle of Tannenberg was in part due to the weakness of Russian forces in the area resulting from concentration of Russian forces against Austria-Hungary, despite French pleas to concentrate on defeating Germany.

I found the book to be fascinating, its reasoning sound, and its support evidence plentiful.  It offered much more insight into Russian motives, objectives, and deceit than I'd seen before.  I'd certainly recommend it to anybody interested in learning more about the war's causes.

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