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A Catastrophe Not Foreseen

Pádraig Murphy

Towards the Flame: Empire, War and the end of Tsarist Russia, by Dominic Lieven, Allen Lane, 448 pp, £17, ISBN: 978-1846143816

Do we need another book on the First World War? Already in 1991, according to a calculation made at the time, the literature on this subject counted some twenty-five thousand books and articles. This was well before the spate of recent publications occasioned by the successive centenaries. This catastrophe is of supreme importance: it shaped the Europe and the world we live in. It transformed Russia more perhaps than any other participant. Christopher Clark, in a magisterial account of how the catastrophe came about (The Sleepwalkers, reviewed in the drb by John Swift in April 2013 ‑ http://www.drb.ie/essays/muddling-into-war) recounts that the war mobilised sixty-five million men, claimed three empires, brought about twenty million civilian and military deaths, and injured twenty-one million, as well as being the very source of the horrors that befell Europe in the rest of the twentieth century. The conflict went on for over four years: the general expectation at the beginning was that it might last for a matter of months at most. Many went into it joyfully, thinking it a cleansing catharsis needed in a tired civilisation.

Scholars who have immersed themselves deeply in the epoch can deliver new insights which will modify our views of what really drove it. Dominic Lieven tells us that he has had access to Russian archival material not previously available. Russia is, he says, “the last frontier”. In the Soviet period, archives were closed to Western researchers and limits were put on what Soviet historians could write and sometimes even see. He, on the other hand, spent the best part of a year researching in key Russian archives, most crucially, that of the ministry of foreign affairs, which closed because of construction work one week after he finished his research. His account shows great understanding of the dilemmas faced by imperial Russia in the lead-up to the catastrophe, and is all the better for that. He is not alone, however, in using Russian sources to shed light on those historical events for Western readers. Sean McMeekin, in The Russian Origins of the First World War, published by Harvard in 2011, also based his book on research in the Russian archives (as well as in the Turkish, among others). Lieven characterises McMeekin’s work, fairly enough, as “more polemical” than others.

The war was heavy with negative consequences – as mentioned, they reverberate through the twentieth century. The natural reflex is to find a culprit, just as the victors at Versailles did in Article 231 of the Treaty. “The Allied and Associated Governments,” it said, “affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allies and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed on them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.” Christopher Clark disavows any attempt at assigning culpability, saying that his objective is to describe how the catastrophe came about. He rejects the thesis of Paul Kennedy that it is “flaccid” not to seek a culprit by blaming all or none of the states concerned. He adduces some good reasons why this need not be so – too many, perhaps of the by now certainly more than thirty thousand accounts have the kind of “polemical” agenda Lieven signals in McMeekin. Certainly, in my view, any account that sets out to assign exclusive culpability to one of the combatant States will fall short of the minimum objectivity required to shed the kind of light needed on a crucial historical event. The classical example of this is Fritz Fischer’s Der Griff nach der Weltmacht of 1961, which rejected Lloyd George’s conclusion after the catastrophe that the responsible statesmen had “glided, or rather staggered and stumbled” into it. No, Fischer said, it resulted from the Weltpolitik that the then young Kaiser proclaimed in 1896 as a programme aimed at a German “place in the sun”. The German war aims, according to Fischer, derived from a bundle of industrial, capitalist, agrarian and overseas commercial interests, tied up with the strategic demands of the army and the navy. In the process, abstract and hegemonic ambitions became visible which remained operative, even if they certainly intensified and became more inhuman in their methods, in German history until 1945. It was perhaps this element of the Fischer thesis, which is no longer be accepted in the stark form in which he presented it, that reveals the particular circumstances of its intellectual genesis: it was part of the German process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or coming to terms with the past, which at about the time of the book’s publication began to be characteristic of much of the postwar generation in the Federal Republic.

McMeekin’s book is a present-day counterpart to Fischer’s of 1961. Its thesis is that “a state [that is, Russia] whose policymakers nurse grudges against both its enemies and its friends is a dangerous animal, ready to pounce at the first fright or whiff of opportunity. Russia in 1914 was a country with much to lose, but for which the risks of inaction seemed, by June or July of that year, to be at least as great, and possibly greater, than those of inaction. It was a country, in other words, whose rulers would not shrink from going to war to improve her precarious position in a hostile international environment.”

It would be inaccurate to characterise Lieven’s book as setting out chapter and verse to be a rebuttal of McMeekin’s. In effect nevertheless, it does present a different view of the Russian political process of the day. It seeks, successfully, to portray the slide into war from the Russian perspective and uses some indulgence in so doing. Lieven’s take on the Russian role is generally benevolent. Sazonov, for instance, the foreign minister at the relevant time, is said to be “one of the most decent men ever to head Russia’s Foreign Ministry”. This contrasts with Clark’s characterisation of his memoirs as “breezy, pompous, intermittently mendacious and totally uninformative about his own role in key events”. That said, Towards the Flame is the result of a thorough combing of the Russian archives, not perhaps, in view of the circumstances he describes, to be soon emulated. He describes his approach as in part an attempt to attain a God’s eye view, in part a worm’s eye view. The archives-based account is clearly the worm’s eye view, and, at times, it suffers from the sense of consisting of just one more or less interesting nugget or other drawn from dusty files. But it is very much enlivened by a series of deft pen pictures of the actors of the time – for example, the Emperor Nicholas, Witte, the proponent of Russian industrialisation, in particular by means of extension of the railway network, a capable finance minister and prime minister for a short period after the 1905 revolution. Also sketched are Stolypin, one of his successors, Benckendorff, the ambassador in London who signed the Anglo-Russian Entente in 1907, Sazonov, the foreign minister at the crucial time and Hartwig, the intriguer who was minister in Belgrade. Vice Admiral Lieven is also portrayed. Although this is not specified, he is presumably an antecedent of the author. The family, originating like many of its kind in the Baltic, was eminent in the service of the Russian empire. The Vice Admiral is notable for identifying a crucial deficiency in Russian military/naval manpower, of NCOs or warrant officers, at middle-level ranks.

The book also greatly gains from the very evocative photographs, which, rightly, get a special mention among the acknowledgments. Here we get a series of portraits of stolid, whiskered, often bemedalled men sitting behind over-ornate and cluttered Victorian desks, obviously feeling themselves the very embodiment of state power. The exceptions, unsurprisingly, are particularly interesting. Here we have Piotr Stolypin, the charismatic and forceful prime minister assassinated in 1911, a hefty figure sprawled on a garden bench, without uniform or medals, his frank gaze speaking more than any text could. Stolypin, a figure admired by President Putin, made a strong effort to confront and deal with Russian problems rooted in the exclusion of the peasantry from the forces that went to make up a functioning economy and polity, what he called his “wager on the strong and the sober”, those who, in Lieven’s analysis, were deficient in military and naval ranks. Then there is Piotr Durnovo, a minister of internal affairs who played a decisive role in suppressing the 1905 revolution which threatened to bring down the regime. His warning that getting involved in another war, with Germany and Austria, would not only involve defeat because of Russian backwardness, but also a regime-threatening revolution, proved prophetic. He is pictured without desk, uniform or decorations, his very expression that of a supreme guardian of state security, who has seen everything. Emperor Nicholas II is pictured, a tiny figure on a balcony of the immense Winter Palace, after the fatal declaration by Germany of war on Russia. And then, finally, there is Sazonov, a physically small man, barely appearing behind a monstrous desk.

Russia came out of the disastrous war with Japan of 1904-5 deeply traumatised and on the defensive and confronted, as were others, with an increasingly powerful Germany. In Europe, it found in France another “power” of the time intimately concerned with the rise of Germany. In France after 1871 the problem of Alsace Lorraine, ceded to Germany after the war of that year, should, according to Gambetta, always be thought of, never spoken of. It is not spoken of in Lieven’s book either, but its unspoken presence haunts every French action in the run-up to the war. The Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894 came immediately after the German decision to allow their famous Reinsurance Treaty with Russia to lapse. Significantly, it was in origin a military convention which provided for the combined deployment of land forces against a common enemy, thus aiming at meeting and balancing against a hostile coalition the likely composition of which even at the time it was not hard to guess. No wonder it has been called “a turning point in the prelude to the Great War”.

Russia’s status as an empire, one of the “powers” of the time, was essential to her image of herself. The 1905 defeat cast a shadow over this, having not only destroyed two of her three fleets and decisively defeated her army, but, perhaps even more importantly as far as her self-identity was concerned, this was the first time (if one disregards the Italian defeat at Adowa in 1896 where, incidentally, there were a number of Russian advisers, including an officer of the Kuban Cossack army, on the Ethiopian side) that a European “power” had been comprehensively defeated by a non-European perceived upstart.

One of the Russian reactions to the defeat was increased support for the Slavophil movement, which focused on what was presented as the downtrodden “little Slavic brothers” in the Balkans. It seemed all the more likely that Russia could increase her influence here in that the Ottoman empire, the original sick man of Europe, was generally perceived to be in terminal decline. Her principal adversary would be the Austro-Hungarian empire, which had seized Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1878 and annexed it, much to the ire of Russian Slavophil, in 1908. St Petersburg was just about able to swallow this – in its weakened state after the Japanese defeat and the succeeding revolution which, in Lieven’s words, almost brought down the regime, it didn’t have much choice. But the Italian action in invading and occupying Libya in 1911 meant that the field was open for the sharing of the spoils of the dismantling of the Ottoman empire, especially its European part. Here, St Petersburg eventually decided to place its stake on Serbia, which had during successive Balkan wars demonstrated its military prowess by extending its territory more than any of the other would-be Balkan successor states. The problem was, as it would be over one hundred years later, that Greater Serbia ambitions threatened other polities where Serbs lived, not least Bosnia-Herzegovina as a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The imminent collapse of the Ottoman empire also brought to the fore in Russian policy its long-term objective of controlling the Straits and occupying Constantinople. There were two aspects to this. One was historical-religious. Constantinople, in Russian Tsargrad, or the city of the emperor, was the Second Rome, the fount of Orthodoxy in Russia, where, as had been claimed, Moscow had become the Third Rome, the heir of the Byzantine empire and champion of the Orthodox faith. Possession of Constantinople would be a moral salve for many wounds. In the words of Sergei Sazonov, the Russian foreign minister from November 1910, Constantinople would give Russia “a global position which is the natural crown of her efforts and sacrifices over two centuries of our history”. It might also, he said, “bring healing to our internal life, and give the Government and society those achievements and that enthusiasm which could unite them in the service of a matter of indisputable pan-national importance”. But there were hard economic considerations as well. Some fifty per cent of Russian exports were routed through the Straits. When the Ottoman government closed this passage to shipping, as it had in 1912 because of the war with Italy, Russian vulnerability became apparent. The volume of its Black Sea exports fell by one third for 1912, and its revenues fell by thirty per cent, from some eight hundred million roubles to less than six hundred million. The Ukraine, the site at once of the all-important grain trade and of most of Russia’s heavy industry, was brought almost to a halt. The resultant effect on the balance of trade, the revenue from which Russia relied on for modernisation, not least of its armed forces, was catastrophic. Revenue fell from a surplus of four hundred and thirty million roubles in 1910 to only two hundred million in 1913.

These two factors – the ambition to sponsor the Slavic “little brothers” and the objective of dominating the Straits/Constantinople ‑ were determinant in Russia in the period leading up to the war. It is the first, the relation to the Serbian “little brother” that is most problematic when it comes to deciding whether Russia might have done more to avoid the outbreak of war. As is known, the immediately catalysing event that led to the war was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914. The trail of the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, clearly leads back to Belgrade, to the so-called Black Hand and its principal, Col Dragutin Dimitrijević, aka Apis, who was also the head of Serbian military intelligence. Russia had, as has been seen, treated Serbia as the favoured “little brother” and had, in Nikolai Hartwig, a head of diplomatic mission of more than usual acumen in Belgrade. Hartwig was indeed so inserted into policy-making in the Serbian capital that competent observers there went so far as to say that nothing significant, certainly not in the foreign policy field, was decided there without his sanction. The view of the British minister in Belgrade in early 1914 was that “During the three years of my residence here Servia has never acted against the directions of the Russian Minister.” In accordance with his generally sympathetic line on the Russian role in the genesis of the conflict, Lieven, it seems to me, gives St Petersburg too easy a pass on this score. “There is no evidence,” he points out, “in the Russian archives of any Russian involvement in plotting conspiracies on Austrian soil.” He does on the other hand concede that Russian handling of Serbia in 1913-14 “is an object lesson in how not to meet the challenge” of managing client states. This is to put it too mildly. Hartwig, as has been seen, was at the very centre of Serb decision-making. The Russian military attaché, Artamonov, reported frequently and at length on the connections of the Black Hand with official Serb instances, including military intelligence and the minister of defence himself. Miroslav Spalajković, chief diplomatic adviser of the Serbian prime minister, Nikola Pašić, had come to the Russian legation’s attention as a reckless promoter of narrow Serbian interests, even at the risk of provoking war between Russia and Austria-Hungary. Spalajković subsequently became minister in St Petersburg, surely the most important Serbian diplomatic post. While there, he told the Petersburg press after the assassination that the Belgrade government had warned the Austrians in advance of the assassination plot. This is not to say that Russia stands out as the power solely responsible for the outbreak of war. It is merely to point out that Great Power machinations are seldom as innocent as traces, or the absence thereof, in the archives might mislead one to believe.

Then there is the role of Russia’s closest ally, France, both in its irredentism in regard to Alsace-Lorraine and in its determination to push back what it saw as the overbalancing power of the new Germany on the continent. At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, France was the source of very large loans to Russia and to Serbia. The French propensity to save, together with the low rate of investment in domestic industry, made the French market attractive for those seeking loans for capital investments. Such loans did not, however, come free of political conditions; their floating required the consent of the French government. Notoriously, before the war, the French market made very large loans to Russia. These were accompanied by strong French urging to use them especially to upgrade the rail network in the west, with strategic objectives, such as laying down double tracking on the approaches to Russia’s western border, in mind. This French policy was pursued also, and even more dangerously, with Serbia. During a crisis period in that country in 1905-6 after the bloody change of dynasty – the Black Hand had murdered the king and queen ‑ Belgrade rejected Austrian efforts to forge closer relations by means of a commercial treaty and armaments orders with Austrian firms. Instead, the orders went to the French firm Schneider Creusot, instead of Škoda, then in Bohemia, part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. French financial backing sustained investment in Serbia from that period on. In January 1914, another very large French loan, twice the entire Serbian state budget for 1912, was made, in order to cover the very large military expenditures of Belgrade. Raymond Poincaré, himself a native of Lorraine, was prime minister and minister of foreign affairs of France from January 1912 until 1913, when he became president. In pursuit of his overall aim of containing Germany – and recovering Alsace-Lorraine – he reassured the Russians that they could count on French support in the event of a war eventuating from the Austrian dispute with Serbia. The Russian government, he told the Russian ambassador in November 1912, had no reason to fear “a lack of support on (France’s) part”. Poincaré’s visit to Petersburg in July 1914 is well-known, if not always sufficiently documented. It is certain, nevertheless, that during this visit the French president encouraged Russian tendencies, gaining ground at the time, to contemplate war with Austria, and Germany, at this crucial juncture.

And what of Britain? The foreign secretary of the time, Sir Edward Grey, is now famous for his declaration when the war finally broke out that “the lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”. At the time, he was more of an enigma to his interlocutors, a typically languid upper-class Englishman intent on keeping all Britain’s options open as long as possible as far as Europe was concerned. There was also division within the British cabinet on policy in relation to Germany. But balance of power considerations, as so often, won out in the end, with the realisation that Britain could not contemplate the defeat of France by Germany. This was best expressed by Sir Eyre Crowe, senior clerk in the Western department of the foreign office, in a minute of July 25th, 1914:

Whatever we may think of the Austrian charges against Servia, France and Russia consider that these are the pretexts, and that the bigger cause of the Triple Alliance versus Triple Entente is definitely engaged. I think it would be impolitic, not to say dangerous, for England to attempt to controvert this opinion, or to endeavour to obscure the plain issue, by any representation at St Petersburg and Paris … Our interests are tied up with those of France and Russia in this struggle, which is not for the possession of Servia, but one between Germany aiming at a political dictatorship in Europe and the Powers who desire to retain individual freedom.

Gavrilo Princip’s act in Sarajevo was thus one that precipitated a series of consequences, long in gestation, which resulted in the catastrophe of the war. While it is in my view mistaken to assign exclusive culpability for this to any one of the state actors involved, it would be equally mistaken to absolve any of them of any responsibility for what resulted. At the most basic level, they all acted without considered regard for the consequences of their actions. The resultant slaughter was unprecedented: as the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig said, “reason” had “devoured” man. We are still counting the cost. When all this is taken into account, what is supremely difficult to conceive is any meaningful sense in which this European catastrophe could be considered Our War.


Pádraig Murphy is a retired official of Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs. He served as ambassador to the then Soviet Union from 1981 to 1985.