The Russian Origins of the First World War

By King, Richard D. | The Historian, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

The Russian Origins of the First World War


King, Richard D., The Historian


The Russian Origins of the First World War. By Sean McMeekin. (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011. Pp. xiv, 324. $29.95.)

The centenary of the First World War is almost here, but the debate over its causes and consequences remains as vigorous as ever. With this lively and provocative book, Sean McMeekin seeks to stimulate the same sort of reconsideration of Imperial Russia's role in World War I that Fritz Fischer generated concerning Imperial Germany half a century ago. McMeekin contends that "most general histories published in recent decades ignore Russia's war aims almost entirely ... [because] the Fischer debate taught several generations of historians to pay serious attention only to Germany's war aims" (2-3). Stopping short of emulating Fischer in assigning responsibility for the war to a single country, McMeekin argues that World War I "was Russia's even more than it was Germany's" (5).

McMeekin is one of several historians who have been reexamining the Eastern Question in the early twenty-first century on the basis of new research in the military and diplomatic archives of Tsarist Russia and the Ottoman Empire. He sees the determination of Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov and other key leaders to assert Russia's imperial interests in anticipation of Ottoman and Habsburg collapse as the propelling feature of the July 1914 crisis and the wartime evolution of Russia's foreign and military policies. It was not Russia's need to get as large a jump as possible on German mobilization in order to defend itself and its ally France that precipitated the war; rather, Russia's leaders consciously risked war with Germany and were positioning Russia, militarily and diplomatically, to secure its imperial interests in the Balkans and the Turkish Straits against German expansionism.

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