Book Review: The Russian Origins of the First World War


by Sean McMeekin

Cambridge, Ma.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 324. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 0674062108

In this work, Prof. McMeekin (Bilkent, Ankara) examines Russian responsibility for the outbreak of the Great War.

McMeekin argues that Russia, even more than Germany, as claimed by Fritz Fischer a half century ago, was principally responsible for the coming of the Great War.  Using an impressive body of evidence, he demonstrates that Russia was very engaged in a massive military build-up, had undertaken significant diplomatic and political measures to strengthen its strategic position, and was clearly expansionistic, with a particular eye on the Ottoman Empire, and acted irresponsibly during the “July Crisis.”  But he does all that in two chapters, using the seven that follow to give us a look at Russia’s war, which is interesting, but not relevant to how much Russia contributed to the coming of the war.

To be sure, in those two chapter, McMeekin’s case is well made, but what Russia was up to was to a great extent not very much different from what the other major powers were about at the time, and particularly Germany, France, and Britain, not to mention some of the lesser states.  All of the European great powers had, to a greater or lesser extent, helped set the stage for a disastrous confrontation.  But absent Austro-Hungarian irresponsibility over the Sarajevo crisis, and the German decision to back Austria’s invasion of Serbia “in shining armor”, it’s hard to see how a general war among the great powers would have broken out in the summer of 1914.

Nevertheless, The Russian Origins of the First World War is certainly important reading for anyone interested in the coming of the war, focusing as it does on the Russia’s preparations and actions, how these were perceived by her potential friends and enemies, and how that war unfold for the Russians.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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