As much as anything, World War I turned on the fate of Ukraine.* To an English-speaking audience, this statement will seem final confirmation that most professors are crazy. No Allied soldier believed he was risking his life over Ukraine. Few of them had heard of the place. The same was true of German soldiers in 1914. In connection with the war’s centenary, a flood of books will be published in English. Very few will mention Ukraine. Most of these books will be about the experiences of British, Dominion, and American soldiers and civilians during the war. Many others will debate the impact of the war on the society and culture of the English-speaking world. Ukraine’s fate had nothing to do with any of this.
Nevertheless, my statement is not as far-fetched as it seems. Without Ukraine’s population, industry, and agriculture, early-twentieth-century Russia would have ceased to be a great power. If Russia ceased to be a great power, then there was every probability that Germany would dominate Europe. The Russian Revolution of 1917 temporarily shattered the Russian state, economy, and empire. Russia did for a time cease to be a great power. A key element in this was the emergence of an independent Ukraine. In March 1918, the Germans and the Russians signed a peace treaty at Brest-Litovsk that ended World War I on the eastern front. In this treaty, Russia was forced to recognize Ukraine as an independent country in principle and a German satellite in practice. Had the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk survived, Germany would have won World War I. To win the war, Germany did not need outright victory on the western front. A draw in the west combined with the eclipse of the Russian Empire and German domination of east-central Europe would have sufficed to ensure Berlin’s hegemony over the Continent. Instead, Allied victory on the western front resulted in the collapse of German hopes for empire in the east. As part of the armistice that ended World War I, Germany had to renounce the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and abandon its conquests in eastern Europe. Soviet Russia moved back into the vacuum, reconquering Ukraine and re-creating the basis for a Russian Empire, albeit in communist form.
This underlines a basic point about World War I: contrary to the near-universal assumption in the English-speaking world, the war was first and foremost an eastern European conflict. Its immediate origins lay in the murder of the Austrian heir at Sarajevo in southeastern Europe. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, led to a confrontation between Austria and Russia, eastern Europe’s two great empires. France and Britain were drawn into what started as a conflict in eastern Europe above all because of fears for their own security: the victory of the Austro-German alliance over Russia would tilt the European balance of power decisively toward Berlin and Vienna. It is true that victory in World War I was achieved on the western front by the efforts of the French, British, and American armies. But the peace of 1918 was mostly lost in eastern Europe. The great irony of World War I was that a conflict which began more than anything else as a struggle between the Germanic powers and Russia to dominate east-central Europe ended in the defeat of both sides. The dissolution of the Austrian Empire into a number of small states incapable of defending themselves left a geopolitical hole in east-central Europe. Worse still, the Versailles order was constructed on the basis of both Germany’s and Russia’s defeat and without concern for their interests or viewpoints. Because Germany and Russia were potentially the most powerful states in Europe, the Versailles settlement was inevitably therefore very fragile. It was no coincidence that World War II also began in eastern Europe, with the invasion of Poland, one of the key creations of Versailles, by its German and Russian neighbors in September 1939. After a generation’s truce, World War I in many ways truly ended when the Soviet army took Berlin in May 1945.
This book places Russia where it belongs, at the very center of the history of World War I. Above all, it studies Russia’s part in the war’s origins but also in the way that the conflict developed and in its long-term consequences. But if this book might be called a Russian history of World War I, it is also an international history of the Russian Revolution, concentrating mostly in this case too on the revolution’s origins. Russia was crucial to international relations in Europe, but the same was true in reverse. Russia’s struggle to be a European and then a world power has had an enormous influence on modern Russian history. Probably no other factor has had a greater impact on the fate of the Russian people. Never was this truer than in the years between 1904 and 1920 that this book covers. Without World War I, the Bolsheviks might conceivably have seized power in Russia, but for many reasons explained in this book, they would most likely have been unable to retain it. Yet if the war played a huge part in the history of Russia’s revolution, the opposite was also true. The Russian Revolution offered Germany its best chance of winning World War I. More important, the October Revolution in 1917 ensured that Russia did not participate in the remaking of Europe at Versailles and remained a revisionist power in the interwar period. Deep suspicion and antipathy between the Russians and their former British and French allies undermined efforts to check Adolf Hitler and avoid a second world war.
There are many reasons to write a Russian history of World War I. No event in history has been researched more minutely than the origins of this war. Although western European historians may come up with new interpretations of the war’s causes, they are unlikely to unearth major new evidence. In this sense, Russia is the last frontier. In the Soviet era, diplomatic and military archives were closed to Western historians. Limitations existed on what Russian historians could write or sometimes see. It was therefore much to my benefit that I was able to spend the best part of a year researching for this book in the key Russian archives. The most crucial of these archives was that of the Foreign Ministry in Moscow. It closed one week after I finished my research because the building is subsiding rapidly into the Moscow metro. It has not yet reopened and is unlikely to do so in any near future. The materials I found in the Foreign Ministry archive and six other Russian archives offer a much fuller and sometimes distinctly new understanding of Russian foreign policy and of the forces that lay beneath it.
It is important to study World War I from a Russian angle because Russia played not only a crucial role in international relations in that era but one that is often misunderstood or sidelined. But that is far from the whole story. A Russian perspective encourages one to see and interpret World War I as a whole in very different ways than do historians who examine these years on the basis of British, American, French, and German viewpoints and assumptions. This book is therefore by no means just a study of Russia’s World War I. On the contrary, it is a study of the war as a whole from an original standpoint. If Russia necessarily occupies center stage, a good third of the book is devoted to other countries and to the European and global context.
In the communist era, the Russian angle on World War I was a Marxist-Leninist one. The war—so it was argued—occurred as a result of imperialist competition between the great powers for colonial markets, raw materials, and sites for investment. Neither I nor many other serious historians of World War I today subscribe to this view. On the other hand, I do believe that the war had a great deal to do with empire and imperialism as I understand these terms. In my view, empire is first and foremost about power. Unless a state is (or at least has been) a great power, it cannot be a true empire. But empires are great powers with specific characteristics. These include rule over huge territories and many peoples without the latter’s explicit consent. For me, imperialism means simply the ideologies, values, and policies that sustain the creation, expansion, and maintenance of empire.
Empires and imperialism defined in this way dominated most of the globe before 1914. For the core, imperial people, empire was seen as a source of glory, status, and a meaningful role in mankind’s history. The geopolitical basis for the age of imperialism was the conviction that continental-scale territory and resources were essential for any truly great power in the twentieth century. For a European country—and Europeans still dominated most of the globe in 1914—such resources could only be acquired through empire. Some parts of the globe were annexed; others were dominated to varying degrees as protectorates and spheres of political and economic influence. A key problem in international relations by 1900 was that almost no unclaimed territories remained that the imperialist predators could share out among themselves. The European powers bargained with each other over territory, status, and influence. Behind this bargaining always lay calculations about power and about the readiness of the rival states to go to war in defense of their demands. Although most of the great powers claimed that they were advancing the cause of civilization, none were inclined to consult the wishes of the peoples they subjected. Looming on the horizon by 1900 was nationalism’s challenge to empire. If imperialism seemed the wave of the future in terms of a state’s global reach and power, ethnic nationalism appeared to be the best way to consolidate political communities and legitimize their governments. The growing clash between imperialism and nationalism is what I describe as the key dilemma of modern empire.1
Imperialism, nationalism, and the dilemma of modern empire were at the core of World War I’s origins. To anglophone ears in particular this sounds strange. The words “empire” and “imperialism” suggest that the war’s causes lay above all in Asia or Africa. The point here is that in British and American understanding, modern empire is mostly something that happens outside Europe. This partly reflects the fact that the British Empire did indeed exist almost entirely outside the Continent. For Lenin, and after him for most Marxist historians, modern imperialism was by definition the last phase in capitalism and was linked to the struggle between the developed countries of western Europe for colonial markets and raw materials in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. In contemporary British and American history departments, the study of empire is closely entwined with questions of race, gender, and so-called postcolonial studies, because these are seen as central to contemporary British and American society, not to mention relations between the First and the Third Worlds. Once again this tends to exclude empires within Europe from the picture.
The idea that empire in the twentieth century was something that happened outside Europe also feeds easily into deeper assumptions about a fundamental division between Europe and its white former colonies, on the one hand, and the nonwhite world, on the other. A shorthand for that assumption are the terms “First World” and “Third World.” The idea of a “Second World” disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. One goal of my book is to resurrect the term “Second World” and to apply it to Europe’s periphery before 1914. This Second World stretched from Ireland and Iberia in the west to Italy and the Balkans in the south and the Russian Empire in the east. Although very diverse, these countries shared certain problems as they confronted the era of mass politics that was just emerging for all of them by 1900. Russia’s problems are sometimes clarified by comparisons with those of its Second World peers, as I hope to show in this book.
The Balkans was quintessentially a Second World region. Did elites in London and Berlin regard this region as fully European? More to the point, how did rulers in Vienna view the region? It is one of this book’s arguments that Austrian policy toward Serbia took similar forms and was underpinned by ideas similar to those defining European imperialism across the rest of the globe. In the 1960s, when Yugoslavia headed the nonaligned movement, it was easy from Belgrade’s perspective to see Serbia’s wars between 1912 and 1918 as the triumph of a national liberation movement. Serbia’s struggle against Germanic imperialism could be equated to the fight for independence of, for example, the Algerian and Vietnamese peoples. The tale took on a particular resonance because Serbia suffered higher casualties relative to its population than any other people involved in World War I except for the Armenians. Thanks partly to the atrocities perpetrated by Serb nationalists in the 1990s and partly to the general delegitimation of heroic nationalist narratives among contemporary Western historians, this Serbian interpretation now appears indefensible to most Europeans. Nevertheless, to view World War I’s origins in the Balkans through the prism of empire does offer interesting insights. The basic point was that Austrian imperialism in the Balkans faced more risks than similar policies in other continents. For this, there were many reasons, most of which boil down to a single word: “Russia.”
The Balkans became an enormous source of international tension because of the decline of the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled most of the region since the fourteenth century. This empire had sprawled across Europe, Asia, and Africa; by 1900, its demise appeared imminent on all three continents. Bosnia, where the archduke Franz Ferdinand was murdered, had been an Ottoman possession until 1878 and formally still belonged to the Ottomans until it was annexed by Vienna in 1908. The crisis that followed the annexation was a major stage on the road to 1914. So too was the Italian invasion of Ottoman Libya in 1911, which in turn sparked off the Balkan Wars of 1912–13. The Austrian attempt to crush Serbia in August 1914 was the direct result of these wars, which had resulted in the triumph of Balkan nationalisms over the Ottoman Empire. Vienna hoped to confine its action to the Balkans in 1914. Instead, the conflagration spread across Europe.
One reason why the crisis of the Ottoman Empire caused so many headaches to the European powers was that the ultimate prize—namely, possession of Constantinople and the Straits—appeared to be coming rapidly into view. Russia in particular had great economic, strategic, and historical interests at stake as regards this prize, which it came very close to acquiring during World War I. A number of historians have recently stressed both Russia’s ambitions at the Straits and how these contributed to the tensions that led Europe to war in 1914.2 They are correct. To understand the origins of World War I, one must study the sources of Russia’s ambitions in the region and examine the debate within Russia’s elites and government over how far its ambitions should stretch. That is another key aim of this book. But Russian ambitions at Constantinople and the Straits have to be seen within the cont...Revue de presse :
"[Lieven’s] intimate familiarity with the Russia he describes and his extensive study of the letters, diaries and books of the chief actors in Russia’s descent 'towards the flames'—many not hitherto accessible to historians—are what render this work so authoritative and readable.”— The New York Times
“Lieven presents Russia’s road to war and revolution as a classical tragedy—a fate driven by the character of both the country and its rulers . . . [he] recovers a world that has been lost.”— The Wall Street Journal
"Lieven resoundingly impresses, not the least when he goes out on a limb with many fresh and original claims... It is not often that a work of outstanding scholarship is also a gripping read. That, however, is precisely what Lieven has delivered.”— Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“[T]he notion that Russia, lying at the periphery of Europe, was as the center of things infuses Dominic Lieven’s masterly new view of World War I.”— Boston Globe
"So valuable because it gives insight into why Russia was so unprepared for a war that ultimately resulted in a near-century of agony for its people."— Washington Post
"Lieven’s interpretation is the result of his own heroic research endeavours in newly available Russian foreign ministry archives. But his insights are more than professional; they are personal.... His stimulating book, deeply researched yet written with all the bravura of his aristocratic forebears, convinced this reviewer at least."— Financial Times
"A gripping, poignant and in some respects revolutionary contribution to European history."— The Economist
"Not just one of the greatest historians on Russia, but also a great writer."— Antony Beevor, Independent (UK)
“ The End of Tsarist Russia is a book of immense scholarship and engaging readability. Through an eastern window rarely opened to Western gaze, it illuminates the end of Europe's old order and the explosive start of the twentieth century. A century later, we are still struggling with this era’s epic legacies.” —David Reynolds, author of The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century
“This is a great book by a great historian filled with riches—not just about the end of Tsarism and the Revolution, but offering the most original of all recent account of the outbreak of war in 1914. It has uncanny internal knowledge of the state apparatus, terrific explanatory power and judgment--and such narrative power that I found it hard to put down.” —John A Hall, Professor of Comparative Historical Sociology, McGill University
“Readers who, after two years of vigorous debate among historians, are looking for a judicious assessment will find this book absorbing as well as indispensable in their teaching and research.” —V.R. Berghahn, Columbia University
“Lieven’s insight into the mentalities of early twentieth century Russian statesmen is unrivalled. As a result, he presents the fullest and most nuanced picture we have of Russia's halting but in the end determined entry into the First World War. This book supersedes all previous ones on the subject.” —Geoffrey Hosking, Emeritus Professor of Russian History, University College London
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