- - Tuesday, October 6, 2015


By Dominic Lieven

Viking, $35, 426 pages

In the freshest of books marking the centennial of World War I, Dominic Lieven offers an explanation for the conflict that most western-oriented historians have ignored: “The war was first and foremost an eastern European conflict.”

As is well-recorded, the precipitant event for the war was the murder of the Austrian heir Franz Ferdinand in June 1914. Two weeks of diplomatic to-and-fro led to a war involving all European powers. Mr. Lieven, a British historian of Russian heritage, convincingly argues that at its core, the war was a confrontation between Russia and Austria, eastern Europe’s two greatest empires.

As he writes, 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 toward Berlin and Vienna.

And, although victory was finally won by Britain and France on the western front, “the peace of 1918 was mostly lost in East 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.”

As Mr. Lieven correctly states, “no event in history has been researched more thoroughly than the origins of this war.” Yet the missing element has long been Russia. During the Soviet years, diplomatic and military archives were closed to Western historians, and strict limitations were imposed on what Russian historians could see and write. Mr. Lieven managed to gain access, for a year, to Foreign Ministry archives in Moscow that once again are closed.

Despite the current pipe dreams of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the fabled “Russian empire” of the past century, although vast in territorial terms, was hollow at the core. To be sure, the “tiny fourteenth century principality of Moscow expanded its rule to over one-sixth of the world’s land surface.” Russian literature, music and painting were brilliant ornaments of global civilization. Serfs were treated as virtual slaves. As late as 1914, some 80 percent of the population lived in the countryside, remote from anything even vaguely resembling civilization.

What Russia lacked was an effective government that extended beyond blind faith in the sagacity of the ruling Romanov family (a very limited quality, to be sure) backed by a strong land-owning class. As Mr. Lieven writes, “The fact that supreme power in Russia was wielded by an individual almost universally believed to lack the intellect or strength of character to direct the enormously complex government machine cast a pall over Russian political life.”

Thus it was inevitable that the czar was unable to cope with a double crisis: turmoil for reform in Russia, and the prospect of a war with Germany.

The tangle of European alliances — real and wishful — further complicated the situation. Moscow’s greatest nightmare was the threat of an Anglo-German entente. London and Berlin had already reached agreement on the Baghdad Railway and a de facto division of the Ottoman Empire into respective spheres of influence. The Germans set about rebuilding the Turkish army, while the British refurbished the Turkish navy. Just how far would this nascent alliance extend?

Poor intelligence also hampered the Russians. Moscow’s minister of internal affairs was Petr Durnovo, who was instrumental in crushing a liberal outbreak in 1905. But Durnovo was disgraced when he used his police agents “to purloin letters of his mistress from the home of a foreign diplomat, a competitor for her affections.”

Another major player in intelligence was the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), which “plotted assassinations of officials in Russia and prepared for sabotage and insurrection behind the Russian lines in the event of an Austro-Russian war.”

The Russians, in turn, had their own superspy: Col. Alfred Redl, an official on the Austrian general staff, who was blackmailed because of homosexual activity. Indeed, Redl’s spying meant that military authorities in Moscow were better informed than were civilian officials in Vienna.

The diplomatic and intelligence entanglements meant that a pall of suspicion lay over all of Europe the summer of 1914. And when Ferdinand and his wife were murdered, suspicion immediately focused on Serbian separatists. Austrian officials publicly acclaimed — but could not prove — that the murders “were the result of a hideous conspiracy with its roots abroad.”

Indeed, as Mr. Lieven writes, a thorough investigation likely would have found evidence of involvement by Serbian officers and border patrol police. But the evidence the Austrians gathered was not shared with other countries until ultimatums threatening war had already been issued. What Austria wanted from the crisis “could be achieved only through war.” Thus, a swift Austrian mobilization, backed by Germany, overwhelmed an unprepared Russia.

Mr. Lieven’s conclusion is emphatic: “If one concentrates just on the July crisis itself, then responsibility for the outbreak of war rests overwhelmingly on the shoulders of Berlin and Vienna.”

Other scholars from other nations surely will challenge Mr. Lieven. But his account is 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.

Joseph C. Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.

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