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By Sean McMeekin


The Montréal Review, June 2012


"The Russian Origins of the First World War" by Sean McMeekin (Harvard University Press, 2011)


Longlist, 2012 Lionel Gelber Prize, Lionel Gelber Foundation, Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, and Foreign Policy

2011 Norman B. Tomlinson, Jr. Book Prize, World War One Historical Association


When I moved to Turkey in 2002, I did not know a word of Turkish. Although I was a historian by profession, I knew little Turkish history, either. Like most Europeans and Americans, I viewed modern history through a western lens. From the French Revolution to the world wars to the fall of Communism, the story of the modern world was, to me, Europe's story, with an assist from the United States once we reached the twentieth century. To the extent Turkey factored at all, it was as a kind of bit player in the Cold War - did not the US trade its Turkish nukes to defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Ten years on, I see history very differently. Some of this is because of the timing of my arrival, shortly before the Iraq war of 2003. Western coverage of the country back then was mostly focused on Ankara's refusal to allow the US to send troops across Turkish soil into northern Iraq. Conditioned to view Turkey as a member of NATO and a loyal US ally, many journalists - along with Bush administration officials - were surprised by the snub.

They should not have been. Turks had every possible reason to oppose the US-led invasion of Iraq, beginning with its historical echoes. The leading role played by Britain in the coalition brought back painful memories of the British conquest of Mesopotamia in 1917, not to mention the British-led occupation of Istanbul in 1918. London may have been allied to Ankara during the Cold War, but for most Turks, Britain remains the country which supervised the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire.

The First World War is still alive in Turkey, in a way it has not been in Europe for decades. To the extent most westerners think about the conflict at all, they tend to follow what we might call the "European Union" narrative, seeing it as a senseless Civil War between European nations which have long since learned to live in peace. By contrast, in Turkey as across the Middle East, World War I is remembered as something like a deliberate western plot to dismember the Ottoman empire, the last great Islamic power on earth.

One does not have to credit the wilder conspiracy theories to see a grain of truth here. The war in Europe began in 1914: but Turkey had been fighting since Italy invaded Ottoman Libya in 1911. In 1912, the Balkan League piggybacked on this war by invading Turkey. The Balkan Wars ignited Serbian irredentism, which produced the Sarajevo incident of 1914. The Ottoman war did not end in 1918, either, but in 1923, when Turkey won independence in the Treaty of Lausanne (this treaty, not Versailles, is the one Turks remember).

Viewed in a Turkish lens, the First World War of 1914-1918 begins to look more like "The War of the Ottoman Succession, 1911-1923." To students of the war who remember trench warfare in Flanders, this might seem far-fetched. But the Turkish angle, I discovered, helps explain the European conflict as well. The key to the puzzle is Tsarist Russia.

Let us begin with the outbreak of the war in 1914. Everyone knows that the spark came from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June, which prompted Austria's ultimatum to Serbia and Russian countermeasures. Germany then declared war on Russia and France, setting the terrible doomsday machine in motion. The key factor, we are usually told, is mobilization timetables, particularly Russia's Army Great Programme of 1913, a reform which threatened to make the Germans' Schlieffen Plan obsolete: by 1917, the Russians would be in Berlin before the Germans could reach Paris. This is the current consensus: the growth of Russian power convinced the Germans to launch a "preventive" war in 1914.

Even before I studied Ottoman history, something had always seemed fishy about this interpretation. Why, if Russia would become unbeatable in 1917, did she go to war in 1914? Russia mobilized first, after all (and she mobilized secretly even earlier than she made out).

The answer, I learned in the archives, was that the Russians feared the growth of Ottoman naval power. Desperate after losing the Italian and Balkan wars, Turkey ordered state-of-the-art dreadnoughts from Britain and America to defend the approaches to Constantinople. Because of their speed, firepower, and firing range, dreadnoughts rendered previous battleships obsolete. Russia had none in the Black Sea and, by international law, was not allowed to import them. As soon as the Turks acquired even one dreadnought, Russian access to the Straits - the waterways connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, Russia's only warm-water connection to the world - could be cut off forever.

If the "clock was ticking" for the Germans in 1914 due to Russia's army reforms, it was ticking still faster for the Russians. The first British-built Turkish dreadnought, Sultan Osman I - the most powerful warship ever built - was scheduled to arrive in July 1914.

Careful study of files in Russia's now-open archives revealed that it was the Straits, and not Serbia, which obsessed Russian statesmen in 1914. There was a war scare in January, when a German officer, Liman von Sanders, was given command of Turkey's Straits defenses. Russia's Council of Ministers convened an emergency session, at which the war party was blocked by the sole objection of Chairman Kokovtsev - who was then ousted in February for standing in the way. That month, a "special conference" of Russia's army and navy chiefs, chaired by her Foreign Minister, produced a six-part plan for seizing the Ottoman Straits in case of war. Meanwhile, Russian diplomats fought a desperate rearguard campaign in London to block delivery of the Sultan Osman I.

Once we realize the centrality of Russia's Straits ambitions in 1914, many otherwise inexplicable events fall into place. Take Gallipoli. As Turks often ask in bewilderment, what were British, French, Australian, and other antipodean soldiers doing wading ashore in Turkey, of all places? The answer: to win Constantinople and the Straits for Russia. (Russia's Foreign Minister even threatened to resign in favor of a government which would surrender to Germany if the Allies did not agree to this).

Or take the notorious Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, which partitioned the Ottoman empire. Where did French and British diplomats get the idea of carving up Turkey? From the Russians - whose troops had already occupied much of eastern Turkey when the three-way agreement (more properly named Sazonov-Sykes-Picot) was signed.

The most shocking discovery of all was that the Russian high command, after years of preparations, finally ordered an amphibious assault on the Straits - to commence in summer 1917. The presence of a German dreadnought in the Bosphorus and Black Sea, the Goeben, had rendered these plans impossible during the first three years of the war. In winter 1916-17, the Goeben put down for serious repairs. Russia, meanwhile, had finally launched its first Black Sea dreadnought, the Empress Catherine II. With the Ottoman army defending an increasingly desperate position in Anatolia, Mesopotamia and Palestine, Constantinople was bare for the taking. A special Russian amphibious division, the "Tsargradskii," was created to spearhead the landings at the Bosphorus -- in June 1917. The centuries-old Russian dream of conquering Constantinople, the "Second Rome," was about to come true. Had this transpired, we would all remember the First World War very differently.

So what happened? The Russian Revolution. Over the course of 1917, the Tsarist armies melted away on all fronts, allowing the Germans and Turks to carve up European Russia and the Caucasus, with Bolshevik connivance - until the German collapse on the western front in fall 1918 turned these victories to dust (and not incidentally, allowed Lenin's fragile regime to emerge into independence from German tutelage). Angry with the Bolsheviks for cutting a separate peace with the Germans, the victorious western powers deprived their former ally of any share in the carve-up of the Ottoman empire, now remembered as a British-French affair (with late assists from Italy and Greece). Russia's Straits ambitions, so central to the origins and course of the First World War, were thus thrust into the historical deep freeze.

After the Soviet victory in the Second World War, Stalin resurrected these old imperial plans when, in 1946, he demanded privileged Russian access to the Straits, and the Turkish provinces of Kars and Ardahan. It was this power grab which inspired the Truman doctrine and, in effect, inaugurated the Cold War, with an Iron Curtain descending across eastern Europe - to the Bosphorus and Black Sea. Stalin's unsuccessful revivication of the traditional prerogatives of Tsarist foreign policy thus, ironically, buried the subject of Russian Straits policy again. Only now, after the end of the Cold War, with the revival of the old Bosphorus trade routes - and the opening of Russia's archives - can the full story be appreciated.


Sean McMeekin teaches history at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. He is author of The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany's Bid for World Power (Harvard University Press), History's Greatest Heist: The Looting of Russia by the Bolsheviks (Yale University Press, 2008), and The Red Millionaire: A Political Biography of Willy Münzenberg, Moscow's Secret Propaganda Tsar in the West, 1917-1940 (Yale University Press, 2004)


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