*The Russian Origins of the First World War*

by on November 7, 2011 at 3:29 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

That is the new book by Sean McMeekin; I enjoyed it and found this passage striking:

From the raw data, it is easy to see why policymakers in Berlin felt time was not on their side: Russia’s population had grown by forty million since just 1900, and was approaching 200 million to Germany’s sixty-five.  By the time the Great Program was complete in 1917-1918, Russia’s peacetime army…would number 2.2 million soldiers, or roughly trip the size of Germany’s.  Russia’s economy, although still only fifth-largest in the world…was growing at a “developing economy” rate of nearly 10 percent annually, rather like China’s is today…It was not hard to extrapolate forward a geopolitical map on which Russian territory included half of China, Afghanistan, northern Persia, Anatolia, Constantinople and the Straits, Austrian Galicia, and Eastern Prussia.

That book is from Belknap; Oxford University Press sent me a new short book by Allan H. Meltzer, Why Capitalism?  Thomas Hazlett’s new, short The Fallacy of Net Neutrality is a clear take in line with its title.  Also noteworthy is Richard B. McKenzie’s new Heavy! The Surprising Reasons America is the Land of the Free — and the Home of the Fat.

1 Andreas Moser November 7, 2011 at 4:18 am

I wish publishers would just send me books.

2 Nicoli November 7, 2011 at 9:23 am

Well, start getting more hits on your blog then.

3 Chris R November 7, 2011 at 4:28 am

I don’t see how the Russian origins idea and the German culpability idea are mutually exclusive, with additional blame to go to France and of course Austria-Hungary for starting the whole thing. Wasn’t Germany a bit trigger-happy because everyone knew that long-term demographics weren’t on its side and as a result it was pretty fearful about what plans its neighbors might have? Combine a revanchist France, an expansionistic Russia, and a militarized but frightened Prussia…let the fun begin.

For slightly less catastrophic examples from a Euro-American bias, see also, Gulf War II or Vietnam. Both wars entered into out of fear.

4 josh November 7, 2011 at 8:37 am

What? No love for the Vampire of the Continent?

5 CBBB November 7, 2011 at 10:25 am

All the major participants in WWI share the blame, except possibly the US and maybe Britain has a bit less of the blame too. Russia really gets off easy because it was probably as much to blame as Germany although I guess things ended worse for the Tzar then any other major WWI leader.

6 Rahul November 7, 2011 at 12:21 pm

Wonder what basis you exclude Britain; thought they were quite in the thick of things. Those days there hardly was a pie that the Brits didn’t have their fingers in.

7 CBBB November 7, 2011 at 12:33 pm

I didn’t exclude Britain altogether but they didn’t join in immediately so that gets them less blame in my book then Austria, Germany, Russia, and France. Although I suppose Britain’s entrance is to blame for escalating it to an actual World War

8 Pub Editor November 7, 2011 at 2:11 pm

I didn’t exclude Britain altogether but they didn’t join in immediately…

OK, once war started, Britain waited a few days to try to reach a peaceful resolution before declaring war to protect Belgium…

The bigger picture was more complicated. Germany’s decision to try to build a High Seas Fleet to rival Britain’s Royal Navy (epic fail, by the way) was a big part of what drove Britain to “unofficially” ally with France. This meant that (1) Anglo-French disputes over Africa were put on ice, and (2) France felt more confident that they would not see a repeat of 1870.

Britain tried to have it both ways. They wouldn’t firmly ally the UK with France and Russia, but the British generals met with French generals for strategy talks, and so on. They wouldn’t tell France, “We’ve got your back,” but they also wanted to hint to Germany, “We’ve got France’s back.”

As others have said upthread: Plenty of blame to go around.

9 josh November 7, 2011 at 2:14 pm

Ever read any German WWI propaganda? It ain’t bad. Might as well here from the defense now that you’ve heard from the prosecution.


10 CBBB November 7, 2011 at 3:01 pm

I understand all that about the Naval Arms race but I guess we agree, plenty of blame to go around is also my conclusion. However if Russia had stayed out of the Balkans maybe Serbia would have just been quickly invaded and nothing more would have happened. Of course given the general situation in Europe that probably would have done nothing more then kick the can of war down the road.

11 Brett Dunbar November 8, 2011 at 6:34 pm

Britain’s policies from the point of view of a power that wanted to maintain peace made sense. If France was attacked Britain would be likely to support France if France attacked Britain would be likely to remain neutral. Italy was in roughly the same position relative to Germany. That would mean that either way the aggressor would be at a two to three disadvantage. As Germany was the aggressor and attacked France Britain backed France, while Italy declared that as Germany was the aggressor the triple alliance was not in effect and remained neutral. France had little choice about participating in the war, as Germany directly attacked France. Japan although notionally an Entente power throughout basically grabbed a bunch of German Pacific colonies and more or less sat out the rest of the war, even if the Central powers had won Germany would have had extreme difficulty bring any military pressure on Japan as they would be risking a Tsushima situation.

Counting only the Great Powers in a scenario where France Attacks the participants are France & Russia vs Germany, Austria-Hungary & Italy with the USA, the UK and Japan either neutral or only nominally involved.

Counting only the Great Powers in a scenario where Germany attacks the participants are France, Russia & UK vs Germany & Austria-Hungry with the USA, Italy and Japan either neutral or only nominally involved.

12 J Cuttance November 7, 2011 at 5:04 am

Wow, I presume the suggestion is that Russia’s runaway success was a threat, and had to be cut down to size.

Only a state could see successful, secure and increasingly rich neighbours as a problem.

13 Right Wing-nut November 7, 2011 at 10:16 am

You don’t know much about human nature, do you?

14 CBBB November 7, 2011 at 10:27 am

Thinking like an economists – and hence ignoring the reality of human history since the dawn of time.

15 tkehler November 7, 2011 at 1:50 pm

Arguably there IS no greater problem than a successful, secure, and increasingly rich neighbour… unless it’s a brother-in-law.

16 nyongesa November 8, 2011 at 12:20 am

Ask the Mexicans about this one

17 doctorpat November 8, 2011 at 1:50 am

A billionaire who was the wife’s ex-boyfriend? I know someone with this “alternative history” example.

18 Vanya November 7, 2011 at 5:20 am

“I presume the suggestion is that Russia’s runaway success was a threat, and had to be cut down to size.”

No, that is not McMeekin’s point, which is why Cowan’s quote is misleading. What you are stating has been the dominant view among historians for the last 50 years – that Germany started the war because Germany perceived Russia as a growing threat she would be unable to prevail against if she waited another 10 or 15 more years. McMeekin is saying that this view is too simplistic, and that it excuses Russia from the considerable guilt that properly lies at the feet of Russian Imperial statesmen like Sazonov, and of course Nikolai II. I haven’t read the book yet, but it looks interesting. Certainly a welcome anecdote to the usual French-British-German-centric view of WWI which, as in WWII, was really a historical sideshow to the real drama – the struggle between Germany and Russia.

19 Lorenzo from Oz November 7, 2011 at 5:36 am

Sean McMeekin’s “The Red Millionaire” was a great read.

20 US November 7, 2011 at 6:30 am

Who cares about that other stuff – what I’d like to know is why TC was up at 3:29 am updating his blog..

(ok, I do care a bit about ‘the other stuff’ – it was an interesting excerpt)

21 No student loans, but no tenure either. November 7, 2011 at 4:37 pm

guilty conscience of a guild member espousing free labor markets that would see him congeal on the unemployment line with the rest of his non-STEM ivory tower dwellers.

22 nyongesa November 8, 2011 at 12:24 am

I would wager major cash that TC would be a very high earner if made to work in the pits with the rest of us… but hey if you can do academia and get the cheddar and perks… then why would you be hamster instead

23 dearieme November 7, 2011 at 7:10 am

” McKenzie controversially links America’s weight gain to a variety of causes: the growth in world trade freedom, the downfall of communism, the spread of free-market economics, the rise of women’s liberation, the long-term fall in real minimum wage,and the rise of competitive markets on a global scale”: bully for him. How about linking it to the noxious habit of slurping huge volumes of sugar-water, even at table?

24 tkehler November 7, 2011 at 1:52 pm

I agree. It is (relatively) simple physics: too many calories in, too easily. And not enough calories ‘out.’

25 TheCrankyProfessor November 7, 2011 at 7:16 am

And if you want to know about British paranoia about Germany’s growth and power (remember, British elder statesmen remembered the world before 1866, when there really hadn’t BEEN a Germany), you still can’t do better than Erskine Childers thriller The Riddle of the Sands.

26 michael November 7, 2011 at 7:19 am

russia’s population has never, ever been close to 200 million. around 1900 there were 160 million. (the first and only modern tsarist census was 1897. there were decennial censuses but they were highly inaccurate outside of large urban areas.)
that number from 1897 is doubtful given later data, and was probably considerably overstated.

we have no verifiable or reliable data until the 1926 census, which showed under 150 million after the loss of poland, finland, etc. during the revolution. population growth in russia in the nineteenth century stemmed mostly from conquest of new territory. i’m pretty sure the germans weren’t worried about the poles and the rumanians siding with the soviets!

who was this guy’s fact-checker?

27 vanya November 7, 2011 at 7:51 am


In 1914 most of Poland and Finland were firmly part of “Russia” as Germany saw it. I have seen estimates that the imperial population was around 180 million at the time and growing rapidly so “approaching 200” is hardly an egregious error.

28 Ken Rhodes November 7, 2011 at 8:16 am

Right. The terminology “Russia’s population” is fraught with ambiguity. To see how complex this is, and to see Vanya’s point–


29 Marian Kechlibar November 7, 2011 at 8:31 am

The Finns didn’t serve in the Russian army, though.

30 Chris Durnell November 7, 2011 at 1:31 pm

Yes, they did. Mannerheim, whose claim to fame was fighting the Red Army in the Winter War and Continuation War, served in the Russian Imperial Guard among other units. He fought against the Central Powers in WWI. Lots of Finns served in the Russian Army. So did the other ethnic minorities in Russia. That most probably wanted to be autonomous within the Russian Empire (or even harbor nationalist dreams) doesn’t negate their service to the Czar.

31 tkehler November 7, 2011 at 1:53 pm

They did. A goodly percentage of the officer corp was Finnish.

32 Roy November 8, 2011 at 4:49 am

There was almost no conscription in Finland during the Russian period, Finland did have a special army of about 5000 troops but they didn’t serve outside of Finland.

Officers such as Mannerheim were seeking a career i Imperial Service, this is another matter altogether.

33 russell1200 November 7, 2011 at 8:25 am

Italy invaded Tripoli (Libya) in 1911. When their immediate aims were frustrated they started attacking the offshore Ottoman islands off of Turkey. This lead to the outbreak of a more general war in the Balkans, and it is these wars that are the backdrop for the death of the Arch Duke.

So, oddly enough, Italy also manages to get her dis-credit for helping to start the larger war.

The Germans still deserve a lot of blame, but it is easy to see why their apologists have a lot of ammunition.

Sounds like an interesting book.

34 john haskell November 7, 2011 at 8:26 am

The excerpt quoted above explains, of course, why the first hostile act of WWI was the German invasion of France, Belgium, and Luxembourg.

Oh, and after the Russians capitulated the Germans of course entered into peace negotiations with the Western Allies, because with the Russians out of the game, the Germans no longer had anything to fear and they were not waging war in order to achieve unchallenged supremacy over the European continent, no sir!

35 Vanya November 7, 2011 at 9:02 am

Well it is hardly a secret. The Germans thought, based on history, that defeating France would be simple and fast, a repeat of 1870, freeing up the bulk of the German military to face Russia, which they thought would be a severe challenge. They were obviously wrong.

Ironically that is exactly how the second World War played out, not the first.

The Ludendorff offensive of 1918 may appear like idiocy in retrospect. But you can argue that given the hardships of the blockade and the feeble condition of Germany’s ally in Vienna, the Germans, probably rightly, didn’t think they had the time to enter into protracted peace negotiations, so they tried to arrogantly double down on one last push. Of course, the Germans were actually trying to achieve unchallenged supremacy, that’s the point – by 1914 it was already a contest between Germany and Russia. France was already largely irrelevant and Great Britain was a World Empire more concerned about keeping Europe divided than in dominating it.

36 Andrew Edwards November 7, 2011 at 8:51 am

Makes me think of the onion:


37 Rahul November 7, 2011 at 10:18 am

That’s classic.

38 Andrew Edwards November 7, 2011 at 1:05 pm

It explains the start of WWI better than most history texts.

39 Pub Editor November 7, 2011 at 2:14 pm


40 Dredd November 7, 2011 at 10:31 am

Perhaps this is a never ending cycle, from the point of view of political scientists, so long as the world is looked upon as a grand chessboard upon which the game for the control of oil is played out.

41 stalin November 7, 2011 at 12:58 pm

things ended worse for the Tzar

with a Ka-POW! for his wife
with Ka-POW!s for his children
with Ka-POW!s for his servants(2)
with a Ka-POW! for his doctor
with a Ka-POW! for his dog
with a Ka-POW! for him

Yeah, you’re probably correct

42 tkehler November 7, 2011 at 1:55 pm

Well, I guess someone named Stalin would have, erm, ‘ideas’ about how to deal with the bourgeoisie…

43 bartman November 7, 2011 at 5:40 pm

If only the Austrians had gone in and dealt with the Serbs directly, as they had a few times in the preceding years, instead of trying to get the prior OK of a hard-to-reach Kaiser, then there would have been no WWI.

Well, at least, not for a few more months.

44 Roy November 8, 2011 at 4:55 am

That was the plan, the problem was that the Tsar was implicitly protecting Serbia, because of this the Austrians had repeatedly tried to paper over Serbian provocations, and they reached a point where they felt further appeasement was not constructive. That this was a terrible idea in retrospect is only obvious after the fact.

Suppose Germany had managed to take Paris in 1914, it almost happened. Facing its second defeat in 50 years France might have collapsed, the English would have been isolated and Italy would not have declared war on Austria. Similar counterfactuals could be constructed, the actual course the war took was not predicted by anyone in 1914.

45 Bernardo November 10, 2011 at 7:13 pm

Jesus streetfighting Christ, I just went to the website of the publishers of the series the “The Fallacy of Net Neutrality” book belongs to and it’s 100% Obama-bashing. The series should be called “HOW EVERYTHINGH BAD THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED IS OBAMA’S FAULT”. Not a big fan of Obama, but those guys have an axe to grind.


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