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WWI Centenary: Sean McMeekin: Russia and the Origins of World War I

The catastrophe of WWI, and the destruction, revolution, and enduring hostilities it wrought, make the issue of its origins a perennial puzzle. Since World War II, Germany has been viewed as the primary culprit. In his 2013 book 'The Russian Origins of the First World War', Sean McMeekin rejects the standard notions of the war’s beginning as either a Germano-Austrian preemptive strike or a ‘tragedy of miscalculation’. He proposes that the key to the outbreak lies in St Petersburg. It was Russian statesmen who unleashed the war through conscious policy decisions based on imperial ambitions in the Near East. Unlike their civilian counterparts in Berlin, who would have preferred to localize the Austro-Serbian conflict, Russian leaders desired a more general war so long as British participation was assured. The war of 1914 was launched at a propitious moment for harnessing the might of Britain and France to neutralize the German threat to Russia’s goal: partitioning the Ottoman Empire to ensure control of the Straits between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Nearly a century has passed since the guns fell silent on the western front. But in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire, World War I smoulders still. Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Jews, and other regional antagonists continue fighting over the last scraps of the Ottoman inheritance. Prof. McMeekin’s powerful exposé of Russia’s aims in WWI will illuminate our understanding of the twentieth century.

Sean McMeekin teaches courses on 20th-century European and Russian history at Bilkent University, Turkey. He is the author of 'July 1914: Countdown to War' (2014) and 'The Russian Origins of World War I' (2013).

The Express said of 'July 1914', 'Sean McMeekin's splendid July 1914 unravels all the shenanigans, bluffs and bunglings by which Europe's leaders and diplomats turned a minor murder in a Balkans backwater into total war...McMeekin has rendered the complicated events of that fateful month as clearly and vividly as anyone could desire.'

Publishers Weekly said of 'Russian Origins of World War I', ‘Going against a century of received wisdom, Professor McMeekin offers a dramatic new interpretation of WWI... Rifling the archives, analyzing battle plans, and sifting through the machinations of high diplomacy, McMeekin reveals the grand ambitions of czarist Russia, which wanted control of the Black Sea straits to guarantee all-weather access to foreign markets. Manœuvering France and England into a war against Germany presented the best chance to acquire this longed-for prize. No empire had more to gain from the coming conflict, and none pushed harder to ensure its arrival. Once unleashed, however, the conflagration leapt out of control, and imperial Russia herself ranked among its countless victims’.


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