Tuesday, February 28, 2012

responsibility for World War I

The first world war was obviously one of the great tragedies of human history -- a devastating conflict in its own right and a failure in its objective -- as stated by Woodrow Wilson -- of preventing future major wars.

Like other students of international relations, I read volumes on the outbreak of the war, its conduct especially in the trenches on the western front, and the failed peace reached at Versailles and later buried, at least from an American perspective, in the U.S. Senate. Scholars have found numerous lessons in the war regarding arms races, threats, offensive versus defensive strategies, civil-military relations, U.S. legislative-executive relations, and on and on.

One early and quite influential book -- on me and even on President Kennedy -- was Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August. One of its lessons, which was quite relevant to the development of U.S. nuclear war planning, was the danger of rigid war plans that could not be altered to give diplomacy a chance. I still think that is an important lesson.

But I have been stimulated by a new book by historian Sean McMeekin, The Russian Origins of the First World War. Here's a review. McMeekin is deliberately provocative and revisionist. His main target is the historical consensus, enshrined in the war guilt section of the Versailles treaty, that Germany was principally responsible for the outbreak of the war. He builds his case painstakingly, drawing on Russian archives that few others have examined. He shows that Russia wanted to seize key territory from the disintegrating Ottoman Empire, especially Constantinople and the straits from the Black Sea. He persuasively argues that Russian leaders misled their allies in France and Britain about their intentions and war plans, and that Russia actually started its military mobilization secretly and earlier than generally believed.

I still view Germany and Austria-Hungary as the major aggressors, but McMeekin convinces me that Russia shares significant guilt for starting the war. Anyway, it's refreshing to read a well-documented and argued revisionist history, which this is.

No comments:

Post a Comment