The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War I and Revolution
By Dominic Lieven, Viking, 448 pages, $35
The First World War was the greatest empire slayer of all time. Down went the Ottoman Empire, ruling from Bosnia to Basra. Hapsburg shrank into tiny Austria. Germany and Russia remained largely intact, but Wilhelm II ended up in exile, while the Romanovs were murdered by the Bolsheviks. Exit sultans and kaisers; enter authoritarians and totalitarians.
The irony can’t be topped. All four dynastic regimes went to war for the usual reasons: security, power and possession — as did democratic France, Britain and the United States. But beset by indomitable nationality and class conflicts, they also fought for sheer regime survival, following Henry IV’s counsel, in Shakespeare’s words, to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels”.
It was a momentous miscalculation that would transform 20th-century history. Had the old despots been gifted with foresight, they would have opted for peace über alles.
This is the take-off point for Dominic Lieven’s book “The End of Tsarist Russia”. The tomes on the Great War fill a small library by now. Since history is written by the victors, the first batch fingered the German Reich as starring culprit; later works spread out along an explanatory spectrum that ranged from inevitability to contingency.
The war had to happen because so many conflicts had built up in the 19th century, forcing the hands of leaders from London to St Petersburg. Or else it was the Big Stumble, a chain of folly and arrogance constructed by everyone.
Lieven follows a different path, though it doesn’t quite seem to take him where he wants to go. In his very first sentence, he asserts that the war “turned on the fate of Ukraine”. Then he wanders south and west, naming the Balkans as an “enormous source of international tension”. And back east to Russia, which “occupies centre stage”.
You wonder about the rest of the cast. What about France, craving to claw back Alsace-Lorraine from its Teutonic archenemy? What about Britain, its far-flung possessions threatened by Germany’s reach for naval supremacy? What about the three-way struggle among Britain, Austria and Russia over the moribund Ottoman Empire? And why even stick to Europe when the war was truly global, ranging from the Somme to Coronel (Chile), from Gaza to the Falklands, not to mention Japan’s stab at Siberia?
Claiming an “original standpoint”, Lieven, a senior research fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge, seeks to offer a “Russian history of World War I”. Though Sean McMeekin, drawing on sources also used by Lieven, already published “The Russian Origins of the First World War” in 2011, Lieven had the good fortune of being able to scour previously closed Russian archives. His finds constitute the most intriguing parts of his book, making readers privy to the thinking of Russian officials and diplomats.
Experts will love this. But how much do these details add to the whole? The problem is that you cannot explain a macro-event — say, a recession — by looking at individual firms. Likewise, you cannot explain a systemwide catastrophe by focusing on one country (Russia) or one key cause (Ukraine) or on the effusions of the tsar’s minions. You have to take in the whole stage — all the actors, their fears and ambitions, the distribution of power.
To be sure, Lieven does offer what he calls a “God’s-eye view” in his introduction. But he courts trouble when he shifts to his “worm’s-eye analysis”, personalising and psychologising, as if his Russian characters (often with German names such as Lambsdorff, Witte or Osten-Sacken) wrote or even directed the play.
Switching between “God” and “worm” raises a problem that bedevils all of social science. In everyday language: you can’t understand the forest by describing this or that tree, nor the tree by plucking some of the apples.
To be fair, Lieven is well aware of the difficulty. And so, near the end of his book, he argues: “Russian foreign policy can only be understood if one takes into account global contexts and comparisons.” But mingling “macro” and “micro” throughout forces him into exasperating diffidence. Sweeping generalisations are invariably followed by “nevertheless” or “this is not to claim that ...” These cautionary asides honour the scholar, but baffle the general reader.
They are not the only source of confusion. On the one hand, he tells us, the “war was first and foremost an Eastern European conflict” among Russians, Germans and Hapsburgs. On the other, “imperialism, nationalism and the dilemma of modern empire were at the core” of it all. So what kind of war was it — regional or global, ideological or strategic?
Lieven also chides Anglo-American historiography for defining “empire” and “imperialism” as “something that happens outside of Europe”. To do so, he claims, excludes “empire within Europe from the picture”. Yet First World War experts with so parochial a view are not easy to find. In “Churchill and Empire”, for instance, the historian Lawrence James writes: “We have more or less forgotten the fact, self-evident at the time, that the First World War was an imperial conflict” over “land, economic advantage and influence”, and not just in the tropics.
He lists the colossal ambitions of Germany, as exemplified in Brest-Litovsk, where Berlin in 1918 forced the Bolsheviks to cede the Baltic provinces and Finland, Ukraine, Poland and Georgia. Earlier, the Reich had grabbed Belgium and northern France.
Turkey went for Azerbaijan and Georgia. Britain and France carved up the Ottoman Empire, starting with the Balkans. After the Russian Revolution, Japan landed troops in Vladivostok. And this orgy of conquest was re-enacted by Hitler, Hirohito and Stalin in the Second World War, the extension of the first.
So we are thrown back to the great power system and not to what Messrs Witte and Osten-Sacken recorded in their dispatches. Lieven’s archival treasures add colour, but they do not change the contours of the largest event in human history before 1939.
Maybe we know too much about the Great War by now, with overdetermined explanations marshalling too many arguments and crisscrossing too many levels of analysis. Yes, the war was about fear, but also about ambition. It was about folly, but also about greed. It was to save dynastic rule; then again, every power except the United States (which had grabbed an inland empire in the 19th century) went for land and dominion.
The alliance systems were meant to deter war, but actually favoured hair-trigger strategies. Chauvinism kept stoking the fires of aggression: better a war now than a risk to survival tomorrow.
“The End of Tsarist Russia” sets up a paradox: the more we burrow, the fewer the surprises. We should praise Lieven for digging deeper than many scholars before him, at least in the case of Russia. But after all the treasures have been tallied, he still puts his money on the God’s-eye view, and rightly so.
This war was indeed about the Big Stuff. It was, as Lieven stresses, about European hegemony — about the system’s failure to accommodate or contain the newest claimant, Germany, the giant that was bound to unhinge the old order. Hence the next war 20 years later. That is the enduring, but not startlingly original moral of this tale.
–New York Times News Service
Josef Joffe, the editor of “Die Zeit” in Hamburg, is a fellow of the Freeman-Spogli Institute and the Hoover Institution, both at Stanford University, where he also teaches international politics. His most recent book is “The Myth of America’s Decline”.