The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.
- Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles, known as “the war guilt clause.”
The simple answer as to which government was to blame for the beginning of World War One is Germany. As anyone who has studied the war will tell you, when it comes to the origins of this war, there is no simple answer.
I recently came across an idea, presented by Peter Frankopan in The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, who suggested that some significant portion of the blame falls on Britain – desiring war in Europe to distract Russia from Britain’s possessions in the Near East, Central Asia and the subcontinent. I cover this most directly here and here. Now I am reading a book that compliments well Frankopan’s work.
The Russian Origins of the First World War, by Sean McMeekin.
Essentially the great question remains: who will hold Constantinople?
- Napoleon Bonaparte
I suggest that McMeekin compliments Frankopan because his focus is Russia and its desire for control and expansion – not in Europe, but in Asia and especially Constantinople for the purpose of securing year-round warm water access. Both authors tell a similar story – in the broad strokes.
My one disagreement – or maybe better stated, skepticism: McMeekin portrays the Russians as cunning diplomats and the British diplomats as dupes. If I believe Frankopan’s analysis, British diplomacy knew exactly what it wanted and got it: Russia focused on Europe and not Asia; if I believe McMeekin, the Russians fooled the British regarding ultimate Russian objectives.
I am about half-way through the book, and so far I believe Frankopan. My concern: is this so only because I read Frankopan first or is it so because Frankopan’s arguments are more compelling? On this question, I try to remain open-minded.
In any case, none of this detracts from the value of either book – I learned much from Frankopan and am learning much from McMeekin. And with this, let’s dig in.
We all know of Britain and France carving up the Middle East in the aftermath of World War One. This “carving up” did not come from nothing: the European powers had interests in this region dating back decades – even centuries.
In the more recent history, Britain placed a priority on this region as it was crucial for access to and protection of its interests in the subcontinent and East Asia. Further, in the time shortly before the war and through the war, this region became important for oil.
McMeekin introduces another aspect of this history:
…the last hundred years of history in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire – stretching from European Thrace and the Aegean and Black Sea littorals to Anatolia, “Turkish Armenia,” the Caucasus and Persia, Mesopotamia and Palestine – is arguably impossible to record without reference to Russia’s aims in the First World War.
Germany’s Schlieffen, Gallipoli, the Armenian massacres of 1915, the Sykes-Picot Agreement – none of these events can be told without connecting these intimately to Russian foreign policy.
The war of 1914 was Russia’s war even more than it was Germany’s.
We will see.