Thursday, September 7, 2017

Maybe It Wasn’t Germany

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.

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.


  1. "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."
    BM I this is one of my favorite blogs, not in small part due to your intellectual honesty, for that I thank you sir.

  2. I hate to be a smart alec. But use of 'compliment' when 'complement' is intended is a little like fingernails on the blackboard.

    1. Man...where have you been? This is perhaps the smallest screw-up I have ever done.

      If I ever think about hiring an editor, I will let you know.

      Until then, I guess I will live with a few fingernails. Keeps my life easier; I don't have to argue with anyone about what I write or how I write.

  3. Maybe Peter Frankopan should write a book about Pearl Harbor.

    1. There are good books on this. I reviewed one here (a very early bionic, so please be kind):

  4. As an overview to the war, I teach my kids that WWI was preceded by treaties set up like a series of dominoes set to fall. And while a Black Hand got a few dominoes going, it was Russia's Czar Nicholas who started the main domino run when he ordered his full mobilization.

    The real question, which I could never properly answer, was why the dominoes were set up in the first place.

    While my family and I were in Newberry, SC for a jazz festival, I took my kids to a parkway near downtown (close to the famed Newberry Opera House) to show them the WWI memorial statue there. My one son asked why the Americans got involved in that war. I told him that his was a very good question indeed and, probably, those local people whose names were carved into the statue's plinth futilely wondered the same thing.