Cody Boutilier: How Russia is to blame for the First World War

The summer of ’14 is upon us. As the cliché goes, victors write the histories, and this could hardly be more apt in the case of the Great War. I will quote at length from a lecture of UC Berkeley’s Dave Wetzel, one of my instructors and a brilliant historian.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonof adopted the idea of general mobilization of the Russian army, with the enthusiasm of a convert. He tells the tsar that the Austrians have begun shelling Belgrade, which is not true, and that he has received a stiff note from foreign minister Bethmann-Hollweg in Berlin. Bethmann-Hollweg says that further Russian mobilization will compel Germany to mobilize. Nicholas II sees these arguments very clearly, and he orders the general mobilization of the Russian army. He then receives a telegram from Wilhelm II assuring him that Germany means Russia no harm, and orders the cancellation of the general mobilization. Sazonof, outraged, goes to Nicholas with the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church in tow and says that Wilhelm is a liar, telling Nicholas, “if the order for general mobilization is not reinstated you’re going to bring down the wrath of the pan-Slavs in the Duma.” The patriarch says, “Your Majesty, it is a question of faith, of defending Holy Russia against the Teutonic hordes.” Nicholas responds, “it is not a question of Holy Russia, it is a question of sending to their deaths millions and millions of men!” Ultimately, Nicholas picks up his pen and signs the order for the general mobilization of the Russian army, on the evening of 30 July 1914.

The Russian mobilization left Germany with no choice but to honor its blank check with Austria, just as Germany’s implentation of the Schlieffen Plan left Britain with no choice but to honor its guarantee of Belgian neutrality.

And so, a hundred years ago, Russia ended generations of peace and stability on the continent with the aim of “protecting” its Slavic co-confessionalists from the rapacious West.

As they say in French, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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