January 26, 2013

Russian Power

A couple of years ago, I reviewed a book about the first world war by Norman Stone. Stone argued, I think convincingly, that at the root of the causes of the first world war lay a very simple calculation by German statesmen. They looked east and they saw Russia, when they saw Russia, they saw a rising curve of manpower, economic power, military power and cultural might that might be deployed within Europe. Von Moltke for example then argued that Germany had to fight a war soon- in 1912, 1914 or earlier- before it would inevitably lose such a war. Russia must be eliminated. Read this way the first war was in a sense a kind of success- the story of the 20th Century in Europe is largely the story of what didn't happen: Russia never dominated Europe in the way that Bethman Hollweg or Moltke believed it would.


Reading Christopher Clark though places a different emphasis on Russian power- because it was not Germany alone who was worried about Russian power. Both Britain and France saw the same things- British and French generals believed that Russia had the strongest military machine in Europe and that their economy and army was getting stronger. The consequences of this perception in Paris and London, according to Clark, also supported war. Clark argues that the French looked at Russian power and came to a simple conclusion: after 1920 Russia would no longer need France to assist it in the Balkans. France would return to isolation, whereas Russia would be able to make a positive case for Berlin to drop Vienna and do a deal over the Balkans. French hopes to retake Alsaace Lorraine would therefore fall away. France therefore as much as anyone needed a war swiftly, as then it would have Russia as an ally. For the French therefore, as well as the Germans, Russian growth was a reason to have an early war: not so that Russia could be wiped out but so that it might be engaged on French terms.

Britain too saw Russian growth as a threat. From 1815 onwards, the British had seen the greatest threat to their empire as lying in Russian ambition. Russia, not Germany, was the power that Britain had fought in the 19th Century, in the Crimean War. Both Disreali in the 1870s and Salisbury in the 1880s had directed their foreign policy to counter the ambitions of St Petersburg, not of Berlin. Although Britain and Russia had signed an entente in 1907, the British were consumed by agony about Russia right up until the outbreak of war in 1914. Quite simply, the British saw the Russians as their only colonial competitor in a huge swathe of key territory across Asia- from Persia to China- a swathe of territory that protected the jewel in the British crown, India. The British foreign policy elite saw the rise of Russia as a reason to keep the Tsar close and support his desires more emphatically- without that close alliance the British feared they would be taking on a Russian empire which was more powerful than ever before and more threatening to them than ever before. If Russian growth made Germans and the Frenchmen think about war more eagerly, Russian growth made the British abandon their neutrality.

These conclusions of Clark's (and it must be emphasized in all three cases, he identifies individuals rather than the entire foreign policy community as holding these views) support another statement. I always believed that the end of the First World War marked the moment where European politics changed forever: that in 1919 with Wilson's fourteen points, Europe for the first time became subject to an extra European power. Reading Clark suggests to me that picture is not true. Europe's slow decline from a position of complete independence from the rest of the world was a cause not a consequence of World War One.

January 21, 2013

Serbia pre-1914

Christopher Clark's book on the origins of the First World War is a triumph in one way at least. Its a topic that has been 'done to death' over the years. I've read innumerable studies myself about it from the classic (AJP Taylor) to the more modern (Norman Stone)- and the basic contours of the crisis which provoked the war are familiar to almost everyone who knows anything about European history. We are all jaded when it comes to 1914- which is why saying something new (at least to those who aren't experts) is so intriguing. Clark's newest work on the origins of the war does indeed start with something new- he starts where so few books about the war start- not in London, Berlin, Paris, Petersburg or Vienna but in Belgrade.

Of course once you think about it Serbia is one of the most interesting players in the war. All the major powers could have a realistic thought about deterring each other or even winning the war: at least that thought could apply to Germany, Russia and Britain and to France and Austria by virtue of their alliances to the big three. Serbia though could have no realistic chance of winning a war with Austria. Secondly we often forget that the twentieth century began as well as ended with a terrorist atrocity that provoked conflict: in 2001 September 11th led to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, in 1914 the death of the Archduke led to the invasion of Serbia and World War One. Of course the conflicts that were produced were entirely different in nature, length, scope and size: but the original pistol shot was similar- an act of a multinational terrorist network that had an intriguing relationship with a state apparatus.

What the case of Serbia reveals interestingly is the link between terrorism, nationalism and modernity. The story Clark tells is one in which those three concepts interlock through the first two decades of the twentieth century to produce the crazy calculation of July 1914. Serbia in the early twentieth century was an economically backward place, heavily dependant on external parties- mostly the French for its continued solvency, and largely rural. Its population were illiterate and its politics were unstable. In 1903, the then Serbian King and his wife had been murdered, and the politics of Serbia were torn between on the one hand democratic civilian politicians who came to prominence in the democratic regime that succeeded him, and on the other the military network of conspirators that got rid of him. Fused with this unstable scenario was a sense of nationalistic irredentism in which the Serbs claimed vast swathes of the Balkans- from parts of Bulgaria all the way to Montenegro. Often these areas were no longer inhabited by people who deemed themselves Serbs: hence ironically that the first lands of greater Serbia to be returned to Serbia post the Balkan Wars (1912-13) were governed as colonies.

What Clark draws out though is an interesting sense of how these factors became intertwined. For example, irredentism made sense to a nation with a growing peasant population but without a manufacturing base (save for making plum jam!). Nationalism worked as a uniting force in a nation that was basically illiterate and where the main unifying force was the power of popular song. The army, in a country without a manufacturing base, became the only route out of the village. Terrorism was an acceptable alternative form of diplomacy in a country without any democratic strength- giving Serbia plausible deniability when for example terrorists supported rebellion in Macedonia in 1907. The conditions of July 1914 flowed out of the politics of a deeply dysfunctional society: a society in which politicians may have been aware of the activities of their own security services because of their insertion of double agents into those services. The picture of Serbia on the edge of war is a vivid one and makes sense of the seemingly mad decisions that the Serbs made- decisions which precipitated Austrian invasion.

Hard as it may be for me to recognise the politicians in charge of Serbia made what seemed to them rational decisions. One of the more penetrating points made by Robert McNamara in the Fog of War (the Erroll Morris documentary about his career) is that we cannot assume our opponents are irrational: they merely proceed from different premises. In the Cuban missile crisis, Castro, Kennedy and Krushchev were all rational actors: the same was true in Serbia in 1914.