by Mateusz Zatonski
Dominic Lieven’s Russia and the Origins of the First World War, first published in 1983, remains one of the classics in the historiography of the causes of WWI. At a lecture given at the London School of Economics on February 5th, Prof Lieven reviewed some of the hypotheses that informed his assessment of Russia’s decision to enter the conflict in view of the accessibility of new archival materials in Russia.
In writing his 1983 tome Prof Lieven made three principal assumptions: First, he contested the theory of the German historian, Fritz Fischer, who emphasised the primacy of internal, social factors in dictating the foreign policy of states in the Imperial era. Prof Lieven argued that the Russian domestic pressure groups were simply so polarised that any influence one group had on decision makers was neutralised by the opposing stance of the others. Second, Prof Lieven accepted the importance of the shared militaristic values dominant among the Tsarist elites (including the Tsar himself, who ‘had the mentality of a colonel putting himself in front of his troops’) in precipitating the decision to enter the war. Third, and finally, Prof Lieven saw it as a decision that in essence was rational – Tsarist Russia had to step in to keep its influence in the Balkans, the trust of its Allies, and clout of a great power.
Thirty years after the publication of Prof Lieven’s book, the historiography of the period has undergone a number of developments. For one, Fischer’s thesis has been debunked. Most importantly, large amounts of materials, especially related to Tsarist diplomacy, previously shut in the Soviet archives, have been made accessible to historians. Prof Lieven declared that a number of contested issues have become more evident to him after familiarising himself with a portion of these released materials.
First, the Russian elites were obsessed with England as a guarantor of their country’s Western border, and believed that Germany would not risk a war in which it would have to fight against the English. Second, the peculiarity of the decision making process in Imperial Russia facilitated its descent into the war. In a system rejecting popular sovereignty, legitimacy was sought in the figure of the monarch. However, the Russian Tsar Nicholas II was not vigorous enough to take on the role of a scrupulous overseer of the state and government, meaning that some of the foreign policy decisions taken in the period largely disregarded their effect on the internal situation in Russia. The decision to engage in a World War that would exacerbate the social tensions in the country, and eventually culminate in the two 1917 revolutions and a prolonged civil war was one of these instances.
Faced with the question whether Russia could have stayed out of a continental conflict in 1914, Prof Lieven hinted that the Russian state has attempted to do that in two other occasions in modern history – in 1811 and in 1939. In both these cases, the decision proved to simply postpone the onset of the conflict, and ended in the eventual large-scale invasion of the Russian heartland.
Most immediately relevant for Crossing the Baltic was Prof Lieven’s assessment of Tsarist Russia’s policy towards its Baltic dominions immediately before the war. Prof Lieven suggested that while the Tsarist regime was undoubtedly worried about the strong and influential German communities inhabiting the Baltic coast, it never viewed the region as one that could potentially become a source of instability or a hotbed of separatist feeling. This role was reserved for Ukraine. It was largely believed that Germany would not start a war over the Baltics as long as the rights of the German landowning elite there were not undermined by the Russians. And indeed, the immediate trigger of the First World War was to be found hundreds of miles south of the Baltic region, in the ethnic cauldron of the Western Balkans.
Listen to Prof Lieven’s lecture at: