In This Review

The Russian Origins of the First World War
The Russian Origins of the First World War
By Sean McMeekin
344 pp, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011

An entirely new take on the origins of World War I comes as a surprise. If war guilt is to be assigned, this book argues, it should go not only (or even primarily) to Germany -- the long-accepted culprit -- but also to Russia. In the conventional view, Russia was trapped into fatal military moves by Austria’s blundering and Germany’s predatory aims. But McMeekin contends that Russians close to the tsar had long hungered to strip control of the Black Sea straits from a collapsing Ottoman Empire. McMeekin places the blame squarely on Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov, and a coterie of military officials who were willing to watch the 1914 Balkan crisis spiral into general war, as long as France and the United Kingdom were ready to checkmate Germany and allowed Russia to pursue its ambitions. As Europe’s map shattered, the Russians might have been motivated by apprehension over who would get what. But their actions were bald and aggressive, as McMeekin demonstrates through a bold reading between the lines of history.