Could Russia Have Avoided War in 1914?

Many historians don’t like to ask ‘what if’ questions about the past. It is nevertheless worth pausing for a moment to consider whether the course of history might have been different if Russia had not entered the war in the summer of 1914. There was certainly no shortage of voices in St Petersburg warning Tsar Nicholas II about the dangers that his country would face if drawn into a conflict with Germany. In February 1914 Peter Durnovo, who had served as Minister of the Interior during the revolutionary disturbances that swept Russia in 1905-6, sent the Tsar a memorandum. Durnovo cautioned that a war between Britain and Germany was almost inevitable. He also suggested that the war was likely to spread to the other European powers. He was convinced that Russia should maintain friendly relations with Germany since the vital interests of the two countries were not in conflict.

Durnovo also warned in his memorandum that war with Germany might be a catalyst for revolution in Russia. He expressed doubts about whether his country was ready to fight successfully, given the disorganized system of supply that would be used to support troops in the field. Durnovo’s fears were shared by many within the Russian political and military elite. Britain was widely disliked in St Petersburg because it was Russia’s imperial rival in Asia. Moreover, it was seen as the natural exemplar of liberal political principles; principles which continued to be rejected by many who had yet to come to terms with the liberalizing reforms that had taken place in Russia since 1906. Even though the 1907 Anglo-Russian rapprochement had theoretically ended the two nations’ rivalry in central Asia Russia’s many anglophiles before 1914 could never be certain of commanding the Tsar’s attention.

Durnovo’s warnings in retrospect seem prescient. The strains of war did eventually destroy the lingering legitimacy of the Tsarist regime. The autocracy collapsed in February 1917. But in July 1914, there were numerous pressures pushing Russia towards conflict with the Central Powers.. For many decades there had been widespread public interest in Russia about developments in south-eastern Europe. Over time, the idea developed that the country had a responsibility to act as “protector” to fellow Slavs in the region. Many senior government figures in St Petersburg were perturbed by this ‘panslav’ sentiment, fearing that it might draw Russia into conflict with Austria. But panslavism found favour with key senior figures in the military and Foreign Office. Any conflict with Austria was likely to lead to war with Germany given the long-standing alliance between Vienna and Berlin.

The outbreak of war is almost always a time of confusion and uncertainty. Never was this more true than in July 1914. The Austrian government reacted with predictable fury to the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, on 28th June. It issued an ultimatum to the Serbian government that threatened war unless the government in Belgrade cooperated fully in investigating claims that Serbian citizens had been involved in the killing. It was some time, though, before it became clear that Russia would come to the aid of Serbia against Austria. There were many voices in St Petersburg warning against such an eventuality. Nicholas II himself had no desire to see his country go to war. In the confused final days of July the Tsar ordered the mobilization of Russian troops, before temporarily suspending the order, in the hope that some form of agreement could still be reached with Berlin. He was nevertheless persuaded by his senior generals and diplomats to reinstate the order, so as to ensure that Russian troops would be prepared if and when war broke out with Germany and Austria.

So could Russia have avoided war in 1914? There were certainly many influential figures in St Petersburg at the time who believed that it should do so. The decision to mobilize for a conflict with Austria and Germany made little sense from a domestic point of view. The costs of war were likely to be greater than the benefits. The decision, however, was part of a complex diplomatic crisis in which considerations of international prestige and narrow self-interest both played a part. The decision-making process was confused and based on uncertain assumptions and imperfect information. It is easy now to look back and see that war was always likely to be disastrous for Russia, and wonder why the warnings of so seasoned an observer as Durnovo did not have more impact. But hindsight is a wonderful thing. Karl Marx famously observed that ‘men make their own history ... but they do not make it under conditions of their own choosing’. The Russian government went to war believing that there was no real alternative despite the many risks that would result from a Europe-wide conflict.

Michael J. Hughes, University of Liverpool (UK)

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