By Paul Robinson, Professor, University of Ottawa
Review by James L. Abrahamson, Contributing Editor
For nearly a century, diplomats, soldiers, and soon thereafter historians have attempted to identify the nation most responsible for the Great War of 1914-1918, its subsequent nine million dead, immense loss of treasure, and collapse of three empires. On the other hand, some commentators have avoided assigning national blame by attributing the responsibility for war to the system of European alliances, the mobilization plans of the eventual belligerents, and even an alleged public eagerness for a war, anticipated to be short, that would be decisive and glorious—altogether “jolly good fun.” Surely rational statesmen would not let the assassination of two titled Austrians undermine Europe’s global leadership. But so they did.
Paul Robinson, a professor at the University of Ottawa, has made common cause with the minority of prewar European observers who had predicted that a general war would produce a catastrophe, and he renews the effort to affix blame for the war on one nation—Russia. In so doing Robinson relied on the prewar Durnovo Memorandum.
Written prewar by the Tsar’s interior minister, it identified the struggle between Germany and England as the central fact of European politics, one bound to lead to a war into which other nations would be drawn if statesmen did not carefully assess their nation’s true interests. If drawn into war with Germany, Durnovo anticipated that Russia—after bearing the war’s main burden—would suffer revolution from having served as the Anglo-French battering ram to break Germany’s defenses in the East. That would cause the Russian people to blame the Tsar for their sufferings, yield to revolutionary aspirations, Socialistic demands, and utter anarchy, and look thereafter to a defeated army to redistribute the country’s wealth and property. To Durnovo, Russia’s preferable ally was conservative Germany and not Republican France. Based on that judgment Russia should avoid alliance with France and England.
Durnovo feared, however, that Russia would not maintain its peace with Germany and stand aside from a general European war because most of its bureaucrats were Francophile liberals who breezily anticipated the outbreak of a war that would end well. They therefore urged Russia’s mobilization against Austria in support of Serbia, which led Germany to support Austria, its principal ally. That in turn caused France and England to take positions vis-à-vis Germany that would spread an emerging but possibly minor conflict in the Balkans to become instead a wider struggle in Central Europe that would lead to a general war in the West as well.
Durnovo’s defense of monarchial principles is outdated, but his emphasis on a careful assessment of national interests and the negative internal consequences of embracing war might better have served the Russian empire, prevented its war with Germany, and strangely, even prevented spreading the Balkan conflict to the West.