Mimesis: African Soldier @ the Imperial War Museum

Making a new world

For the past year or so, Imperial War Museum London has given over its third floor to four related but very different exhibitions marking the end of the First World War a hundred years ago.

They come under the overarching title of Making A New World, and have been accompanied by a programme of live music, performance and public debates, all addressing aspects of the aftermath of the conflict. Here’s the promotional video.

I’ve reviewed three of the four already:

Across the corridor from these two spaces is a door opening onto a darkened corridor leading to a blacked-out screening room in which is being shown a new art film by John Akomfrah, titled Mimesis: African Soldier.

John Akomfrah

Akomfrah was born in Accra, Ghana in 1957. His mother and father were both anti-colonialist activists. His father served in the cabinet of Ghana’s first post-independence Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah. When the latter was overthrown in a coup in 1966, his mother fled the country with young John. Surprisingly, maybe, they fled to the epicentre of the colonial oppressor, to the home of racism and imperialism, to Britain, where John became a British citizen, trained as an artist and went on to become a famous and award-winning maker of art films.

John Akomfrah in front of Mimesis: African Soldier, co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, New Art Exchange, Nottingham and Smoking Dogs Films, with additional support from Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo © IWM / Film © Smoking Dogs Films

John Akomfrah standing in front of a screen showing Mimesis: African Soldier, co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, New Art Exchange, Nottingham and Smoking Dogs Films, with additional support from Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo © IWM / Film © Smoking Dogs Films

So prestigious has Akomfrah’s career been that in 2008 he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and in 2017 appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). Also in 2017, Akomfrah won the biennial Artes Mundi prize, the UK’s biggest award for international art, having been chosen for the award for his ‘substantial body of outstanding work dealing with issues of migration, racism and religious persecution.’

It is a story in itself, and one not without irony – how the son of vehemently anti-British anti-colonial activists went on to become a lion of the British art establishment.

Purple

I first heard Akomfrah’s name when I came across the massive multi-screen installation of his film Purple at the Barbican a few years ago.

In the long darkened space of the Barbican’s Curve gallery, Purple projected onto a series of massive screens a combination of historic archive footage of industrial life in the West – coal mines, car factories, shopping centres and street scenes from the 1940s, 50s and 60s – and stunningly beautiful modern footage shot at remote and picturesque locations around the planet with pin-prick digital clarity.

The purpose of Purple was to inform its viewers that humanity’s industrial activity is polluting the planet.

As a theme I thought this was so bleeding obvious that it made no impact on my thinking one way or the other: I just sat entranced by the old footage, which had its own historic interest, the 1960s footage in particular, tuggingly evocative of my own distant childhood – and enjoying the aesthetic contrast between the historic footage and the stunning landscapes of, for example, Iceland – which made me desperately jealous of the lucky researchers, camera crews and prize-winning directors who get to fly to such breath-taking destinations.

Mimesis: African Soldier

Visually, Mimesis: African Soldier does something very similar.

There are three big screens instead of the six used by Purple (the screening room at the IWM is a lot smaller than the long sweeping Curve space at the Barbican where Purple was screened).

Once again the screens intercut creaky old archive footage with slow-moving, almost static ‘modern’ sequences shot in super-bright digital clarity at a number of remote locations – both of which are fascinating and/or entrancing in their different ways.

The vintage black-and-white footage shows black African and Indian soldiers, labourers and carriers at work during the First World War. There’s a lot of footage at docks where all manner of goods are being unloaded by black labourers and heaped up into enormous piles of munitions and rations. Other footage shows Indian troops on parade, marching – and then footage of what appear to be black soldiers going into battle.

Installation view of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of an ‘archive’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

The modern sequences are completely different in every way. For a start they are in colour. They are shot with stunning digital clarity. But most of all they are very, very slow.

For, as with Purple, the visual contrast is not just between the black and white and modern colour footage – there’s a rhythm thing going on, too, in that the old footage has that speeded-up, frenetic quality (due to the discrepancy between the speed of the cameras it was shot on and the different speed of the projectors we now play it on) which brings out even more the hauntingly slow, almost static nature of the modern sequences.

In the colour sequences which I saw, a black soldier is walking through a jungle, very, very, very slowly, until he comes upon a skeleton hanging from a tree, and stops dead. Different screens show the static scene from different angles. Pregnant with ominousness and meaning.

Installation view of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of a ‘modern’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

In another ‘modern’ sequence a handful of black men in uniform are on a wet muddy beach. The beach is dotted with flags of many nations, and also random crates. The men stare out at sea. They turn. One picks up a crate. Another takes off his helmet and wipes his forehead. All very slow.

In another sequence an Asian man in army uniform and wearing a turban is standing in a landscape of dead and fallen trees, and slowly chopping a piece of wood with an axe. Very slowly. The ‘bock’ sound of each blow of the axe is amplified on the soundtrack which, from amid a collage of sounds, sounds of docks, works, men, soldiers, guns going off.

By and large the loudness and business of the audio track contrasts eerily with the Zen slow motion movements of the black and Asian actors.

Installation view of a 'modern' segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of a ‘modern’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Mimesis: African Soldier is 75 minutes long – long enough to really sink back and become absorbed and entranced by this audiovisual experience.

The message

So much so that it’s easy to forget Akomfrah’s message. This is that some three million African and Asian men served on the Allied side during the Great War, as labourers, carriers and soldiers, and their story – indeed their existence – is rarely if ever acknowledged.

This is spelled out in the wall label outside the gallery, in the wall label in the corridor leading to the screening room, in the ten-page handout to the exhibition, and in the extended prose descriptions about the film on the museum’s website:

And in the interviews Akomfrah has given about the work:

But having read all these sources and listened to all the interviews, none of them get me much further than the basic idea. All these texts just repackage the same basic fact:

Between 1914 and 1918, millions of African and colonial soldiers served in long campaigns that spanned the whole of the African and European continents, contributing to victories throughout the First World War. These soldiers from British and French African territories were brought to Europe’s western front, where hundreds and thousands lost their lives alongside unknown, unheralded and undocumented African labourers and carriers. Mimesis: African Soldier seeks to commemorate these Africans and colonial soldiers who fought, served and died during the First World War.

This information takes less than a minute to process and understand – in much the same way as I have in the past processed all manner of obscure or (to me) unknown aspects of this war, of the other world war, and of countless other historical episodes.

It was, after all, a world war. It had a global reach and consequences which are almost impossible for one person to grasp. A few months ago I was reading about the Mexican Revolution and the role played in it by the notorious Zimmerman Telegram in which the Germans promised to give Mexico back large chunks of Texas and other neighbouring states, if only Mexico would come in on the side of the Allies.

You could argue that Mexico thus played a key role in the First World War. Who knew?

To take another example, not so long ago I made a conscious effort to break out of the straitjacket of always viewing the war through the experiences of the British on the Western Front, and read two books to try and understand more about the war in the East.

Who in this country knows anything about the course of the First World War in Galicia or Bulgaria or Romania, let alone the vast battles which took place on the huge eastern Front? Who is familiar with the ebb and flow of fighting in little Serbia, which caused the whole damn thing in the first place?

Or take the example of another First World War-related exhibition I visited recently: I knew nothing about the role played by the Canadian army, which not only supplied cavalry on the Western Front, but also proved invaluable in setting up lumber mills behind the Front which supplied the millions of yards of planking from which the trenches and all the Allied defences were built. I had never heard about this until I went to the Army Museum’s exhibition about the painter Alfred Munnings who documented their contribution.

For me, then, the message that some three million Asians and Africans fought and supplied invaluable manual labour to the Allied side is just one more among a kaleidoscope of aspects of the war about which I freely admit to being shamefully ignorant.

Not being black, and not coming from one of the colonies in question, it doesn’t have a salience or importance greater than all these other areas of which I know I am so ignorant. Why should the black dockers have more importance than the Canadian lumberjacks? And why do their stories have any more importance or relevance than the millions of Russians, and Poles, and Romanians and Hungarians and Ukrainians and Jews who died in fighting or were massacred in the ugly pogroms and racial violence which characterised the war in the East?

Surely all human lives are of equal value, in which case all deaths in massacre and conflict are equally to be lamented and commemorated.

Art film as a medium for education

As it stands, the mere presence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum as part of this year-long commemoration means that all visitors to this part of the building will read the wall labels explaining the importance of the millions of Africans and Asians who aided the Allied war effort.

And since the IWM gets around two and a half million visitors, that’s potentially a lot of people who might have their minds opened to this overlooked aspect of the war.

But I’m not sure the film itself does very much to educate and inform. It’s an art film. It moves very, very slowly. The soundtrack is a disorientating mash-up of what is presumably the sounds of ships and docks and workmen with what seem to be African tribal music, chanting and so on. I get that this is the aural equivalent of the mash-up we’re seeing on-screen, but I’m not sure it really adds anything to anyone’s understanding.

In a nutshell, I’m not sure art films are an effective way to convey information about anything, apart from the film-maker’s own aesthetic decisions.

Comparison with Bridgit 2016

I had much the same response to Charlotte Prodger’s film, Bridgit 2016 which won the 2018 Turner Prize. It was intended to be a lecture about LBGTQ+ rights and gender and identity, but I found all the information-giving parts of it boring and sanctimonious (where they weren’t factually incorrect).

Instead, what I responded to in Bridgit 2016 was not the right-on, politically correct sentiments but the haunting nature of some of the shots, especially the sequence I saw (like every other visitor, I didn’t stay to watch the whole thing) where the camera was pointed at the wake being made in the grey sea by a large ferry, presumably off the Scottish coast somewhere.

The way the camera didn’t make any kind of point, and the way that, for at least this part of the film, Prodger wasn’t lecturing me about LGBTQ+ rights, meant that, for that sequence at least, the film did what art films can sometimes do – which is make you see in a new way, make you realise the world can be seen in other ways, make you pay attention enough to something humdrum in order to let the imagination transform it.

Which has a liberating effect, far far from all political ideologies, whether conservative or socialist or politically correct or politically repressive. Just that long shot of the churning foaming wake created by a big ship ploughing through a cold northern sea spoke to me, at some level I can’t define.

Which is better at conveying information – art film or conventional display?

Similarly, like Bridgit 2016Mimesis: African Soldier comes heavily freighted with the moral earnestness of a Victorian sermon (and it’s as long as a Victorian sermon, too, at a hefty 75 minutes).

Akomfrah wants ‘Britain’ to ‘acknowledge’ the contribution of these millions of colonial subjects who fought and died for their imperial masters.

OK. I accept it immediately without a quibble, and I can’t imagine anyone anywhere would disagree. Isn’t this precisely what visiting museums is all about? That visitors are bombarded with all kinds of information and facts about the subjects of exhibitions they have chosen to visit? That people visit museums to learn.

And if the aim of the film is to educate, you can’t help wondering whether the point wouldn’t have been better made, more impactful, if it had been replaced – or maybe accompanied – by a more traditional display of hundreds of photos of the time accompanied by wall labels giving us facts and figures and, maybe, the stories and experiences of half a dozen African and Asian soldiers.

The rise and rise of the ‘forgotten voices’ trope

But as I reread the text around the film asserting that its aim was to restore an overlooked aspect of the history of the war, to rediscover lost voices, and restore people to their rightful place in history, I found myself more intrigued by this aspect of the display – the claim to be rediscovering, reclaiming and restoring – rather than its actual content.

How each era gets the history it requires

History is written for its times, responding to the cultural and economic needs of its day.

Machiavelli wrote his histories of Rome as warnings to Renaissance princes. Carlyle wrote a history of the French Revolution to thrill Victorian society with a vision of how Great Men direct the course of events.

The often-ridiculed ‘Whig’ historians reassured their liberal-minded readers by writing British history as if the whole thing, from Magna Carta to the reform acts of the 1800s, demonstrated the inevitable rise of the best and fairest possible liberal democracy.

Tougher minded Edwardian historians set out to show their readers that the British Empire was a force for peace and the enlightened development of the colonies.

The historians I read as a student (Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill) were Marxists who showed in their particular areas (the long nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution, the British Civil War, respectively) that history consisted of class struggles which confirmed Marx’s underlying theory of a dynamic and the forward march of history which would inevitably lead to a proletarian revolution.

And so they were very popular among students as the Cold War 1950s turned into the heady student revolutions of the 1960s and on into the strike- and violence-soaked 1970s and 1980s.

But, as I understand it, during the 1970s and 80s there was also a reaction against these grand, high-level (and very left-wing) narratives among a younger generation of historians who decided instead to specialise in provincial studies of particular localities (I’m thinking of John Morrill’s studies of Chester or David Underdown’s studies of the West Country during the Civil War). These tended to show that events at a local level were much more complicated than the lofty, and dogmatic, Christopher Hill-type versions suggested.

And it’s possible to see these reactions against the Marxist historians as a symptom of the way that, throughout society, the old communist/socialist narratives came to be seen as tired and old fashioned, as Mrs Thatcher’s social revolution changed British society and attitudes in the 1980s.

But another trend, when I was a student in the 1980s, was a growing move towards apolitical oral history, with a rash of books telling the ‘untold stories’ of this, that or the other constituency – generally the working classes, the class that didn’t make policies and diplomacy and big speeches in the House of Commons, the ordinary man or woman throughout history.

I’m thinking of Lyn MacDonald’s accounts of the key battles of the First World War in which she relied heavily on letters and diaries with the result that her books were marketed as telling ‘the untold stories of…’, ‘giving a voice to…’ the previously ignored common squaddie.

This ‘popular’ approach prompts pity and sympathy for ‘ordinary people’ of the past without being overtly left or right-wing, and it is an approach which hasn’t gone away, as these recent book titles indicate:

  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Somme’ by Joshua Levine
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of D-Day’ by Roderick Bailey
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust’ by Lyn Smith
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Second World War’ by Max Arthur
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of Burma’ by Julian Thompson
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Falklands’ by Hugh McManners
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of Mao’s Great Famine’ by Xun Zhou

To bring us up to date, the end of the Thatcher era coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of communism as a viable political theory. I’ve watched as over this period, the past 30 years, increasing numbers of progressive thinkers, writers, historians, artists and so on have become steadily more in thrall to questions of identity – especially the twin issues of race and gender – which have spread out from academia to become two of the broader, defining issues of our time.

And watched as a new generation of historians, including many women and black and Asian historians, has arisen which has packed bookshelves, magazines, radio and TV programmes with new interpretations of history which ‘restore’ the place of women and non-white figures in British and world history.

Combining all this, we arrive at the present moment, 2019, where there is:

  1. more cultural production than ever before in human history, with an unprecedented number of poems, plays, radio programmes, TV documentaries, films and art works ranging over all of recorded history in search of subjects and people from the past to restore, revive and reclaim
  2. and this unprecedented output is taking place in an age obsessed by identity politics, and so is ever-more relentlessly conceived, produced and delivered in terms of identity, specifically the two great pillars of modern progressive ideology, race and gender

Adding the ‘forgotten stories’ trope to the inexorable rise of identity politics helps to explain the explosive proliferation of books, plays, movies, documentaries and radio programmes which use the same rhetorical device of reclaiming the stories of unjustly forgotten women and unjustly forgotten people of colour from pretty much any period of the last 3,000 years. Thus, to give just a few examples of each:

Forgotten Women

  • 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World
  • The Forgotten Tudor Women: Anne Seymour, Jane Dudley & Elisabeth Parr
  • Ladies of Lascaris: Christina Ratcliffe and The Forgotten Heroes of Malta’s War
  • Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music
  • The Forgotten Tudor Women: Margaret Douglas, Mary Howard & Mary Shelton
  • Daughters of Chivalry: The Forgotten Children of Edward I
  • Roaring Girls: The forgotten feminists of British history
  • Charlie Company’s Journey Home: The Forgotten Impact on the Wives of Vietnam Veterans
  • Invisible Women. Forgotten Artists of Florence
  • War’s Forgotten Women
  • Forgotten Desert Mothers, The: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women
  • When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt

Forgotten people of colour

  • Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes
  • Black and British: A Forgotten History
  • The Forgotten Black Cowboys
  • Forgotten black TV and film history
  • 5 Forgotten Black and Asian Figures Who Made British History
  • Black on the battlefield: Canada’s forgotten First World War battalion
  • The Forgotten Black Heroes of Empire
  • Black servicemen: Unsung heroes of the First World War
  • Forgotten? : Black Soldiers in the Battle of Waterloo
  • The Forgotten Black Soldiers in White Regiments During the Civil War
  • Black Athena: The Afro-asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization

My point is that the whole notion of listening to ‘forgotten voices’ and restoring ‘forgotten histories’ has become a central trope of our times, and moreover it is, a moment’s thought suggests, a potentially bottomless well of material.

Once you have accepted the premise that we need to hear the voices of everyone who has ever lived, then there is potentially no end to the number of forgotten women whose voices we need to hear and whose stories we need to be told, just as there is no end to the number of forgotten black slaves, entrepreneurs, soldiers, heroes, scientists, writers, pioneers, cowboys, immigrants, poets and artists whose voices need to be heard and whose stories need to be told.

A flood of forgotten voices

To return to Akomfrah’s film, what I’m trying to do is understand the times I live in, and understand how a politically-committed work of art like Mimesis: African Soldier fits into it.

My view is that the Imperial War Museum commissioning this piece, and John Akomfrah making it, are very much not ground-breaking or innovative.

The opposite. Mimesis: African Soldier is smack bang in the centre of the cultural mood of our times. We are in the middle of an absolute flood of such productions:

I’m not saying any of this ‘forgotten history’ is untrue or unworthy. I’m just pointing out that each era gets the ‘history’ it asks for and, on some level, needs. That societies write history not to reveal any ‘truth’ (there is no fixed historical ‘truth’) but to manufacture the stories they need to sustain their current social and cultural concerns.

For reasons which are a little too deep to be tackled in this blog post, our culture at the moment is undergoing an obsessive interest in identity politics, focusing in particular on the twin issues of race and gender. ‘Diversity’, already a major concern and ubiquitous buzzword, will only become more and more dominating for the foreseeable future.

And so history retold from the perspectives of race and gender, history which perfectly reflects the concerns of our day and age –  is what we’re getting.

And, of course, it’s popular and fashionable. And lucrative.

History retold from the perspectives of race and gender is the kind of history which historians know will get them academic posts and high student approval marks from their evermore ‘woke’ pupils, the kind of history TV companies know will get them viewers, which publishers know will get them readers, and which artists know will get them museum commissions and gallery exhibitions.

Summary of the argument

All of this is intended to show that, if I have a relaxed approach to the political content of Akomfrah’s film, if I read that millions of blacks and Asians laboured and fought for the European empires and accept it without hesitation, filing it next to what I’ve also recently learned about Canadian lumberjacks, or about the troops who fought and died in Palestine or East Africa – it is not out of indifference to the ‘issue’. It is:

1. Because, on a personal level, there are hundreds of aspects of the First World War which I don’t fully understand or comprehend, and all kinds of fronts and campaigns which I am pitifully ignorant of – and I am pretty relaxed about living with that ignorance because life is short and I have umpteen other calls on my time.

2. Because, on a cultural level, Mimesis: African Soldier can be seen as just one more artifact in the tsunami of cultural products in our time which all claim to be unearthing ‘the untold story’ and restoring ‘the forgotten voices’ and putting the record straight on behalf of neglected women, ignored people of colour and any number of other overlooked and oppressed minorities.

I am trying to understand my complete lack of surprise at finding the film on show here, or at its subject matter, and the complete lack of factual or historical illumination I felt when watching it.

Summary on the film

The political motivation behind Akomfrah’s piece is worthy, if entirely uncontroversial.

And because it has no voiceover or captions and because it relies for understanding and meaning on the introductory wall labels, the film is not that effective as purely factual information. A conventional display would have been infinitely more informative. In fact, in his interviews, Akomfrah emphasises the enormous amount of research which went into the making of the film. Well, following that line of tnought, I couldn’t help thinking the whole project would make significantly more impact if it was accompanied by a book which dug really deeply into the subject, with maps and figures and deeper explanations, explaining just how many people came from each colony, willingly or unwillingly, how they were deployed, the special conditions they worked under, and so on, all liberally illustrated with – that favourite trope of our times – the actual stories of African and Indian soldiers in their own words. Ironically, there are no voices in the film: just silent and slow moving actors.

But quibbles about its meaning and purpose and its place in broader cultural movements aside, there is no denying that, as a spectacle, Mimesis: African Soldier is wonderfully hypnotic and tranquilising. The archive footage is artfully selected, the contemporary sequences are shot in stunning digital clarity, the two are edited together to make entrancing viewing.

And, just as with Purple, Mimesis allows the viewer’s mind to take the archive footage and modern scenery (its foggy jungles and muddy beaches and lonely Asian chopping wood) as starting points from which to drift off into reveries of our own devising, making our own connections and finding our own meanings.

Installation view of the 'beach' sequence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of the ‘beach’ sequence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Imperial War Museum

World War One-related art reviews

World War One-related book reviews

Towards the Flame: Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia (2) by Dominic Lieven (2015)

Lieven concludes his rather exhausting history of the diplomatic build-up to the First World War as seen from Russia, with some Big Ideas.

Big ideas

– The First and Second World Wars were essentially wars fought between Russia and Germany for control of Europe. The first war ended in stalemate; Russia won the second one.

– This explains why both the world wars started in eastern Europe, in the badlands between the two empires – with the Austrian attack on Serbia in 1914, and the Nazi attack on Poland in 1939.

– The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 led to a vacuum. It led to the creation of a host of smaller nations (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, alongside the existing weak powers of Bulgaria and Romania), none of which was strong enough by itself to stand up to either Germany or Russia, making the second war, if not quite inevitable, then a lot more likely.

– In both these wars France was the only liberal democracy on the continent of Europe, and both times was too weak by itself to decide the outcome.

– Britain was in some ways an onlooker to both wars: her armies fought and suffered, horribly in the first war, but in neither was she defending her own territory – in both she was fighting in line with her centuries-old policy of preventing any one of the ‘powers’ from establishing dominance of Europe; to make sure her ‘back’ was protected while she concentrated her efforts on building and maintaining her overseas empire. In the eighteenth century this threat had come from France – in the early twentieth century it came from a unified Germany.

– In both 1914 and 1939 the German leadership gambled that Britain would not get involved in a European war, and, indeed, both times there were influential British voices raised against involvement. But both times we surprised and dismayed the Germans by plunging in, thus preventing her from getting the quick wins she’d gambled on.

– America was even more of a spectator than Britain, and reluctant to get involved in either war, until forced to in 1917 and 1941, respectively – i.e. three years and two years after they’d both started.

– In Lieven’s eyes the Treaty of Versailles which ended the Great War had two great weaknesses:

  1. The two powers at the centre of the conflict, the two powers likely to tear Europe apart, were both excluded from the peace treaty. Soviet Russia wasn’t interested and was too busy fighting her own civil wars (1917 to 1920) or trying to invade Poland (in 1920) to take part in Versailles. Germany was deliberately excluded by the triumphant Allies, and had the treaty imposed on it — thus allowing German politicians and especially the Nazis, to claim they had never agreed to it, had had it imposed on them, it was victors’ justice, profoundly unfair, and to justify her attempts to unravel the treaty agreements during the 1930s.
  2. The Versailles treaty was largely the creation of the United States and its idealistic President Wilson. When the United States Congress refused to either ratify the treaty or join the League of Nations which was set up to safeguard it, they effectively removed the treaty’s most powerful support. Given that Great Britain was busy during the 1920s pursuing its imperial aims in the Middle East, India and Far East, the onus of defending the terms of the treaty ended up being left to France which – once again – was simply too weak to resist a resurgent Germany.

The situation today?

The European Union is a massive geopolitical experiment designed to address the same ongoing problems.

  • It was born from the attempt to bind Germany and France together with such intricate economic ties that they can never again fight a war.
  • For the first forty years of its existence, the EU was an attempt to create an economic and political bloc which could stand up to the Soviet Union and its communist satellite nations in eastern Europe, an economic counterpart of the NATO military alliance.
  • Nowadays it is an attempt to create a sort of European ’empire’, i.e. a geopolitical power bloc which can compete with the global superpowers of America and China. Huge argument goes on within the EU about its ability to convert this economic power into political power.

To return to the idea of 20th century history consisting of a war between Russia and Germany for control of Europe, for 44 years after the end of the Second European War, the Russians had, in effect, won.

They had achieved everything the most ambitious Russian generals and politicians of 1914 could have imagined. They had extended the reach of Russian control through the Balkans almost as far as Constantinople, they had swallowed the Baltic nations and Poland, they had extended their grip across Europe as far as Berlin.

With the collapse of Soviet power in 1990, the pendulum swung the other way, with Germany rapidly reuniting into one super-nation, and the other, newly liberated East European states all joining NATO, whose membership now extends right up to the traditional borders of Great Russia.

It was this rapid extension of the NATO alliance right up to Russia’s borders – with the threat that even Georgia on her southern border in the Caucasus might join, and the threat that Ukraine, pointed like a dagger into the heart of Russian territory, and which many Russians regard as part of their spiritual homeland, was about to join forces with the West – which prompted Russian intervention in both Georgia and eastern Ukraine, and the present atmosphere of Russian anxiety, paranoia and bravado.

Maps of NATO in 1990 and 2015 showing how NATO has extended its reach right to the borders of Russia

Maps of NATO in 1990 and 2015 showing how NATO has extended its reach right to the borders of Russia © Stratfor http://www.stratfor.com

In other words the issue which plagued the Edwardian era, the struggle which defined European and to some extent world history for most of the 20th century, is continuing in our time – a Germanised Europe faces an anxious, unpredictable, and increasingly nationalistic Russia.

What will happen next? Who knows? But Lieven’s book, in supplying such a detailed account of Russian diplomatic and strategic thinking in the build-up to the first war, forms a kind of training manual of all the possible permutations which the problem, and its solutions, can take.

It certainly made me want to understand Russo-Turkish history better, particularly at a moment when the nationalist leaders of both countries are causing liberal Europe such concern.

Towards The Flame prompts all kinds of thoughts and ideas about how we got where we are today, and gives its readers the long historical perspective as they watch current Russian foreign policy play out.


Related links

Other blog posts about Russia

Other blog posts about the First World War

Towards the Flame: Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia by Dominic Lieven (2015)

Towards the Flame is a diplomatic history of imperial Russia in the years 1905 to 1920. By diplomatic history, I mean a detailed – a really detailed – account of the men who ran Russia’s Foreign Ministry and its embassies (with sometimes a nod to the heads of the army, navy or other government ministers), their policies, debates and disagreements.

We are given pen portraits of Russia’s premiers, foreign and finance ministers, and key ambassadors to London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna and beyond and the guts of the book is a history of their diplomacy – the papers and memos they wrote laying out Russia’s strategies – the information they gathered about rival nations’ aims and goals – the assessments each nations’ military attaches made about their rivals’ readiness for war.

(For example Lieven examines position papers like the brilliantly prescient memorandum the former head of secret police, Petr Durnovo, gave Tsar Nicholas in February 1914, which said that the biggest risk of a prolonged war was that it would trigger a massive social and political revolution (p.304).)

In intricate detail Lieven builds up a picture of the web of political and diplomatic intrigue which took place in the crucial run-up to the Great War, not only between nations, but within nations, as ruling elites were riven by conflicting strategies and visions, by political and personal rivalries, subjected to pressure from often rabidly nationalistic newspapers, and harassed by a series of international crises which repeatedly threatened to plunge the continent into war.

In Lieven’s account the question is not, ‘Why did the First World War happen’, but ‘How did they manage to put it off for so long?’

Like many historians of twentieth century Europe, Lieven tells us he has benefited enormously from the opening of Russian archives after the fall of the Soviet Union. He has obviously used the opportunity to track down pretty much every diplomatic telegraph and memo and report and study written by all the key ambassadors, Foreign Ministers, the Tsar and his prime ministers, during these fateful years, and his book presents an excellent summary and contextualising of them.

This is what gives the book its character and distinction. At every crux – for example, over the Bosnian Crisis of 1908 – Lieven briefly tells us what happened on the ground (his book deliberately skips over purely military details, just as it skips over detail of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand – all this can be found in thousands of other sources) in order to analyse the attitude of the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Lieven details disagreements in overall strategy between the Foreign Minister, his Deputy, the Finance Minister, the Tsar and the Tsar’s unofficial advisers (like his uncle, Grand Duke Nicholas, leader of the so-called ‘Panslavic tendency’).

Lieven gives us summaries of the reports and recommendations coming in from the embassies in London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna, as well as opinions from the Russian officials on the ground in the Balkans: Count so-and-so reports back on a conversation with the King of Bulgaria, Prince such-and-such writes a long summary of the political situation in Serbia.

Lieven explains:

  • how each of these varying opinions fit in with their authors’ visions of what Russia is or could be (over the course of the book we get to know most of these diplomats and get a sense of their individual capacities and opinions)
  • how they fit in with conflicting views in the Russian elite about whether Russia should be allying with France and Britain, or with Austria and Germany
  • how the reports map onto the enduring belief in Russian elite opinion that Russia’s ‘history destiny’ was to conquer the Turks, take Constantinople and become leader of the world’s Slavic peoples
  • how they affect ongoing debates in the Russian government about whether Russia should be focusing its energies and resources to the East, to settle Siberia, or should cleave to its traditional role in the European balance of power

And so on. It is a deep, deep immersion into the small, densely populated and fiercely argued world of pre-war Russian government officials, and particularly the men of the Russian diplomatic service, who managed Russian foreign relations in the buildup to the war.

World War One an eastern war

Lieven opens his book with a bold claim: Contrary to all Western writing on the subject, the First World War was not a western but an east European war, triggered by events in eastern Europe, exacerbated by rivalries between east European empires, and with seismic consequences across east and central Europe.

So his focus in this book is on Russia and the East and his aim is to reorientate our thinking away from France and the Somme, towards the Eastern powers and the problems they faced, which he proceeds to describe in absorbing detail.

His core focus is Russian history 1905 to 1920, but to even begin to understand this period you have to range back in time by about a century, as well as comparing Russia’s imperial problems with the challenges faced by other countries further afield, as far away as America and Japan.

The balance of power

The backdrop to all this – the worldview of the time – is the diplomatic and military game which dominated the world for the century leading up the Great War, and the idea of a balance of power.

At the Congress of Vienna in 1815 the victorious Allies who had defeated Napoleon tried to parcel out Europe’s real estate to ensure that no one power could ever again secure domination over the continent (pp.120, 124).

The 1848 revolutions, the Crimean War (1853-6), the Franco-Prussian War (1870), unification of Germany (1870), the unification of Italy (1871), the spread of nationalism, the spread of the industrial revolution – all these events were processed by the leaders of every European nation insofar as they affected this will o’ the wisp, this fictional entity – the balance of power.

Every large nation was kept on constant tenterhooks about whether the latest little war in the Balkans, or the bids for independence by Hungary or Bulgaria or the Czechs, whether the Austrian alliance with Germany, or the Russian alliance with France, or Britain’s influence over Ottoman Turkey, would affect the balance of power.

And not only nations were concerned. Every nation contained factions, ruling parties, opposition parties and, increasingly, ‘public opinion’, which had to be taken into account.

(It is one of the many ironies of history that the spread of literacy, education and ‘civil society’ i.e. newspapers and a free press, which is so assiduously promoted by liberals, in actual fact, in the event, tended to encourage rabble-rousing nationalism. The press in Serbia comes in for special criticism for its ferociously nationalistic warmongering, but the panslavic Russian newspaper, Novoe Vremia, was so consistently anti-German that the authorities in Berlin singled it out as a prime cause of the poisoning of German-Russian relations, pp.215, 220, 289.)

One of the few critics of the entire balance of power idea was Baron Roman Rosen (Russian minister to Tokyo during the Russo-Japanese War, posted to Washington, then served on the Tsar’s Council of Ministers until 1917). Rosen thought that, far from creating a secure basis for peace, the so-called balance of power had merely created two armed camps which lived in constant fear of each other (p.138). As you read on in the book you can’t help agreeing with Rosen’s view. Lieven himself appears to agree, stating that the problem with the diplomacy of the 1900s was it was armed diplomacy, with the constant threat of violence behind it. This is what made it so inherently unstable – the slightest misunderstanding threatened to escalate into Armageddon (p.339).

Age of empires

It was an age of empires – the British empire, the French empire, the German Reich, the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Ottoman empire and the Russian empire. But Lieven’s book is at pains to make you put aside the traditional Anglophone notion of ’empire’ as power exerted over black and brown people far overseas in Africa and Asia. He is concerned with the great land empires of Austro-Hungary, the Ottomans and Russia, the empires which were mostly land-locked and had to expand, if at all, into territory contested by the other empires.

It was a zero sum game, meaning that Russia could only gain territory at the expense of the Ottomans or the Austrians; the Austrians, when they formally annexed Bosnia Herzegovina in 1908, did so at the cost of the humiliation of Russia, which considered itself to have a special leading role in the Balkans. And both Russia and Austria expected to seize or annex territory at the expense of the failing Ottoman Empire.

In fact it was almost an age of super-empires, for around 1900 there was a lot of chatter from journalists, writers, commentators and even politicians from the larger nations about consolidating themselves into ethno-religious power blocs.

What does that mean? An example is the way the hugely popular British politician Joseph Chamberlain proposed to create a new federation out of the white nations of the British Empire, bringing together Canada, Australia and New Zealand into a confederation with the UK, creating a free trade organisation, bringing their laws into harmony, to create a ‘British white empire-nation’ (p.21).

On an even bigger scale, some Brits and Yanks fantasised about bringing America into this union, to create a massive trading, political and military bloc – the Anglosphere.

(This is the background to a lot of Rudyard Kipling’s writings at the turn of the century, his marriage to an American, his friendship with America’s buccaneering Teddy Roosevelt, president from 1901 to 1909, his hopes for a union of white English-speaking peoples. This explains conservative support for the Boer War, because the Boers were seen as a backward people who were blocking Cecil Rhodes’ great vision of a corridor of white imperialist rule running the length of Africa, from Cape Town to Alexandria. They imperialists had a vision, not of power for its own sake, but for the union of white English-speaking peoples to bring economic development and liberal civilisation to the non-white world.)

For their part, diplomats and statesmen in both Germany and Austria continued to speculate about a merger between the two countries to create a Greater Germany, something which had been debated since Bismarck had wondered whether to bring Austria into, or leave it outside, his project for a United Germany in the 1860s. Gross-Deutschland would then, of course, want to reclaim the German-speaking populations of the Czech lands and of Poland.

The other continental powers were well aware that this tendency to expansion was a powerful strand in German political thought (and, of course, it was revived by the Nazis with their claim for Lebensraum which led them to invade first Poland, then the Soviet Union 25 years later).

The price of failure And all the empires were nervously aware of what happened if your empire failed. They had before them the woeful examples of the Ottoman empire and, further away, the Chinese Qing empire, both of which were visibly falling to pieces. (Interestingly, Lieven uses the phrase ‘scramble for China’, which I don’t think I’d heard before, saying that if the 1880s saw a scramble for Africa, the 1890s saw a ‘scramble for China’.)

So everyone could see what happened to a failing empire. The great powers imposed unequal trade treaties on you, humiliated your government, annexed the tastiest parts of your lands, dismissed your culture and traditions. Total humiliation. China was probably the most humiliated: Russia and Japan signed conventions in 1910 and again in 1912 agreeing to divide ‘spheres of interest’ in China’s north-east borderlands (p.195).

None of these rulers could see forward a hundred years to our happy European Union of liberal democracies. The only alternative they could see in their own time to building up strong, aggressive empires was total collapse, anarchy and humiliation.

In the age of high imperialism, there was nothing strange in Austrian arrogance towards lesser breeds. In this era, Anglo-American Protestants most confidently stood at the top of the ladder of civilisation and looked down on everyone. The Germans were climbing the ladder fast, but their sense of superiority still lacked the confidence of their British rivals and could be all the more bruising as a result. The Russians knew that they stood well down the ladder of civilisation in Western eyes, which helps to explain many undercurrents in Russian culture and society of the time.  By despising and measuring themselves off against the weak, barbarous and un-Christian Turks, they in turn asserted their membership in the world’s exclusive club of European, civilised great powers. (p.208)

Hence the stress, hence the anxiety in so many of their calculations. It was a dog-eat-dog world. It was win, or be eaten alive.

Russian rearmament reflected a desperate search for security and status born of a deep sense of weakness and humiliation. (p.226)

But then, running counter to all these trends to expand and build up empires, the latter half of the 19th century was also the age of nationalism. In his epic biography of Karl Marx, Gareth Stedman Jones shows in detail how the virus of nationalism was spread by the troops of Napoleon’s army to the Rhineland of Marx’s boyhood, and the rest of Germany. The French revolutionary armies took it everywhere as they tramped across Europe in the early 1800s, telling peoples and ethnic groups that they should be free.

The struggle for Greek independence in the 1820s was an early example of the trend which was eclipsed by the massive central European struggles for the unification of Germany and Italy which dominated the mid-century.

But it was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that the spread of industrial technology led to the dissemination of at least basic education and literacy to more remote populations, and that the growth of interest in folk stories, languages and traditions among newly educated intelligentsias helped to foment ‘independence’ and ‘nationalist’ movements among the smaller nationalities – the Czechs, the Bulgarians, the long-suffering Poles, the Ukrainians and, fatefully, among the squabbling peoples of the Balkans.

Nationalism was, to use the Marxist notion of the dialectic, the antithesis to the thesis of imperialism. One bred the other. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century nationalisms popped up all across Europe as a result of the civilising impact of their imperial rulers, but which threatened to undermine the great land empires, continually jeopardising the famous balance of power.

So, the central political problem of the age for the administrators of empires was – how to handle the nationalist demands for independence which threatened to undermine the homelands of empire.

Ireland Lieven takes the unexpected but illuminating example of Ireland. Irish Home Rule from the 1880s onwards was so bitterly opposed by the British Conservative and Union Party because the British elite was well aware how relatively small and fragile the homeland of the global British empire – i.e. the four nations of the British Isles – really was. Knock away one of the four legs supporting the table and maybe the whole thing would collapse.

Austro-Hungary It is one of the many insights thrown up by Lieven’s book that he applies the same logic to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Balkans. In the late 19th century virtually all the European nations clambered on the bandwagon of empire building, seeing it as the only viable way to maintain economic and political equality with the leading nations, France and Britain. Hence the ‘scramble for Africa’ in which even little Italy and puny Spain took part (claiming Libya and the north of Morocco, respectively).

Thus even landlocked Germany managed to seize some choice parts of Africa (German South West Africa, Cameroon, German East Africa).

But Austro-Hungary was not only landlocked but – having lost territory in Italy and France in the 1870s – its rulers were struggling to hang on to what they’d got, struggling to manage the rising tide of Czech nationalism in the borderlands with Germany on the north, and the bickering of Balkan nationalities (Bosnians, Croats, Serbs) at the south-east fringe of Europe (p.205).

(Lieven quotes the opinion of Alexander Giers, ambassador to Montenegro, that there was little to choose between the Serbs, the Greeks, the Bulgarians and the Romanians: ‘They all hate each other’, quoted p.142).

Permanently anxious about her alliance with Germany, and permanently twitchy about the presence of the huge Russian Empire on her borders, the Austrians felt about the Serbs something like the British felt about the Irish. And reacted with just the same over-violence born out of prolonged stress and anxiety, as the British did to the Irish.

Serb nationalism Thus when Serb nationalists assassinated Archduke Ferdinand in July 1914, hawks in the Austrian government thought it would make an excellent opportunity to crush little Serbia’s bid for independence and put paid to bickering in the Balkans once and for all. Show them who’s boss. Make the Austrian empire secure for a generation.

This is just one of the many insights and fruitful comparisons thrown up Lieven’s deliberately non-Anglocentric perspective.


Russia

The majority of Lieven’s content is about Russia. He takes you swiftly by the hand through the highlights of the previous two hundred years of Russian history – Peter the Great (1682-1725), Catherine the Great (1762-96), Napoleon and 1812, Crimean War (1853-56), the emancipation of the serfs (1861) – Russia’s geographical resources and economic and political development – and shows how parties or factions naturally and logically arose from the specific Russian situation.

Court and country parties

For example, Lieven explains the fundamental fact that there were ‘court’ and ‘country’ parties in Russian government. The court party surrounded the young, inexperienced and shy Tsar Nicholas II. Sophisticated St Petersburg liberals, they thought Russia should welcome Western influences, Western industrialisation, Western technology and Western values. They promoted alliance with France and Britain. (p.106)

By contrast, the ‘country’ party despised Petersburg intellectuals, half of them had foreign (often German) names or Jewish ancestry, for God’s sake! The country party were based in Moscow, good old patriotic, heart-of-Russia Moscow (p.129). They thought the Tsar should reject western values. They thought Russia should ally with the most powerful nation in Europe, Germany, and her handmaiden, Austria. (p.70)

Some of the country party subscribed to various shades of ‘Slavophilia’ i.e. the notion that Russia was special, had a special Orthodox culture, a special social system, a special ruler etc, and so should emphatically reject all Western ideas and the Western route to ‘modernisation’, which were corrupt, decadent and irrelevant to Russia’s special traditions.

Another major thread of ‘Slavophilia’ was the notion that the Slavic Russians should support their Slav brothers in the Balkans, the peoples of Serbia or Bulgaria, defend and lead the noble Slavic inheritance.

Onwards to Constantinople

A complicated mix of motives kept the issue of Constantinople bubbling at the top of the agenda. One was religious-ethnic. Some Russian thinkers thought that Russia had a historic destiny to sweep through the Balkans and recapture Constantinople from the weak and failing Ottoman Turks. This would:

  1. Unite all the Slavic peoples of the Balkans, reviving and glorifying Slavic culture.
  2. Allow Constantinople to be reborn as a great Christian capital, as it had been until conquered by the Turks as recently as 1453. It would be a symbolic rebirth of the ‘second Rome’ of Byzantium to rank alongside the ‘third Rome’ of Moscow.

Less quixotic than these millennial religious fantasies, hard-headed military men also thought a lot about Constantinople. Russia possessed the largest territory in the world, with immense land, people and resources. And yet it was prevented from projecting that power outwards, unlike all the nations on the ocean e.g. Britain, France, Spain, Holland, and especially America, sitting astride the two great oceans.

(The importance of naval power was crystallised in the widely-read contemporary book by American theorist Alfred Mahan, summarised on page 160).

Russia possessed three big fleets and naval ports – in the Baltic, at Vladivostok in the far Pacific East, and at Crimea in the Black Sea – but all of them were problematic. The Baltic was nearest to homeland Europe but was frozen for half of the year, and egress was blocked by Germany and Denmark. Vladivostok was too far away from the European centres of power.

All thoughts were therefore focused on the Black Sea, where Russia’s main shipyards were, and on the Crimea, which was the base for a large, modern naval fleet.

Yet it was a permanent irritation to the Russian military that this fleet was blocked up in the Black Sea, prevented from sailing through the Dardanelles and into the Mediterranean. The subtle way round this perennial problem was to negotiate alliances and pacts with the other European powers to bring pressure to bear on the Ottoman controllers of the Dardanelles to allow the Russian fleet out to patrol the high seas and claim her rights as a Great Power.

The not-so-subtle approach was to launch the umpteenth Russo-Turkish War, march on Constantinople and seize the Straits, solving the problem once and for all. After all – as Lieven points out in a thought-provoking comparison, the British had bullied their way to seizing Egypt and the Suez Canal in 1882, and the Americans had created the country of Panama in 1903 solely in order to build a canal joining the Pacific and Atlantic, both empires acting in unashamed self-interest.

The only catch being that the major European nations would probably pile in to stop Russia – as they had during the disastrous Crimean War when Britain and France came to Turkey’s aid against aggressive Russian incursions into Ottoman territory.

All of these ‘country’ party ideas – Pan-Slavism, conquering Constantinople – were deprecated by the ‘court’ party, who thought they were:

  • low and vulgar, usually whipped up by rabble-rousing nationalist newspapers
  • contrary to Russia’s true interests – Russian peasants and workers couldn’t give a damn about Constantinople
  • and anyway, Russia’s course was best left to the professional, aristocratic diplomats like themselves, who knew best

Nonetheless, Russian leaders of all parties looked on with dismay as British ascendancy over the Turks, which had lasted into the 1880s, was slowly replaced by the influence of Germany, which sent soldiers to train the Turkish army and engineers to build a railway from Berlin to Baghdad. (As Lieven points out, the Germans were the only European power who had not at some stage tried to seize Ottoman territory – you can see how this might work in their favour in Istanbul.)

(And, of course, Turkey would end up joining the side of the Germans in the Great War. With the result that the Allies in 1915 themselves took up the Constantinople Question, floating the possibility that Russia would be encouraged to take the city. Prince Grigorii Trubetskoi was even named the future Russian commissar of the city. Wheels within wheels.)

West or East?

Another school of thought, and advisers, recommended leaving the complex problems of Europe to sort themselves out, and focusing on what Russia already possessed, namely the vast extent of Siberia and the East – a policy which, after the Revolution, would come to be known as ‘Eurasianism’ (p.143).

It was under Nicholas II that the great Trans-Siberian Railway was built. Proponents of an Eastern policy pointed out that Siberia had huge untapped natural resources, it just needed:

  • the infrastructure to join up the tens of thousands of settlements scattered across this vast waste of steppe and tundra
  • the emigration of settlers into the vast empty spaces
  • the creation of new towns and cities
  • the harvesting of the country’s natural and human potential

Given peace in the troublesome West, given enough time, the Eurasian party believed that Russia could develop its economy and resources enough to compete with Germany, even compete with America, to become a truly great power.

The Russo-Japanese War 1904-5

All of these hopes came crashing down when Russia came into conflict with the new, aggressive and confident Japanese Empire in 1904 and was badly beaten. Beaten for a number of reasons – their army was big but badly trained and under-equipped, the navy had to steam all the way from the Baltic to the Far East, by which time the major land battles had already been lost, and in any case it was then comprehensively trashed by the much better-led Japanese navy.

Defeat rocked all the traditional pillars of Russian society. The Tsar was personally blamed, the Army and Navy looked like fools, even the Orthodox Church which had blessed the war as a ‘crusade’ was made to look powerless and irrelevant.

The war gave rise to a revolution whose specific trigger was when troops fired on a protest march in Petersburg on 22 January 1905, which went down in folklore as ‘Bloody Sunday’, and rebellion, mutiny, strikes and insurrection spread like wildfire across the country.

The revolution was, in the end, only quelled when the Tsar issued the October Manifesto of 1905 which pledged major political reforms such as the creation of a parliament – called the Duma – with elected representatives, plus land and industrial reforms. The strikes ended, the agrarian disturbances subsided, the mutinies were crushed – but to many, even committed supporters of the Romanov Dynasty, the clock was ticking.

Towards the flame

Believe it or not, everything I’ve just summarised is all just the introduction to the book’s core and is covered off in just the first 100 pages or so. If you recall, the text’s main focus is on the period 1905 to 1920, i.e. beginning after the Russo-Japanese War and the 1905 revolution.

Having set the scene and established many of the enduring themes of Russian politics and diplomacy in the first hundred pages or so, Lieven now goes into very great detail about the personnel, the men who manned the key roles in the Russian government – Foreign Ministry, Finance Ministry, Army, Navy and so on. These men’s backgrounds, their families and family connections, their beliefs and the policies they pursued are all described in a long chapter titled The Decision Makers (pages 91 to 181).

Lieven gives pen portraits of the main diplomats, their careers and their views, including:

  • Count Vladimir Lambsdorff, Foreign Minister to 1906
  • Count Alexander Izvolsky, Foreign Minister 1906 to 1910, architect of the alliance with Britain
  • Sergey Sazonov, Foreign Minister from November 1910 to July 1916 i.e. during the crisis of 1914
  • Pyotr Stolypin, Prime Minister of Russia and Minister of Internal Affairs from 1906, who tried to counter revolutionary groups and pass agrarian reforms, until he was assassinated in 1911
  • Prince Vladimir Meshchersky, editor of the Monarchist newspaper, Grazhdanin, the only paper Tsar Nicholas read, an unpopular reactionary
  • Count Vladimir Kokovtsov, who replaced Stolypin as Prime Minister of Russia from 1911 to 1914
  • Count Sergei Witte, Finance Minister 1892 to 1903, Chairman of the Committee of Ministers 1903 to 1905, first Prime Minister of Russia 1905-6 during which he designed Russia’s first constitution – an intelligent businessman who thought Russia needed a generation of peace to blossom
  • Prince Grigorii Trubetskoi, epitome of liberal imperialists and the panslavic policy, head the Near Eastern Department of the Foreign Ministry, which was responsible for Balkan and Ottoman affairs 1912-14 i.e. at the heart of the 1914 crisis
  • Baron Roman Rosen, 1903 ambassador to Tokyo, ambassador to USA 1905, State Council of Imperial Russia 1911-17 – who believed Russia should forget Constantinople and the Balkans and focus on developing Siberia and the East
  • Alexander Giers, Consul General in Macedonia, Press Council 1906, who saw at first hand how unreliable and unpredictable the Balkan Slavs were and warned that the Serbs were manipulating Russia into backing them against Austria
  • Nikolai Hartwig, Russian ambassador to Persia (1906–1908) and Serbia (1909–1914), a strong pro-Slav, sometimes described as ‘more Serbian than the Serbs’

Lieven then gives similar treatment to the main military leaders of the period – heads of the army and navy, major military thinkers, their dates, relationships and the often bitter in-fighting between them for resources and about strategy.

Having established a) the deep themes or concerns of the Russian state and its ruling elite, and having b) described in some detail all the key personnel, all the ‘decision makers’ of the period – Lieven then takes us through the years leading up to Armageddon, with chapters devoted to:

  • the emergence of the Triple Entente 1904-9
  • the sequence of crises 1909-13, being:
    • The First Moroccan Crisis, 1905–06 – Germany challenged France’s control of Morocco – worsening German relations with both France and Britain
    • The Bosnian Crisis 1908 – Austro-Hungary annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina, which had been under its sovereignty since 1879 but which infuriated the Serbs and Pan-Slavic nationalism in the region
    • The Agadir crisis in Morocco, 1911 – the French sent troops into Morocco, angering the Germans who sent a gunboat to Agadir, eventually backing down but the crisis cemented the alliance between France and Britain
    • The Italo-Turkish War 1911–12 – Italy invaded what is today Libya but was then a province of the Ottoman Empire. Nobody came to Turkey’s aid, showing that Turkey was now friendless – which meant that land grabs in the Balkans would be unopposed – i.e. the delicate balance of power had vanished
    • The First Balkan War October 1912 to May 1913 in which the Balkan League (the kingdoms of Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro) defeated the Ottoman Empire and seized almost all of Turkey’s territory in Europe
    • The Second Balkan War June to August 1913, in which Bulgaria, dissatisfied with the settlement of the first war, attacked Greece and Serbia, and also managed to provoke neighbouring Romania, all of whom defeated Bulgarian forces, forcing it to concede territory to all of them
  • the crisis of 1914
  • The First World War and the Russian Revolution

Some thoughts

The backwardness and repressiveness of Russia bred a special kind of fanatic – extreme socialists or anarchists – who thought they could bring about change through strategic assassinations.

Russia was riddled by extremist political factions for the fifty years before the revolution, and plagued by the assassinations of high officials. As Lieven points out, it is no coincidence that the Russian aristocracy and gentry produced the two greatest anarchist thinkers of the nineteenth century, Prince Peter Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin (p.119)

But the entire strategy of assassination was almost always counter-productive. It is a great irony that the assassins who murdered Tsar Alexander II in 1881 did so just as he was about to authorise a set of liberal laws. His successor, Alexander III, was an old-style, clumsy, bearish, paternal reactionary who inaugurated thirty years of repression, thus condemning Russian radicals to decades of arrest, Siberian imprisonment and exile, and polarising the intelligentsia even further.

The view from the upper classes

Lieven is posh. From Wikipedia we learn that:

Dominic Lieven is the second son and third child (of five children) of Alexander Lieven (of the Baltic German princely family, tracing ancestry to Liv chieftain Kaupo) by his first wife, Irishwoman Veronica Monahan (d. 1979).

He is the elder brother of Anatol Lieven and Nathalie Lieven QC, and a brother of Elena Lieven and distantly related to the Christopher Lieven (1774–1839), who was Ambassador to the Court of St James from Imperial Russia over the period 1812 to 1834, and whose wife was Dorothea von Benckendorff, later Princess Lieven (1785–1857), a notable society hostess in Saint Petersburg.

Lieven is ‘a great-grandson of the Lord Chamberlain of the Imperial Court’ of Russia.

He was privately educated at Downside School, the famous Benedictine Roman Catholic boarding school.

Having just read Edmund Wilson’s long study of the communist tradition, and Engels’s powerful pamphlet Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, my head is full of revolutionary thoughts about the industrial proletariat and about the way the ruling classes everywhere use repressive ‘ideologies’ to keep the exploited in their place, ideas like ’empire’ and ‘tsar’ and ‘religion’, ‘honour’ and ‘duty’ and ‘fatherland’.

There is little of that Marxist sensibility present in Lieven’s book. Lieven takes it for granted that there were empires and that they were ruled by an extraordinarily privileged aristocratic elite. I’m not saying he’s naively in favour of them. But he takes them on their own terms. This became obvious during the long, sometimes pretty boring chapter, about the Decision Makers. Prince so-and-so of the court party was related to Count so-and-so who took a slavophile line, while his cousin, the archduke so-and-so was more a supporter of the policy of eastern expansion. And so on for a hundred pages.

In a way typical of prewar European diplomacy, the Foreign Ministry and Russian diplomacy were a nest of the aristocracy and gentry. The nest was very, very small: in 1914, there were fewer than two hundred men of all ages who had passed the diplomatic exam and in principle were eligible for mainstream posts. (p.119)

Later he points out the importance of notions of honour to the Russian aristocracy, and the vital importance of remaining a great power to the entire diplomatic, military and political leadership.

But to the ordinary Russian, these concepts were all but meaningless. The Russian ruling classes thought that, when push came to shove, the masses would demonstrate their love for the Tsar and for Mother Russia and the Great Pan-Slavic Cause, but they were wrong, so wrong.

Exciting the Russian masses about Constantinople or their Slave brothers proved an impossible task. In 1909, Grigorii Trubetskoy’s brother Prince Evgenii Trubetskoy wrote that only someone who believed Russia to be a ‘corpse’ could imagine that when it stood up for its honour and the Slav cause against Germany, there would not be a surge of ‘powerful and elemental patriotism’.

The First World War was to prove him wrong. (p.131)

What makes it puzzling is that the Russian elite had already had the test drive of the 1905 revolution in which they should have learned that far from rallying to the cause of Mother Russia, peasants and workers all across the country rose up against the court, the aristocracy, the police, the Church and everything the elite believed in.

For me the big question is, ‘How was the Russian ruling elite able to persist in their obtuse ignorance of the true nature of the country they were living in?’

Without doubt the tiny coterie of men Lieven describes made up the diplomatic and foreign policy elite, and their decisions counted, and it was the clash of their policies and ideas which made up ‘debate’ in the ruling elite and determined Russia’s strategy through the decade of crises leading up to 1914.

Without doubt this is precisely the point of Lieven’s book, to give an unprecedentedly detailed account of the sequence of events 1905 to 1920 from the Russian point of view, explaining the key personnel and their ruling ideas and concerns and how they reacted to, and created, events.

In this aim the book doubtless succeeds and can’t help impressing you with the depth of its research and the thoroughness of its analysis.

But it feels so airless, so claustrophobic, so oppressively upper class. Clever, well educated, sensitive and sophisticated though the Russian ruling class so obviously are, you can’t help cheering when the enraged workers storm their palaces and throw all their fancy paintings and porcelain out into the street.

To put it another way –  as Lieven himself does half way through the book – the Russian ruling élite believed its own ideology, defined itself in terms of its preposterously unreal, disconnected value system – forged its identity in terms of Russian dignity and nobility and honour and the need to remain an Empire and a Great Power.

So they were staggered when they discovered that the overwhelming majority of the Russian people didn’t give a toss about these fantasies, was incapable of defending them, and eventually rebelled against them.

In a nice detail, Lieven tells of a German officer during the Great War, whose job was to debrief Allied prisoners of war. He discovered that the French and British soldiers had a clear sense of what they were fighting for, but the Russian soldiers didn’t have a clue. Pan-Slavism – what was that? Controlling the Turkish Straits – what were they? Preserving the European Balance of Power – what on earth was that?

The over-educated, incestuous, airless narrowness of Russia’s elite condemned itself to extinction.


Related links

Other blog posts about Russia

Other blog posts about the First World War

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