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Sean McMeekin

Teoksen July 1914: Countdown to War tekijä

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Sean McMeekin is a professor of history at Bard College. The award-winning author of several books, including The Russian Revolution, July 1914, and The Ottoman Endgame, McMeekin lives in Clermont, New York.

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Kanoninen nimi
McMeekin, Sean
Nampa, Idaho, USA
Rochester, New York, USA
Istanbul, Turkey
Stanford University



Sean McMeekin, World War I, The Great War (helmikuu 2023)


With Marxism becoming popular again, McMeekin wanted, with this new history, to remind people the consequences of following ‘armed prophets promising social perfection”. The histography of the Soviet Union heavily concentrates on the Stalin years with the Russian Revolution under covered and often used and abused in political arguments. It wasn’t until Richard Pipes’ The Russian Revolution in 1990 that the men behind the revolution of 1917 were significantly reappraised. McMeekin builds on that by looking at some new material out of Russian archives.

The result is a highly readable, 352-page history (not including the many useful maps, notes, and index) ideal for those like me who know some parts of the story through documentaries and books touching on it but have never read a full account of it.

In the introduction and conclusion, McMeekin summarizes the accidental events and spectacularly bad decisions that led to the revolution and made some men famous when they could have died in obscurity.

He opens with the assassination of Rasputin, plots against his life an open secret in the Russian capital of Petrograd in the closing days of 1916. The war, according to some, was going badly. (It really wasn’t. The Russian military, at the start of 1917, was in the best shape to fight it had been since the start of World War I.) It was because German sympathizers were sabotaging the war effort, especially “the German woman”, the Czarina Alexandria, and her baleful influence on her husband and Rasputin’s influence on her.

Ironically, Rasputin might have saved the Russian Empire. Czar Nicholas took the advice of Rasputin more to his heart than his official government advisors. Rasputin, not caught up in the popular Pan-Slavism that wanted Russia to back her “little brothers”, the Slavic Serbs, against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, would have argued to the Czar not to enter the war. (He had condemned Serbian aggression in the Balkan Wars.) But Rasputin was in Siberia visiting his home village. When the war looked imminent, he tried to return to Petrograd but was stabbed in the stomach and spent the next month in bed.

The political radicals, many nihilists, produced in Russia were of a stripe not found elsewhere. But the subject of their hatred was not the autocratic monster they portrayed. Between the Decembrist Revolt of 1825 and 1917, the Russian government executed – for all crimes together – only 6,321 people. The famed exile to Siberia was not that bad. Lenin went there on a train with a first-class ticket taking his wife, mother, and mistress. Stalin admitted escaping his “administrative exile” in Siberia six times and the real number may have been eight. The Russian government even provided a living stipend to the exiles.

Russia was slowly liberalizing at the beginning of the 20th century and becoming richer.

But things started to go bad with the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. The Czar was contemptuous of the Japanese (an attitude strengthened by a scar on his forehead he got from a Japanese policeman’s sword when he visited Tokyo in 1981) and their imperial plans for expansion into Asia. But Russia suffered, on sea and land, an humiliating defeat.

Political unrest erupted with riots, demonstrations, and pogroms. The government estimated 3,600 officials were killed or injured in 1905. It was during this time the famous mutiny aboard the battleship Ptomekin occurred.

Assassinations of government officials continued into 1907, but Russia was temporarily rescued by Peter Stolypin, chairman of the Council of Ministers. He used a carrot and stick approach. The carrot was agricultural reforms which increased productivity, completing (with no foreign labor) the Trans-Siberian Railway, and building many more churches. The stick was security reforms which expand martial law provisions and military courts for terrorists with no appeal for their verdict. In April 1907 alone, about 1,000 people got “Stolypin neckties” as revolutionaries referred to hangings.

Stolypin said that, if Russia avoided war for 20 years, it would be rich and peaceful.

But, of course, Russia didn’t avoid war, and it was that fact, McMeekin says, that was the biggest reason for revolution.

But things weren’t going that bad for Russia at the end of 1916 no matter what enemies of the regime, like Duma president Rodzianko and Socialist Revolutionary Alexander Kerensky, said. Morale was good among the troops reported the censors who looked at soldiers’ letters. (McMeekin does argue that, however successful it temporarily was, the Brusilov offensive in the summer of 1916, should not have been undertaken and produced too many casualties.) The munitions shortages of 1915 had been solved and production was at a new high. The troops at the front were well fed.

However, food was starting to get short in Petrograd by the fall of 1917. Fuel was hard to find too. The Russian rail network and the supply of rolling stock was not up to supplying both civilians and the military at the same time. But the war was not unpopular. The complaint against the German woman was that she was sabotaging the war effort, not that the war was wrong.

The prophecies of one P. N. Durnovo, a former interior minister who had suppressed revolts in 1905 and 1906, began to be realized. On February 27, 1914 (by the Gregorian calendar), he wrote the Czar. Alarmed by what he saw as an increasing alliance with France and Britain and growing pan-Slavism, he warned that peasants and other workers professed “unconsciously, the principles of Socialism”. War would bring supply shortages because of the problems with the Russian rail network, and the government would be blamed.

"Liberal and center-right politicians and intellectuals would try to exploit the regime’s weakness to seize power, only to learn that they would ‘have no popular support."

Revolutionary slogans would be seen scattered throughout the country, and Russia would be "flung into anarchy, such as she suffered in the ever-memorable period of troubles in 1905-1906."

In the last years of his life, the Czar seems to have ruefully contemplated Durnovo’s memo since it was found in his effects when he was arrested.

It was the weather that brought the beginning of the end for the Romanovs.

After two months of bitter cold, the day of February 23, 1917 (International Women’s Day, a Socialist holiday – McMeekin gives all these important revolutionary dates under just the Julian calendar), the weather warmed to a balmy 46 degrees Fahrenheit. There were demonstrations about the shortage of bread. A strike was called at the munitions works, and the Cossacks, the usual force for suppressing internal disturbances since 1905, unusually quiet. Things became violent on Feb. 24th and 25th. The streets flooded with protesters.

What they were protesting isn’t certain. There seems little evidence of antiwar protests. But violence broke out. Three were killed in a shopping center. Cossacks hacked a police inspector to death. Rioters burned a police station.

On the 27th, the authorities attempted to restore order. But, while soldiers were given orders they could fire on crowds and agitators were arrested, a mutiny began among the troops called in to do this. Officers were killed and, once that step was taken, the soldiers understandably thought, to avoid punishment, they must persist in their rebellion. Mutinies spread to the Petrograd garrison and the nearby Kronstadt naval base.

Rodzianko assumed control and starting issuing decrees which he had no legal authority to do. Kerensky formed Soviets dominated by Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. Away at the front, the Czar tried to return. He made the fatal decision to call off an expedition by General Ivanov to lead troops to Petrograd to restore order. Around midnight on March 1st, the Czar gave into pressure from the military and Rodzianko and abdicated.

But Rodzianko, a man who had schemed to get rid of the Czar for years, was less adept at ruling than revolution. Shortly after the Czar abdicated, Rodzianko confessed he was not fully in control of Petrograd and the nation. The Soviets and Rodzianko’s Provisional Government both vied for power.

During this time the Soviets issued, to the Petrograd garrison, Order No. 1. It had several provisions including that the soldiers’ orders would come from Military Commission of the State Duma if they did not contradict the will of the Soviet government. Soldiers perceived the essential bit of the order: disarm their officers.

At this point, most of the Army’s officers were simply worried about this turmoil affecting their ability to carry on the war. One General Alekseev naively thought Rodzianko was in control of things.

Then, on April 3rd, a train arrived. It was the famous “sealed train” carrying Lenin from Switzerland. Sealed, propaganda said, to counter the argument that Lenin was a tool of the German Imperial government. But, contrary to propaganda, Lenin got off the train several times on his trip to confer with German officials because he was their weapon, funded with the modern equivalent of a billion US dollars, to take Russia out of the war. It was money he would use to buy an expensive printing press and to pay protestors the equivalent of $500 a day to carry placards denouncing the war.

McMeekin’s evaluation of Lenin is that he was remarkably lucky in having the enemies he did. But he was also diabolically clever. His novel idea was that an international war could be turned into a civil war and from that civil war Russia – and eventually the world – could be remade into a communist utopia. To do that, he was willing to change tactics and strategies, sometimes to the dismay of his allies. He was also a master of propaganda.

During that spring, Kerensky, Minister of War since May 1st, toured the front to push for continuing the war. But Bolshevik agitators begun showing up in the army, and the soldiers became increasingly confused about what the purpose of the war was and who was really in charge of the country. The Germans, wanting to push Lenin’s subversion, stopped major offensive action on their front with Russia. Soldiers not fighting were susceptible to Bolshevik demoralization. Like the French mutineers of 1917, many Russian soldiers were willing to defend Russia but not go on the offensive.

Kerensky, who had positions in both the Soviet and the Provisional Government, took the fatal decision to move some of the mutinous troops from Petrograd, particularly the First Machine Gun Regiment which had played a part in the February Revolution, to the Galician sector of the front. Kerensky had intelligence on Lenin’s ties to Germany and hoped to deprive Lenin of a tool. But all the move did was spread the mutinous spirit faster in the army. In any case, the First Machine Gun Regiment was still in Petrograd on July 3rd when Lenin launched his coup.

But, by July 4th, it had been quashed and its leaders arrested except for Lenin who had fled to Finland. Trotsky, upset that his name wasn’t on the list of leaders, publicly demanded to be arrested.

After going through the mansion used as the Bolshevik headquarters, much documentation was found tying the Bolsheviks to Germany and showing their plots against the government.

The war continued on the Galicia front. General Brusilev launched a series of minor offenses that included the famous Women’s Death Battalion, but they came to little. Kerensky reversed the revolutionary cancellation of the death penalty in the army and replaced Brusilev with General Kornilov as the commander in chief of the Russian Army. A man who had risen to his position from humble Cossack stock, Kornilov was a respected figure. In August, the Germans renewed offensive operations taking Riga and pushing on to Petrograd.

Almost as soon as he appointed him, Kerensky began to suspect Kornilov was allied with forces that threatened the February Revolution, a threat, he was convinced, that would come from the right and not the left.

And then a political dilettante named V. N. Lvov, in his own mind a patriot and who had been fired from his government position in July by Kerensky, intervened. Convinced a coup was brewing at Stavka, the army’s headquarters, he visited Kornilov on August 24th. Lvov claimed to be an emissary from Kerensky, and Kornilov took him to be an “irreproachably honest man and gentleman”. Late that night, Kornilov told Lvov he thought the Bolsheviks were planning to overthrow the government and end the war and give Russia’s Baltic Fleet to the Germans. Lvov told Kornilov that Kerensky had authorized him to discuss three options to deal with the Bolsheviks: declare a new government with Kerensky as dictator, form a government with unlimited powers that would include Kerensky and Kornilov, or a military dictatorship under Kornilov. Kornilov opted for the last option but with Kerensky as a government minister.

Lvov met with Kerensky on August 26th and discussed his meeting with Kornilov. Rather than personally meet with Kornilov to find out what was going on, Kerensky opted for the duplicitous option of sending a telegram to Kornilov asking him to confirm that it was necessary to act on the options Lvov laid out. Compounding the situation, Kornilov asked Kerensky to personally come to Stavka to discuss the matter.

Convinced he would be arrested, Kerensky called for an emergency cabinet meeting. Another cabinet member, Savinkov, tried to talk Kerensky off the ledge but to no avail. Kornilov was relieved of command and accused of treason. Kornilov said he thought he had been dealing, with Lvov, an emissary of Kerensky’s. Kornilov ordered a march of troops on Petrograd to take control but his subordinates refused.

The ultimate result of the Kornilov Affair was that Kerensky made the incredibly foolish to decision to ally himself with the very group that less than two months early had tried to overthrow his government: the Bolsheviks. Kerensky granted amnesty to the Bolsheviks involved in the coup and agreed to the arming of “worker’s committees”.

If Kerensky or, earlier, the Czar, had been willing to possibly shed the blood of possibly thousands of mutineers the lives of millions of future Russians might have been longer and better. Russian autocracy wasn’t autocratic enough to save itself.

Kerensky wouldn’t have long to regret his actions. Lenin returned to Russia, and on October 10th the Bolshevik Central Committee convened. Some argued that they should not move against Kerensky’s government until after the elections for the Constituent Assembly in November. But Lenin argued that the Bolsheviks would never win a national election. They would seize power on October 25th when the Second Congress of the Soviets met.

Their plotting wasn’t exactly secret. On October 22nd, Kerensky said “I only wish [the Bolsheviks] will come out, and I will then put them down.” The Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary party members walked out of the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets on October 25th opening the way for the Bolsheviks to start issuing their own decrees. By November 5th, Petrograd was in Bolshevik hands.

But the fight wasn’t done though Bolshevik influence spread itself over Russia. In Petrograd, the Bolsheviks old revolutionary comrades organized a general strike. Striking bank employees were particularly troublesome. The Bolsheviks tried to replace them with Bolsheviks who had worked at banks. But, since they had been fired from their bank jobs for incompetence, that didn’t work. The Bolsheviks needed the economy functioning again and to get their hands on the money in bank vaults. They developed a scheme for taking bank officials hostage to get their way.

The world’s first proletarian government was thus forced to devote its primary energies to strikebreaking.

And the tool for that was to invent the dreaded Cheka, the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counterrevolution, Speculation, and Sabotage. The Bolsheviks declared the private ownership of land illegal, but their detailed agricultural reforms, (designed to appeal to the popular sentiments of “peace, land, and bread), were taken from their Socialist Revolutionary enemies.

Meanwhile, the war continued with Germany pushing offensives against Russia. They knew the Bolsheviks weren’t in a position to continue fighting. The Russian Army was in turmoil, slowly becoming Bolshevized. Supplies were in short supply. Desertions were up. But this didn’t bother the Bolsheviks. They ordered the release of up to four million men from the army. They were to take their weapons and leave. They would form an armed population and further the effort of turning a world war into a civil war.

On November 14, 1917, a truce with Germany was declared and negotiations began. Trotsky was one of the negotiators. Many things were discussed including territorial borders and the exchange of prisoners. The Germans, having the advantage, pressed hard. But, on February 10, 1918, Trotsky said he would not “sign a peace of annexations, Russia declares, on its side, the state of war . . . as ended.” Russia would not sign the treaty and simply demobilized their army. An American observer to the negotiations declared Trotsky “a four-kind son of a bitch, but the greatest Jew since Jesus.”

Trotsky hoped that a Bolshevik revolution would take hold in Germany if Germany persisted fighting Russia. After all, Germany could no longer claim Russia posed a threat to them.

1918 was not a good year for the Bolsheviks. The nucleus of military men who would eventually form the counterrevolutionary White Russians started to form. Japan sent troops to Vladivostok to prevent military supplies from falling into the hands of Germans or Bolsheviks. China sent troops to Siberia. Ther Germans contemplated continuing the fight on Russia, specifically taking Petrograd if no peace treaty was signed. Ludendorff and the Kaiser both were appalled by the Bolshevik menace they had unleashed on Russia and wanted them deposed, but the German Foreign Office argued for no intervention against the Bolsheviks less that would play into counterrevolutionary hands which may want to continue the war.

But the Germans renewed operations in March. Finally, Russia signed the humiliating Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918. Russia lost huge amounts of territory that would take decades for the future USSR to regain. Lenin was denounced as a “German Spy” by some. He made the somewhat reasonable argument to the “Left Communists” that the treaty was just a tactical retreat like Tsar Alexander I’s truce with Napoleon in 1807. Russia would win this war eventually now as it did in 1812.

The Russian government even allowed the landings of British and French troops into Russia in March and hoped for better relations with their governments. France would be a more difficult matter due to the huge pre-war French investment in Russia and the need to satisfy those bond holders.

The Bolsheviks started to give up on the idea of peasant armies and took steps that would, in essence, reconstitute the Imperial Army and most of its disciplinary features

Meanwhile, Germany was still waging war in the east in the regions ceded by Brest-Litovsk. The Turks reversed their territorial losses of 1916 and 1917 to the point of the 1914 borders.

And the Czech Legion, prisoners of war from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, began to cause problems on their epic journey across Russia to the Pacific, the first leg in their planned trip to the Western Front. They seized key points of the Trans-Siberian railroad and fought with the Bolsheviks at times.

Things were looking bleak in July 1918. Finland was gone. Russia’s cities in Siberia were in the hands of Czechs and Slovaks. Cossacks roamed Siberia. German troops were in what had been Russian Poland and Ukraine. The Turks were active in the Transcaucasus.

In June, Germany, angry about Russia scuttling its Black Sea Fleet and propagandizing the German army, contemplated attacking Russia again to get rid of the radical Bolsheviks. But it was decided to “promote the force of decomposition and to keep the country weak for a long time to come”. Germany made a formal statement to Lenin that, as long as they abided by their treaty obligations, Germany would not intervene in Russia. This freed up Russian troops to move against the Czech Legion.

By this time, the Bolshevik policy of violent food requisitions from the populace was criticized by the Left Socialist Revolutionary Party. The other political parties in the government still were critical of Lenin’s German policy. Things came to a head in July when the Left Socialist Revolutionary party assassinated a German diplomat. Lenin’s government rounded up Left Socialist Revolutionary party members and conducted mass executions, the Bolsheviks first but far from last.

In August, Lenin ordered reparations paid to Germany, in effect protection money to be left alone. The number of Allied troops landing in Russia increased.

On August 30, 1918, Lenin was shot (perhaps in a plot involving Bruce Lockhart, a British official). The result was a proclamation of “merciless mass terror against the enemies of the revolution”. Private firearm ownership now brought the death penalty. G. I. Petrovsky, people’s commissar of internal affairs, announced:

"The CHEKAs and the other organized militia must seek out and arrest suspects and immediately execute all those found to be involved with counterrevolutionary practices . . . No weakness or indecision can be tolerated during this period of mass terror."

The Red Terror was on.

Lenin was not, McMeekin notes, personally responsible for this order. He was still in the hospital after begin shot. However, given that on August 8, when speaking of increasing peasant resistant to Bolshevik food requisitions, he said "in all grain-producing areas, twenty-five designated hostages drawn from the best-off of the local inhabitants will answer with their lives for any failure of the requisitioning plan."

it’s unlikely he would have disagreed.

In the first two months of the Red Terror, more than twice the number of people executed by the Czars in the entire last century were killed by Bolsheviks

This was too much for the Germans. Disgusted by the Bolsheviks, they began to fund anti-Bolshevik forces and planned to send six or seven army divisions to Russia and take Petrograd.

But, of course, that all came to nought on November 11, 1918 when the war ended. Lenin, once accused of being a tool of Imperial Germany could now say that country was gone and the revolution still alive in Russia.

By 1919, Russia had to import manufactured goods it could no longer produce. The British had blockaded its Baltic ports. The Bolsheviks had expropriated massive amounts of wealth from the Romanovs and every other rich citizen. They smuggled it to Sweden in exchange for various goods, mostly military including the long leather coats the Checkists liked. The printing press churned out new money – though only printed on one side.

War Communism wasn’t working out. Garbage clogged the streets of Petrograd and a cholera epidemic raged there followed by typhus and dysentery. Drugs and surgical instruments were in short supply. By 1919, the residents of Petrograd were dying so fast that the bodies lay around for months before burial. Eventually, even Sweden was pressured to no longer take Russian rubles.

On October 1918, the movement of the working man and proletariat introduced “universal labor duty” followed by “compulsory weekend work battalions”.

The end of World War One marked the start of the Russian Civil War, but, by February 1920, the Whites had been decisively defeated. At the end of 1919, British Prime Minster Lloyd George, responding to pressure from his own Labour Party, announced the end of the British blockade of Russia’s Baltic ports.

By 1920, the

"familiar elements of Soviet Communism were in place, including single-party rule, grain requisitions, a centrally planned economy with state ownership of the means of production, official atheism, the Cheka, the Red Terror, and concentration camps housing ‘class enemies’, of which camps there were now eighty-four"

Undeterred by losing a war with Poland, the Bolsheviks of Russian began the job of spreading international communism with an anti-imperialist message.

But there were still problems, still those in Russia itself, that weren’t properly embracing the revolution. The so-called “peasant disturbances” started in 1917 and were still going on in 1920. Until 1991 with the opening of the Soviet archives, not a lot was known about them. Essentially, peasants revolted against the seizing of their crops, and the Russian Army, flush with a bunch of new military equipment, moved against them. Isolated and not in communication with each other, these revolts didn’t succeed and ended in July 1921, but the peasants managed to inflict 237,908 casualties on the Russian Army with nothing more than farm implements.

By January 1921, bread was very short in Moscow and Petrograd. A general strike was declared and met with the usual shooting into the crowd and mass arrests. But the rebellion spread to the Kronstadt base which had played such a crucial role in the February and October Revolutions of 1917. On March 16, 1921, Trotsky led forces against Krondstadt. Of the surviving rebels, 2,103 were shot and another 6,439 sent to prison or concentration camps. Rebels who fled across the ice to Finland were detained there. They were promised an amnesty if they returned to Russia. The five thousand who took up the offer were sent to camps when they arrived in Russia.

Trotsky’s assault on Kronstadt in March 1921 marked a point of no return. There was no longer even a whiff of pretense that the Communist government had the support of the people over whom it ruled. The Red Terror had been aimed at ‘class enemies’; the Civil War was a struggle against ‘imperialists and White Guards.’ Even the peasant wars had pitted, in theory at least, proletarians against ‘capitalist farmers.’ But now the world’s first ‘proletarian’ government had begun slaughtering urban proletariats, too.

It marked a crucial moment when many European socialists no longer thought Russia was their ideological leader.

Yet, at this very moment, Lloyd George gave a gift to Lenin and Trotsky. Britain established trade agreements with Russia and more nations would follow with only Japan, France, and the United States holding out.

But, mercifully, “War Communism” was replaced with the New Economic Policy on March 23, 1921. There was now a kind of private market in grain.

But 1921 had more miseries in store for Russia. A great drought created a famine throughout most of the eastern portion of the country. The Bolsheviks even admitted, in June, that millions were in danger of starving to death. Herbert Hoover responded to the call. Today, of course, he’s mostly remembered as the president at the beginning of the Great Depression, but, at this time, Hoover had a justifiably high reputation as the man who administered relief to Belgium during and after World War I and in Hungary after the war. He ran a very efficient, yet administratively frugal, operation.

But, as the saying goes, never let a crisis go to waste. The Russian government downplayed foreign food aid and launched a propaganda war: “Turn Gold Into Bread”. The gold in question was owned by the last remaining internal enemy of the Bolsheviks: the Russian Orthodox Church. It, they argued, selfishly continued to horde riches – jewels, gold, and silver – that could buy foreign food. The resulting seizing of church wealth didn’t yield that much money – about a month’s worth of the government’s budget, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to flush out those the governments knew would show up to defend the church and its possessions. They did and were dealt with.

The concluding chapter talks about the beginning of Germany’s and Russia’s strange, ever varying, relationship in the interwar years. Essentially, Germany was desperate to get its economy going and, in an economic reversal of Brest-Litovsk, was willing to make a great many concessions for Russian military orders.

As McMeekin concludes, those swept up in the 1917 revolution couldn’t have known where it was all going to go.

"They could not have known, then, what Communism truly meant.

"A century of well-catalogued disasters later, no one should have the excuse of ignorance."
… (lisätietoja)
Merkitty asiattomaksi
RandyStafford | 5 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Dec 30, 2023 |
According to Ross Douthat, It’s less a history of the conflict than a narrowly, even polemically focused portrait of the Soviet dictator’s decisions and depredations in the war, in the service of an argument that we should see Stalin, as much or even more than Hitler, as the central figure in the global conflagration, an instigator and manipulator and ultimate victor." (NYT August 4, 2023).
Merkitty asiattomaksi
ddonahue | 7 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Aug 24, 2023 |
A new perspective to look at this familiar topic. Glad to learn more about the lend lease act.
Merkitty asiattomaksi
zhoud2005 | 7 muuta kirja-arvostelua | May 18, 2023 |
McMeekin has argued elsewhere that World War One could rightly be thought of as the War of the Ottoman Succession, a war that lasted from 1909 to 1923. You could even argue, as McMeekin does in his concluding chapter on the pros and cons of Ottoman administration and what happened when it ended, that that war is still going on in the Middle East.

Of all the nations that inherited the remains of the Ottoman Empire, it was Turkey, in the heartland of the empire, that has had the most stable borders since 1923.

Edward Gibbon famously noted that we shouldn’t wonder that the Roman Empire it fell but that it lasted as long as it did. The same could be said of the Ottoman Empire. Some have put the date the irresistible rot set in as far back as 1529 when the empire failed to take Vienna. The famous remark about the empire being a “sick man” was uttered by Tsar Alexander Nicholas I to a British ambassador in 1853.

But the sick man’s greatest defense was, paradoxically, the number of his enemies. They wanted Ottoman lands and to deny them to other great powers. The two most important of those powers were Russia and England.

McMeekin’s 593-page history (with additional notes, bibliography, photos, and several very useful maps) shows how that theme played out again and again from the Turco-Russian War of 1877-1878 to Italy’s invasion of Tripoli in 1911 (a forgotten war that saw the first use of many military technologies) to Soviet Russia arming the Ottoman Empire against a Greek invasion in 1921, an invasion supported by Britain.
This history covers both combat on the battlefield (one source is, surprisingly, a Venezuelan mercenary with the Ottomans) and political intrigues. McMeekin covers the grand sweep of things with the occasional illuminating detail about personalities and small incidents. He also covers relevant events outside the empire like the intrigues of the British cabinet and Russian revolutionaries. And, of course, the turmoil of Ottoman politics – the coups, countercoups, and counter-counter coups between 1908 and 1909 – are covered.

McMeekin mentions several seldom-discussed events.

How the events of November and December 1912, specifically Serbia absorbing Albania, almost lead to the Great War nearly two years earlier.

On the question of the Armenian Genocide, goes into some of the controversies of whether it was genocide and also the motives and procedures of the war crime trails the Ottoman government held. McMeekin opts for a number between 650,000 and 700,000 for Armenian deportees dying. The number of a million Armenian dead seems unrealistic.

McMeekin goes into details as to why the Armenian National Committee’s proposal for British forces and the Armenian Legion to land in Alexandretta in July 1915 was rejected even though it was a sound strategy and would have used half the troops sent to reinforce failure at Gallipoli the next month.

Before the end of World War One, allies Germany and the Ottomans were shooting at each other because of increasing resentment of the German infidels by the Muslim population and because of the desire of both to procure the oil fields around Baku.

McMeekin particularly takes apart the myth of Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence’s major skill was self-promotion and bureaucratic in-fighting. His missions rarely achieved their objective. He lied spectacularly about Arab contributions in fighting the Ottomans, especially in the claims he made about Feisal and his Arabs taking Damascus. They, in fact, showed up two days after the British had already taken the city. But the British government was happy to go along with the story to cut France out of lands in Mesopotamia and the Arabian Peninsula granted to them in the famous Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916.

A major theme of McMeekin’s is, in fact, refuting the idea that the treaty created the modern Middle East. The agreements in Sykes-Picot didn’t even survive World War One. It was the Lausanne Treaty of 1923 that established the political contours of the modern Middle East.

The British cut the French out of negotiating an armistice with the Ottomans. The skillful British negotiators completely dominated the amateurish Ottoman delegates. The armistice of Mudros was signed on October 30, 1918. It amounted to a dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire which was to become a mere “rump state” in Anatolia.

But Mustafa Kemal was already taking steps to resist and had military supplies moved before he was recalled to Istanbul in November 1918.

In the negotiations at Versailles, there was support among victors and vanquished for American mandates over an Armenian homeland as well as Syria and Palestine. Wide support, that is, except among the American public and congress which, thankfully, wanted nothing to do with it.

In June 1919, the National Pact was formed by Kemal and others. It called for an army to resist the occupation by French and Greek forces, to stop demobilization of the Ottoman Army, and proclaimed that parts of the Empire with Turkish majorities were “indivisible”. The Arabs, though, could go their own way.

The Sevres Treaty coming out of Versailles in May 1920 enraged the Ottomans. Back were the “Capitulations” to foreign governments which they had finally gotten rid of during the war. They granted foreign powers control over Ottoman tax collecting and expenditures. Kemal responded by forming a new Grand National Assembly with Extraordinary Powers. On April 13, 1920, now celebrated in Turkey as National Sovereignty and Children’s Day, the capital was moved to Ankara. On March 16, 1921, Soviet Russia and “Kemalist Turkey” signed a treaty which agreed land that Turkey had taken back from the Russian Empire would remain Turkish.

The Turks lost every battle against the invading Greeks – until the last one, the historic Battle of Sakarya which occurred between August 23, 1921 and September 12, 1921. McMeekin calls it the “last real battle of the First World War”
The thoroughly demoralized Greeks – now also dogged by European hostility regarding the many atrocities they had committed – retreated to the coast. There the great disaster of the burning of Smyrna occurred on September 15, 1922.

On November 1, 1922, the Ottoman Empire was done. The sultanate was abolished. (The caliphate would last until March 1924.)

The latter days of the Ottoman Empire are a remarkable story of constant impending disaster, diplomatic intrigue, sudden reversals of fortune, atrocities and bloodshed, and, ultimately, the story of Turkish resilience which carved, from seeming defeat, its own homeland.

Definitely recommended for all those with an interest in World War One or the Ottomans.
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RandyStafford | 6 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Jan 15, 2023 |



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