Three books that will change your minds

One of the problems of our accounts of World Wars One and Two is our Atlantic perspective. Our vision of World War 1 is concentrated on the Western Front, ignoring the immense battles between Russia and Austro-Hungary, and Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Our view of who started it is sharply anti-German, and ignores other actors and factors that led Europe to the awful cataclysm. Finally, our views of the mass killings that characterized Eastern Europe from 1930-1945 separate into different narratives events that shared the same time and space.

The Russian Origins of the First World War , by Prof. Sean McMeekin, argues persuasively that Tsarist Russia was engaged in an aggressive war of expansion against Austria-Hungary, and especially against the Ottoman Turks. Indeed their principal objective was the seizure of the straits connecting the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. The fact that the British, not the Russians, fought the Ottomans in 1915 to secure the passage at the Dardanelles was a total bonus: Britain was fighting to secure what it had gone to war to prevent in the Crimean War of the 1840s. McMeekin also casts light on how close Russia came to complete victory over the Ottomans by 1917. McMeekin also sheds light on why the Turks were so hostile to the Armenians, whose terrorist gangs the Russians were financing. The Russians stimulated an Armenian rebellion, and the Turks in their usual savage ways dealt with the threat.

It changes one’s idea of the First World War to realize that the first battles of 1914 were fought inside German territory, in Lorraine and Alsace, in the west, and in eastern Prussia, in the Masurian Lakes. The spectacular success of the Germans in those battles threw the Russians and the French back inside their respective territories. Thereafter the Germans invaded France, and that is the theater of war on which we have fixated ever since. McMeekin says that we gave the Russians a free pass from critical scrutiny because of the tragedy of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, but Russian goals of securing the defeat of the Ottoman Empire weigh as much if not more in understanding who was responsible for the scale and outcomes of that war.


The next revelation is found in Prof. Terence Zuber’s The Real German War Plan. As every student of World War One knows, there existed the Schlieffen Plan, drawn up by the Chief of Staff, von Schlieffen, that envisaged a huge envelopment of the French armies from the right flank through Belgium as the French battered themselves against the German defences on their common border. Swing around from the north and trap the French armies against the Swiss border: that is what we were taught in university. The existence of the Schlieffen Plan was canonical – received wisdom; it satisfied the desire of German historians to blame their country’s militarism for World War One, and suited everyone else too.

Zuber argues that there never was an offical Schlieffen plan in the form in which it is believed to have existed. He says his research shows that von Schlieffen dreamed up a staff paper exercise that envisaged a one-front war with the French and assumed Germany had 200,000 more troops than it actually did. Even then the plan was not predicted to work. The “plan” was not intended to be taken seriously; it was not formally adopted by the German General Staff.

Furthermore, improvements in the Russian army, both in terms of numbers, training and weapons, meant that, from 1913 forward, Germany was facing superior numbers and a more difficult situation with every passing year.

None of these books exonerate Germany or anyone else. But, they have the effect of revising our views of the First World War, first by shifting our focus from the Western front, and second by allowing a more realistic perspective on the motives and actions of the Russians, the Germans, and the Turks.

The effect of these two books is to lighten considerably the burden of guilt propagated by the victors of World War One, France and Britain, that German aggression was uniquely responsible for the War.

The third book, Bloodlands, Europe between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder, is an account of the deliberate killing policies pursued by Stalin and Hitler in the lands between Germany and Russia, from 1930 to 1950. The burden of collectivization (robbery of property) and deliberate mass starvation fell mostly on the Ukrainians in 1930-31. Stalin’s terror campaign of 1937 and 1938 envisaged the killing of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Poles, White Russians, and other national minorities living in the Soviet Union. Then the war broke out, and Germans proceeded to the mass killing of Jews, Poles, White Russians as a policy. These deaths were not the by-products of war; they were the essence of Nazi policy. “Exterminative colonialism” is the phrase Snyder employs to describe it.

I will not describe what is in the book; you need to read it for yourselves. Mass murder was the essence, on not the by-product, of both regimes. It hardly matters what the stated reason was why each side had to kill millions; Snyder’s point is that extermination of the targeted peoples subject to Nazi and Communist rule, be they Poles, Balts, Russians or Jews, intellectuals or peasants, soldiers or civilians, capitalists or workers, was deliberate, planned, and justified, according to the perverted lights of their Nazi and Communist overlords.

The second, and much less important point that Snyder makes, is that of these enormous figures of war dead, the actual deaths of Russians, as distinct from Ukrainians, Poles, White Russians, and Balts, were proportionately and absolutely smaller: proportionately to the size of the respective populations, and absolutely in numbers, if you add all the non-Russians together.  Soviet figures – the ones we are usually told about – include all the non-Russians killed by Germans lumped in with Great Russians.

Finally, Snyder emphasizes the oneness of these events of mass death:

“In this competition for memory,the Holocaust, the other German mass killing policies, and the Stalinist mass murders became three different histories, even though in historical fact they shared a place and time.” (p.377)

Snyder’s book cannot make for pleasant reading, but it produces a valuable deepening of our understanding of what National-Socialism and Communism were: vast murder machines of the innocent.