Russian troops entering Lviv

Professor Dominic Lieven's new book provides a unique view of World War One gleaned from Russian archive material.

For the Russian people the greatest tragedy was that the two million soldiers who died in Russia's First World War died for nothing. In large part because the Revolution meant that Russia was not one of the victors at Versailles, the first world war needed to be fought a second time at terrible cost 20 years later.

Professor Dominic Lieven

The decision to go to war in 1914 had catastrophic consequences for Russia. The result was revolution, civil war and famine in 1917–20, followed by decades of Communist rule. A new book, Towards the Flame. Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia, by research fellow Dominic Lieven explains why Russia's rulers allowed their country to be pulled into the First World War. It is a study of diplomacy and military policy, as well as of geopolitics and power. Lieven digs beneath the surface to investigate issues such as the structure of Russian government decision-making and the mentalities and values of the decision-makers: these are vital to any understanding of the forces that impelled Russia to war.

The book also studies how Russia's rulers envisaged and planned for a future European conflict and does so on the basis of a mass of new and very revealing archival material. One of the book's strengths is that it is based on a vast trawl of materials from seven Russian archives, the most important of which were closed to foreign historians until the 1990s. In addition, Professor Lieven has found important new material in Russian émigré archives, and has utilised archival and published primary sources for all the other great powers.

The Russo-Serbian relationship, vital to the outbreak of war in 1914, is just one area in which the mass of new archival materials Professor Lieven draws from Russian, American and private family archival holdings radically changes the received understanding of events. In this area he has read all the official correspondence between Russia's diplomatic and military representatives in Belgrade and the foreign and war ministers, as well as the unpublished memoirs and private correspondence both of the Russian number two in Belgrade and of the head of the Near Eastern (ie Balkan) department of the Foreign Ministry.

Professor Lieven says Towards the Flame provides a unique insight into the war and revolution that engulfed Russia in 1914-21, but it is about far more than just Russia. One third of the book provided international comparisons and contexts. By looking at the international crisis of the early twentieth century from an unusual Russian and east European angle one gains a radically different understanding of the war's causes, course and consequences.

For Professor Lieven the war was above all an east European war brought on by the struggle between empires and nationalisms. Though war was by no means inevitable in 1914 he says it was certainly no unforeseeable accident and, even if avoided in 1914, might well have happened in the near future. The basic issue at the root of the war - the struggle between empires and nationalisms - lay at the heart of twentieth-century world history , says Professor Lieven. At the very moment when this struggle drove Europe to war in 1914 it was - in the form of the Irish crisis - paralysing British government and threatening the United Kingdom with civil war. Professor Lieven argues that the Suez Crisis of 1956 was in many ways the "1914 moment" of the British and French empires: imperial elites, facing geopolitical decline and nationalist challenges, struck out with a combination of desperation, arrogance and miscalculation rather similar to Austrian behaviour in 1914.

This is one of the ways in which Professor Lieven draws parallels between the international crisis that led to the First World War and subsequent political developments, some of which are still highly relevant today. For example, he shows that the Ukrainian issue was far more important a source of Austro-Russian tension and Russian domestic weakness than Western historians of the First World War era allow. In those days, without Ukraine's agriculture, coal and metallurgical industry Russia would cease to be a great power.

In 1918 as a result of the Russian Revolution Ukraine became a nominally independent country and in fact a German protectorate. Had Germany been able to sustain the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk which established German domination of eastern and central Europe then it only needed a stalemate on the western front to ensure its victory in the First World War, says Professor Lieven. He argues that had the Germans not brought the United States into the war on the very eve of the Russian Revolution's destruction of Russian power then victory would have lain within their grasp. "Maybe such a victory and a Pax Germanica would have been better than the Versailles order which followed German defeat. The Versailles settlement was based on the defeat and exclusion of both Germany and Russia, which potentially were the continent's two most powerful countries. For that reason alone it was unlikely to survive," he says.

"For the Russian people the greatest tragedy of all was that the two million soldiers who died in Russia's First World War died for nothing. In large part because the Revolution meant that Russia was not one of the victors at Versailles, the first world war needed to be fought a second time at terrible cost 20 years later."

*Towards the Flame is published by Allen Lane on 28th May, price £25.00. Professor Lieven will be speaking about his book as part of the Cambridge Series at the Hay Festival at 7pm on May 30th.

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