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"Great Power Competition" and the Harsh Lessons of World War I

"Great Power Competition" and the Harsh Lessons of World War I

"Having mobilized against Austria in August 1914, Czar Nicholas II helped to set in motion the world war that would thoroughly destroy the Russian Empire, of course—an unintended consequence if ever there was one. While the other erstwhile members of the Entente can celebrate this hard-won victory, Russia obviously has a different perspective."

In all the vast and rather justified coverage of the centenary of the Great War, there has been little attention (with a few excellent exceptions) to one somewhat awkward question from the catastrophic bloodletting. If France and Britain can play the part of the stalwart and righteous victims, America that of the crusading hero, and Germany that of the sincerely repentant aggressor, what role for Russia? President Vladimir Putin attended the ceremonies in Paris, but what could have been going through his mind? Having mobilized against Austria in August 1914, Czar Nicholas II helped to set in motion the world war that would thoroughly destroy the Russian Empire, of course—an unintended consequence if ever there was one. While the other erstwhile members of the Entente can celebrate this hard-won victory, Russia obviously has a different perspective.

Anyone who has taken the time to read the hefty tome of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s magisterial August 1914 may come quickly to understand that Russia was no bit player in this epochal contest for Europe. In a work that is rightly compared to Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Solzhenitsyn describes how the Russian Army was “advancing to execute a maneuver worthy of Suvorov: a forced march to [administer] … a shattering blow to Germany at the start of the war.” He writes of the thrill of combat, at least initially: “… when one’s body is fighting fit … one feels the satisfying tug of a weapon at one’s side, and one’s mind is wholly concentrated on the task at hand. Vorotyntsev recognized and loved this exaltation … He had been created for moments like this.” He also speaks of the dark shadow of the Russo-Japanese War that had cast a pall over the Russian officer corps as they marched into eastern Prussia: “It only needed two or three such defeats in succession for the backbone of the country to be put out of joint forever and for a thousand-year-old nation to be utterly destroyed.” Yet, Solzhenitsyn explains: “[Russian Northwest Front Commander Yakov] Zhilinsky had given his promise to [French Commander in Chief Joseph] Joffre the year before and had moved forward the date of attack so generously at Russia’s expense; totally unprepared as they were, the Russians had been committed to moving forward on the fifteenth day after mobilization, instead of the sixtieth. Her ally France was in trouble, and Russia was ready to crawl through the mire for her …”

This remarkable Russian writer, like Tolstoy, describes combat in a way that suggests he had seen his share of it with his own eyes. For example, he observes: “For more than an hour the Vyborg regiment endured a bombardment which at first it had seemed no one could survive for longer than three minutes. …. [T]he wounded stayed where they were, with muddy faces, blood spattered all over them, hands and lips quivering.” By the end of the book, all possible romance is stripped away from his descriptions of the fighting. Taking an unconventional approach, Solzhenitsyn at one point even describes the perspective on battle of a horse: “… no thoroughbred, just an ordinary Russian bay horse … No less than a human face, it can express despair … Where am I? I’ve seen so many others die – and I’m nearly dead myself. … It has not been fed or unharnessed, but only whipped and whipped … Ears pricked up, it wanders hopelessly… It nervously skirts the corpses of other horses lying with all four legs pointing stiffly in the air and bellies distended … how hugely horses expand when they are dead! Whereas a man shrinks.” In the final scene of the book, the heroic Colonel Vorotyntsev faces down his superiors with the truth, despite his friend Svechin’s advice to stay silent on the responsibility for grave defeat. “‘You might have convinced me and I might have kept my mouth shut if this were purely a military matter … But this isn’t just a military problem any longer, don’t you see? To drive one’s people unprepared to slaughter is something far beyond the considerations of mere strategy.’ ‘Even so, you won’t do any good,’ Svechin insisted firmly … ‘Nothing would be changed and you’d simply get a bloody nose. Russia is doomed to be governed by fools; she knows no other way … The only thing to do is keep your head down.’” The fact that Solzhenitsyn served at the front in World War II and his father served in World War I can provide some partial explanation for Solzhenitsyn’s prodigious knowledge of the role of these wars in Russian history and their impact on the Russian world view.

But let us turn briefly to a more contemporary Russian analysis. The Director of the Center for Russian Military History at the Russian Academy of Sciences Denis Kozlov wrote an interesting piece in the journal Flare [Огонёк], available on the website of the newspaper Kommersant [Коммерсантъ]. The article appears under the provocative sub-head “Our War? [Своя война?]” The author asks matter-of-factly: “What relationship do we have to this victory?” After all, Kozlov recognizes at the outset that the Brest peace accord of March 1918 that pulled Russia out of the war constituted an obvious violation of both the spirit and letter of the agreements that joined the Entente together. It is noted that this separate peace aroused “fury” [ярость] among the western allies. Yet, he asserts that actually the First World War does “after all remain ours.” Up until the time of the collapse of the empire, he contends, “Russia and its armed forces honestly, courageously and consistently fulfilled their allied obligations [Россия и ее вооруженные силы честно, мужественно и последовательно выполняли свои союзнические обязательства].” Moreover, he notes that Russia suffered 2 million casualties in battle “contributing to the victory of the Entente.” The Russian effort impacted the great struggle in France, of course, and even the early battle for Paris, it is noted.

Kozlov then turns to the question of whether the First World War is Russia’s “forgotten [забытая]” war. He argues that Soviet military professionals never neglected the subject. For example, he explains that just in the year 1935, that a certain military academy of the Red Army alone published over one hundred monographs concerning the war and about three hundred articles. He notes that there was even attention to the military feats of Russians that had emigrated overseas. For example, the first war-time issue of the Soviet naval journal Maritime Digest [Морской сборник], apparently carried an article about the exploits of a famous First World War Russian Navy submarine commander, who had left Russia to escape the Revolution. Moreover, he concludes that “From these defeats, and the experience of the lost war, in many respects grew the successes of the Second World War and some of the strengths of the Soviet Command [Из этих поражений, из опыта проигранной войны во многом выросли успехи Второй мировой и отдельные сильные стороны советского командования].” Then, there is that not insignificant fact, as Kozlov reminds us, that many of the great Soviet generals, including Zhukov, Vasilevsky, Malinovsky, Rokossovsky and others were veterans of the First World War. In the end, this author concludes that the First World War will never be “a real war of the people of Russia … Perhaps, it is not needed by us today.” But he observes that the war illustrates that “… Russia is nevertheless inscribed in the European context … [Россия все-таки вписана в европейский контекст].”

It is said that President John Kennedy was powerfully influenced by Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August while he was navigating that most dangerous moment of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Contemporary American leaders would do well to read Tuchman’s excellent analysis as well and perhaps then to also add Solzhenitsyn’s stirring book about the same month (summarized above) for extra credit. Indeed, those now enamored with “great power competition” in Washington, D.C. need to reflect deeply on the most important lesson of World War I: that seemingly small events in remote places can escalate tensions and precipitate catastrophe beyond all prior imagination. This same crowd from the “blob” should also contemplate the role of alliances in facilitating this rapid escalation to tragedy.

Lyle J. Goldstein is a research professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the United States Naval War College in Newport, RI. In addition to Chinese, he also speaks Russian, and he is also an affiliate of the new Russia Maritime Studies Institute at Naval War College. You can reach him at [email protected]. The opinions in his columns are entirely his own and do not reflect the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. government.

Image: Reuters.