Russia and the Outbreak of the Great War

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 15 December 2021

Tsar Nicholas II and Kaiser Wilhelm II aboard a ship in the Gulf of Finland, 1905

In the early historiography of the Great War, it was accepted that Germany was chiefly responsible, with debates on the margins about the degree of intentionality and premeditation. Of late, however, “It has become fashionable to spread the guilt of the First World War liberally around Europe”, as one prominent historian noted.[1] Some revisionists go even further and try to find another state that is not only equally as culpable as Germany but more so. In this post, I want to, without in any way pretending to be comprehensive, deal with the argument that blames Russia for the 1914-18 War.


The argument for putting the onus on Russia for the outbreak of the First World War relies on the Russian backing for Serbia, the party responsible for the assassination of the Austrian heir apparent, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie, on 28 June 1914. This argument comes in two forms.

The first form is the broad moral-political sense: Petersburg was backing a regime of what the Tsar himself had called “hooligans” and they had committed an outrage that demanded revenge, as such Serbia and by extension Russia bear the guilt for everything that happened next. There is a powerful element of truth in this, but it is an argument that works best when made in sweeping moral terms; as soon as one starts putting historical context back in, it weakens gravely.

For one thing, note that it was the July Crisis that led into the Great War; the Archduke was killed in June. Had Austria struck swiftly at Serbia in the immediate aftermath of Ferdinand’s murder, it is very unlikely Russia or any other Great Power would have stepped in. When the Kaiser wrote to the Tsar on the eve of war, “we … have a common interest as well as all Sovereigns to insist that all the persons morally responsible for the dastardly murder should receive their deserved punishment”, he was right; nobody wanted to legitimise shooting monarchs.

The problem was two-fold: the delay in handing the ultimatum to Serbia had shifted the political atmosphere, making Austria look calculating and cynical rather than righteously enraged (which was not untrue), and the time limit within the German-approved Austrian ultimatum itself made it impossible for the European diplomatic system to work as it had in several recent crises. Lengthy diplomacy had solved the standoff between Britain and France at Fashoda and the two Moroccan crises (1905 and 1911) sparked by German belligerence against the British and the French. Diplomacy had kept the peace during the Zabern Affair, and contained the Italian war in Libya (1911) and the Balkan Wars (1912-13).[2]

The impossibility of the Austrian demands was intentional. The Austrian chief of staff, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, had counselled war against Serbia twenty-five times in 1913 alone.[3] Now, at last, he had an incensed public and elite opinion to back him—the Serbian assassins had (erroneously) killed the one man who would certainly have stopped a war—and Austria had perhaps the only opportunity it would ever get to destroy this lethal nuisance to the Empire while being viewed as the victim. Conrad’s main concern was preventing the diplomats finding a “last minute opportunity to avert war”.[4]

What enabled this Austrian conduct was the Kaiser extending Vienna a blank cheque on 6 July—even sceptics in the Vienna Cabinet like Hungarian Prime Minister Count Istvan Tisza were won over by the German guarantee into supporting war with Serbia. This is not to take away from the fact that Austria chooses war, but it is important to note that Germany had not so much given a green light to Austria as goaded it to invade Serbia, seeing the “risk” of dragging the Russians in more as an inducement than a deterrent.[5]

The natural thing, in the atmosphere of the time where there were ample recent precedents, would have been for Germany to back Austria in claiming reparations, either money or territory, and then convening some kind of conference to hash out the details. Instead, the German posture through all of this was a racially-tinged focus on Russia, seen as a barbarous Slavic menace to the civilised Reich, and a menace furthermore where the window for dealing with it was closing: Russia was rapidly industrialising and within a few years would have repaired its army after the 1904-05 war with Japan.[6]

It was with this in mind that the Germans set about implementing an intentional wider war under the Schlieffen Plan they had first created in 1905. The Germans declared war on Russia on 1 August 1914—then invaded France. The German war plan in concept was criminally irresponsible (and shockingly brutal in execution), relying on Austria holding down the Russians during the time needed to finish off France, a prospect the Germans well-knew was dubious, even if the quick-victory-in-the-west idea had worked (the miracle of the Great War is that Austria remains in it until the last days after its army is shattered in the first six weeks). More importantly, it involved Germany attacking one neutral country (France) by invading through another (Belgium), threatening the strategically vital Low Countries and bringing Britain into the war—all before dealing with Russia. The claims from German high command that they thought the British would fail to act on a policy of three-hundred years standing only underlines the recklessness and/or bellicosity of the German leadership.[7] The fact is that the German “war guilt” clause in the Treaty of Versailles was “fundamentally correct”.[8]


The second form of the argument that affixes blame to Russia for the Great War is more direct: it posits a Russian hand behind the assassination of Ferdinand.

There is no question that the organisation that murdered Ferdinand, Young Bosnia, an offshoot of Union or Death (a.k.a. the Black Hand gang), was a creature of the Serbian intelligence services and its chief, Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, better known as Apis (“The Bull”). Nor is it in doubt that the 19-year-old assassin, Gavrilo Princip, and his six co-conspirators had been trained, armed, and smuggled into Bosnia by Apis’ men.[9]

Equally clear is that Russia’s military attaché in Belgrade, General Viktor Artamonov, had basically daily contact with Apis and was out of town on 28 June, which might seem like a convenient alibi, but it’s a bit too convenient. The advertised point of Ferdinand’s trip to Sarajevo was to watch military manoeuvres,[10] something surely of interest to the Russian military attaché. Russia’s minister to Serbia, Nikolai Hartwig, the orchestrator of the Balkan coalition to attack the Ottomans in 1912, was something more like a viceroy than an ambassador in Belgrade, leading to a suspicion he must have had at least an inkling of Serbia’s plans.[11] The obvious counterpoint to this is that Apis did not answer to the civilian government, which lived in fear of the man who had overseen the murderous coup against the King in 1903.

In a letter days before Apis was executed in June 1917, he claimed that Artamonov funded the Black Hand operations, since the Serbian General Staff could not afford to, and that Artamonov had met with the lead organiser of the assassination, Rade Malobabic, in Apis’ presence, though even Apis says that the Russian attaché did not know about the assassination plot. Apis sounded out Artamonov about Russian backing in the case that the Black Hand activities led to blowback from Austria, and Artamonov reassured him the backing was there, but “I did not mention my intention for the assassination”, says Apis.

What to make of this? Apis’ letter confirms one thing: the Serbs thought they were killing the head of the “war party” in Vienna and thereby “the danger of war would be removed or postponed”. This in turn—since we know from recorded statements of Russian diplomats immediately after the assassination that they believed the same thing[12]—suggests strongly what is already visible in outline: the Russians and Apis’ apparat were sharing an intelligence stream. But the letter raises many more questions.

Is Apis’ confession letter true? Did he have a motive to lie? Even if the letter is accepted as true, does it prove the Russians knew about the Sarajevo assassination in advance? Does it prove the Russians sponsored it?

There was clearly a mood in Belgrade in 1917 that was desirous of a scapegoat so the country could open a new chapter, distanced from its reputation as what we would now call a “rogue state”; whether evidence was coerced or fabricated to that end, we just don’t know. It is quite notable that nothing has turned up from the Okhranka files showing a cash stream from Petersburg to the Black Hand, and the Bolsheviks published anything incriminating they captured from the Imperial Government. Now, this is not definitive: huge numbers of files were destroyed in the “February Revolution” and in its last few years the Okhranka had problems maintaining order between the centre and lower officials; it is most unlikely high officials would have had anything to do with Apis’ assassination scheme, but a piece of private enterprise from Artamonov cannot be ruled out.

If Russian involvement in the Sarajevo assassination must remain, until or unless further evidence surfaces, in a state of epistemological ambiguity, what of Russian foreknowledge of the plot? Here again there are no firm answers.

The most suggestive evidence that advocates point to—that Russia had broken the Austrian cyphers[13] and the purging of the Russian diplomatic archives in the key period[14]—do not in any concrete sense show that Russia knew of the Ferdinand assassination ahead of time, let alone that Russia orchestrated the assassination as a means to start a larger was so they could fulfil imperialistic policies like seizing Galicia, Constantinople, and other parts of Turkey.[15]

Suspicious as the gaps are in Russian (and French) records in July 1914, there are limits to how much they could reveal: the documentation all around that is present, including some very damaging material about Russia’s cynical, dangerous, and ultimately tragic dalliance with the Ottoman Armenians.[16] What the available documents indicate is Russian diplomacy coalescing on war aims in the September-November 1914 period,[17] which is in common with the other states—a lot of “grievances” and national causes that get taken up during the Great War emerge as a consequence of the war, not a cause of it.[18]

A final note: if one is looking for a demonstrable connection between the Serbian conspirators in Sarajevo and Russia, it is to be found not with the Okhranka, but rather with the Okhranka’s enemies, with the terrorist-revolutionaries bent on the destruction of the Tsardom. There were deep ideological and operational connections between the Black Hand and the Russian revolutionaries.[19]


Within Russia, there certainly were elite figures who at least did not mind war, even if they did not exactly thirst for it. On the military side, once faced with the Austrian invasion of Serbia and the German games over mobilisation, the advice was consistently for early and full Russian mobilisation. The War Minister, General Vladimir Sukhomlinov, and his substandard protégé, the Chief of the General Staff General Nikolai Yanushkevich, bombarded the Tsar with telegrams and telephone calls. The Tsar hated using the telephone as it was, and this feeling intensified after it became the mechanism for delivering him stress from bombastic military officials. The most important voice on the civilian side pushing for mobilisation was Foreign Minister Sergey Sazonov, who was also the architect of what would become Russia’s rather expansive war aims. These three men were the key movers within the Imperial Government in the first two years of the war.[20]

Sazonov was able to get backing from the much-respected Alexander Krivoshein, probably the most influential voice in the Cabinet over the Tsar, who had been serving as Agriculture Minister. The most gung-ho advocates of war on behalf of the Serbs were the elected civilians, notably two Octobrist liberals, the Duma president Mikhail Rodzianko and Alexander Guchkov.[21]

The Tsar did not want war, and to the very last moment tried to find a way to defuse the situation. The Russian Emperor had ordered a partial mobilisation to defend the borders with the Habsburg realm after the Austrian invasion of Serbia had begun on 28 July 1914. Told that, bureaucratically, it was very difficult to sustain a partial mobilisation, the Tsar had agreed to Sazonov’s request for a full mobilisation at 21:30 on 29 July, only to call it off an hour later when he received a telegram from his cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II (r. 1888-1918), saying that Germany was working to mediate the situation and Russian mobilisation jeopardised that effort.[22]

Nicholas fully supported an effort to contain the Austro-Serbian War and bring it to a speedy end, recommending to the Kaiser—during the so-called “Willy-Nicky Telegrams” (29 July-1 August 1914)—“giv[ing it] over … to the Hague conference”. Nicholas made clear, “We are far from wishing war”, and tried to explain that he had to prepare the Empire’s defences. “These measures do not mean war and … we shall continue negotiating”, the Tsar wrote. “Our long-proved friendship must succeed, with God’s help, in avoiding bloodshed.” However, it soon became apparent that the German Emperor was being deceptive.

The Kaiser now said that for him to negotiate “peace” it required the demobilisation of all Russian forces, including on the Austrian border. Wilhelm was stringing Nicholas along. The Kaiser had given Vienna the blank cheque that had made the whole mess possible and even as the Kaiser was cabling Saint Petersburg, ostensibly offering a path to peace, his General Staff was secretly preparing to implement the Schlieffen Plan—an attack on two neutral countries in preparation for turning the full might of the Second Reich against Russia.

“He’s asking the impossible”, Nicholas said in despair to Sazonov, showing him the Kaiser’s cables. “If I agreed, we’d find ourselves unarmed against Austria. It would be madness.” The Tsar finally ordered mobilisation at 16:00 on 30 July. After Sazonov transmitted the order to the Yanushkevich, the War Minister pulled his telephone out of the wall so he could not receive a countermanding order.[23]

The Kaiser now posed as if the aggressive war he planned was a response to the Russian mobilisation,[24] issuing an ultimatum the next day demanding Russia’s mobilisation be halted. Germany declared war on Russia in the evening of 1 August, and two days later attacked France.


Post has been updated

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[1] Simon Sebag Montefiore (2016), The Romanovs: 1613-1918, p. 577.

[2] Michael Neiberg (2011), Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I, pp. 36-65.

[3] The Romanovs, p. 570. Conrad had also repeatedly pushed for war against Italy since the time of the 1911 Libya crisis. John Schindler (2015), Fall of the Double Eagle: The Battle for Galicia and the Demise of Austria-Hungary, chapter two. A detail that cannot be removed from Conrad’s thinking is that since 1907 he has been carrying on torrid extra-marital affair with Gina von Reininghaus, the wife of a wealthy industrialist, and he has become convinced that if he can become a successful war leader, this will convince her to leave her husband. This should not be overstated as the reason Conrad is so adamant on war; it is one among a constellation of factors. The interesting thing is that once Conrad got his war, he was filled with a very reality-based pessimism about how it would go, since he understood how unprepared the Empire was to wage it. Nevertheless, Conrad believes in going down in a blaze of glory. In one of the many letters Conrad writes to Gina, this one hours after Franz Ferdinand has been murdered, he says of the impending war, “It will be a hopeless struggle, but it must be pursued, because so ancient a Monarchy and so glorious an Army cannot perish ingloriously”. Fall of the Double Eagle, chapter four.

[4] Dance of the Furies, p. 94. Conrad was not an outlier among Austrian senior officers in worrying that the diplomats would avert war. Michael von Appel, the XV Corps commander down in Sarajevo, wrote a letter on 25 July 1914 about his nervousness that a way would be found for Serbia to accept the ultimatum and expressing his “feverish longing” for war “to finish off those murder-boys—God grant us only that we remain steadfast … oh that we could march forth, we’re only lacking faith … just let it go—we’ll take care of the rest.” Fall of the Double Eagle, chapter four.

[5] Gary Sheffield (2001), Forgotten Victory: The First World War: Myths and Realities, p. 38.

[6] Dance of the Furies, pp. 66-68.

[7] Forgotten Victory, p. 35.

[8] Forgotten Victory, p. 39.

[9] Sean McMeekin (2011), The Russian Origins of the First World War, p. 42.

[10] On the Austrian side, the politics driving the Archduke’s trip were the hopes of Bosnia’s governor, Oskar Potiorek, to use the prestige of the visit to make one last play to replace Conrad.

[11] Hartwig’s open contempt for the Austrians in the aftermath of the crime did nothing to alleviate Austro-Russian tensions and there must have been something satisfying for the Austrians when Hartwig died of a heart attack in their presence after finally deigning to express official condolences for Ferdinand’s murder on 10 July 1914. There were, of course, claims of foul play, such as poison in food, but Hartwig was only at the meeting for ten minutes when death came; he never got to dinner. Hartwig had smoked two cigarettes, and the butts were turned over to his wife so she could test them. The Russian Origins of the First World War, pp. 47-49.

[12] The Russian Origins of the First World War, p. 48.

[13] As well as Russian success on the technical side against Austria, the Okhranka had deeply compromised the human side, recruiting Alfred Redl, the head of Habsburg counter-intelligence. Redl was discovered on 24 May 1913 and shot himself in the early morning of the next day. By coincidence, on the day Redl is unmasked, Adolf Hitler leaves Vienna after his career as a painter has not worked out, and travels to Munich.

[14] The Russian Origins of the First World War, p. 46.

[15] The Russian Origins of the First World War, pp. 92-97.

[16] The Russian Origins of the First World War, pp. 141-74.

[17] The Russian Origins of the First World War, pp. 89-97.

[18] Dance of the Furies, pp. 100-10.

[19] The Black Hand were “virtually nurtured upon” a Russian novel, What Is To Be Done?, written in 1863 by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, the patron saint of the Russian revolutionaries, to describe the utopia to come and the New Men who would rule over it. What Is To Be Done? was regarded as abysmal in artistic terms, but even those with highly developed aesthetic senses like the founder of Russian Marxism, Georgi Plekhanov, could not deny the sweeping influence the book had on the Russian terrorist-revolutionaries and the intelligentsia that produced them. The same proved true among terrorist-revolutionaries in the Russophile zones of the Balkans like Serbia and Bulgaria. See: Tibor Szamuely (1974), The Russian Tradition, pp. 214-15. The Russian revolutionaries operated in an internationalist framework, having contact with radicals all over Europe and in Britain and America: in addition to exchanging ideological literature, the foreigners helped smuggle weapons into the Russian Empire, and the Russian revolutionaries helped these other groups by sending them specialists—in assassinations, bomb-making, and bank-robbing. This kind of organisational overlap occurred with the Black Hand, though what exactly the Russian revolutionaries knew ahead of time about the Serbian plot to assassinate the Archduke is unclear. Anna Geifman (1993), Thou Shalt Kill: Revolutionary Terrorism in Russia, 1894-1917, p. 205.

[20] The Russian Origins of the First World War, p. 74.

[21] The Romanovs, p. 575.

[22] The Romanovs, pp. 573-75.

[23] The Romanovs, p. 576.

[24] Dance of the Furies, pp. 99-100.

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