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CLARK, Christopher



The Sleepwalkers

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In taking these steps [Ministerial Councils of July 24 and 25] , Sazonov and his colleagues escalated the crisis and greatly increased the likelihood of a general European war. For one thing, Russian pre-mobilization altered the political chemistry in Serbia, making it unthinkable that the Belgrade government, which had originally given serious consideration to accepting the ultimatum, would back down in the face of Austrian pressure. It also heightened the domestic pressure on the Russian administration, for the sight of uniformed men and the news that Russia would not `remain indifferent' to the fate of Serbia stirred euphoria in the nationalist press. It sounded alarm bells in Austria-Hungary. Most importantly of all, these measures drastically raised the pressure on Germany, which had so far abstained from military preparations and was still counting on the localization of the Austro-Serbian conflict. Why did Sazonov do it? He was not a candid man and never produced a reliable account of his actions or motivations during these days, but the most plausible and obvious answer lies in his very first reaction to the news of the ultimatum: `C'est la guerre Européenne!' Sazonov believed from the outset that an Austrian military action against Serbia must trigger a Russian counter-attack. His response to the ultimatum was entirely consistent with his earlier commitments. Sazonov had never acknowledged that Austria-Hungary had a right to counter-measures in the face of Serbian irredentism. On the contrary, he had endorsed the politics of Balkan irredentism and had explicitly aligned himself with the view that Serbia was the rightful successor to the lands of unredeemed South Slavdom within the dual monarchy, an obsolete multi-ethnic structure whose days , in his view, were in any case numbered. It does not seem to have occurred to him that the days of the autocratic, multi-ethnic Russian Empire, whose minority relations were in worse condition than Austria-Hungary's, might also be numbered. Sazonov had denied from the start Austria's right to take action of any kind against Belgrade after the assassinations. He had repeatedly indicated in a range of contexts that he would respond militarily to any action against the client state. Already on 18 July, shortly after it became known that an Austrian note of some sort was in preparation, Sazonov had told Sir George Buchanan that anything resembling an Austrian ultimatum in Belgrade could not leave Russia indifferent, and she might be forced to take some precautionary military measures.

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Was all this done on Serbia's behalf alone? Was Russia really willing to risk war in order to protect the integrity of its distant client? We have seen that Serbia's importance in Russian eyes grew during the last years before the war, partly because of the deepening alienation from Sofia and partly because Serbia was a better instrument than Bulgaria for applying pressure to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Sympathy with the Serbian cause was strong in Russian pan-Slavist and nationalist circles - this was an issue with which the government could build useful bridges to its middle-class public. On the other hand, St. Petersburg had been willing to leave

Belgrade to its own devices in October 1913, when the Austrians had issued an ultimatum demanding their withdrawal from northern Albania . And unlike Russia's neighbour Bulgaria, which possessed a piece of Black Sea coast, Serbia could hardly be seen as geopolitically crucial to Russian security.

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On the other hand, the Straits issue doubtless carried considerable weight for Krivoshein, whose responsibility for agricultural exports made him especially aware of the vulnerability of Russian commercial shipping. Recent instability in the Balkans had tended to fuse the Balkan theatre with the Straits question, so that the peninsula came increasingly to be seen as the crucial strategic hinterland to the Straits. Russian control of the Balkans would place St Petersburg in a far better position to prevent unwanted intrusions on the Bosphorus. Designs on the Straits were thus an important reinforcing factor in the decision to stand firm over the threat to Serbia. Whatever the precise order of geopolitical priorities, the Russians were already on the road to war. At this point, the horizons of possibility began to narrow. It becomes in retrospect harder (though not impossible) to imagine alternatives to the war that actually did break out in the first days of August 1914. This is doubtless what General Dobrorolsky, head of the Russian army's mobilization department, meant when he remarked in 1921 that after the St Petersburg meetings of 24 and 25 July `the war was already a decided thing, and all the flood of telegrams between the governments of Russia and Germany were nothing but the staging for an historical drama'. And yet throughout the crucial days of the fourth week of July, the Russians and their French partners continued to speak of a policy of peace. The policy of `firmness', as expounded by Poincaré, Sazonov, Paléologue, Izvolsky, Krivoshein and their colleagues was a policy that aimed, in the words of the Tsar , `to safeguard peace by the demonstration of force'.

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Britain presents a rather different picture. Unlike Stolypin and Kokovtsov or their German colleagues Bülow and Bethmann Hollweg, the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, had no reason to fear unwanted interventions by the sovereign . George V was perfectly happy to be led by his foreign secretary in international matters. And Grey also enjoyed the unstinting support of his prime minister, Herbert Asquith. Nor did he have to contend, as his French colleagues did, with over-mighty functionaries in his own Foreign Office. Grey's continuity in office alone assured him a more consistent influence over policy than most of his French colleagues ever enjoyed. While Edward Grey remained in control of the Foreign Office for the years between December 1905 and December 1916, the same period in France saw fifteen ministers of foreign affairs come and go. Moreover, Grey's arrival at the Foreign Office consolidated the influence of a network of senior officials who broadly shared his view of British foreign policy. Grey was without doubt the most powerful foreign minister of pre-war Europe.

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