Russians Cry Foul on von Sanders Mission


The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 92nd installment in the series.

November 10, 1913: Russians Cry Foul on von Sanders Mission

The European diplomatic world was a small one, composed of no more than a few hundred men, almost all aristocrats, most of whom knew each other to varying degrees. Between the gossip mill and ubiquitous espionage networks, it didn’t take long for news to circulate—so it was only a matter of time before word got out about the appointment of a German officer, Liman von Sanders (above), to command the Turkish First Army Corps guarding Constantinople.

It wasn’t uncommon for Europeans to train and sometimes even command the troops of second-rank powers, but von Sanders’ mission far exceeded the usual scope of these arrangements: By placing a German in charge of the Constantinople garrison, the Turks were effectively giving Germany control of the capital and the Turkish straits—a move sure to anger the Russians, who hoped to conquer Constantinople and the straits themselves in the not-too-distant future.

The “Liman von Sanders Affair,” as it was soon known, began in earnest on November 10, 1913, when the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov, instructed the Russian ambassador in Berlin, Sergei Sverbeev, to tell the Germans that the von Sanders mission, would be regarded by Russia as an “openly hostile act.” In addition to threatening Russia’s foreign trade, half of which flowed through the Turkish straits, the mission raised the possibility of a German-led Turkish assault on Russia’s Black Sea ports (not to mention imperiling Russia’s devious plans for expansion in eastern Anatolia).

While the von Sanders mission was troubling to Sazonov, he also understood that the Germans couldn’t simply back down for reasons of prestige. Thus the Russian foreign minister sought a solution that would allow them to withdraw and still save face. On November 18, the Russian premier, Count Vladimir Kokovtsov, who happened to be visiting Germany, paid a visit to Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg and suggested that von Sanders be given a different assignment, preferably somewhere other than Constantinople.

For his part, Bethmann-Hollweg was only vaguely aware of the von Sanders mission—it was an initiative of the German army, which sometimes seemed to be conducting its own foreign policy—and he certainly had no desire to alienate Russia following a year of seemingly endless Balkan crises. But even if the German government was willing to reach an accommodation, it wasn’t solely their decision to make—and the Turks, fed up with European bullying, were in no mood to compromise.

See the previous installment or all entries.