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 August, 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 98th installment in the series.
January 13 to 15, 1914: Russians Weigh War Against Turkey, Liman von Sanders Affair Resolved
In mid-January 1914, the Liman von Sanders Affair was finally resolved by some bureaucratic sleight-of-hand in Constantinople—and not a moment too soon, as the Russians were seriously considering war against the Ottoman Empire.
In December 1913, Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov was alarmed by the appointment of a German officer, Liman von Sanders, to command the Turkish First Army Corps guarding Constantinople; Sazonov and other top officials in St. Petersburg feared this would place the Ottoman capital and strategic Turkish straits under German control, menacing Russian foreign trade and frustrating their own ambitions to conquer the ancient city in the not-too-distant future.
Sazonov responded by enlisting Russia’s “Triple Entente” allies, France and Britain, to pressure Germany and Turkey to cancel the von Sanders mission. The French were ready to back up Russia, but the cagey British required a bit of coaxing. After some dithering, British foreign minister Edward Grey finally warned Berlin that the Russians might demand compensation for von Sanders’ appointment in the form of territory in Turkish Armenia (where the Russians were already fomenting rebellion), which in turn might trigger the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire—exactly what the Germans didn’t want to happen (at least, not yet).
Facing a united front from Russia, France, and Britain, the Germans signaled that they were ready to compromise: after some prodding by German diplomats, in late December von Sanders asked the Turkish government to transfer him to another command, which would remove him from Constantinople while still upholding German prestige. However the Turks, still hoping to draw Germany into a long-term defensive alliance, took their time about granting the request.
The Russians were in no mood to wait: On January 13, 1914, Sazonov convened a war council presided over by premier Vladimir Kokovtsov (who was also finance minister) and attended by war minister Vladimir Sukhomlinov, navy minister Ivan Grigorovich, and chief of staff Yakov Zhilinsky. At this secret meeting Russia’s top leadership considered the ramifications of war against the Ottoman Empire—including the possibility of a much wider war.
Referring to Sazonov’s designs on Turkish Armenia, Kokovtsov warned that Russian advances here would probably trigger war with Germany and Austria-Hungary. Could Russia handle all three enemies at once? The answer depended partly on Russia’s allies. Here Sazonov told his colleagues that “France would go as far as Russia may wish,” an opinion supported by French president Raymond Poincaré’s statements as well as the recent appointment of the fiercely anti-German Maurice Paléologue as French ambassador to Russia; Sazonov had also received assurances from Poincaré that Britain would fight with them—as long as the British believed that the Germans started it.
On the military front, Sukhomlinov and Zhilinsky expressed confidence that Russia could fight Turkey, Germany, and Austria-Hungary simultaneously, as long as she could count on support from France and Britain. True, the strategic situation would be even better in 1917, when Russia’s Great Military Program, finally approved by Tsar Nicholas II in November 1913, would be substantially complete; Russia also needed to extend its military railroads and bolster its Black Sea fleet for an amphibious assault on Constantinople. But the soldiers were clear: If Russia had to go to war now, she could take all comers.
As it turned out, this wouldn’t be necessary. On January 15, 1914, the Turks announced that Liman von Sanders had been promoted to field marshal in the Turkish army, which meant he was now too high-ranking to command an individual army corps; instead he would serve as inspector general, overseeing training and reforms. Basically, von Sanders had been “kicked upstairs” to resolve the situation without damaging anyone’s prestige.
As this peaceful resolution showed, nobody actually wanted a general European war. The problem was that most of the Great Powers—Russia and France on one side, Germany and Austria-Hungary on the other—believed they faced long-term threats that might eventually compel them to go to war in spite of their own peaceful intentions. Russia feared another power might seize Constantinople and also felt obliged to protect its Slavic cousin, Serbia, in order to preserve its own influence in the Balkans; France feared Germany’s growing economic and military might and resented German bullying in colonial affairs; the Austrians feared the rise of Slavic nationalism in the Balkans, which threatened to tear their patchwork empire apart; and the Germans feared encirclement and the decline of Austria-Hungary, their only real ally.
As 1914 wore on these fears—along with each nation’s belief in its own military preparedness, and their collective tendency to bluff and counter-bluff in high-stakes conflicts—all combined to produce a very dangerous situation.