Russia Pursues Naval Treaty with Britain

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

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 112th installment in the series.

April 15, 1914: Russia Pursues Naval Treaty with Britain

The European alliance system was undoubtedly a major cause of the First World War, but the image of a rigid structure bringing about conflict with mechanical inevitability isn’t quite accurate. On one side, the Triple Alliance wasn’t much of a triple anything: Germany and Austria-Hungary were closely bound to each other, but the third member of the defensive pact, Italy, was unreliable, to say the least. Meanwhile there was no formal diplomatic agreement governing the Triple Entente of France, Russia, and Britain; rather, it was an informal coalition hinging on France, which had a defensive alliance with Russia and a mostly unwritten “Entente Cordiale” (friendly understanding) with Britain.

Indeed, the Brits were a cagey lot who prized their traditional independence from Europe and remained leery of any commitments that might embroil them in a Continental conflict. They were especially reluctant to promise intervention with land forces, a prospect that summoned nightmarish memories of the Napoleonic and Crimean Wars. But as the world’s dominant naval power—and at the same time, an overstretched empire looking for ways to cut costs – Britain was more receptive to the idea of naval conventions that could reduce demands on the Royal Navy while serving as a force multiplier for British sea power. That was the thinking behind the Anglo-French Naval Convention of 1912, as well as Russian overtures for a similar agreement in the final months before war broke out.

The Russians had a number of reasons to want a naval convention with Britain: it would firm up British commitment to the Triple Entente, deter Germany and Austria-Hungary, and let France know that Russia was pulling its weight in their alliance. But the most important reasons were the super-dreadnought battleships Britain was building for the Ottoman Empire, the Reshad V and Sultan Osman I (latter pictured above, rechristened HMS Agincourt), which threatened to change the balance of power in the Black Sea, frustrating Russian plans to conquer the Turkish capital of Constantinople.

As this complex dynamic illustrates, Britain and Russia were what today might be termed “frenemies,” happy to cooperate in some areas, like containing Germany, but openly competing in others, like the Middle East and Asia. Nevertheless the Russians hoped that Britain might be persuaded to sell the battleships to Russia instead of Turkey as part of a naval convention, and were willing to offer concessions in Persia and Central Asia—where the British feared Russian influence might someday threaten India, the crown jewel of the British Empire—to sweeten the deal. Eventually Anglo-Russian agreement might even extend to a formal three-way alliance with France, converting the Entente into a solid military bloc containing Germany.

This was the gist of a letter sent by Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov to the Russian ambassador in London, Count Alexander Konstantinovich Benckendorff, on April 15, 1914, in which Sazonov observed:

The English, filled with their old insular mistrustfulness, must not lose sight of the fact that they will one day find themselves under the inexorable necessity of taking an active part in the struggle against Germany, if she undertakes a war, the only aim of which can be to tilt the balance of power in Europe in her own favor. Is it not better from every point of view to secure oneself in advance… by an act of political farsightedness which would make an end of the steadily growing ambitions of Germany?

The following day, the Russian naval minister broached the idea of Russia buying the dreadnoughts with the British ambassador to St. Petersburg, Sir George Buchanan. The Russians also called on their French friends to act as intermediaries and present the Russian case for an Anglo-Russian naval convention, possibly followed by a full alliance. In the second half of April, King George V and British foreign secretary Edward Grey were due to visit Paris, where President Poincare, Premier Viviani, and foreign minister Gaston Doumergue would make the Russian case.

The British, ambivalent as always, were distinctly lukewarm about the proposed naval convention with Russia, but some progress was made: Grey agreed to the idea in principle in April, and on May 19, 1914, he met with Benckendorff and the French ambassador Paul Cambon back in London, apparently to set up preliminary negotiations between the British and Russian admiralties. Meanwhile on April 27 British undersecretary for foreign affairs Sir Arthur Nicolson noted: “I know the French are haunted with the same apprehension—that if we do not try to tighten up ties with Russia she may become weary of us and throw us overboard. In that case we should be in an exceedingly awkward position, as she could cause us an infinity of annoyance, to put it mildly, in the Mid and Far East, without our being in any way able to retaliate.”

But as always diplomacy proceeded at a sedate pace, and was swiftly overtaken by events following the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 (there was no more need for a convention when Russia and Britain were allied in an actual war against Germany). That’s not to say that the negotiations had no result. In the final months of peace German newspapers caught wind of the rumored Anglo-Russian Naval Convention, further stoking German paranoia about “encirclement” by the Triple Entente. Like Russia’s Great Military Program and planned Black Sea buildup, ironically the negotiations for a naval convention with Britain managed to inflame German fears without adding appreciably to Russian security.

See the previous installment or all entries.

Can You Guess J.K. Rowling's Fantastic Beast From Its Magical Power?

The Many Lives of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"

Leonard Cohen in London in June 1974.
Leonard Cohen in London in June 1974.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

In the late 1970s, Leonard Cohen sat down to write a song about god, sex, love, and other mysteries of human existence that bring us to our knees for one reason or another. The legendary singer-songwriter, who was in his early forties at the time, knew how to write a hit: He had penned "Suzanne," "Bird on the Wire," "Lover, Lover, Lover," and dozens of other songs for both himself and other popular artists of the time. But from the very beginning, there was something different about what would become "Hallelujah"—a song that took five years and an estimated 80 drafts for Cohen to complete.

In the 35 years since it was originally released, "Hallelujah" has been covered by more than 300 other artists in virtually every genre. Willie Nelson, k.d. lang, Justin Timberlake, Bono, Brandi Carlile, Bon Jovi, Susan Boyle, Pentatonix, and Alexandra Burke—the 2008 winner of the UK version of The X Factor—are just a few of the individuals who have attempted to put their own stamp on the song. After Burke’s soulful version was downloaded 105,000 times in its first day, setting a new European record, “Hallelujah” soon became a staple of TV singing shows.

It's an impressive feat by any standard, but even more so when you consider that "Hallelujah"—one of the most critically acclaimed and frequently covered songs of the modern era—was originally stuck on side two of 1984’s Various Positions, an album that Cohen’s American record label deemed unfit for release.

“Leonard, we know you’re great,” Cohen recalled CBS Records boss Walter Yetnikoff telling him, “but we don’t know if you’re any good.”

 

Yetnikoff wasn’t totally off-base. With its synth-heavy ’80s production, Cohen’s version of “Hallelujah” doesn’t announce itself as the chill-inducing secular hymn it’s now understood to be. (Various Positions was finally released in America on the indie label Passport in 1985.) Part of why it took Cohen five years to write the song was that he couldn’t decide how much of the Old Testament stuff to include.

“It had references to the Bible in it, although these references became more and more remote as the song went from the beginning to the end,” Cohen said. “Finally I understood that it was not necessary to refer to the Bible anymore. And I rewrote this song; this is the ‘secular’ ‘Hallelujah.’”

The first two verses introduce King David—the skilled harp player and great uniter of Israel—and the Nazarite strongman Samson. In the scriptures, both David and Samson are adulterous poets whose ill-advised romances (with Bathsheba and Delilah, respectively) lead to some big problems.

In the third verse of his 1984 studio version, Cohen grapples with the question of spirituality. When he’s accused of taking the Lord’s name in vain, Cohen responds, hilariously, “What’s it to ya?” He insists there’s “a blaze of light in every word”—every perception of the divine, perhaps—and declares there to be no difference between “the holy or the broken Hallelujah.” Both have value.

“I wanted to push the Hallelujah deep into the secular world, into the ordinary world,” Cohen once said. “The Hallelujah, the David’s Hallelujah, was still a religious song. So I wanted to indicate that Hallelujah can come out of things that have nothing to do with religion.”

 

Amazingly, Cohen's original "Hallelujah" pales in comparison to Velvet Underground founder John Cale’s five-verse rendition for the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan. Cale had seen Cohen perform the song live, and when he asked the Canadian singer-songwriter to fax over the lyrics, he received 15 pages. “I went through and just picked out the cheeky verses,” Cale said.

Cale’s pared down piano-and-vocals arrangement inspired Jeff Buckley to record what is arguably the definitive “Hallelujah,” a haunting, seductive performance found on the late singer-songwriter’s one and only studio album, 1994’s Grace. Buckley’s death in 1997 only heightened the power of his recording, and within a few years, “Hallelujah” was everywhere. Cale’s version turned up in the 2001 animated film Shrek, and the soundtrack features an equally gorgeous version by Rufus Wainwright.

In 2009, after the song appeared in Zack Snyder's Watchmen, Cohen agreed with a critic who called for a moratorium on covers. “I think it’s a good song,” Cohen told The Guardian. “But too many people sing it.”

Except “Hallelujah” is a song that urges everyone to sing. That’s kind of the point. The title is from a compound Hebrew word comprising hallelu, to praise joyously, and yah, the name of god. As writer Alan Light explains in his 2013 book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah,” the word hallelujah was originally an imperative—a command to praise the Lord. In the Christian tradition, it’s less an imperative than an expression of joy: “Hallelujah!” Cohen seemingly plays on both meanings.

 

Cohen’s 1984 recording ends with a verse that begins, “I did my best / It wasn’t much.” It’s the humble shrug of a mortal man and the sly admission of an ambitious songwriter trying to capture the essence of humanity in a pop song. By the final lines, Cohen concedes “it all went wrong,” but promises to have nothing but gratitude and joy for everything he has experienced.

Putting aside all the biblical allusions and poetic language, “Hallelujah” is a pretty simple song about loving life despite—or because of—its harshness and disappointments. That message is even clearer in Cale’s five-verse rendition, the guidepost for all subsequent covers, which features the line, “Love is not a victory march.” Cale also adds in Cohen’s verse about sex, and how every breath can be a Hallelujah. Buckley, in particular, realized the carnal aspect of the song, calling his version “a Hallelujah to the orgasm.”

“Hallelujah” can be applied to virtually any situation. It’s great for weddings, funerals, TV talent shows, and cartoons about ogres. Although Cohen’s lyrics don’t exactly profess religious devotion, “Hallelujah” has become a popular Christmas song that’s sometimes rewritten with more pious lyrics. Agnostics and atheists can also find plenty to love about “Hallelujah.” It’s been covered more than 300 times because it’s a song for everyone.

When Cohen died on November 7, 2016, at the age of 82, renewed interest in “Hallelujah” vaulted Cohen's version of the song onto the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time. Despite its decades of pop culture ubiquity, it took more than 30 years and Cohen's passing for “Hallelujah”—the very essence of which is about finding beauty amid immense sadness and resolving to move forward—to officially become a hit song.

“There’s no solution to this mess,” Cohen once said, describing the human comedy at the heart of “Hallelujah. “The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say 'Look, I don't understand a f***ing thing at all—Hallelujah! That's the only moment that we live here fully as human beings.”

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