The Silk Roads to the Great War

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan.

In this part of the story, Frankopan will intersect with Halford Mackinder without ever mentioning his name.  Mackinder gave a presentation in 1904.  To summarize: the coming (from his vantage point) struggle is for the Eurasian landmass – the world island.  My most extensive review of his work can be found here.

I have long felt that his views best capture the geo-political struggle for empire; his views best explain the reasons for the wars of the last one-hundred years.  To summarize Mackinder: whoever controls this world island will control the world; I posit a corollary, or maybe a fallback position: whoever prevents anyone from controlling this world island has a chance to control the world.

Co-opt Russia or destabilize Russia.

With that, we are now ready to cover Frankopan’s views of the road to the Great War, World War One.  From Frankopan:

Time to buy old US gold coins

…it was not a series of unfortunate events and chronic misunderstandings in the corridors of power in London, Berlin, Vienna, Paris and St. Petersburg that brought empires to their knees, but tensions over the control of Asia that had been simmering for decades.  It was not Germany’s spectre that lay behind the First World War; so too did that of Russia – and above all the shadow that it cast on the east.  And it was Britain’s desperate attempt to prevent this shadow growing that played an important note in bringing the world to war. The Silk Roads: A New ... Peter Frankopan Best Price: $10.00 Buy New $13.46 (as of 09:48 EDT - Details)

Forgive the long cite, but you must admit that you have never read anything like this in school: the root (or, at least, a major root) cause of the war was Britain wanting to push back on Russia, to keep Russia in check. (Emphasis added…for emphasis.)

Finding a convincing reason for this war – and the assassination of an Austrian prince is not convincing – has proven elusive to many, certainly to me.  Maybe one will be found here.

Frankopan traces the roots back to one hundred years before the war.  Russia began extending its frontiers to include various regions and peoples of Central Asia: the Kyrgyz, the Kazaks, and the Oirats.  The respective leaders were rewarded handsomely by St. Petersburg if they would support the Russian expansion.

Then there was the south: the Ottoman Empire.  Russia secured major concessions, including Bessarabia and major areas around the Caspian Sea.  Then on, beyond the Caucasus to Persia.  At one point, to appease the Tsar after a tense event, the Persian Shah sent off the ninety carat Shah Diamond – once hanging above the throne of the emperors of India – to St. Petersburg.

Russian intellectuals explored the question: is Russia’s future to be found in the west or in the east?  Themes of the east were to be found in Russian music of the nineteenth century; Dostoevskii wrote with passion that Russia should not only engage with the east but embrace it:

In a famous essay entitled “What is Asia to Us?,” he argued in the late nineteenth century that Russia had to free itself from the shackles of European imperialism.  In Europe, he wrote, we are hangers-on and slaves; in Asia, “we go as masters.”

What does any of this have to do with Great Britain and the Empire?  Egypt, India, Afghanistan, passages to the Far East: all at risk, with Afghanistan seen as the key – the key to Britain’s crown jewel of India.

As far as policy in Asia is concerned, wrote Lord Ellenborough, a senior figure in the Duke of Wellington’s Cabinet in the 1820s, Britain’s role was simple: “to limit the power of Russia.”

British envoys to the various at-risk regions were rejected – or decapitated; while in retreat from Afghanistan to India, a British column was attacked and annihilated in the winter snow – legend held that only one man survived.

The British intended to teach the Russians a lesson.  The Crimean War was an outlet for this desire.  The result of the war: a Russian defeat, continued Ottoman decline, and the French as the leading power on the continent.  This was cemented by The Treaty of Paris in 1856:

The aim was to humiliate Russia and to strangle its ambitions.  It had the opposite effect – this was a Versailles moment, where the settlement was counter-productive and had dangerous consequences.

Russia learned the shortcomings of its army, and extensive reforms were implemented.  Further, the Tsar abolished serfdom.  Russia’s growth during the second half of the nineteenth century was impressive: iron production surged five-fold in just 20 years; rails connected the vast reaches of the empire.

Russia redoubled efforts in Persia and Afghanistan and the various khanates between it and India.  The missions paid dividends, as hundreds of thousands of square miles of territory were brought under its control, without force, within fifteen years of the end of the war.

These efforts were followed by incorporation of Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara as well as much of the Fergana valley – all protectorates or vassals of St. Petersburg.

Russia was building its own massive trade and communication network, which now connected Vladivostok in the east to the frontier with Prussia in the west, and the ports of the White Sea in the north to the Caucasus and Central Asia in the south.

In 1867, Russia sold Alaska to the United States.  Frankopan sees this as an embarrassing decision; it is possible it was nothing more than a realistic appraisal.  Land army or sea power: where was Russia’s relative strength to be found?

And it was in this environment that Halford Mackinder gave his presentation.  And it was with this background in mind that Frankopan suggests that the roots of the Great War were not to be found in the capitals of Europe, but in Asia; not to be found in the overt alliance between Britain and Russia but in the covert machinations of the so-called Great Game between Britain and Russia.

And this will be the story for next time.

Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.