Peter Durnovo wrote to Tsar Nicholas II in February of 1914 a memorandum warning of the consequences of war, mere months before the onset of the first World War. Tensions were brewing. Franz Ferdinand had not yet been assassinated, but there was a deep sense of growing unrest. Only a decade earlier, Russia had experienced a failed revolution after the Russo-Japanese War (Steinberg). Durnovo, a reactionary determined to keep the status quo, recognized the risks of what a war would bring and how it would sever the last threads holding Imperial Russia together. He blasted the Triple Entente as having been meddled in by Britain, and that Russia had pragmatically gained nothing as a result – but could lose everything, as the battering ram of Britain. “To sum up, the Anglo-Russian accord has brought us nothing of practical value up to this time, while for the future, it threatens us with an inevitable armed clash with Germany.” Many of his warnings eerily came true, down to Russia's inadequacy to fight a war on the side of Britain, to how the socialists would rise up in the smoke, to the fall of Germany (Steinberg). There is one glaring error in Durnovo's memorandum: the mistaken belief that naval and imperial tensions between Britain and Germany would be the primary cause of a greater European war. While “the Great War” did occur, its origins and onset were not as Durnovo envisioned. To fully understand how Durnovo made this poor call, in the face of being so right on so much, one must examine not only why, but how he was wrong.
Durnovo wrongly states that “The vital interests of Russia and Germany do not conflict.” History tells us a different story. Germany pursuing an aggressive policy for years, perhaps even making realistic plans 18 months in advance of the onset of World War I for military action (Sheffield). Kaiser Wilhelm II had deliberately decided against renewing a treaty with Russia years in the 1890s, and instead opted for the creation of a purely German alliance – this key factor had been the cause of the first entente, an alliance between Russia and France. Britain, fearing a powerful Germany, would later engage in mending relations with France and Russia, dividing the powers into those of the Central and the Entente. Durnovo neglects to bring up the fact that Germany, by proxy through its support of Austria-Hungary, was pursuing a more aggressive policy in the Balkans as well. Russia, through its alliance with Serbia, stood in the way (Steinberg).
It would be Germany that played the part of aggressor, not Britain (Sheffield). While Durnovo was right that the growing imperialist ambitions, along with military buildup, would increase tension, his prediction was ultimately wrong. The entangled web of alliances, mutual defense, treaties, and severe foreign policy miscalculations would be the brush. The spark would be the assassination of Franz Ferdinand – not a war between Britain and Germany spilling over. The assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne was blamed squarely on Serbia. Russia, bound by alliance and treaty, announced the mobilization of its forces (Kubilius). Germany, which had written as essentially blank heck to Austria-Hungary, had perhaps not anticipated that Russia would go this far. Nevertheless, they had encouraged the concept of war, and readily declared war on Russia with the view that mobilization was an act of war. France, allied to Russia, would also be engaged at war – Germany would invade the neutral Belgium in order to reach Paris quickly (Sheffield). Britain, which was morally obligated to defend France per treaty, would also utilize a nearly century old treaty with Belgium to justify its involvement after Germany's invasion. Germany's rampant aggression directly conflicts with Durnovo's predictions, who had warned that Britain would play the part of antagonist, and would exploit Russia as a battering ram. “The main burden of the war will undoubtedly fall on us... The part of a battering ram, making a breach in the very thick of the German defense, will be ours, with many factors against us to which we shall have to devote great effort and attention.”
Durnovo either failed to include or intentionally omitted the potential idiocy of Russia's own decision making in his memorandum. The decision to mobilize the military in the face of Germany's blank check to Austria-Hungary was foolish, regardless if it was backed by treaty. Without Nicholas' decision to support Serbia, World War I almost certainly would not have happened – at least, not the way that it did. The alternative would have been to remain idle, abandoning Serbia to Austria. While this would have resulted in incredible criticism from Pan-Slavicists, it would have permitted Russia to at the very least have more time in building its forces. Even the most optimistic predictions stated that Russia would not be ready for war until 1917 (Sheffield).
One explanation for Durnovo's insistence to the Tsar that better relations with Germany were preferable is Durnovo's belief that Britain was a natural ally of the socialist opposition within Russia. “Strange as it may seem, England, monarchistic and conservative to the marrow at home, has in her foreign relations always acted as the protector of the most demagogical tendencies, in variably encouraging all popular movements aiming at the weakening of the monarchical principle.” As a reactionary, Durnovo was doubtlessly terrified by the idea of the monarchy falling. It was only rational, then, that Russia should ally with Germany, to which it was ideologically closer. “It should not be forgotten that Russia and Germany are the representatives of the conservative principle in the civilized world, as opposed to the democratic principle, incarnated in England and, to an infinitely lesser degree, in France.” Whatever Durnovo's idealization of the German monarchy, it would be the conflict of Germany and Russia over Austria-Hungary and Serbia that was the first sign that war was now inevitable.
Durnovo was wrong that war was an entirely British prospect. He was wrong that a war between Britain and Germany would pull its allies in – instead, the opposite happened. It is unlikely that even if Russia had heeded Durnovo's advice that war could have been avoided for too long. The end of monarchism may have been inevitable. Ultimately, Durnovo's warnings would not be heeded. While World War I did not start the way he had envisioned, the difficulties Russia would face both during and after the war came true. World War I would accelerate the end of the Russian Tsardom. The Socialists would be victorious in Russia, and monarchism would come to a crashing end. Durnovo would not live to see the end of the monarchy, dying in 1915 – not long after his warnings.
Durnovo, Peter. “Memorandum to Tsar Nicholas II.” Course Material; Provided Reading.
Kubilius, Kerry. “Russia's Position in WWI.” Web. [http://suite101.com/article/russias_position_in_wwi-a71574], accessed October 30th, 2012.
Sheffield, Gary. “The Origins of World War One.” Web. [http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwone/origins_01.shtml], accessed October 30th, 2012.
Steinberg, John, Anthony Heywood, David McDonald. “Could Russia Have Avoided War in 1914?” Web. [http://russiasgreatwar.org/media/international/avoided.shtml], accessed October 30th, 2012.