How Much Was World War I About… Bread?
By Scott Reynolds Nelson
the Literary Hub web site
Stories about the Great War of 1914 to 1918 often begin with an account of German aggression. But the war’s cause also had roots in the cheap grain cast upon the waters every spring and summer to feed Europe’s working classes. The Turkish-German alliance threatened European gullet cities: it combined the grain-bottling Bosporus, which could block Russian grain, with Germany’s ship-destroying U-boats, which could block grain from Argentina, Australia, and America. Together Turkey and Germany could starve Europe.
Grain was key to almost every stage of World War I. Fearing the threat to its grain exports, imperial Russia helped provoke this global conflict. During the war the British underestimated the threat of Istanbul and overestimated their ability to overcome it. As the conflict dragged on, Germany, also suffering from a dearth of cheap bread, found a unique path to Russia’s bountiful harvest. German success in 1917 and most of 1918 would rely on the un-likeliest of allies: a communist grain merchant with an ax to grind.
World War I has been characterized as a “great powers” conflict with Germany as the aggressor. A Serbian assassin killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to Austria-Hungary’s throne, leading that empire to declare war on Serbia. Russia backed Serbia, mobilizing its army near the Austro-Hungarian border. Germany, itching for conflict, supported Austria-Hungary and demanded that Russia demobilize. When Russia refused, Germany invaded Belgium to attack France—Russia’s ally and financial backer. In the same month the Germans and Austrians attacked Russia near Tannenberg, wiping out the Russian First and Second Armies. England joined the side of the Franco-Russian Allies after Germany invaded Belgium. The Ottomans only joined the Austrian-German Central Powers two months later.
That’s an oft-told story, but for scholars of the pathways of grain around the world, the war’s history begins a little earlier and much farther east. In 1911, Italy invaded what would become Libya, taking it from Turkey. The day after the fighting stopped, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Montenegro took advantage of the conflict to invade Turkey. Then, crucially, Turkey closed the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits to commerce, blocking all Russian grain and oil exports. Russians, fearing that Bulgaria or Greece might capture Istanbul, put both their army and the Black Sea fleet on alert.
Russian agriculture minister Alexander Krivoshein, who then dominated the Tsar’s council, reorganized the Russian cabinet in 1914 to prepare for a global war. From the cabinet’s perspective, this coming conflict would be the seventh Russo-Turkish war since the reign of Catherine the Great, yet another attempt to protect Russia’s precious grain-export trade.
Together Turkey and Germany could starve Europe
Krivoshein saw in Istanbul an existential threat. He recognized that Germany, in helping build up Turkey’s military, was drawing Istanbul into its orbit. The paranoid Russian cabinet saw signs of this German-Ottoman alliance everywhere. German officers had been training the Ottoman army since 1883, and Prussian officers organized the placement of the artillery that Parvus had purchased on city walls in Istanbul and Adrianople. Most concerning was that, in July 1914, the Turkish state would receive its first dreadnought: a costly state-of-the-art ship from the English firm Vickers & Co., with other ships on order.
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