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Remembering World War I: Russian tsar Nicholas II's reluctant march to war
A file picture of a post card released by the Historial de Peronne, Museum of WWI, shows Tsar Nicolas II, Emperor of Russia, Grand Duke of Finland, and titular King of Poland, reviewing troops in Poland during the First World War. After a week of failed diplomacy, dithering and doubt, Tsar Nicholas II ordered Russia's armies to mobilise on July 30, 1914. There would be no turning back from a decision that set Europe on a course to war. AFP PHOTO.

By: Marina Lapenkova

MOSCOW (AFP).- After a week of failed diplomacy, dithering and doubt, Tsar Nicholas II ordered Russia's armies to mobilise on July 30, 1914. There would be no turning back from a decision that set Europe on a course to war.

At 6:00 pm the order was telegraphed across the vast empire, whose pre-war borders reached deep into central Europe, as red posters appealing to Russian patriots were plastered up in towns and villages.

Joyous street rallies broke out in support of the call to arms, with nationalist fervour still high two days later when the German Emperor Wilhelm II responded by declaring war on his Russian cousin.

"Only the tsar, with his German origins, is against the war," the liberal journalist Mikhail Lemke mused in his diary at the time.

Over the past four days the two sovereigns -- "Willy" and "Nicky" as they nicknamed each other -- had been trading telegrams in a last-ditch bid to save peace, even as their army chiefs readied for battle.

On July 29, a day after Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia's Slavic ally Serbia, Nicholas sent a first message pledging his affection to his German cousin -- and urging him to stop Vienna's march to war.

"I foresee that very soon I shall be overwhelmed by the pressure forced upon me and be forced to take extreme measures which will lead to war," he warned.

Wilhelm pleaded with his cousin the tsar to stay out of the brewing European conflict in the name of their "hearty and tender friendship".

But Nicholas admitted he was powerless to reverse Russia's military march, despite the warning that a mobilisation would be a casus belli for Germany's military leaders.

The end of us
The tsar's German cousin was not alone in warning him of the impending bloodbath.

At home too, the influential advisor to the imperial family, Grigori Rasputin, urged him not to enter a conflict "that will be the end of us all".

But the pressure from his civil and military advisors was too strong, and the ruler ultimately bowed to their will -- signing the order to mobilise on July 29, then withdrawing it, before confirming it again on July 30.

On the evening of August 1, "Willy" declared war on "Nicky" and the horror foretold by the courteous cousins had begun.

"At 6:30 pm, we went to mass. Upon our return we were informed that Germany had declared war on us," Nicholas recorded in his diary that day.

The next day the tsar blessed his armies in Saint Petersburg -- whose German-sounding name was promptly changed to Petrograd, as a fired-up mob vandalised Berlin's embassy in the city home to a historic German community.

Bells rang out all day as crowds flocked to church in support of the Russian troops.

"The war against Germany is popular with the military, with the civil service, the intelligentsia and with leading industrialists," the war minister at the time, Vladimir Sukhomlinov, recorded in his memoirs.

Three years later, World War I had precipitated the Russian Revolution, unseated the three-century Romanov dynasty and exacted a terrible price in blood, with two million Russians dead.

Vulnerable to Bolsheviks
Fighting alongside France and Britain in a group known as the Triple Entente, against the Central Powers led by Germany and Austria-Hungary, Russia threw its might into the war's eastern theatre.

But after a disastrous defeat in East Prussia in late August 1914, the tsar's armies began a shambolic eastward retreat.

Against a backdrop of desperate food shortages at home, military failure left the crippled state vulnerable to assault from Lenin's Bolsheviks.

When bread riots in Petrograd spun out of control in March 1917, Nicholas II was forced to abdicate and was executed along with his family the following year.

Russia's new Bolshevik rulers, who signed the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty in March 1918, were keen to forget a war whose humiliating settlement stripped Russia of its western territories and a third of its population.

Idea of a nation
The 1914-18 conflict was eclipsed by the losses suffered in the Revolution and the civil war that ensued, and even more by the Soviet Union's 25 million dead in the battle against Nazi Germany in World War II, according to the historian Pyotr Multatuli.

Enter Vladimir Putin, who decided upon first coming to power in 2000 it was time to resurrect the memory of the Great War.

"The First World War must bring Russians together," summed up Artyom Savinov of the Central Museum of the Armed Forces in Moscow, which unveiled its first-ever exhibition on the war to mark its centenary.

"Remembering a war that brought about the collapse of the Russian Empire must be helpful for rulers trying to recreate the idea of a nation," lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union, said Multatuli.

A recent Russian survey found that 58 percent of the population could not venture any answer as to why the Great War started, while 53 percent could not say against whom Russia had fought.

© 1994-2014 Agence France-Presse

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