Category Archives: Diplomacy

3 MARCH, 1918: Neither War Nor Peace

At the end of a cold, hard winter in Britain,  the weather was turning mild and dry.  The ice and snow of the previous April were still fresh in the memory so nobody was taking good conditions for granted, but rain or shine one thing was certain in early March 1918:  with spring on the way, the fighting season was coming.

A year earlier, the immediate preamble to fighting season had seen huge shifts in the world’s geopolitical landscape triggered by the February Revolution in Russia and, a few weeks later, the declaration of war by the United States.  Those seismic events had not been permitted to derail Allied military planning.  They contributed only tangentially to the collapse of French General Nivelle’s ill-conceived spring offensive on the Western Front, and bore little or no responsibility for the more prolonged, British-led failure around Ypres in the autumn – but, along with the autumn collapse of the Italian Army’s positions around the Isonzo, they did inform an atmosphere of strategic uncertainty among Allied commanders when it came to planning their campaigns for 1918.

Almost a year later, on 3 March 1918, the long, somewhat bizarre peace negotiations between the Russian Bolshevik regime and the Central Powers reached their conclusion with an agreement that gave the pre-War worldview one more kick into oblivion.  Again, the Allies didn’t let the swerve alter their major offensive plans – but that was because they didn’t really have any.

Allied offensive strategy on most land fronts didn’t require much in the way of deep thinking in early 1918.  The Eastern Front was lost, as was the Caucasian Front, while the Allied army in Salonika was too far from anywhere to help win the War and was anyway an operational shambles, pinned to the spot by diplomatic and regional priorities.  Strategic priorities around the British-led Palestine and Mesopotamian Fronts were simple enough, and attempts to divert strength from them to address crisis on the Russian frontiers were already in the process of melting down (17 February, 1918: Follow That Figment!), while the relatively minor colonial business in East Africa had long since become a purely tactical struggle.

On the Italian Front, now a genuinely international enterprise with the arrival of British and French reinforcements during the late autumn, holding a line and rebuilding an army were the names of the game.  The Western Front was, as ever, ripe for the bi-annual exercise of offensive ambition, especially given the arrival of US forces in the theatre, but the need to cooperate in Italy had forced Allied strategists into a joint command structure, and once it had settled the Italian crisis the Supreme War Council turned into a forum for unproductive inter-Allied bickering.

British c-in-c Haig was all in favour of another spring offensive, as was his government, but his French counterpart, Pétain, was determined to preserve fragile armies by adopting a defensive posture until overwhelming (i.e. American) force could be brought to bear.  That left a lot of riding on the attitude of the US Army’s commander in Europe, General John J Pershing, and Pershing definitely had attitude.

John J Pershing – definitely the kind of general you name a tank after.

Born in 1860 and the US Army’s most experienced combat commander, ‘Black Jack’ Pershing had fought in the Indian wars, Cuba, the Philippines and, most recently, Mexico.  His appointment to command the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in May 1917 was no surprise to anybody, and he arrived in Europe the following month, long before almost all of his troops.  By the time he was promoted full general in October, Pershing needed all the seniority he could claim as he fought off repeated and increasingly frustrated demands from British and French commanders for the use of US troops as they reached the theatre, to reinforce Allied units on the Western Front.

A strong and confident character, in no danger of being overawed by Old World grandees, Pershing refused to use his army – which was still shipping to Europe en masse and would pass 500,000 men in April 1918 – as anything but a single national force.  Apart from an understandable desire to remain in direct command of his troops, two basic tenets sustained his resistance.  For one thing, he believed that his well fed, energetic, enthusiastic troops could, used en masse, defeat the tired old German Army in the field – and that sending his ‘Doughboys’ piecemeal into ill-planned battles alongside exhausted allies was a waste of their war-winning potential.  Secondly, and in many ways more importantly, Pershing held to the principles under which the United States had entered the War.

It’s impossible to overstate the sense of perilous embarkation on an unprecedented journey that accompanied US commitment to the First World War.  We’re very familiar with the USA’s more recent readiness to appoint itself world policeman, but in 1918 that was something startlingly new and had to be handled with care.  It was symbolically important, both inside and outside the US, for the AEF to operate as a national army, emphasising both national unity and the USA’s continued separateness from the imperialists it existed to oppose.  The same symbolism lay behind the USA’s belligerent status, at war against Germany and Austria-Hungary (though not Bulgaria or the Ottoman Empire), but fighting alongside the British and French, not as an ally but as an ‘associated power’.  As far as Washington and Pershing were concerned, associated powers couldn’t and didn’t operate under joint command.

While the Allies waited for (and by and large equipped) the gathering AEF, the desperate gamblers of the German high command had been planning their own do-or-die offensive in France, but were waiting on an official end to the war against Russia. Thanks to Soviet commissar for foreign affairs Leon Trotsky’s pursuit of ‘neither war nor peace’, more simply described as stalling tactics, it had been a long wait, but German patience had run out in mid-February.

On 9 February the Central Powers had concluded a separate treaty with the Ukraine, recognising its independence under a pro-German puppet regime (21 April, 1917: Anarchy in the Ukraine), and Trotsky had responded by yet again suspending negotiations at Brest-Litovsk.  The German Third Supreme Command, driven by Ludendorff’s obsessive pursuit of territorial gains for economic exploitation, was all for retaliation with a full resumption of hostilities and the capture of Petrograd.  It was restrained by the politicking of German foreign minister Richard Kühlmann, who had always regarded Ludendorff’s ambitions as unrealistic, and who used his industrial and royal connections to force a compromise on the grounds that too much aggression might rekindle Russian military resistance in the theatre.  The result was Operation Faustschlag, a limited German attack that opened on 17 February and advanced some 250km in two days without meeting serious opposition.

Faustschlag was enough for Lenin.  He had been giving qualified support to Trotsky’s position, but with former Russian provinces moving towards independence and counter-revolutionary forces organising for civil war, survival of the Bolshevik regime was now his overriding priority.  After Trotsky had quit Brest-Litovsk to become commissar for war, the Bolshevik delegation finally agreed to German peace terms on 19 February.

Conquest by pen:  the signing ceremony at Brest-Litovsk.

The treaty duly signed on 3 March had nothing to do with the conciliatory approach favoured by Kühlmann and an increasingly panic-stricken Kaiser, but expressed the Third Supreme Command’s imperial ambitions in full.  Leaving aside the wealth of detail dedicated to German economic exploitation, it forced the Bolsheviks to recognise Poland, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Belorussia and the Ukraine as German spheres of influence, depriving the former Russian Empire of some 30 percent of its population, while the Ottoman Empire was granted full control of the Caucasus.  The Soviet regime also agreed to cease all interference in the internal affairs of lost territories.

Ambitious? Ludendorff? Germany’s new empire from March 1918.

Predictably denounced by the Allies (and associated powers), the treaty also provoked resentment in Sofia and Vienna with its overt concentration on purely German interests.  It was obviously unpopular in Russia, but in fact made little difference to the Soviet position, both because the annexed territories were in effect already lost and because the Bolsheviks proceeded to ignore non-interference agreements at every opportunity.  Needless to say it subjected East European and Caucasian peoples to varying degrees of military occupation and economic exploitation, but in many ways the states that suffered the most from the deal made at Brest-Litovsk were its supposed beneficiaries.

The Ottoman Empire was seduced into squandering resources it really couldn’t spare on a disastrous attempt to establish control over Transcaucasia, and Ludendorff’s ambitions for an eastern empire kept between one million and 1.5 million German troops (estimates vary) busy with its immediate administration.  Their efforts may or may not have gone on to provide the long-term economic salvation envisaged by the Third Supreme Command, but their absence would prove fatal to the German Army’s forthcoming spring offensive in France, and that failure that would render the question academic.

While the millions at war braced for the next instalment of military cataclysm, while the BEF chafed at the bit, the French waited for the Americans, the Americans waited for their army to get up to strength and the German Army planned a last, great offensive on the Western Front, a watershed moment was being signed into modern European history.  The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk brought the war on the Eastern Front to an official end, freed Ludendorff’s fatal ambition to leap a bridge to far, and plunged the whole of Eastern Europe, along with Russia, into a long, painful period of war and revolution.  As such it raised the curtain on a whole bunch of other stories, many of which the Anglophone world has been ignoring for decades, and seems worth remembering a hundred years on.

11 FEBRUARY, 1918: Daydream Believer

I’ve spent the last few years trying to shine a little light on those aspects of the First World War that get left out of most heritage history, but sometimes even those events it does commemorate get such superficial or inaccurate treatment that I feel compelled to give their windows a polish.  A couple of those are floating around our media ether at the moment.

I’m tempted to spend the day explaining why modern focus on Emmaline Pankhurst, the very definition of a self-serving opportunist, is a betrayal of the women who made real sacrifices in pursuit of female suffrage, but that will have to wait.  Right now I’m exercised about the superficial nod delivered by posterity to the Fourteen Points, US President Wilson’s quintessentially liberal recipe for a peaceful world.

Wilson’s recipe has since been almost universally dismissed as a naive failure, which would explain why it hasn’t garnered much in the way of centenary action.  It that has also been blamed – often by the same people – for much that went wrong with the peace process at the end of the First World War, and by extension for the League of Nations, the Second World War and almost everything we remember as bad about the rest of the twentieth century.  That view reflects its enormous contemporary impact on what you might call the global psyche, and makes virtually ignoring it a hundred years on look pretty ridiculous.  So here’s a briefing.

I’ll start with the anniversary, by way of clearing up a nomenclature issue.  Wilson originally announced his principles for creation of a lasting peace in Congress on 8 January 1918, and there were fourteen of them.  On 11 February he again addressed Congress, and added four more principles to the list, but by that time news of his original speech had spread as fast as wildfire could travel in 1918.  The Fourteen Points were famous – had in fact provoked so much popular excitement and political irritation all over the world that they are a small watershed moment in the emerging age of mass communication.  Nobody was about to start calling them the Eighteen Points just because it was accurate.

The Fourteen Points Are Ours… sentiments echoed by street protesters all over the world in 1918.

So what exactly were they?  Compiled by Wilson with help from his special advisor, Colonel House, and a team of political experts (Wilson was, of course, an academic), the original fourteen were a very sketchy peace programme delivered to Congress as a statement of US war aims.  The first of Wilson’s fourteen paragraphs renounced secret treaties, calling for ‘open covenants openly arrived at’, and the second demanded absolute freedom of the seas outside of territorial waters, rendering the kind of blockade tactics carried out by the British illegal.  The third point called for the removal of trade barriers wherever possible, the fourth for worldwide arms reduction and the fifth for impartial arbitration of all colonial disputes.

After that, Wilson got down to specifics.  Point six required an end to all occupation of Russian imperial territory by the Central Powers, a sop to the Bolsheviks locked into peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk.  Point seven demanded the complete restoration of Belgium, point eight accepted French claims to Alsace and Lorraine, both absorbed by Germany since 1871, and the ninth point recognised some but not all of Italy’s territorial claims.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire received relatively lenient treatment from the tenth point, which only called for ‘autonomous development’ of its separatist elements, but point eleven was more firm on the future of the Balkans, insisting on an end to the occupations of Romania, Montenegro and Serbia, with the latter to have access to the Adriatic coast.  Point twelve guaranteed Ottoman sovereignty of the empire’s Turkish heartlands, but granted autonomy to its subject peoples and declared the Dardanelles an open sea, while point thirteen recognised the existence of an independent Poland, and that it should have access to the sea.

Having passed principled judgment on the world’s most pressing international disputes in the space of a few minutes, Wilson went on, in point fourteen, to recommend the establishment of ‘a general association of nations’ as a means of keeping the peace.

The four points added on 11 February were less easily said, even more vague and even less easily done.  The first accepted that no general formula for peace could be applied to every post-War claim, and that each must be judged on its individual merits, while the second stated that peoples and provinces could not be bartered as diplomatic currency between empires.  The third declared the benefit of local populations to be the basis upon which all future territorial agreements should be made, and the fourth gave the world a get-out, stating that ‘well-defined national aspirations’ could only be satisfied if they didn’t introduce or perpetuate causes for war.

The man who saved the world – when he still believed the hype.

Faced with social injustice, socialists and liberals have always agreed about some short-term aims, and in 1918 Wilson’s prescription for peace agreed in many ways with the version presented by the Bolsheviks at Brest-Litovsk.   I think I’ve already mentioned that Bolshevik peace proposals had an enormous impact on populations all over the world, and contributed directly to permanent political and social change for some of them, but the Fourteen Points made an even bigger splash thanks to a propaganda machine that really knew its business.

The man in charge of US wartime propaganda was George Creel, a committed social reformer and ‘muckraker’ journalist, well known for his exposés of commercial and political corruption.  Creel had been a strong supporter of Wilson during the 1912 and 1916 election campaigns, and was appointed to head the Committee of Public Information (CPI) in 1917.  Energetic and confident, though inclined to impulsive verbal outbursts, he turned what had been no more than a government news agency into a sprawling propaganda service.

George Creel in 1917. Doesn’t look forty, does he?

The wartime CPI expanded rapidly to include a Pictorial Publicity Division, employing the nation’s most celebrated painters, sculptors and cartoonists, and a Motion Picture Division.  It also employed an estimated 75,000 ‘Four-Minute Men’, trained public speakers who roamed the country giving short speeches in schools, churches and movie theatres, promoting food conservation, War Bonds or any other federal policy.  Each Four-Minute Man gave an average of more than a thousand wartime speeches, reaching a total audience of almost 315 million and proving a highly effective propaganda tool in a nation still thoroughly hooked on declamatory speechifying.

Speaks for itself…

Partly to promote peace, and partly to make sure the world knew why the US was going to war, Creel’s department was charged with selling the Fourteen Points abroad, and did a fabulous job, albeit working with audiences desperate to believe in any plan that promised a workable peace.  Wilson found himself lionized across six continents, his programme hailed as visionary genius by foreign populations, even those who stood to lose by its propositions, wherever they were able to express their views.  Governments were generally less impressed.

Without making any formal protest, Allied governments rejected the reduction of Italy’s territorial claims (as they were bound to do by the 1915 treaty that bribed Italy into the War) and the proposed ban on naval blockade tactics.  They also objected to Wilson’s complete silence on the subject of reparations, an issue turned into a political hot potato in Britain, France and Italy by their own propaganda, which consistently accused Germany and Austria-Hungary of forcing war on Europe.  On the other side of the lines, the governments of the Central Powers viewed the Fourteen Points as inimical to the survival of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, and greeted them with predictable derision.

Given popular opinion’s relative lack of worldwide clout in 1918, even in countries dependent upon public support for survival at war or in the midst of populist revolution, rejection by belligerent governments on both sides could easily have consigned the Fourteen Points to history’s dustbin then and there.  That they avoided the fate of all the previous attempts to broker peace did have something to do with the sheer breadth of their popular appeal, and with a growing sense in all the belligerent states (encouraged by the collapse of Russia and the imminent involvement of US forces) that the War’s long stalemate was finally nearing breaking point.  Above all though, their continued currency during the months that followed was a reflection of the USA’s particular place in the world of early 1918.

The United States was the success story of the age, a model nation built on strict democratic principles that was entering the world stage as powerful economic, diplomatic and (potentially) military force.  It was already showing signs of losing its halo, on the back of military adventures inspired by greedy and corrupt corporate interests, but was still essentially admired around the world, carrying none of the world policeman’s baggage that has soiled its reputation ever since.  If any nation on Earth stood a chance of being trusted as an international peacemaker, and of bullying those incapable of trust, the USA was it.

A self-conscious guardian of the American halo and a president elected on a pacifist ticket, Wilson not only believed in the righteousness and practicability of his peace formula, he couldn’t afford to let it fade from the global agenda.  He needed his home constituents and the world at large to recognise that the US was going to war for noble, selfless reasons, in tune with the liberal ideals he and his supporters espoused.  So US propaganda and diplomacy kept up pressure for the Fourteen Points through the spring and summer of 1918, and were rewarded in the autumn.

Facing military defeat, the Central Powers demanded that Wilson’s programme form the basis for peace negotiations, primarily because it was far more lenient to defeated states than the punitive war aims of the European Allies.   Wilson publicly insisted on the same thing while making a few amendments to the Points as sops to Allied objections, leaving Britain and France, let alone Italy and the smaller Allied nations were, in no position to argue.  That put everyone concerned on a path to attempt the reconstruction of a shattered global civilisation using a blueprint nobody believed in, except the liberal wing of the US political class.   There will be more to say about the Fourteen Points, but in the meantime that’s your briefing.

12 JANUARY, 1918: Port In A Storm (Part One)

Back in peacetime, when the Great War’s coming was a matter of dire prediction, orthodox geopolitical thinking had assumed that, if the massive effort required to sustain mechanised warfare went on for more than a few weeks, Europe’s empires would crumble under economic and associated social pressures. More than three years of total war in fact passed before the Russian Empire melted down to become something completely and aggressively new, but fear of collapse had never stopped haunting the continent’s governing elites.

Fed by evidence of socio-political fragility in every belligerent empire, even in the richest and most politically stable of them, elite fear translated into something approaching panic in the face of Bolshevism. The German regime was willing to let Russia have its revolution, at least until it had dealt with the existential threat from the west, while Austria-Hungary and Turkey were too far along the road to collapse to do anything but grasp at pickings from the Russian Empire’s carcase – but Allied governments fell over themselves to disrupt and (ideally) destroy what they saw as a harbinger of apocalypse.

There wasn’t all that much the Allies could do. They could cut off some maritime supply lines to Petrograd, and they could use existing supply lines (across Sweden or via the Arctic and Murmansk or Archangelsk) to provide counter-revolutionary forces with funds and equipment, even direct military support. The British could conceivably divert forces from the Middle East into southwestern Russia, though for the moment they were busy with another fight, but otherwise the Central Powers occupied Russia’s European frontiers. That left the back door.

The back door was Vladivostok, Russia’s major port in the Far East and it’s only warm-water port in the region since the loss of Port Arthur to the Japanese in 1905. Vladivostok wasn’t entirely ice-free, but could remain open for much of the winter and had become an important supply hub for the Russian war effort, increasingly so with the completion of the Trans-Siberian railway link to the west in 1916, and Russia’s alliance with a Pacific trading power, the United States, in 1917.

Get the picture?

The railway and the port were under Bolshevik control by late 1917, when the British, French and US governments began discussing joint action to support counter-revolutionary forces in Siberia. Japan, which had a longstanding strategic interest in its maritime frontier with Russia, was at first left out of the discussions, but in December 1917 obtained an invitation from its ally, Britain, to take part in any action. The only major Allied warship in Vladivostok during the chaotic weeks after the October Revolution, the US Navy light cruiser Brooklyn, had already left by late December. With diplomatic and commercial interests in the port in need of protection amid the street fighting and general anarchy, the British didn’t wait for discussions to reach a conclusion before doing what came naturally and sending a gunboat.

The British Admiralty ordered HMS Sussex, a cruiser stationed in Hong Kong, to Vladivostok. The Japanese government, ever alert to signs of European encroachment in eastern Asia (and to any diplomatic slight), reacted by ordering two old, pre-dreadnought battleships, the Iwami and the Asahi, to get there first. The Iwami won the race, arriving on 12 January, two days before the Suffolk and five days before the Asahi. Having made a show of force, and in Japan’s case made a statement about its right to a dominant role in the future of eastern Asia, the Allied warships then anchored offshore in the hope that their mere presence would encourage both anti-Bolshevik agitation and the restoration of order.

None too surprisingly with hindsight, these somewhat contradictory hopes failed to materialise, and as the situation in Vladivostok became ever more dangerous for foreign nationals, Allied intervention on the ground in Siberia appeared inevitable.  Tokyo wasted no time telling Britain and the US that any intervention should carried out by Japanese forces alone, but the proposition was officially turned down in mid-February, ostensibly because Japan’s unpopularity in Russia would drive the population into Bolshevik or even German hands. By that time the Japanese Army was drawing up plans for an invasion of eastern Siberia, with a view to setting up a nominally independent buffer state as protection against future interference in the Pacific by Russia.

The military dominated Japanese politics during the early 20th century, and prime minister Masatake was a former general.

A lengthy spell of inter-Allied dithering followed, while Japanese, British, French and US diplomats attempted to work out the details of a joint ground operation in Siberia. Although Tokyo was prepared to accept a joint intervention, and the European Allies considered the region’s future a matter for Japan and the US, progress was stymied because the Wilson administration refused to sanction the use of American ground troops. This was still the case in April, when a company of Japanese marines (hastily followed by a company of British marines) went ashore to police looting and rioting in Vladivostok. The Brooklyn had returned to the port in March, but no US Marines took part.

Russia’s southeastern tip – the port of Vladivostok in 1918.

This was the beginning of something weird and not altogether wonderful. Allied plans would eventually be forced into focus by the plight of some 40,000 Czech troops, trapped in Bolshevik Russia but still at war with Germany after the end of hostilities on the Eastern Front. Rescuing the Czechs became an Allied cause célèbre as they battled their way across Siberia towards evacuation from Vladivostok, and that provided Wilson with a way to change his mind in the name of liberal values.

International intervention would take the form of a multi-national invasion of eastern Siberia during the summer, featuring troops from Japan, the US, Britain, France, Italy, Canada and eventually even China. A long, strange campaign would follow, forming part of the Russian Civil War and extending into the early 1920s – but that’s another chapter of the story, as is the extraordinary tale of the aforementioned Czech Legion.

I’ll be getting back to both when the time feels right, but for now this has been a quick look at why Bolshevik commitment to immediate peace turned Siberia into a war zone, and at how the Allied empires lined up for the purpose. It’s also a quick reminder that Japanese aggression during the Second World War was not some sudden aberration, rather the catastrophic conclusion of a long, ultimately misguided attempt to imitate and match the great global empires of the nineteenth century – empires the First World War was in the process of consigning to history.

22 DECEMBER, 1917: Loose Talks

Brest-Litovsk is now Brest, a regional capital of some 340,000 people in Belarus, close to the border with Poland.  For much of the last three centuries this has not been a peaceful part of the world, one of those unhappy regions stuck between the ambitions of competing empires that I mentioned a couple of weeks back (6 December, 1917: The Lucky Country?).  During the First World War, the town stood in the path of three imperial armies on the Eastern Front, and was reduced to a burned, battered wreck by the Russian Army as part of its ‘Great Retreat’ in 1915. By late 1917, when the front line had shifted some 150km to the east, what remained of Brest-Litovsk was serving as the German Army’s regional headquarters, and on 22 December 1917 it played host to the first formal peace talks between Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria on one side, and Bolshevik Russia on the other.

When posterity ponders peace treaties and the First World War, the Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles loom large. Fair enough, because nobody should try and wrap their head around modern geopolitical history without appreciating the mess made at Paris and the principles behind it – but you can’t do that without context, and you can’t really put Versailles into context without some understanding of the various wartime treaties that preceded it. By blotting out the sun when it comes to looking at other treaties, the heritage industry’s obsession with the tournament-style pomp of Paris actually makes understanding it more difficult – and of all those other treaties Brest-Litovsk was the big one.

Brest-Litovsk, as left behind by the Russians in 1915.

I’m not giving away any secrets (or I shouldn’t be) by saying that the negotiations begun on 22 December produced a treaty of enormous significance, in terms of both immediate impact and historical reach. It triggered a breathtakingly ambitious (if not bonkers) German attempt to establish an instant eastern empire, and was a pivotal step in the painful birth process of the Soviet Union – but it wasn’t destined to be signed for another three months, so for now I want to talk about the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk.

A combination of hindsight and a worm’s eye view makes it very easy for us to invest history’s chaos with coherence, and to assume that great historical events, in particular great staged events, came with the kind of trappings and organisation we associate with a modern summit meeting or World Cup. This tendency can turn blind blunders into plans of action and make stumblebums look like statesmen, or it can make the results look stupid because the circumstances look sensible.

For example, punitive Allied attitudes towards Germany during the postwar peace process are much discussed and deplored as fundamental to the ruin that followed. They can’t really be explained if, like much of the heritage industry, you ignore the agreements signed at Brest-Litovsk, which can’t be understood without an appreciation of the improvised, occasionally farcical process by which they were reached.  So let’s have a look.

Pretty much the moment it took power in Petrograd, the new Bolshevik regime in Russia had declared peace. The government in fact declared peace between all the warring nations, on the grounds (not seen as altogether fanciful by many reputable foreign observers) that Western European war efforts were anyway about to be overwhelmed by socialist revolution. Given that ‘bread and peace’ had been the Bolshevik call to revolution in Russia, it was necessary to deliver peace in advance of world revolution, and so three Russian emissaries had crossed German lines under white flags on 26 November 1917, empowered to discuss the terms of an armistice between Russia and the Central Powers. A general ceasefire was agreed with the Germans on 4 December, signed at Brest-Litovsk by representatives of all the Central Powers on 5 December, and came into official force next day.

Talks towards a full armistice then began, also at Brest-Litovsk, at which point things got a little slapstick. On the Russian side the recently appointed Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Leon Trotsky, sent a 28-strong delegation that expressed Bolshevik disdain for old world diplomacy. Led by an old revolutionary ally, Adolf Joffe, aided by a couple of veteran revolutionaries in Lev Kamenev and Lev Karakhan, it included soldiers, sailors and factory workers as representatives of the revolution’s core support, along with a female representative (Anastasia Bizenko, notorious as the assassin of an imperial official). Legend claims the delegation completed the set by picking up a passing peasant en route for the railway station.

Lev Kamenev arriving at Brest-Litovsk for the armistice talks.

The Russians arrived at Brest-Litovsk to face old world diplomacy in full effect, as organised by General Max Hoffmann. Hoffmann was an interesting figure, a staff officer who had taken much of the credit for the campaigns that had made the names of Hindenburg and Ludendorff during 1914 and 1915, and who had been theatre chief of staff since Prince Leopold, the King of Bavaria’s younger brother, had taken command of the Eastern Front in August 1916. A born fixer, energetic, imaginative and equipped with the kind of vaunting ambition appreciated by his former chiefs at the Third Supreme Command, Hoffmann effectively controlled subsequent German strategy in the east. He organised the return of revolutionary leaders (like Lenin) to Russia, and suspended offensive operations after the attack on Riga in September 1917 to avoid the risk of igniting Russian patriotism at a revolutionary moment. Perhaps with one eye on a wider world scared of Bolsheviks, he now assembled a negotiating team of old school, elite diplomats.

Max Hoffmann… almost as scary as he looks.

Five Germans, four Austro-Hungarian representatives, three Ottoman and two Bulgarian treated the Russians – housed in wooden huts within the, largely intact, Brest-Litovsk fortress – to the wining, dining and conversation in French that came with the territory, and by all accounts the days that followed were an exercise in mutual bewilderment and contempt. Bad vibes made little or no immediate difference to the process. The Russians had no bargaining chips remotely comparable to the German Army, while the Central Powers, especially Germany, were in a hurry to get on with formal peace negotiations and associated annexations, so a 28-day armistice was arranged in three days.

A delay followed because Joffe had been instructed to sign an armistice for every battlefront, including those contested exclusively by Russia’s allies, and had to go home for new orders. Demanding world peace may seem as ridiculous to modern eyes as it did to many contemporary observers, but it followed from the genuine conviction among Bolsheviks that the workers of other countries were about to seize power. The same belief made any delay to the negotiating process a good thing from Petrograd’s point of view, because it bought time for world revolution to gestate. The Russian delegation eventually returned to Brest-Litovsk a week later, and a 30-day armistice was signed on 15 December.

The Central Powers brought their big diplomatic guns to Brest-Litovsk for the actual peace negotiations, including German foreign minister von Kühlmann and his Austrian counterpart Count Czernin. The Russian delegation was strengthened by the addition of a professional historian and, as military advisor, a former Tsarist general, but was stripped of its symbolic revolutionary representatives (although Anastasia Bizenko kept her place at the table). The banquets seem to have passed off rather more convivially as a result, and in more languages, but the negotiations themselves collapsed into almost instant confusion.

Joffe began proceedings by presenting Bolshevik peace demands, which amounted to the established slogan of peace ‘without indemnities or annexations’, and the German delegates agreed to this in principle, provided it was also accepted by all the other belligerent nations. Joffe was delighted at what the Bolsheviks thought was an agreement not to carve up the old Russian Empire, but had to reverse his optimistic reports home when, a day later, Germany’s position was explained in more careful detail. In accordance with the principle of national self-determination, as espoused by the Bolsheviks, territories under German occupation would be granted their independence… and then treated as German puppet states.

Protest as they might, and did, the Russian delegation had no way of preventing the Germans from doing whatever they liked, whenever they liked, because the one force on any Russian front that was still an effective instrument of state policy, the German Army, had remained in potentially offensive positions for the duration of the armistice. The only tactic left to the new Russian regime was to delay agreement for as long as possible, and hope revolution reached Western Europe before a treaty reached the statute books. Under strict instructions from Trotsky – who would later lead Russian negotiations in person – Joffe and his team responded to the certainty of a punitive settlement by doing just that.

And so it went; an elaborate dance between two mutually hostile worldviews seeking peace but refusing compromise. The German Empire and its virtually powerless allies were desperate to get their hands on the resources of Eastern Europe before the wider war was lost, but stepped lightly to exploit a rare shot at looking like the good guys, or at least more acceptable than the Bolsheviks, to their prospective new subjects. The Russians, equally determined to incorporate those same resources into their new world order, stepped nimbly because every day wasted at the negotiating table brought the downfall of their former enemies a little closer. When the music finally stopped, in March 1918, the two sides would be left with a treaty that lasted no more than a few months but changed the world forever – and is another story.

8 NOVEMBER, 1917: World Shaken (Not Stirred)

After three days of uprising on the streets of Petrograd, capital of the crumbling Russian Empire, a coup d’état brought the militant pacifist Bolshevik Party to power on the morning of 8 November 1917. Because November had not yet arrived according to the Russian Julian calendar, the coup was named the October Revolution, as distinct from the February Revolution that had overthrown the Tsarist regime earlier in the year. Anglophones tend to call it the Bolshevik Revolution or simply the Russian Revolution, but however you name it the arrival of Lenin’s new regime in Russia was one of the defining moments in twentieth-century world history.

Before the fall of the Soviet Union, posterity treated the October Revolution that way. Its anniversary was celebrated with big fanfares and military parades throughout the Soviet bloc, where it was hailed by the ruling system as a kind of Big Bang that gave birth to all things good. Elsewhere, especially in the liberal West, it attracted intense study and a sort of horrified reverence as the source of a global force that was huge, mysterious and potentially anything from catastrophic to messianic, depending on your viewpoint. Now that the USSR has proved to be neither, at least according to the apocalyptic terms of reference that were commonplace before the 1990s, posterity has found reasons to downgrade the Bolsheviks’ great moment.

Seizing the day, in a staged kind of way…

It’s not hard to see why modern Russia chooses to give the Revolution’s centenary no more than perfunctory recognition. Unable to muster the totalitarian control exerted by the Soviet system, the current regime is not remotely interested in endorsing revolutionary activities, but much more interested in discouraging any popular nostalgia for the perceived efficiency of the Soviet machine.

Mainstream western media are meanwhile trotting out commemorative material that, if British press and TV are anything to go by, is light on political analysis and big on the all-action dramas of those wild days in 1917. When the BBC News devotes a memorial piece to the bullet holes still visible at the Winter Palace, it reminds me of the way popular Anglophone history packages the French Revolution, reducing it to the storming of the Bastille and a bunch of stylish decapitations, fixed images that tell us we don’t need to think too hard about something quaint and no longer relevant.

The Bolshevik Revolution is still relevant. Its shadow still blots out a lot of sun in Russia and other former Soviet states, and it still informs the military-industrial matrix around which the West’s defiantly capitalist response to the Soviet system has been built. That said, I’m not going to run through it in any detail, partly because the job has been well and truly done by a lot of other people, some of them brilliant, and partly because it would take at least a book to do it justice. I’m old school, still infused by shock and awe at what the Revolution did to the world, and that makes giving it the usual skim treatment a bit tricky – so I’m going to cop out, suggest you start any reading with Ten Days That Shook The World, and talk about other stuff.

Even by its own crowded standards, the First World War was having a particularly busy week in early November 1917. The Balfour Declaration of 2 November had sparked global headlines and debate about the future of Palestine and the Jewish people, but was soon superseded by news from the Western Front. The capture of Passchendaele by Canadian troops on 6 November was celebrated by the British, British imperial, US and French press with far more fanfare than its negligible strategic significance deserved – but the orthodoxies of contemporary (and subsequent) propaganda insisted that nobody could end a major offensive without claiming a victory, and this one allowed Haig to finally give up on the long, painful Third Battle of Ypres.

Elsewhere, General Allenby’s capture of Gaza was a genuine victory for the British, though it was more important to the future of the Middle East than to the outcome of the War, and the same could be said of General Maude’s continuing advance into Mesopotamia. Less positively from an Allied point of view, the Italian Army was still falling back in disarray before the Austro-German offensive at Caporetto, and suffering losses that couldn’t be disguised as anything but signs of defeat. With the very real possibility that Italy’s war effort was on the point of collapse, an Allied summit at Rapallo was in session for three days from 6 November.

By the time agreement had been reached and the conference closed, Italian positions were stabilising and (largely) Austrian advances were losing momentum – but as the leaders of France and Britain left the picturesque Italian port on 9 November, with the Italian Front shored up and three-way cooperation assured, they knew that chaos in Petrograd had crystallised into the worst possible result for the Allies. Russia’s Provisional Government hadn’t seemed effective, stable or particularly friendly to strategists in London and Paris, but it had been open to diplomacy as they understood it, and it had remained committed to the War. Now the Allies had to face the news that the dreaded Bolsheviks were establishing a hold on political power and had announced ‘an immediate democratic peace’ as their first priority. The war for control of Eastern Europe was over.

Most of the above has been covered in recent posts, but the moment at which Lenin and Trotsky seized the day to change the world forever seems a good time for a brief state-of-the-War recap, if only as a reminder that it’s almost impossible to sort geopolitical events into any kind of cause-and-effect classification without the benefit of hindsight. Wartime Allied newspapers more interested in Passchendaele than Petrograd summed up the effects of political pressures and partial perspectives on contemporary analyses of world affairs, and the future will undoubtedly prove that today’s orthodox worldviews had their eyes off the ball.

Future shocks can’t be helped of course, but watching for the relatively quiet developments in world affairs can provide at least some preparation and a shot at responding with the right manoeuvres. In that spirit, one of the smaller international stories of early November 1917, the signing of the Lansing-Ishii Agreement on 2 November, is worth a mention.

Robert Lansing was a lawyer specialising in intergovernmental legislation when he was appointed advisor to the US federal State Department (or foreign ministry) in April 1914, and he became US secretary of state in June 1915. Whatever else Lansing was – and I might one day get the chance to lament his role at the postwar peace conference – he was a man for the long view.

Convinced at an early stage that the US would eventually join the Entente at war against the Central Powers, and as such not especially forceful in his many official protests about the British naval blockade, Lansing pressured President Wilson into tacitly allowing major bank loans to the Entente powers, and pushed for peace with Mexico as preparation for war elsewhere.  Once the US was at war his efforts were focused on its aftermath.  By the spring of 1918 he would be instructing the ‘Inquiry’ – a secret global strategy think tank of some 125 researchers and experts, headed by respected journalist Walter Lippmann – to focus on the future of South America, but in late 1917 he was addressing the other main object of US economic ambitions, the Pacific.

In possession of Hawaii, in effective control of the Philippines and equipped with all the requirements for successful maritime trade from its west coast, the US was already established as a major Pacific economic player by 1914. As in Latin America, the subsequent shrinking of European wealth and influence in the region offered the US an opportunity to infiltrate new markets. With India already taken and jealously guarded by the British, the big prize was China, which was politically fragile and ripe for economic penetration, but had only been nibbled at by the European powers, and hardly approached by the US, in the decades before the War.

Tokyo in 1917 – modernising very nicely.

The US wasn’t the only rising economic star in the Pacific. Japan had been undergoing rapid industrialisation and pursuing aggressive, expansionist economic policies backed by a strong military. China was the prime focus of Japan’s aggression, and it had made no secret of its intent to seize control of the vast Manchurian territory, so although Japanese and US interests had not yet clashed directly, future rivalry was accepted as almost inevitable by both sides. Once the US was at war in 1917, Japan was in effect an ally, and that gave Lansing a diplomatic platform to seek a mutual understanding over their interests in China.

In the exchange of notes between Lansing and special Japanese envoy Ishii Kikujiro, announced on 2 November, both sides agreed that Japan held a position of special economic influence in China. They also confirmed Chinese territorial integrity and mutual adherence to the ‘open door’ policy, which theoretically guaranteed equal trading and commercial opportunities to all foreign powers in China.

Lansing and Count Ishii have come to an Agreement – I’ll let you guess which one’s which.

Both sides declared themselves pleased to have avoided any future misunderstandings – but in fact the Agreement had just the opposite effect. Japan interpreted it as sanctioning both economic and political interference in Manchuria, and provoked nothing but resentment in the US by proceeding with its effective conquest of the region. By the time the Agreement was abandoned in 1923, economic rivalry between Japan and the US was solidifying into suspicion and hostility against the background of a naval arms race. We all know how that panned out, but to end on some semblance of a point, who in November 1917 could have guessed that, among all the blockbuster stories dominating the week’s news, this one would end with an A-bomb on Nagasaki?

10 OCTOBER, 1917: National Stereotypes

The big story in the British press a hundred years ago was still the Third Battle of Ypres, as it was then being called, which was in the throes of another British reboot, distinguished by contemporaries and posterity as the Battle of Poelcapelle.  This latest phase of the fighting achieved very little for the Allies at substantial cost for both sides, and although British newspapers were accentuating the positives for all they were worth, faithfully trumpeting every inch of ground gained and every German casualty, their tone had lately undergone an increasingly familiar shift of focus.

Although everyone was able to be relatively honest about their generally successful defensive operations, the press on the attacking side greeted any major wartime offensive with confident predictions of a great victory.  Haig’s latest offensives were no different, but as hopes of success floundered in Flanders mud readers were being let down gently with reports that spoke less about the strategic situation, more about the horror of the carnage and the bravery of the troops.

This quiet evasion of uncomfortable truths was characteristic of wartime internal propaganda produced by liberal democracies, and was more subtle than the big lies about the big picture perpetrated by German propagandists conditioned to regard the body politic as intrinsically hostile.  Though hardly convincing  to a public accustomed to reading between the lines after three years of war, it did make allowances for natural scepticism and trusted its target audience to respond positively to sugar coated bad news.  As such it spared populations the kind of visceral shock administered to Germany when the truth got out, as mentioned in my last post – but before we get too comfortable with liberal democracies it’s worth noting that all they shared a propensity for other, less inclusive forms of internal propaganda.

We’re the good guys, OK? The British government knew what its people wanted to hear.

When it came to persuading populations that they were on the side of the angels, that their government and armed forces were honourable reflections of the home culture’s intrinsically superior morality, nobody’s propaganda was willing to trust its audience.  By way of illustration, British newspapers on 10 October also carried a small story about four Swedish merchant ships seized in UK ports. According to the reports, the ships had been commandeered for their own good because, although they flew the Swedish flag, they were partly British-owned and therefore likely to be attacked anyway by German warships.

Leaving aside the assumption that German naval officers were extraordinarily well informed about the ownership details of neutral merchantmen, one elephant in the room here was the fact that losses to U-boats, though less than catastrophic since the establishment of a convoy system, still left the British desperate to use any excuse to grab any merchant shipping within reach. Informed readers may well have understood and forgiven this, but a second elephant was more carefully concealed.   A public conditioned to view Britain as the much-loved global policeman, protecting the world from aggressive militarism, wasn’t being told that the British regarded neutral Swedish shipping as fair game.

Of the northern European states known in Britain as the ‘adjacent neutrals’ – the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and Sweden – the constitutional monarchy of Sweden was by far the most pro-German.  The country enjoyed strong cultural and economic links with Germany and had long regarded Berlin as the natural counterweight to the enemy it most feared, expansionist Russia. Though quick to declare its neutrality in August 1914, Sweden had at the same time signed a secret agreement to maintain a ‘benevolent’ attitude towards Germany, an arrangement at least partly motivated by a desire to forestall any German aggression.

Like the other adjacent neutrals, Sweden faced a combination of bullying and indulgence from both sides as the War progressed, because while the regionally relevant belligerent powers – Germany, Britain and Russia – wanted to prevent Swedish trade with their enemies, they also needed Swedish cooperation.

Germany relied heavily on Sweden as one of the few places willing and able to maintain trade links during the British blockade, and above all as a major supplier of desperately needed horses.  Britain’s imports from Sweden included important iron ore and timber supplies, and British diplomats fretted about Sweden’s attitude towards Russia and the Eastern Front.  Early in the War, before the development of Murmansk as an ice-free port, Sweden was the only viable through-route for Allied supplies to Russia, but London and St. Petersburg were always aware that any signs of German victory in the east might persuade Sweden to join the Central Powers for a share of the spoils.

Sweden going to war was less likely than the Allies imagined. Though a noisy Activist Party lobbied consistently for an alliance with Berlin, winning support from significant minorities within all social groups and strong backing from the military, sound commercial instincts and the pacifist preference of the majority kept the Stockholm government committed to formal neutrality throughout the War.

The fact remained that Germany mattered more to Sweden than Britain.  Sweden was less dependent than its neutral neighbours on British imports, and found it could replace most them with German imports when the British flexed their blockade muscles by curtailing supplies, while Germany was both the enemy of Sweden’s Russian enemy and, if provoked, a potential invader .

Though the Swedish government was apt to make a show of reluctance, it bowed to a series of German demands during the first two years of the War.  It agreed to black out Swedish lighthouses and mined the strait between Sweden and Denmark, both by way of keeping British warships out of the Baltic, and it banned the overland passage of military equipment en route for Russia.  Sweden was also the only European neutral to back Germany in the propaganda war, with government and press supporting Berlin’s take on Belgian atrocities, submarine warfare and most other controversial issues.  This was all perfectly legal, and in response the British could only impound Swedish ships, blacklist Swedish businesses and attempt to negotiate guarantees from the Swedish government against the re-export of goods to Germany.

By the end of 1916 the negotiations had achieved nothing much in the face of intransigence from Swedish premier Hammerskjöld, who had headed an essentially pro-German cabinet of conservative and business interests since the beginning of the War.  Facing nationwide food shortages and high unemployment, byproducts of the British blockade, and under pressure from its right-wing supporters to prepare the military for war, Hammerskjöld’s government eventually fell in early 1917.  The new conservative cabinet reopened negotiations with Britain, but no practical progress had been made by September, when the Luxburg Affair broke.

The laugh out loud paragraph here is the one about London’s astonishment.

During the summer US intelligence had intercepted and deciphered a cable to Berlin from a German diplomat in Argentina, Count Luxburg, recommending the sinking of Argentine merchant ships. At London’s behest, Washington delayed exposure of the cable, and the fact that it had been sent via the Swedish consular service, until just before Swedish elections.  The scandal stressed but didn’t break the Argentine government’s generally good relations with Germany, but revelation of such a clear breach of neutrality regulations did help defeat the conservatives in Sweden.  Engineering a change of government didn’t do the British much good, because the liberal coalition that took power under premier Nils Éden proved no less amenable to German influence and hardly more interested in reaching agreement with the Allies, dragging out negotiations until a re-export accord was eventually signed in May 1918.

The internal stresses exacerbated by wartime neutrality did complicate the lives of Swedish people and encourage post-war political reform (which expanded the franchise and concentrated executive power in parliamentary hands), but Sweden’s was hardly the most significant or dramatic of the War’s many diplomatic tightrope acts.  It is one of the least the least well known, partly because heritage history – the stuff peddled to the public via mass media, and arguably a form of state propaganda in fancy dress – has had reasons to forget the troubled wartime relationship between Britain and Sweden.

Sweden had peace but no quiet – the war years saw a surge in popular protests demanding constitutional reform

The Swedish public hasn’t been encouraged to dwell on a situation that might tarnish its generally well-deserved reputation, in Britain as elsewhere, for non-aligned fair dealing through the violence and geopolitical duplicity of the twentieth century.  Meanwhile British heritage history likes to preserve the righteousness of its Victorian heyday, and seldom questions the orthodoxies of modern international relations.  Given that it ignores almost anything that doesn’t fit its Tommy-centred, liberal agenda, it’s hardly likely to spotlight a time when the British government treated Sweden as an enemy in all but name and seized the country’s ships as a form of profitable punishment.  So I’m giving it a mention.

16 JUNE, 1917: Peace Wars

By way of an anniversary, the first All-Russian Congress of Soviets convened in Petrograd a hundred years ago today.  I plan to talk about it in context rather than in detail, because although it confirmed the legitimacy of the Provisional Government that had, in the form of various coalitions, been trying to run Russia since the February Revolution (in March), it otherwise reflected the chaotic nature of its political environment.

Most of the thousand or so delegates, and most of the workers or soldiers they represented, simply wanted food and peace in a hurry, but debates were guided by the more political animals among them, representing a wide spectrum of liberal and socialist views. These politicians, some of them hardened opponents of the old regime at the climax of a decades-long struggle, bickered along the lines anyone with a working knowledge of socialism in the early twentieth century would expect.

The majority wanted controlled, relatively gradual change within something like the social, political and geopolitical norms of the day, while a substantial minority argued for immediate revolution and a completely new socio-political world order. For the moment, the political gradualists still held sway in Petrograd and Moscow (the only places that really mattered when it came to controlling Russian politics), but with every day that passed without peace or economic transformation the workers and soldiers became more impatient, their mood more in tune with the aims of Lenin’s Bolsheviks and other revolutionary political factions.

Messrs Skobelev, Chkheidze, Plekhanov and Tsereteli.  Members of the Provisional Government and executive committee members of the All-Russian Congress, these were the relatively moderate socialists trying to hold back the tide of revolutionary pacifism in Russia.

The Congress both reflected the wild state of flux that had characterised Russian politics since the beginning of the year (and that generally accompanies revolution on the streets wherever it takes place), and was one of its by-products. Worker’s and soldiers’ councils, or soviets, had been a feature of the half-cocked 1905 revolution in Russia, and had returned in force during 1917, springing up spontaneously or as the work of local agitators all over Pertrograd, Moscow and the armed forces. During the February Revolution, those in the capital had been loosely organised into a central Petrograd Soviet, which had since been acting as a form of volatile but extremely powerful parliament, allowing the new Provisional Government to remain in power at its pleasure and drawing it ever further to the left.

The Petrograd Soviet was meanwhile facing its own challenges from below. In an attempt to add some semblance of concrete to its essentially ad hoc authority, it had organised a meeting of all the soviets it could muster, convened on 3 June with the understandably grandiose title of the National Conference of Soviets. The main business of the Conference was to organise the systems of credentials and voting necessary to turn itself into a congress that could claim a national, democratic mandate for policy decisions.

After the October Revolution, the Bolshevik-controlled All-Russian Congress would go on to function as the supreme political authority in Russia (rather than the whole USSR) until 1936, but in June 1917 it was just another noisy institution flailing in the whirlwind of ongoing revolution. While its leaders jockeyed to fill power vacuums, its constituent soviets swung towards radicalism and their delegates waited to be replaced, its debates centred on the one shared aim that might, if achieved, bring relative calm and the prospect of real social progress: peace.

Everyone with anything to say inside revolutionary Russia talked about wanting peace, and Russia – with its army, economy and society in ruins – was obviously ripe for peace, but wanting peace wasn’t quite the same as being a pacifist or as simple as it sounds.

For Marxism-inspired revolutionaries like Lenin and Trotsky – important street politicians in the context of the Petrograd whirlwind, but at this stage hardly bookies’ favourites as Russia’s next leaders – peace was a simple matter. Unwavering pacifists, they had opposed the War since before it began, regarded the conflict as a grotesque example of elite classes getting underclasses to do their fighting for them, and simply demanded that Russia stop fighting at once, leaving the warring states to sort out any fallout for themselves. This view resonated nicely with the impatient masses, but not with the gradualist side of Russian socialism, and not with the Provisional Government.

Left-leaning, and lurching further that way to keep up with events, but still essentially attached to the principles of pre-War liberal Europe, the Provisional Government desperately wanted peace and a chance to calm the storms, but not at any price. It promoted the socialist slogan – ‘peace without annexations or indemnities’ – that had already become a global buzz-phrase for pacifists, but it didn’t want to leave Russia at the mercy of a victorious German Army and it didn’t dare risk the loss of Allied economic aid by walking away from the fight. The government instead pinned its hopes on ending the War by bringing international socialism together for a peace conference – but by mid-June that wasn’t going so well.

In early June, the National Conference of Soviets (along with Dutch and Scandinavian socialist groups) had sent invitations to a conference in Stockholm to socialists from all the belligerent countries, but most belligerent governments were in no mood to grant passports to travelling pacifists and immediately banned delegates from travelling to Stockholm. Even more damagingly, a majority of Western European socialists at war, though in theory committed to seeking peace, remained patriots first and foremost, determined on a peace in line with their country’s needs and ambitions. The same catch had undermined international socialism’s stand against war in 1914, and pre-conference talks with international socialists already in Petrograd as observers quickly demonstrated that as yet, despite war-weariness and the rebirth of socialism as a revolutionary force in Russia, nobody else on either side was willing to abandon national interest for international brotherhood.

Displaying the kind of optimism it takes something like the overthrow of an emperor to generate, the Provisional Government clung to the belief that Stockholm represented a real chance of peace, pinning its hopes on the fact that the British government, alone among the major allies, had granted passports to pacifists. By the time the All-Russian Congress of Soviets opened those hopes had been dashed, and the British government was in the process of changing its mind. Why and how the Lloyd George coalition dithered its way to disapproval pretty much summed up why mainstream socialism was, as diplomacy had been a few months earlier, incapable of delivering peace in 1917.

For obvious strategic reasons, the British government wanted the Provisional Government to survive and carry on fighting. With the Labour Party installed as part of the governing coalition, it was also less afraid of pacifists or revolutionaries than most European governments (and less hostile to socialism in general than the USA), so its first reaction to the Stockholm proposals was to give peace and the new Russian regime a chance. Passports were therefore granted to a small group of pacifists, led by Labour MP and future premier Ramsay Macdonald, but they were prevented from sailing from Aberdeen on 11 June by the Firemen’s and Seamen’s Union, which then organised a nationwide blockade of ports to stop them finding a another route out of the country.

The leader of Labour’s pacifist wing thwarted by a picket line? Cartoon gold in 1917.

The stated reason for this superficially bizarre behaviour was the seamen’s fury at public rejection by pacifists, and by MacDonald in particular, of their demands for reparations from Germany to compensate the victims of submarine warfare. MacDonald tried to defuse the situation by making a statement accepting the seamen’s view that reparations should be paid to both Allied and neutral victims, but it made no difference because the real issue behind the blockade was the union’s mistrust and resentment of pacifism itself.

The delegation gave up and went home on 15 June, by which time popular and press support for the union’s actions had made clear to the cabinet that, much as the government wanted to give peace without indemnities a chance, the nation as a whole wanted the pound of flesh propaganda had led most people to expect. The delegates’ passports were cancelled, any hope disappeared that the Stockholm conference would be more than another token gathering of powerless pacifists, albeit bolstered by the newly empowered pacifists of the Russian revolutionary left, and the government in Petrograd was left with the impossible task of satisfying bellicose allies and a pacifist population.

Peace was what everyone wanted, even in Britain, but pacifism was another matter altogether.

Just how badly that turned out is another part of the wider story. For now, this grossly simplified, largely fact-free amble through the muddy, swirling waters of socialist politics in June 1917 is a reminder of how quickly the solidarity of opposition can be turned into civil war by the expectations, dilemmas and compromises that come with power. It is also, like the fate of Austrian Emperor Karl I (31 March, 1917: The Right Charlie), a reminder that once you start breaking up a system you’d better go all the way, or someone else will do it for you. They can often seem like a good idea to people trying to balance a vested interest in stability against a conscience, but moderate revolutionaries are still an oxymoron trying to deliver the impossible… so watch your back, M le Président.

31 MARCH, 1917: The Right Charlie

A century ago today, a secret proposal for peace talks reached the French president in the form of a letter from the Austro-Hungarian emperor, Karl I.  The diplomatic grapevine had been alive with whispers of Vienna’s willingness to negotiate since Karl’s coronation as King of Hungary at the end of 1916, when he had confirmed his reputation as a peace-loving moderate by promising to seek a settlement. Though evidently well intentioned, the peace proposal was a clumsy, half-baked and naive attempt to end a conflict that was patently wrecking the Austro-Hungarian Empire beyond salvation, and achieved nothing positive.  That rather summed up poor old Karl’s brief reign.

To be fair, few modern monarchs have come to their thrones in more difficult circumstances.  Karl’s great-uncle, the Emperor Franz-Josef, had been occupying the imperial throne for 68 years when he died in November 1916, so a sense of major change came with the territory. Karl, who was a cavalry officer when he became heir presumptive on the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, spent about nine months at court between the summer of 1915 and May 1916, but was otherwise attached to field units and came to power with little training for the job.  He inherited an empire in almost every kind of trouble, mired in ghastly military deadlock on two fronts, well on the way to economic collapse and hurtling towards social breakdown – but while his brand of tentative liberalism was enough to alienate conservatives, and to provide encouragement for the many forces demanding change, it never came close to satisfying anyone.

Karl’s reform attempts kept pouring water on oil fires.  He appointed a series of reformist prime ministers in Austria, beginning with agriculture minister Heinrich Clam-Martinic in December 1916, and pursued the same line in Hungary after the removal of the stubbornly nationalist Count Tisza the following May, but none of them impressed separatist or republican opinion and none lasted long.  Karl’s recall of the imperial parliament, the Reichsrat, merely confirmed the paralysing depth of national and political divisions within the Empire, while his decision to release the Empire’s most high-profile political prisoners served only to strengthen his opponents.

The new regime did try to rationalise an economy that was manifestly failing to meet the challenge of total war, but development of an elaborate new bureaucratic structure during 1917 achieved nothing in practice, and arms production for 1918 fell below 1914 levels.  The King-Emperor also increased his influence over the military by putting an end to Conrad’s catastrophic tenure as Army chief of staff (14 May, 1916: Bad Hand? All In!), and treating his replacement, the altogether more pliant General Arz von Straussenberg, as a glorified personal advisor.  That backfired when Karl went on to ban duels, flogging, bombing of civilian targets and most use of poison gas, a set of highly commendable reforms that outraged most senior Army commanders.

Allied blockade, German demands and Hungarian hoarding meant food shortages were a big problem in Vienna by 1917.

Despite the obvious onset of imperial entropy, Karl still saw some small chance that the monarchy could survive, at the head of what he envisioned as a multinational federation, if he could succeed in bringing peace to the Empire and claiming the credit.  The idea chimed with the strongly pro-Allied views of his influential French-Italian wife, Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma, and Karl’s first attempt to save the world, the proposal for negotiations received by President Poincaré on 31 March 1917, was delivered through her family.  It destined to go horribly wrong, of course.

What became known as the Sixtus Affair began in late March as preliminary talks between French officials and Princess Zita’s brothers, Belgian Army officers Sixtus and Xavier Bourbon-Parma. Apparently sanctioned by Austro-Hungarian foreign minister Czernin, a figure generally known for his clear pro-German views, talks were sufficiently encouraging to prompt the more formal approach to Poincaré, but from that moment Austrian hopes faded fast.  With no sign that Vienna could exert the slightest influence over German determination to fight on, or that Austria-Hungary was ready to risk a unilateral arrangement, the letter to Poincaré was simply ignored by Allied leaders.

Sixtus, Xavier and their French mother. The Swiss-born princes were considered too noble to be allowed into a French Army still very big on the revolutionary principles of the 1790s, so they fought for Belgium.

They were right, and Karl knew it.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire was by now dependent for survival on German military and economic support.  If the German Third Supreme Command, already eying his regime with acute suspicion, were to catch him feeding at the peace trough, support was sure to be withdrawn or expanded to the point of conquest, either of which meant curtains for the Empire. Suitably cowed, Karl made no further attempts to make peace with the Allies before the early summer of 1918, by which time it was far too late because the Sixtus Affair had come back to bite him.

Sending a secret document to the enemy without telling your allies is a pretty obvious hostage to fortune, and the peace bid of March 1917 gifted the Allies an opportunity to disrupt relations between Berlin and Vienna at a time of their choosing.  French premier Georges Clemenceau, the wily, aggressive nationalist who took office in November 1917 on a platform of war to the finish (and of whom plenty more another day), chose the spring of 1918 to reveal records of the Sixtus proposals, and achieved just the effect he was looking for.  The German Third Supreme Command reacted by forcing Czernin’s dismissal and imposing formal economic and military union between Germany and Austria-Hungary in May, at which point Karl lost any hope of significantly influencing, let alone controlling the collapse of his Empire.  The rest is a history of small central European countries dominated by powerful German and Russian neighbours.

Whatever Karl I tried to achieve, and no matter how enlightened his earnest pursuit of peaceful power sharing may appear to modern eyes, in 1917 he appeared weak-willed and volatile to everyone except other moderate liberals.  Despised by the right and the left, by diehard imperialists and committed nationalists, and with no Habsburg institutions left to defend his reputation after an early death – from pneumonia on 1 April 1922, while in exile on the island of Madeira – he was an easy target for central European commentators heavily influenced by the political extremes of the mid-twentieth century.

Popular anglophone history hasn’t really moved on from there. It still generally dismisses the last Habsburg emperor as a dithering weakling (and calls him Charles I), but in doing so reveals its blindness to perspective.  While it would be ridiculous to portray Karl’s short reign as any kind of success (despite the longstanding campaign by some Austrian Catholics to have him canonised), it might be more appropriate to commemorate him with reference to Mikhail Gorbachev – the last ruler of another empire, a man who met similar problems with similar responses, and a figure consistently glorified by the same heritage salesmen.

Who? Me?

14 MARCH, 1917: Breaking China

One reason the First World War outside Western Europe has been consigned to obscurity by modern popular history is that the world order of the day dictated posterity’s priorities.  To clarify that deeply pompous preamble, most places outside the centres of global wealth and power in the early 20th century seemed relatively unimportant to contemporaries studying or writing about the War, the loudest and most numerous of whom came from the centres of global wealth and power. In other words, the West wrote the history and bequeathed its priorities of the day to future generations.

One reason I write this stuff is because a lot of those places that seemed relatively unimportant during the War – and in many cases for a long time afterwards – have become central to the way our world runs today. Africa, the Middle East, Japan, the USA, the outer reaches of Europe and the Caucasus, you name it, the First World War helped shape it and it really matters today. That brings me to the empire that was, in 1917, a strife-torn, crumbling, apparently decadent, politically feeble carcass ripe for dismemberment, and is now the world’s most formidable centre of wealth and power.

So how was the world war playing in China, and why did the Chinese government sever diplomatic relations with the Central Powers on 14 March 1917?   With apologies for my fairly random selections from the Chinese-to-English spelling multiverse, here’s some background.

The Chinese Empire was in very bad shape when the War broke out, and had been for some time. Politically isolated and industrially backward, its population of around 420 million (in 1911) was ruled, at least in theory, by the Manchu dynasty during the late nineteenth century, but the imperial government’s power was under republican pressure in Beijing and, with individual warlords in control of the provinces, barely extended beyond the region immediately around the city.

The 1890s had seen the Empire lose control of Taiwan and Korea after military defeat by an expansionist Japanese Empire, and concede economic control to European empires across large swathes of the southern coastal zone. Outrage at European penetration triggered the 1900 Boxer Rebellion by nationalist elements in Beijing, but its main effect was to give European powers an excuse to increase their military presence in China. Meanwhile, in northeast, the Japanese were establishing economic and political control over the vastness of Manchuria, a process hastened after Japan effectively eliminated the competition with victory over Russia in the war of 1904–05.

This prolonged series of imperial disasters came home to roost in October 1911, when republican revolution erupted in Beijing. Led by Sun Yat-sen’s ‘Alliance Society’, it forced the child emperor’s abdication the following February, but within a few days Sun Yat-sen lost power to Yuan Shi-kai, who became president of the new republic and reorganised the Alliance Society as the Kuomintang Party. Yuan remained in office until his death in June 1916, but only ever controlled an enclave around Beijing while a rival Kuomintang government sat at Canton, a Japanese client regime ran Manchuria and the rest of the provinces were ruled by independent warlords.

Sun Yat-sen was a major 20th-century figure, seen as the ‘father’ of post-imperial China… but his career amounted to a series of failures, and when a chance at success beckoned, in 1925, he died.  Check him out anyway.

The outbreak of war in Europe didn’t provide China with the economic boost felt by so many other neutral states, partly because rapid economic expansion was virtually impossible in a vast country with only some 13,000km of railways, and partly because almost all modern Chinese industry was in foreign hands. Cotton and opium remained the country’s principle exports throughout the period, and the War’s main effect was to distract European powers from restraining the ambitions of Japan, which wasted no time seizing the German enclave of Tsingtao in 1914 and forced major economic concessions from China under the threat of war in early 1915 (18 January, 1915: Statement of Intent).

The Chinese government did, on the other hand, experience the diplomatic pressure to join both sides that was common to most neutral states after August 1914. Yuan and his strongly pro-Allied prime minister, Tuan Chi-jui, favoured British over German advances because they promised an end to reparations owed since the Boxer Rebellion, but never came close to achieving a consensus among neutralist nationalists or warlords with better things to do. After Yuan’s death in June 1916, Tuan Chi-jui remained prime minister under his successor, Li Yuan-hung, and overrode opposition from both the president and the Kuomintang to pursue negotiations with the Allies.

Negotiations bore fruit in the diplomatic break with Germany and Austria-Hungary, voted into effect by Tuan’s cabinet on 14 March 1917 and followed by seizure of the half dozen German ships in Chinese ports. Having simply ignored opposition, Tuan was ready to go the whole way, but on the same day president Li and the Beijing parliament joined forces to block any declaration of war. Tuan reacted by moving his headquarters north of Beijing and building up military strength, while Li and parliament pursued their new and hitherto unlikely alliance by voting Tuan out of office in April.

At this point, Chinese politics melted down into a summer of warlord mayhem, with Tuan threatening to attack the capital, Li and the Kuomintang summoning warlord Chang Hsun to protect the city, and Chang instead seizing control as regent in the name of a restored emperor. The new emperor, Puyi, lasted a fortnight after his installation in the Forbidden City on 1 July, before Duan marched on Beijing in the name of the republic and Chang fled.


Beijing in 1917. Not industrialised.

In theory, the pro-Allied party had won the day. In practice the process of persuading China into the War, albeit carried out with less ferocity and urgency than the bullying directed at more strategically useful neutrals, put a wrecking ball through the fragile edifice of Chinese central government. Republican politicians forced from Beijing by Chang’s short-lived coup fled to Canton, which became the centre of mounting political and military opposition to new president Feng Kuo-chang, the former vice-president and an ally of Tuan, who replaced Li on 18 July. China would go on to declare war against the Central Powers in August, a move that made little or no strategic difference to the wider conflict and barely impinged on the sprawling, violent internal disorder that consumed the vast majority of Chinese energies and resources for the duration, and for decades after the War.

I’m not for one moment suggesting that the Chinese Republic would have prospered if European empires had left the place alone during the First World War. Its constituency of squabbling nationalists and old-school warlords was a civil war waiting to happen and showing no signs of immediate resolution, while white imperialists can’t really be blamed for Japan’s altogether more disruptive behaviour. Then again, the casual (and in this case primarily British) diplomatic vandalism that helped turn Beijing into a war zone for a few months in 1917 had no real strategic justification, and was yet another case of the imperial fever that accompanied the new concept of ‘total war’. As understood in 1917, total war was an all-consuming fight to the finish that threatened the losers with extinction, providing European empires with all the justification they needed for ruthless pursuit of every alliance, sphere of influence or resource base, however trivial.

Just as they did in Greece, in Portugal, in the Middle East and pretty much everywhere else in the world, European diplomats and strategists brought only trouble to China during the First World War. Memoirs suggest many of them were aware of the damage they were causing but considered it necessary for the protection of their own homelands. They had no reason to believe that their homelands might one day be materially altered, even threatened, by changes in what were then geopolitically unimportant, often distant countries. On the other hand they, and the generation of historians that came after them, had every reason to suppose that the Chinese Empire was doomed to disintegration and of little significance to the futures of their homelands – but they were wrong, and we know that now, so maybe posterity should re-jig its priorities and pay some attention to the ways we messed with China.

20 FEBRUARY, 1917: Ask Don’t Get

A hundred years ago today, the Petrograd Conference broke up. Called for the purpose of assessing and improving Russia’s contribution to the Allied war effort, and Allied contributions to the Russian war effort, it had lasted 20 days and achieved very little.   All the same, the fact that it took place at all and the ways in which it failed do add up to an interesting glimpse at what an alliance between Britain, France and Russia really meant in 1917, as well as providing a snapshot of Russian imperial government immediately before it collapsed.

In any war you care to consider, at any time in history, coalitions mean conferences, whether called to coordinate the efforts of allies during a war or to share out the spoils at its end.  These days, international conferences at any level can take place without participants leaving their screens, and pre-industrial conferences among military allies ended to take place in the tent next to the battlefield.  In between, international conferences involved a lot of overseas travel.

The First World War took place just before technology took the sting out of overseas travel.  Conferences between widely separated allies remained arduous and potentially dangerous undertakings, usually conducted during the military quiet periods of mid-winter or high summer to reduce the risk of some major strategic change during the slow process of convening the delegates.

This basic logistic problem was one reason why it took the Allies until the end of 1915 to organise a major conference in France (8 December, 1915: Chat Lines), and the main reason why it was difficult to arrange any kind of conference between the Allies and Russia.  If getting a few Russian delegates to France represented an achievement, nobody wanted to ship boatloads of Allied delegates to Russia for a conference unless absolutely necessary.  By the middle of 1916, from both sides of the alliance, it was beginning to seem absolutely necessary.


Petrograd, as it was called between 1914 and 1924, was further from western Europe than this looks.

From a Russian perspective (as if perspective was a factor in imperial Russian government), the alliance wasn’t providing anything like enough military, supply or financial support.  Officials in Petrograd regarded the war on the Eastern Front as vital to the future of the Western Front, and believed that the Allies – and particularly Russia’s prime supplier, Britain – were holding back supplies because they failed to appreciate this fact.  Russian diplomats had meanwhile been unable to soften Britain’s hostility to unilateral trade between Russia and the USA, an attitude Petrograd put down to jealousy.

From an Allied point of view, the real problem with supplying the Russians was the Russian regime.  Shiploads of supplies were known to be rotting in dockyards that were simply not equipped to deal with the amount of traffic being sent from the West, let alone with the hundred percent increase the Russians were demanding.  The western Allies also doubted that military aid was being used properly when it did arrive, and the same applied to the financial credit being extended to Russia.  As for unilateral transatlantic trade, the British in fact feared that Russian business methods, considered cavalier and untrustworthy, could destabilise Allied relations with the USA.

Behind all these concerns lay a deep Allied mistrust of the Russian political and bureaucratic systems, and a mounting belief that the only way to sort them out was to go to Russia, find out what was really happening there and arrange support accordingly.  This was the main reason for Lord Kitchener’s trip to Russia in July 1916, which followed the failure of a London conference on Russian affairs, but his death en route postponed matters.  During the autumn, as Russian demands for loans beyond the scope of current agreements sparked another round of fruitless discussions with diplomats, plans were finalised for a major conference at Petrograd in early 1917.

Led by cabinet ministers and senior generals, British, French and Italian delegations finally reached Petrograd at the end of January, and after a few days of fractious preliminary meetings the conference opened officially on 1 February.  It quickly became clear that a full plenary session would be so crowded that any serious progress would be impossible, so the conference was split into committees to deal separately with military, political, financial and supply issues.  Even then, to the particular annoyance of British delegates, proceedings were slowed because a lot of senior Russian delegates were new to their jobs, such was the rate of ministerial turnover in the Tsar’s crumbling government, and by squabbling between rival Russian ministries.

The political committee had the easiest task, largely confined to confirming present arrangements and ensuring that all parties were aware of the others’ intentions.  The military committee was essentially in the same position, although the western Allies were obliged to repeat their rejection, confirmed at the Rome Conference a few weeks earlier (7 January, 1917: Back Door Man), of Russian demands that Greece be compelled to join the War on the Allied side, using military force if necessary.  Discussions about finance centred on Russia’s attempts to stop Britain demanding gold payments for loans made the previous year, and to secure unlimited credit for the duration of the War. They got nowhere, with Lord Milner, the head of the British delegation, eventually ending the debate by insisting on the need for further study.

Lord Milner’s worth a post of his own, and was a shadowy, influential figure among the British political elite. He was also a hard-core nationalist, imperialist kind of a guy…

The most important discussions and heated arguments were reserved for the knotty question of supplying Russia with military aid and trade. The Russians wanted more weapons from the western Allies, especially artillery, machine guns and rifles, but their negotiating technique reflected the regime they spoke for – inclined to fantasy, comfortable with fiction and naturally uncompromising – so they simply demanded huge numbers of everything.  The British and French (Italy was asking, not giving) wanted realistic assessments of Russia’s actual needs and of how much Russian docks could actually handle.  Supply would then depend on Allied estimates of what would constitute bang for buck on the field of battle.  These were not compatible positions, and they hadn’t got much more compatible by the time the conference broke up.

The Petrograd Conference failed to instigate any real changes in policy or process, failed to elicit any signs of reasonable compromise from the Russian administration, and was quickly rendered null and void by revolution in Russia – but it did provide one or two small benefits to the Allied war effort.  The Allies had learned to address all their issues with Russia as a coordinated whole, and their willingness to send important delegates such a long way had confirmed (to themselves and to Russians) the seriousness of their commitment to the alliance.   This helped smooth relations with the new Provisional Government in Petrograd, and some of the more useful organisational reforms discussed at the Conference did survive to improve the flow of supplies in the months that followed.

Petrograd also gave us a last, damning glimpse of imperial Russian bureaucracy and government at work before the February Revolution (which took place in March by the western calendar) consigned them to history.  The British, the French and the new Russian government were all quick to point the finger at the old regime when analysing the failings of the Conference, and I’m no apologist for the last Tsar’s catastrophic performance, but there is another side to that part of the story.

No matter how loudly they blamed Russian inefficiency, corruption and intransigence, the British had come to Petrograd with no intention of shifting their own position on supply and finance, or of admitting their own weakness in those matters.  By early 1917, all Allied loan and credit arrangements were dependent on US agreement, and a Wilson administration desperate to find grounds for peace was in no mood to make generous arrangements with belligerent autocracies.  Any major increase in supplies to Russia would also depend on US industry, which was already working to full capacity for its preferred Anglo-French clients, and anyway the rapid increase in losses to German submarines meant the British couldn’t spare any shipping to deliver more supplies.  Nothing about any of this was going to change in Petrograd, and the British knew it.

So although it wasn’t the first, the last or anything like the most significant example of the practice, the Petrograd Conference was a reminder of how easily and often the presence of a convincing scapegoat can be used to distract history’s attention from the full picture.