It has been said, often and on the whole wisely, that Allied insistence on making Germany pay for the First World War in cash, goods and assets was one of the worst of many world-historically bad things to come out of the peace process that followed the conflict. The payments were known as ‘reparations’. They were based on calculations made without consulting Germany, they were enormous, they proved impossible to collect in full (or anything like it), and they wreaked enough economic damage on a global scale to ensure that nobody, not even the payees, really benefitted from their imposition.
Of course, the German economy suffered the most immediate, comprehensive and dangerous damage from post-War reparations, which combined with political chaos to generate epic levels of hyperinflation in the country. Post-War German commentators (along with academic voices elsewhere) regarded reparations as a spiteful, essentially criminal act of revenge by the Allies, in particular by the prime movers behind the punishment, the French, and that view has passed into modern historical orthodoxy.
Fair enough, up to a point. Reparations were spiteful, stupid, counterproductive and dangerous, not to mention grossly unfair and imposed on Germany as the only major empire among the Central Powers still around to take punishment. On the other hand the heritage history of the twentieth century – born into world-war propaganda but these days committed to a polar opposite picture of the War as a pointless exercise in elite machismo, won by stupid people – has a tendency to suggest that the folly of reparations was responsible, or at least bore prime responsibility, for Germany’s subsequent lurch into National Socialism.
The implication that Germany was essentially a victim of Allied imperial greed would have pleased Ludendorff and other contemporary apologists for the appalling regime that actually deserves most of the blame, but any examination of German history during the previous fifty years exposes it as nonsense. I’ll leave you to confirm that.
The heritage view also allows the otherwise uninformed to assume that Allied imposition of reparations was a new idea, conjured up out of the collective need for a scapegoat at the end of a recognisably disastrous war, and that their scale was a gargantuan expression of the vitriolic looting carried out by victorious soldiers throughout recorded history. There was indeed a strong element of angry revenge in the air at Versailles, at least among the European victors, and it did influence proceedings by shouting down voices for moderation, but it wasn’t the inspiration for reparations. There was nothing new or unexpected about the presentation of a reparations bill to the losers of the First World War, and Germany had already made sure there was nothing unprecedented about its scale.
Before coming to power in Russia, the Bolsheviks had campaigned for immediate peace ‘without annexations or indemnities’, and that remained the position of Lenin’s government at the start of 1918. The phrase reflected contemporary geopolitical thinking about wars in general and the Great War in particular, in that they were fought for both territory and the extraction of resources. Losers were expected to sacrifice anything perceived as an economic advantage, and frequent statements of war aims by both sides since 1914 had emphasised the War’s rising cost in money, goods, industrial plant, merchant shipping and anything else that could be claimed as expenses. The new Bolshevik state got its peace in March 1918, when it finally signed the Brest-Litovsk treaty with the Central Powers, but was never going to get away without annexations and indemnities (3 March, 1918: Neither War Nor Peace).
Most of the annexations attached to Brest-Litovsk came disguised as regional independence movements (leaving aside the Ottoman Empire’s technical annexation of Russian territories in the Caucasus that were part of an ongoing civil war), but the indemnities were straight-up, open demands for reparations on a scale that set an example for the peacemakers at Versailles.
Negotiations about Russian reparations payments went on long after the signature of the treaty, but in August 1918 the Bolshevik government finally accepted an agreement to pay cash, gold and goods worth six billion German marks. That converted to around £214 million in 1918, but to put the figure into some kind of context there were only 13 billion marks in circulation just before the War, and only about 60 billion in circulation when it ended. We’re talking about an era when cash really counted, and at a particular moment in history when international banking transactions were only possible between established allies, so payment of the first Russian instalment on 7 September 1918, a century ago today, involved carting some 350 million marks’ worth of banknotes and gold to the frontier and handing them over.
Germany never received another payment from Bolshevik Russia, and the Bolsheviks never got their money back because they were neither invited to nor recognised the post-War peace agreement, but the fact remained that Germany had intended to bleed Russia of everything it could grab in the aftermath of victory on the Eastern Front. The German regime had turned the threat of reparations, voiced since the beginning of the War, into a reality. Motivated by greed, laced with desperation as the Hindenburg Programme sent the German economy hurtling to oblivion, rather than by revenge, the imposition of indemnities at Brest-Litovsk set the bar for everything that followed, and provided all the example the Allies needed to produce their own demands in 1919.
After last week’s epic ramble through the backwoods of espionage, a succinct opinion piece seemed appropriate, but much as I’d like to sneak away inside a thousand words, I feel compelled to add a brief note about the festival of triumphalism filling the pages of the British press in September 1918. Having spent the last four years finding ways to get triumphant about military defeats, bloody stalemates and minor tactical victories on the Western Front, British newspapers were almost forced to exaggerate the extent to which the tide had turned during the previous few weeks.
German battlefront morale was ‘crumbling’, the German leadership was issuing cries of despair and the advances of Allied armies in France, admittedly much faster and more significant than anything they had managed before, were described as ‘pursuits’ of fleeing enemies. Occasional mentions of stiff resistance by German units here and there, or of the fact that Allied forces had yet to reach, let alone overcome, the Hindenburg Line’s massed, carefully prepared defences, were rare scraps of journalism amid the festivities.
This didn’t exactly set British newspapers apart from their counterparts in other countries. Their relentless propaganda for what amounted to maintenance of the political status quo was mirrored in Germany and the USA, the former thanks to censorship, the latter reflecting the survival of revolutionary idealism in US civic thinking. French and Italian newspapers were far more inclined to promote radical political change, and more directly aggressive in their criticisms of home governments, but could match or exceed anything the British could print by way of sensationalism. What did distinguish the British press at this late stage of its long, loud War was its unintended effect on long-term public perception. By acting as if the German Army on the Western Front was all but beaten, press coverage encouraged expectations of an imminent end to the War, expectations that quickly morphed into familiar questions about why the end was taking so long to arrive.
It would have been difficult for the British fourth estate to adopt a more measured approach to the excitement of 1918. National interest had demanded press hyperbole for the preceding four years, and the country’s most powerful press barons, having just about reined in their political ambitions over the same period, were in no mood to stop shouting. Had they been, the final battles on the Western Front might have been a time of popular redemption for a British military leadership that had shouldered much of the blame for the War’s length and cost. Instead the great Allied victories of the autumn became yet another reason for damning British generals as donkeys.
An illustrative case study isn’t hard to find. French c-in-c Ferdinand Foch was a genuine national hero in the post-War era, and AEF commander Pershing remained a hugely respected and popular figure for the rest of his days in the US. They fought the same victorious battles as BEF c-in-c Haig, who received the military victor’s usual honours, money and gratitude from official sources, but was regarded with contempt by much of the British public during the immediate post-War years, and has been treated with (at best) disdain by popular history ever since.
You want a message? Independent mass communication is a wonderful expression of human culture’s ambition to create a workable society on a grand scale but – like those other great expressions of same, democracy and nuclear power – constitutes a force we can deploy and target, but neither control nor predict. Message ends.
A hundred years ago yesterday a disgruntled Russian socialist, Fanya ‘Dora’ Kaplan, tried and failed to assassinate Lenin in Moscow. She regarded the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk as a betrayal of the ideals behind Russia’s latest revolution, and sought a change of direction through a change of leadership. The attempt came shortly after the assassination in Petrograd of the city’s Cheka (secret police) commander, Moisei Uritsky, as an act of personal revenge.
Neither of these gestures made much difference to the stability or otherwise of Russia’s fledgling Bolshevik government, although Lenin was critically ill for a time and spent the rest of his life with two bullets inside him, but between them they were to have an enormous effect on that government’s relations with Western Europe, and with Britain in particular. I’ll try to explain, and because I’ve been AWOL for a while I’ll do it the long way.
The War for dominance of a fading imperial world was almost done, and the result, broadly speaking, was no longer in doubt. France would survive and Britain abide. The USA had arrived, Japan was on the rise, three empires – the Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian – were already dead or terminally sick, and the German Empire’s fate would be decided, not by the men responsible for its brief, bombastic history, but by Allied armies, the furies of its own population or both.
The other result recognised by all but the most diehard conservatives among the world’s informed observers was that the age of simple imperial dominance had come to an end. This was most obviously expressed to the world by US President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which were still being quoted as the basis for future peace six months after their creation, and which envisaged an international structure of sovereign states very different from that destroyed in 1914 (11 February, 1918: Daydream Believer). Almost as obviously – at least to those with the luxury of viewing the world in geopolitical terms – the British Empire was busily, you might say nervously, planning the postwar security and extension of its massive global portfolio.
Hardly a day went by during the summer of 1918 without some indication of this from the British government. The British parliament positively rang with vague promises to India and Ireland of future political reform, with reassurances to the ‘white dominions’ of tariff-free trade within the postwar Empire (a concept known as ‘imperial preference’, and one that is still being touted under various names by some Brexiteers), and with excuses for attempting to expand imperial control over the Middle East and parts of the Caucasus. On a more regional scale, the Japanese government and military were engaged in the same kind of planning for postwar empire, while the political classes in Serbia and Italy – both destined for a place among the victors at the peace table – harboured visions of their own local empires.
Amid all this jostling for future clout at or near the top of the geopolitical food chain, and the clamour of smaller nations demanding their sovereignty, one piece of planning for the postwar world united pretty much everyone on the planet with anything much to lose. Everybody running every other state agreed that the Bolshevik regime in Russia, the living epitome of everything ruling classes had ever feared about the pre-War rise of socialism, had to be stopped.
On one hand, no matter how much of the world desired it, bringing down the Soviet regime looked a very tricky proposition. Russia is a big country. Conquest was an obviously dangerous long shot, and even in the unlikely event that the world’s surviving military powers could agree to undertake such a vast enterprise in concert, there was no chance of selling the idea to war-weary populations. In any case none of the Allied powers was at war with Russia, although the USA severed diplomatic relations with the Bolsheviks on 15 August, and most of them were engaged in talks with Russian officials about maintaining economic and even military relations – so the legality of any full-scale invasion would be extremely dubious.
The Allies could agree to cooperate for minor operations, and propaganda could turn protection of northern Russian supplies or rescue of the Czech Legion into a reasonable case for action, at least as far as popular opinion and legality were concerned. But expeditions to Archangelsk and Vladivostok were no more likely to force regime change in Moscow than were British squabbles with Bolsheviks in Baku or German clashes with would-be Bolshevik regimes in Eastern Europe.
It was also possible, though at times logistically difficult, to provide material and financial support for the varied and fluctuating collection of anti-Bolshevik, or ‘White’, forces at large all over Russia, but that was another very long shot. Not only was it almost impossible for outside agencies to make intelligent choices about which forces to help, but none of those forces had so far shown much sign of efficiency, coherence or stability.
One option remained. It had the advantages of being cheap, potentially effective, hidden from the public eye and deniable. It involved employing an industry that had been growing steadily since the beginning of the twentieth century, had boomed during four years of world war and seemed likely to flourish amid the violent political volatility that followed the October Revolution of 1917. It was espionage.
Most national intelligence agencies were a product of the late nineteenth century, and most were developed as military departments charged with coordinating and acting upon intelligence gathered. Most soon sprouted useful connections and subdivisions within their national diplomatic and police services, reflecting their twin responsibilities for collecting intelligence about potential enemies and blocking foreign attempts to do the same on home territory, otherwise known as counterintelligence. This sprouting of agencies created a nebulous working environment in which multiple right hands didn’t know what multiple left hands were doing, or why, a problem that plagued the espionage trade as the century grew old and has never quite gone away.
In general, the most that can be said for European espionage during the twenty years before 1914 was that it provided some information towards quantifying the capabilities of potential enemies – but you would have had a hard time convincing most ordinary citizens of that. Popular fiction, newspaper sensationalism and an atmosphere of hostile suspicion towards foreign powers made it a well-known fact that, wherever you came from, foreign spies were everywhere, plotting to bring down society as you knew it. Meanwhile your own security services, wherever you lived, were pitifully underfunded and understaffed, not to mention awash with cunningly concealed traitors. A few well-placed traitors across the continent were indeed selling secrets, or at least information, to hostile powers, but otherwise the continent-wide explosion of spy mania was created out of thin air.
Spy mania did generate a little more government funding during the early twentieth century, and certainly contributed to the belated formation of a British secret service in 1909, but intelligence services in and before 1914 were not the big bureaucracies of Cold War spy movies, or Le Carré’s clever collectives of highly trained spooks. They were tiny departments run by a handful of military or diplomatic appointees. Their few agents were employed on an ad hoc, often temporary basis, usually because they offered their services to diplomats or military men in contact with intelligence agencies. The work carried out by these essentially private agents was sporadic, banal and on the whole of marginal strategic significance, in that most of them hung around foreign ports, military areas and political centres picking up gossip or counting things.
I mention all of this because although the outbreak and continuation of world war brought a relative flood of funding to the spy trade, massively expanded its pool of potential agents and added enormously to the immediate importance of their work, its way of going about things didn’t really change much. Intelligence flowed around the war from diplomatic sources, from various military sources and occasionally from spies infiltrated behind enemy lines, but the trade was still dominated by gossip across the War’s many frontlines. Intelligence services were also charged with providing support for populations seeking freedom from military occupation or imperial control, and with promoting sabotage and other disruptive activities in enemy states or neutral countries suspected of aiding an enemy, but they were still basically tin-pot organisations, short of resources and specifically trained personnel, hampered by the ongoing plague of inter-agency vagueness.
This was still essentially the case in 1918, when the British secret service (known as C after its first and wartime chief, naval Captain George Mansfield Cumming, as opposed to K, the counterintelligence service run by army officer Vernon Kell) responded in spectacularly vague fashion to its government’s perceived desire – not yet clearly stated – to promote regime change in Russia.
Much of the vagueness around the story that follows can be traced to a shortage of contemporary documentation, understandable where ‘secret’ organisations are concerned but also a reflection of the amateurish atmosphere around the wartime British service. For the period between the October Revolution and the Armistice, only three written reports from inside Russia to Cumming’s department survive, and they amount to little more than casual observations from British citizens on the spot. All the other evidence of British espionage activity during the period derives from memoirs, recorded gossip or propaganda, none of which can generally be regarded as reliable sources. So…
It would seem that Cumming was making active efforts to recruit and finance a new network of agents inside Russia from the start of 1918. At that point he had access to no more than a dozen sources of information about the new regime, most if not all of them reporting as a sideline to their day jobs, and none of them trained or organised for the business of political intrigue. Those sources included a number of British embassy staff, left behind when Britain removed its diplomats from Russia at the start of the year, as well as military liaison officers forced to take refuge in the embassy after Russia withdrew from the War. Their presence made the embassy a natural (and obvious) centre for future espionage activity, but none of them were directly employed or controlled by Cumming.
The nearest thing to a professional British spy in Russia in early 1918 was Bruce Lockhart, a young diplomat with five years’ experience of Russian conditions, who was sent to Moscow by the government in January, nominally as a special envoy to negotiate with Lenin’s regime in place of withdrawn diplomats, but with orders to stimulate and coordinate political opposition to the Bolsheviks. While considering appeals from exiled Tsarist officers and officials for employment as anti-Bolshevik agents in Russia, Cumming sent another Russian-speaking naval officer, Commander Ernest Boyce, to work with Lockhart and naval attaché Captain Francis Cromie (who had been in Petrograd since mid-1917), and to organise a network of anti-Bolshevik agents.
By March, these steps appeared to have achieved little or nothing beyond the recruitment of amateur agents in Moscow, Petrograd and Kiev. Lockhart and Cromie were in contact with anti-Bolshevik officers from apparently disaffected Latvian units stationed in Moscow and Petrograd, and a coup d’état was discussed, but nothing more concrete than talk, rumours and evidence of mutual mistrust had yet emerged.
Encouraged by the one constant refrain discernible among the chaos of his intelligence sources – that the Bolshevik regime was fragile, perched atop a powder keg of popular discontent and could be overthrown with one well-timed push – Cumming meanwhile sent another half dozen or so selected agents into Russia, given a few hundred pounds (usually in cash or diamonds) and charged with doing whatever they could to bring down the regime. By August these included the musician Paul Dukes and the timber merchant George Alexander Hill – both fairly well known figures in the early history of British state espionage – as well as the altogether bolder and rather more effective figure of Sidney George Reilly.
This is not the place to tell the full story of Reilly, ‘Ace of Spies’ – it’s been told, or perhaps invented, at great length and through various media – but a little background on the man seems in order. Born Schlomo Rosenblum, at or near Odessa in the early 1870s, he had moved to England at the end of the nineteenth century, married an Irishwoman and changed his name. Since then he had, in the words of Cumming, ‘been everywhere and done everything’, travelled the world as something between a con man and a businessman, lived in France, England, Russia and the USA, and specialised in intrigue wherever he went. Acting on a recommendation from the US, Cumming employed Reilly for the first time in March 1918. He shared the general view of Reilly as highly effective and very clever but utterly untrustworthy, but was convinced of his anti-Bolshevik sentiments and dispatched him, with £500 in cash, £750 in diamonds and orders to bring down Lenin, to northern Russia at the end of the month.
Arriving in Petrograd in mid-April, Reilly embarked on a much-storied adventure that may or may not have involved attempts to get close to Lenin and remove him from power in person, and may or may not have involved detailed plans for a coup with counter-revolutionaries in Moscow and Petrograd, to be spearheaded by the aforementioned Latvian units. Reilly probably did recruit agents and use the homes of his several Russian lovers as safe houses, and was certainly in contact with Lockhart, Boyce and Cromie as they flailed around, vainly seeking some kind of consistent or coherent policy to pursue. He also, none too surprisingly, came to the attention of the Bolshevik secret police, the Cheka.
The Bolshevik regime and its secret police had spent the summer of 1918 in a state of advanced paranoia concerning the actions of Russia’s former allies – and they were entitled to. With the streets of Petrograd and Moscow apparently teeming with foreign agents and counter-revolutionary conspirators, the arrival of allied armed forces in Archangelsk and Vladivostok fuelled rumours of an imminent Allied invasion, to be timed to coincide with a coup d’état. There is some evidence, though most of it derives from the realms of self-serving memoir or literary speculation, that Reilly was on the point of triggering his plan for a coup in late August, and much more evidence that Bolshevik attitudes to the Allies, and the British in particular, had by then hardened to the point of undeclared war.
In the event, and whatever the truth about Reilly’s game-changing plans, Soviet attitudes were the key to what happened next. On 31 August, the day after Kaplan’s attack and with Lenin still fighting for his life, Cheka agents raided the British embassy, shooting and killing Cromie when he resisted, while the Soviet press ran screaming headlines about a foiled ‘Anglo-French plot’ to overthrow the government by killing Lenin. Lockhart was named as the chief conspirator and Reilly as his prime executive, although the former definitely and the latter almost certainly had nothing to do with the assassination attempt.
Lockhart was imprisoned (as were a couple of dozen minor British agents, including most of Reilly’s lovers), but was subsequently exchanged for Bolshevik envoy ML Litvinov, who had been arrested in London as a retaliatory measure. Reilly meanwhile escaped Russia via Estonia and Finland, despite a dead-or-alive reward offered for his capture, and lived to spy another day.
British spies had failed in their scattergun, largely notional attempt to promote regime change in Russia, but the actions of Cumming, Reilly and their less focused colleagues did provoke, or at least provide an excuse to cement, the final breakdown of relations between Britain and the Bolshevik regime. Until the storming of the British embassy, a century ago today, debate about the two states’ future relations was still possible, and was still in progress around the fringes of both governments. From that day until its fall, despite a brief and uneasy period of alliance during the Second World War, the Soviet Union would regard Britain as an enemy, and the British, drawing on a folklore history of fear and suspicion where the mysterious power to the east was concerned, would justify Moscow’s view time and again.
I know that’s been a long ramble, but the story here seems worth telling. The growth and eventual redefinition of international ‘political’ espionage was in some ways a byproduct of the First World War, albeit through a process of what amounted to blindfolded blundering on all sides. Wartime outbreaks of political chaos all over the world provided the platforms and test beds for techniques, tactics and strategies that would become the standard blueprint for future spies, turning them into something resembling the dark forces portrayed by pre-War spy fiction. The Russian Revolution, above all, provided intelligence communities in every other country with an unprecedented opportunity to make a real and almost universally popular difference to the world through political espionage, and the small but ambitious British Secret Service did what it could to seize the chance.
The British effort’s only ‘success’ lay in helping to trigger a long-term escalation of international spy wars, thus ensuring the importance and future funding of the espionage trade, but British spies reversed into even that dubious achievement, merely creating enough suspicion to provoke convincing allegations of conspiracy. Those outcomes said something about the ecological difficulties attached to external regime management, and even more about the intrinsic value of political espionage, messages that are still being ignored, at great cost to all of us, by intelligence agencies around the world.
By July 1918 the War’s big picture was getting clearer and something resembling a logical conclusion was slowly coming into focus for most observers on both sides, informed or propagandised. So I’m going for slight change of approach today, aimed at providing a few snapshots, and ideally a flavour, of the Great War’s last summer.
The Second Battle of the Marne may have begun as a German attack on 15 July, but within five days it was clearly turning into an Allied victory. After four months of near-panic among the Allies, especially the British and French, as German offensives on the Western Front suddenly threatened to turn a fast tide against them, the battle was also emerging as the moment the world as a whole realised Germany wasn’t going to win.
No such clarity could be drawn from the other side of the big picture, the puzzling and potentially frightening spectacle of the Russian Empire collapsing into civil war. Would Lenin’s soviets triumph and form a completely new kind of state, or would the multi-faceted, multi-headed forces of counter-revolution restore something resembling the old order? Nobody, including Lenin and Trotsky, had much idea of the answers, and by no means everybody outside Russia was sure which side they wanted to win – but most of them were sure they wanted to see the Czech Legion get home.
By now a global cause célèbre and, with a total strength of around 100,000 troops, the single biggest coherent military force in the civil war zone, the Legion was strung out along the Siberian railway en route for Vladivostok. Advanced Czech and Slovak forces took Irkutsk on 13 July and, far to the west, rear elements took Kazan the following day. Both occupations were duly celebrated as victories in the Allied press, which also reported Japanese agreement, on 18 July, to US proposals for a joint intervention in Siberia, and the proclamation, five days later at Vladivostok, of a Siberian Government Council. But the big story coming out of Russia that week was the news that Bolsheviks had executed the Tsar and all his family at Ekaterinburg on 17 July, a measure apparently hurried through for fear that the Czech Legion was on its way.
One thing becoming clear about Russia’s meltdown was that it wasn’t going to end the War in a hurry. Fears that Bolshevik success would spark immediate popular revolution in Europe’s other great powers had faded, and the theory that release of German troops from the Eastern Front would turn the battle in the West had been proved false, though only just. By mid-1918 both sides also recognised that Germany’s submarine-led campaign against shipping lanes had failed to end the conflict, but that didn’t mean the global war on trade was over.
Adoption of convoy systems had reduced Allied merchant losses to manageable, sustainable levels, and U-boats had switched their priorities accordingly, targeting the ongoing transfer of US forces to Europe. Submarines sank five Allied transports between 15 and 19 July – at the cost of one submarine sunk by a British destroyer – and a British armed merchant cruiser on 23 July. The victims included the Cunard liner Carpathia, sent to the bottom on 17 July while sailing with an Atlantic convoy from Liverpool to Boston, and famous as the first rescuer on the scene after the Titanic went down in 1912.
The British meanwhile persisted with their own, more successful version of economic warfare, in place since the start of the War, which combined the Royal Navy’s blockade of enemy ports with some serious diplomatic bullying to prevent neutral countries from trading with the enemy. Nobody needed more bullying than Germany’s close neighbours, particularly Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, and all three countries spent the war years juggling the threat of invasion across the German frontier, the threat of starvation or conquest by the British, and the benefits of an economic boom generated by trade with both.
The Dutch juggling act almost came to grief during the spring and summer of 1918. In March, just as the Allies were trying to requisition Dutch ships to address a critical shortage of transatlantic transports, Berlin demanded increased supplies of sand and gravel along the Rhine or the railway from Antwerp to the Ruhr. Agreements with the Allies allowed the Netherlands to export only certain, specifically non-military supplies along these routes, with some sand and gravel permitted for civilian road-building purposes, but German demands coincided with a need for materials to build new fortifications on the Western Front, and everybody knew it.
The German press responded to initial Dutch refusal with barely veiled threats of imminent invasion, and while the Dutch military braced for war the Allies considered a preemptive ‘friendly’ occupation of coastal provinces. Fortunately for a Dutch government that could not agree to either side’s demands and remain neutral, Ludendorff’s plan to invade Zeeland was rejected (for once) by the rest of the Third Supreme Command, and Germany’s massive commitment to the Western Front offensive soon rendered a full-scale invasion of the Netherlands impossible. The British, having already seized the Dutch ships in question (and paid compensation, of course), also needed every available body at the Western Front and advised the Hague to reach a compromise with Berlin, so the Dutch government accepted a reduced German sand and gravel demand, and agreement to restart trade was reached on 2 May.
Reaction from right-wing editors and politicians in Britain was noisy and predictable, denouncing what they saw as Dutch collusion with Germany and becoming increasingly hysterical as the crisis on the Western Front deepened. The British government finally responded to their outrage by issuing a formal protest about the sand and gravel arrangement on 15 July – just as the pivotal battle on the Marne was beginning – and the Dutch quickly agreed to talks aimed at arranging military cooperation in the event of German aggression. The talks began in August, proceeded in friendly, constructive fashion and continued until the Armistice, but by the time they got going much of the tension had gone out of diplomatic atmosphere in Europe because the German end of the neutrality tightrope had sagged.
Within few days of the British protest, the battle at the Marne had revealed the true weakness of Germany’s military position in France, and as Anglo-Dutch relations eased so did the sense of crisis that had gripped British and French society, military and civil, since the shocks of the spring. A generalised fear of impending defeat gave way to an equally broad belief that victory was assured once the US was fully in the fight. The change was both swift and obvious to contemporaries, as nicely illustrated by the immediate outbreak of labour trouble in Britain.
British trades union leaders had agreed to suspend industrial action for the duration in 1914, and the agreement had largely held. Strikes still took place throughout the War but were led by local union leaders or shop stewards, and usually concerned with local disputes over pay and conditions. Even these tended to abate in times of national crisis, and Britain experienced almost no significant strike action amid the manpower shortages and military disasters that blighted the first half of 1918. Victory at the Marne changed that.
On 23 July, as news of German withdrawal from the Marne was still coming in, engineering and munitions workers in Coventry took strike action, and their counterparts in Birmingham followed suit the next day. The strike was, typically, called in response to a perceived infringement of workers’ rights by the government, in this case the ’embargo’, an official ban on the employment of additional skilled labour by certain firms. It was also based on a misunderstanding, because the embargo was a far more trivial matter than shop stewards realised, and only applied to very few companies.
Munitions workers were crucial to the war effort and protected from conscription, so the strike came as a shock to the pubic and brought a punitive response from the government, which announced that all strikers would be liable to conscription if the action continued. It ended after a week, but the shift it reflected in the British national mood, from relatively obedient pessimism to increasingly militant expectation, was destined to outlast the War.
Major distractions have helped make this one of my clumsier efforts, but its vague purpose has been to commemorate a historical turning point that, if not exactly hidden, passed without the kind of totemic event that provides a passport to posterity. During the summer of 1918, sometime after the middle of July and before the start of August, the planet as a whole decided that the result of the Great War was no longer in doubt, and that predictions of its imminent end – fanfared at the beginning of every campaigning season since 1914 – could finally be taken seriously. After four years of fixation on survival, the minds of politicians, generals, ordinary fighters and civilians in every warring state could at last focus on the future peace and their places in it. The battles between states were almost over, and the battles within states were just beginning.
A hundred years ago today the first elements of an Allied invasion force landed at the port of Murmansk, in northwestern Russia. Their arrival marked a significant uptick in a steadily expanding international campaign against Bolshevism in Russia, and its centenary gives me an excuse to talk about it.
What is usually known as the North Russian Intervention or the Northern Russia Expedition (or three or four other names, none of them any better known) was a complicated, messy and fairly crazy business, entwined with the equally complex and largely shapeless Russian Civil War. It was geopolitically connected to anti-Bolshevik interventions from Japanese and US forces far to the southeast, around Vladivostok, and to the adventures of the relatively powerful Czech Legion as it marched across Russia in search of safe passage to Allied territory. I’ve touched on Vladivostok (12 January, 1918: Port In A Storm, Pt.1) and the Czech Legion (31 May, 1918: Fame And Fortune) during the last few weeks, and I’ll be getting back to them sometime soon. One day I’ll even attempt some kind of overview briefing about the Civil War as a whole, but for now let’s wonder why and how the British came to be invading Russia in mid-1918.
The roots of British military involvement inside Russia lay in the wartime battle for control of Arctic trade routes. Like convoys and submarine warfare in general, fighting in the Arctic theatre is popularly associated with the Second World War but was an equally significant factor during the First – and for the same reasons.
Russia, like every other state fighting against the Central Powers, expected and received direct aid from its filthy rich ally, Britain. Given the virtual impossibility of Allied shipping reaching Russia via the Baltic, and the regular interruptions to overland trade traffic via neutral Sweden (10 October, 1917: National Stereotypes), supplies had to be shipped across the top of Scandinavia to the Barents Sea port of Murmansk and the smaller White Sea port of Archangelsk.
Nobody had anticipated this before the War, and neither port was remotely fit for purpose in 1914, so all Russian activity in the region during the conflict’s first months was concerned with expanding their harbour and railway facilities for use as major supply centres for Allied coal and weapons. The German Navy eventually decided to interfere with the process in June 1915, when an auxiliary cruiser laid 285 mines at the entrances to Archangelsk harbour, and that was enough to trigger an Allied response.
A makeshift minesweeping force, consisting of a few British armed trawlers and 18 Russian boats seconded from the Baltic Fleet, was cobbled together, and a miscellaneous collection of second-line warships was gathered from other theatres for patrol duties in the Arctic Sea. By the end of 1915 these included two old British cruisers, a Russian submarine and a minelayer transferred from the Far East, while two coastal batteries were established and thirty old naval guns fitted to merchant ships. German mines meanwhile sank a British minesweeper and twelve merchant ships.
Levels of Allied naval protection for Arctic shipping rose in line with a steady increase in traffic during 1916. The Russian Navy formed an Arctic Flotilla in February, operating out a new ice-free base at Kola, and the Royal Navy began establishing a larger presence in the theatre during the summer. The old, pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Glory was stationed in Murmansk from August, and a scratch force based around the light cruiser HMS Askold and a few old destroyers from the Far East was still being formed in the autumn, when six U-boats of the German High Seas Fleet spearheaded a brief but highly effective campaign against Arctic shipping. In six weeks before winter ice prevented operations, they sank 25 Allied ships, captured two more and damaged several small Allied warships, losing one submarine in the process.
In the wider context of a world at war, and in terms of its practical impact on the Eastern Front, the Arctic theatre was still very small beer, and British aid to Russia amounted to only about £20.5 million of war materials in 1916. Even that was far more than northern Russian ports could handle, and half the year’s imports were still piled up at Archangelsk awaiting rail transport in early 1917. By that time four British icebreakers and a few more auxiliary craft had reached northern Russian waters, bringing the combined strength of the Anglo-Russian naval presence up to about 40 vessels – but the German Navy had better things to do with its submarines in 1917 and only 21 more Allied ships were sunk in the Arctic before hostilities between Russia and the Central Powers ended in December.
Although the Arctic Flotilla’s Russian units continued to patrol alongside British ships until the Armistice, the Bolshevik Revolution brought the Arctic naval war to an effective end – but it also triggered the outbreak of land warfare in northern Russia. British theatre commander Admiral Kemp was charged with maintaining Murmansk and Archangelsk, along with the territory in between and transport links to the Russian heartlands. The vast area involved, along with the arrival of a German army in neighbouring Finland, threats of Finnish incursions across the Murmansk railway, and chronic uncertainty about whether local Bolsheviks were allies, enemies or neutrals fighting their own civil war, prompted Kemp to ask for reinforcement by the Army in April 1918. Bad timing, what with the BEF’s desperate need for manpower against the German Spring Offensive on the Western Front, and Kemp was told to make do with the marines aboard his ships.
In early May about a hundred marines, supported by Red Guards and naval units, were landed at the small port of Pechenga, about 50km along the coast from Murmansk, to hold off attacks from German-backed, anti-Bolshevik ‘White’ Finns. Later that month a single German U-boat appeared off Pechenga and sank a few small craft before disappearing, never to return. Both incidents served to convince strategists in the British Admiralty and War Office that a major German-Finnish attack on northern Russia was in preparation.
Meanwhile, the breakdown of agreements made with the Petrograd regime concerning the Czech Legion’s safe departure from Russia opened up the possibility that half its troops, some 50,000 men, would march to join any Allied forces in northern Russia. With Petrograd pressurising the Murmansk soviet (more socialist than Bolshevik at this stage) to stop cooperating with the British, and threatening to send Red Army units to commandeer the trove of war materials lying around in Archangelsk, the British War Office finally approved the dispatch of ground troops to the region.
It didn’t approve much. The Royal Navy sent an extra marine force of some 300 men to Murmansk, including a naval artillery battery and a machine-gun section, while the British Army managed to scrape two detachments together under the codenames ‘Syren’ and ‘Elope’. Syren amounted to 600 troops, most of them fresh out of basic training, just released from PoW camps or invalided out of France. Commanded by Major-General Maynard, an officer previously retired as unfit for duty, they were supposed to protect Murmansk. The 500 men of Elope were British trainees, backed by a few companies of ANZAC and Canadian volunteers. Under the command of Brigadier-General Finlayson, they were detailed to cross the White Sea from Murmansk to Archangelsk, and its supply mountain, once the winter ice melted.
Assembled in strict secrecy, because the Allies were not at war with Bolshevik Russia, Syren and Elope sailed from Newcastle on 18 June. After a difficult journey, during which the emerging flu epidemic struck down the transport ship’s Moslem crew (many of whom were malnourished because they were serving during Ramadan in a region without sunsets), the detachments reached Murmansk on 23 June. Their arrival brought total Allied ground strength in the new theatre up to around 2,500 (largely second-line) troops, including a few French and Serbian soldiers sent as token assistance by their hard-pressed governments.
Overall command of North Russian operations was given to another British officer, Major-General Poole, who had retired in 1914 but was serving as a military attaché in Petrograd, and who had arrived in Murmansk on 24 May. Poole was expected to protect a very large stretch of land and its port facilities, to recruit and train local anti-Bolshevik or anti-German elements for their own defence, to absorb any Czech forces that happened to show up, and to use these forces to reopen the Eastern Front.
With hindsight, this was a pretty ridiculous fantasy, particularly given that Poole received hardly any funding for the task and that the entire Czech Legion had by then decided to march east towards Vladivostok – but there is an argument for letting British strategists off the hook. Deep ignorance of the actual situation in Russia, the sheer scale of the crisis involved and Germany’s obvious desire for an eastern empire all conspired to encourage extravagant speculation, and extravagant strategies naturally followed. On the other hand, there was no good excuse for General Poole’s extreme optimism about military prospects or his unshakable, seemingly authoritative belief that the Bolshevik regime was a shambles on the point of collapse, both of which exerted a powerful influence on Allied strategic thinking.
The Supreme War Council had already agreed to recruit additional troops for northern Russia from other Allied nations, though most were at least as hard-pressed for manpower as Britain, and Poole’s insistence that, with another five thousand or so troops, he could work all the miracles required of him prompted a steady growth of Allied strength in the theatre. The campaign that followed eventually occupied some 13,000 British imperial troops, 2,000 French (most of them from French colonies), a mixed group of about 1,000 Serbs and Poles, a battalion of former Russian troops recruited from the autonomously inclined Karelian province and, eventually, about 8,000 US troops.
Long before most of them arrived, and once the winter ice melted, Poole was committed to the occupation of Archanglesk and its supplies. The port’s Bolshevik government was far less sympathetic to British intervention than the Murmansk authority, and Poole spent July organising a coup by local ‘White’ forces, timed to coincide with the arrival of the Elope force and strong naval support. By way of illustrating the disconnects within what is often mistaken for coherent strategic planning at national level, the coup also happened to coincide with the arrival from Petrograd of a British trade mission that had been instructed to seek friendly relations with Lenin’s regime. Whatever London’s intentions, the success of the coup on 2 August sparked a state of open warfare between the Bolshevik regime and Allied forces in northern Russia, a breakdown cemented by Poole’s subsequent establishment of regional martial law under a puppet, avowedly ‘socialist’ government.
So now the North Russian Intervention really was an invasion. Like Britain’s accidental advances through Mesopotamia to Baghdad and beyond, it was a product of strategic sloppiness that blurred the line between attack and defence, allowing feral local commanders to dictate imperial policy. Never remotely capable of achieving the revival of war on the Eastern Front envisaged by Poole and his political supporters in London (including, inevitably, Winston Churchill), it was destined to expand in black comic, bloodstained fashion during the autumn… when I’ll come back to Russia’s Arctic coasts and point the way to its long, slow deflation, a process that lasted well into 1920.
This has been long and late, because I’ve been under heavy distraction, but the landings of Syren and Scope at Murmansk seem to me worth remembering, and not just as an illustration of the military clumsiness still at large within a British war effort down to its last barrel-scrapings. Feeble, half-hearted examples of gesture strategy at its most absent-minded, those two little detachments – barely fit for manoeuvres let alone combat – turned out to be the straws that broke the hope, once and for all, of friendly relations between Britain and the new USSR.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So fighting on the streets of Petrograd and Moscow has been going on for ten days, but now it’s dying down. Revolutionary troops have dominated street battles against anti-Bolshevik elements and halted an attempt to retake the capital by Kerenski, who has just gone into hiding prior to fleeing the country, initially to France. Lenin and the Bolsheviks are consolidating power at the centre, and although Russia’s withdrawal from the Great War is still officially pending, the whole world knows it’s coming soon. Informed observers everywhere are also aware that civil war is brewing in Russia, but for now pacifism is having its day. That begs a question: what exactly did people mean by pacifism in 1917?
The answer is less simple than it might appear to a modern mind familiar with pacifism as a general opposition to war itself, if not to violence of any sort. This ideological position, named for the duration as conscientious objection, was recognised when the First World War began and took two basic forms. Those objectors unwilling to bear arms but prepared to serve were usually given non-combatant roles, often as medical orderlies, cooks or labourers, while ‘absolute’ conscientious objectors – those refusing to play any part in war – were sent straight to prison in most belligerent countries. A few thousand British and US absolute objectors passed stringent tests to gain official exemption from conscription (when it came), usually those able to prove long-term membership of religiously pacifist organisations like the Society of Friends, but they often suffered discrimination and ridicule in their local communities, especially in Britain.
By 1914, another definition of pacifism described the body of opinion, far more numerically and politically significant, that opposed the militarism and aggressive nationalism associated with the pre-war ‘great powers’. In this sense the revolutionary wing of the socialist Second International, which rejected war between workers as a form of capitalist oppression, was pacifist, as were liberal ‘isolationists’ in the United States, who regarded any extension of statecraft into military aggression as morally wrong.
The War’s progress expanded a new and particular form of what was called pacifism by both its adherents and its ‘patriotic’ opponents: a simple preference for peace over ‘war to the end’. Bringing together religious organisations like the Papacy, which sought to end what it saw as senseless carnage, and revolutionary socialists (like the Bolsheviks) preaching ‘defeatism’ as a way to hasten the fall of capitalist regimes, along with politicians and agitators in favour of a compromise settlement in all the countries at war, this was always a broad church.
Pacifism of this type was also difficult to quantify. Universally surprised and relieved by popular enthusiasm for war in 1914, belligerent governments constantly expected it to evaporate, a paranoia that existed to different degrees in different regimes, but that grew stronger everywhere as the conflict dragged on. Factor in the psychological need to find scapegoats for a long list of unexpected military failures (on all sides) and it’s easy to see why wartime governments and their supporters at all levels of society saw disruptive, dangerous pacifism everywhere.
The bitter course of 1917 had brought deepening popular war weariness in Europe, loud calls for peace from across the international pacifist spectrum, a long list of military failures on both sides that could be blamed on pacifists and, most alarmingly from the viewpoint of belligerent governments, shocking proof in Russia that pacifism could bring down an empire. Public debate between pacifists and diehards, always a feature of every wartime home front, intensified everywhere throughout the year and was often acrimonious stuff, but it kicked off in France with a fury unmatched outside greater Russia.
The bloodletting of Verdun, the catastrophic failure of the Nivelle Offensive and the mass mutiny that followed brought a collective howl of outrage and bewilderment from a French body politic long polarised between those on the left in favour of a compromise peace and a right wing committed to total victory, or ‘war to the end’ (29 April, 1917: All Riot On The Western Front). Conservative press and politicians had no trouble finding scapegoats for the disasters of the spring, and a hunt for spies and pacifist agitators, real or imagined, had come to dominate French political life by the summer.
Interior minister Louis Malvy, a liberal regarded by the right as soft on dissent and therefore potentially treasonous, was forced out of office at the end of August after being (mildly) implicated in a scandal surrounding German funding of a small pacifist magazine, Le Bonnet Rouge. His left-of-centre Radical Party supporters promptly deserted the centrist government of Alexandre Ribot, leaving it isolated and under attack from both sides of the political divide until its resignation on 7 September.
President Poincaré, the one constant at the heart of French wartime politics, stuck with his overriding principle of national coalition to appoint another centrist administration under Ribot’s war minister, the relatively inexperienced Paul Painlevé. Painlevé’s main qualification for the job was his well-known opposition to the Nivelle folly, but he attracted no more support from left or right than his predecessor and only lasted a couple of months, resigning on 13 November.
Poincaré now had no choice but to get off the fence and appoint a government representing one side or the other. On 15 November 1917, with shockwaves reverberating across Europe as the Bolsheviks showed pacifism’s teeth, he handed power to a veteran politician who was ‘war to the end’ personified, Georges Clemenceau.
Already in his mid-seventies, Clemenceau had been a powerful and very lively figure within the Radical Party until he embarked upon a noisy semi-retirement from 1909. As a senator in the upper house and editor of his own magazine, L’Homme Libre, he was a strident voice for military preparedness before August 1914, and when war came he turned down the Viviani government’s offer of the justice ministry to carry on sniping from the sidelines.
The Tiger, as he liked to be known, became the most belligerent of all the many critics attacking successive wartime French governments. Changing the name of his magazine to L’Homme Enchainé in protest at state censorship, he delivered scathing attacks against the dominance of Joffre’s military command and against bureaucratic inefficiency, while keeping up a stream of complaints about the spread of pacifist agitation. He had accused Malvy of being a closet pacifist, and had led calls for state suppression of internal unrest in the aftermath of the Nivelle Offensive. His call to the office of prime minister was an invitation to act the strongman in pursuit of total victory, and he played the role to the hilt.
Clemenceau immediately clamped down all dissent, closing pacifist publications, arresting some 1,700 ‘defeatists’ and putting several of the most prominent on trial for treason. He dealt with political division by simply excluding all opponents from the government, and slowed the surge of strikes that was in danger of paralysing the economy with a combination of threats and wage rises. He was equally forceful with the military. Working to counteract c-in-c Pétain’s acceptance of the Army’s relatively passive role on the Western Front, he influenced the appointment of the more aggressive Foch as Allied supreme commander in 1918 and insisted that exhausted French forces go onto the attack during the War’s last battles.
All in all, Clemenceau behaved like a right-wing dictator for the rest of the War, and he would go on to play a major part in turning post-War peace negotiations into an unmitigated disaster that shaped the rest of the century. Then again, Clemenceau proved to be exactly what the French Third Republic needed to get it through the War intact. Arriving at the head of a society divided to the point of paralysis, and at the very moment when socialist revolution was claiming its first major empire, his single-minded aggression produced an effect that the British would later call Churchillian.
Clemenceau is well remembered in France, broadly speaking celebrated by the right and abhorred by the left in a country still fondly attached to twentieth-century political divides, but like many of the conflict’s most important political figures his wartime contribution gets very little international attention today. I’m not here to judge Clemenceau, any more than I’d attempt to judge Churchill or De Gaulle for the dubious nature of their wartime heroics, but while we’re commemorating the icons that Lenin and Trotsky became, spare a thought for what might have happened to Western Europe if France hadn’t been tamed by the Tiger.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Today marks the centenary of one of modern history’s great non-events: General Kornilov’s attempt to seize control of Russia by a military coup in Petrograd. It never really got off the ground, and the details of its inception are shrouded in controversy, but it did trigger another decisive shift in the cascading process of Russia’s long and winding Revolution. As such it was lot more significant for the future of the world than any of the ferocious fighting taking place in Western Europe in the late summer of 1917, and it gifts me a chance to catch up with the Russian Provisional Government’s doomed quest for a moderate socialist revolution.
I last hung around Petrograd (to ruin a Stones quote) at the end of the Kerenski Offensive, an attempt to silence peace-mongers at home while pleasing allies abroad that failed militarily and backfired politically. In its aftermath, the Provisional Government’s precarious perch on the fence became uninhabitable. While grass-roots socialists were mobilising workers and soldiers for popular revolution on the streets, liberal political forces, rather less liberal business interests and generally authoritarian military leaders – all necessary props for a regime clinging to legitimacy on shifting ground – were pulling in the opposite direction, desperate for some restoration of order before anarchy or the Germans took over.
Crisis came quickly. Four cabinet members from the essentially liberal Kadet Party resigned on 15 July, and protest against the ‘betrayal’ of the failed offensive hit the streets of Petrograd the following morning, beginning four days of armed demonstrations known as the July Days (which for once took place in July by both the old- and new-style calendars).
Begun on 16 July by a regiment of machine-gun troops in the capital, street protests quickly erupted among workers and other troops, all demanding peace and many coining the Bolshevik slogan ‘all power to the soviets’. By the next day protest had spread to the Baltic naval base at Kronstadt, to Moscow and to almost every other Russian town of any size, a chaotic, violent expression of popular discontent that couldn’t be controlled by the Provisional Government, the Petrograd Soviet (which refused popular demands for it to take power) or any other political group.
The anti-War Bolsheviks, at this stage still a minority pressure group agitating for workers’ revolution, did have a stab at directing the protests towards insurrection, but in a characteristically divided and somewhat chaotic manner. Some Bolsheviks in Petrograd supported the protests from 16 July and urged violent overthrow of the state, but the party’s leadership, including Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev, withheld formal support until the following day, and then called for the movement to remain non-violent. The Bolsheviks officially withdrew their support on 18 July, by which time it had become clear that the Provisional Government and loyal Army units were willing and able to unite in suppressing the nascent rebellion.
They had done just that by 20 July (all these are new-style dates), and on 21 July Kerenski, the one political figure acceptable to both socialists and liberals, stepped up to become premier in a new ministry. More reliant than ever on military and business support, less able than ever to represent the revolutionary pacifism engulfing soldiers, sailors and workers through their soviets, Kerenski lurched to the right in a bid to restore some kind of order.
The Bolsheviks were publicly accused of inciting the protests using German money, with Trotsky and other leaders imprisoned while Lenin escaped to Finland. New laws were introduced restricting public gatherings and, under pressure from the military, Kerenski sanctioned restoration of the recently abolished death penalty to encourage military discipline.
At this point, General Lavrenti Kornilov moves to centre stage. An unremarkable divisional general in 1915, when he was captured on the Eastern Front, Kornilov had ensured his status as a Russian Army hero and his rapid promotion by escaping from a Hungarian prison in the summer of 1916. Thought to have some sympathy with liberal reforms, he had been put in command of the politically crucial Petrograd garrison after the February Revolution. Any liberal principles withered in the face of mass rebellion, and he had resigned in May after Kerenski, under pressure from the Petrograd Soviet, refused to let him suppress street protests with armed troops.
Returning to the front in command of the Ninth Army during the Kerenski Offensive, Kornilov had achieved fleeting success in its early phases. When the offensive’s overall failure forced the removal of Brusilov as Army c-in-c, he was the obvious replacement, and the Petrograd business and political classes generally welcomed his appointment on 1 August as the best hope of rescuing the Army as an instrument of state.
What happened a month later is only vaguely understood, with details lost in a miasma of self-serving memoirs and political interpretations, so here’s a rough guide to the best guesses available to the dispassionate.
With its links to the Petrograd Soviet crumbling, and the Soviet anyway losing control over the revolutionary tide, the new coalition found itself planning for the restoration of order alongside moderate political opinion, business interests and the Army. At the same time the government could only claim any kind of legitimacy by looking like representatives of the people’s will (and Kerenski was anyway a moderate socialist at heart), so discussions about what to do next were necessarily carried out in an atmosphere of secrecy and deniability.
Somewhere along the line, probably at a meeting in Moscow on 24 August, somebody in the Provisional Government – conceivably but probably not Kerenski – agreed to support Kornilov’s plan to restore order, as did a group of wealthy businessmen during a separate meeting with the general. Since the plan involved marching his best and most loyal troops, most of them Cossacks, into the capital to arrest the Bolsheviks, break up the Petrograd Soviet, disarm the soviet-controlled Petrograd garrison and impose martial law, this amounted to a military coup.
Nobody has ever conclusively established whether Kornilov, by now the Army’s unchallenged figurehead, or Kerenski was to lead any new regime. The scraps of available evidence suggests that Kornilov intended to establish a military regime and make himself dictator, but a minority claim that Kerenski was complicit in the plan, at least at the time of its conception. Either way, once the last Russian survivors had been extricated from the front at Riga (3 September, 1917: Trial By Fire), Kornilov began assembling his forces for railway journeys into Petrograd.
Kerenski wasn’t having it. He may have accepted the idea of putting Petrograd under martial law, but once attempts to communicate with Kornilov had failed to clarify the general’s intentions the premier moved decisively to avert what he saw as an essentially counter-revolutionary military putsch. Only one move was available to him, and so he put his faith in the revolutionary left.
The government denounced Kornilov as a traitor and stripped him of command on 8 September, installing Kerenski as the new c-in-c. It issued calls for workers and soldiers to defend Petrograd from (as ever, allegedly German-sponsored) attack, and the Petrograd Soviet temporarily buried its party squabbles to organise the mobilisation. As Bolshevik leaders, including Trotsky, were released from prison to do what they did best, get the masses armed and onto the streets, and Kronstadt sailors arrived to defend the capital, the threat of ‘counter-revolution’ found the wildcat world of Petrograd in frenzied unity.
Counter-revolution didn’t live up to the hype, or even get started. Railway workers refused to run trains into the capital, and delegations of troops from Petrograd convinced most of Kornilov’s men to change sides, before Kornilov and his senior officers were arrested on 14 September. Apart from one or two suicides among Kornilov’s aides, not a shot was fired.
Kornilov wasn’t finished. He would escape from imprisonment in Bykhov Monastery within two months, and go on to become the first commander of the Volunteer Army, the main anti-Bolshevik force during the Russian Civil War, until he was killed by shellfire in April 1918. Meanwhile his bid for power had achieved precisely the opposite of its intentions, because the Provisional Government had used the prospect of counter-revolution to mobilise the hard left in defence of the Motherland.
Counter-revolution was of course a genuine possibility in Russia during 1917, because the Army, the money and a large swathe of the political establishment were all more concerned with defeating what now became known as Bolshevism than with any post-Tsarist principles of their own. Kerenski was well aware of this when he negotiated with them in the aftermath of the July Days, but seems to have been surprised by their lurch towards military dictatorship, forcing him to adopt very high-risk tactics in an attempt to stop them.
Kerenski’s call to arms at least partially vindicated and legitimised the Bolsheviks, enabling them to claim much of the credit for fighting off counter-revolution. The threat of counter-revolution and/or conquest remained hot news (as it would in Russia for the next seventy years or so), and the Bolsheviks never looked back. Within days of Kornilov’s arrest they had won a majority in the Petrograd Soviet for the first time, a reflection of their burgeoning popularity wherever soviets had formed. Meanwhile the Army’s disintegration was hastened by the failed coup, with most units melting away to their homes or joining new Red Guard units under the command of soviets, and Kerenski found himself hopelessly isolated, accused by the left of being in league with Kornilov and abandoned by the right (the Kadets quit again) for ‘betraying’ the general. After months of instability as it manoeuvred in search of non-existent central ground, the Provisional Government was now a certified lame duck – and about to be a dead one.
Kerenski tends to be dismissed by historical commentators on all sides as a failure, too flexible (or dithering) to achieve what liberals wanted, too much the bourgeois compromiser for left-wing tastes and a scapegoat to right-wing opinion in need of someone to blame for the USSR. Personally I’ve always found him a rather sad figure, a very competent, essentially well-meaning politician of the normal sort thrust into circumstances nobody could have sorted out – a bit like some of the War’s better generals. The Kornilov Revolt was his final nemesis. By handing authority to the left, he effectively condemned his own vision of social democratic reform to death, but he isn’t responsible for, and could hardly have predicted, the long-term horrors inflicted on Russia, Asia, Eastern Europe and the world by the revolution that followed. So maybe posterity should give him a small pat on the back for choosing the hard road to protect what looked like a good cause.
A hundred years ago today, after exactly eight years in office, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg resigned as Germany’s Imperial Chancellor. On the same day, far to the northeast, the first Provisional Assembly of Estonia opened its first session. Neither centenary is likely to make much of a splash in British heritage terms, but both signalled big changes in the modern history of their own countries. I’ll start, like you do during world wars, with Germany.
Bethmann Hollweg’s departure had been coming. The advent of the Third Supreme Command, a lurch towards totalitarian control over an all-out war effort by a military-industrial oligarchy, had condemned Germany’s wartime political truce, or Burgfrieden, to a slow death, leaving the Chancellor adrift in the space between polarising political extremes.
I won’t repeat my enthusiastic condemnation of the Third Supreme Command’s dictatorship (29 August, 1916: The Blueprint), except to point out that its attempt to harness every aspect of German economic life to the pursuit of total victory deliberately rode roughshod over political opposition. Liberal or moderate left-wing elements, both within the labour movement and in the Reichstag (parliament), were by then accustomed to being consulted, and even occasionally listened to, in line with the Burgfrieden, and reacted by stiffening their opposition. As the exceptionally harsh winter of 1916–17 brought severe civilian shortages and faltering popular morale, political opposition focused on the Supreme Command’s refusal to consider any peace built on less than total victory, while industrial opposition took the form of strikes and street protests.
Bethmann Hollweg could only weave between the lines and hope to find some route back to national unity, but he never really stood a chance. Although he retained the support of the Kaiser – who was, in his one-eyed, bewildered way, equally desperate to keep the nation together – the Chancellor was regarded as part of the problem by both the Reichstag and the Supreme Command. His attempts to broker a negotiated peace were as hopeless as they were half-hearted (18 December, 1916: Peace? No Chance), and though he hoped to appease the Reichstag by prising a promise of post-War constitutional reform from the Kaiser in March, it was too little too late.
April saw the US enter the War, while a wave of strikes hit industrial production in northern Germany and the political debate about war aims became entangled with demands for immediate constitutional reform. All this helped undermine a hitherto solid popular faith in the Supreme Command’s promises of imminent victory, and with no sign that the regime intended to listen to, let alone meet any of its demands, rising public discontent encouraged the Reichstag’s main opposition parties to come together and formally demolish the Burgfrieden.
On 7 July 1917 the centre and socialist parties tabled a joint declaration in the Reichstag demanding an immediate peace without annexations or indemnities. Known as the Peace Resolution, it was proposed by Max Erzberger, a leading member of the conservative Catholic Centre Party who generally regarded socialists as Satan’s little helpers, and it was passed by 212 votes to 126 on 12 July. A direct affront to the Supreme Command’s ambitious plans for expansion into Eastern Europe, the Resolution left Bethmann Hollweg high and dry, unable to support either its proponents or its right-wing opponents. Liberal leaders in the Reichstag, the Supreme Command’s phalanx of right-wing deputies and senior military officers were all sufficiently dissatisfied with the Chancellor’s dithering response to form an unlikely (and very temporary) alliance that forced his resignation on Bastille Day.
Appropriately enough, Bethmann Hollweg’s fall marked the start of a new phase in Germany’s accelerating collapse to revolution. Faced with the firm parliamentary expression of public opposition, and with something less than full support from the civilian head of government, the Supreme Command simply sidelined the Reichstag and the office of chancellor. Bethmann Hollweg’s replacement, Georg Michaelis (appointed after the Kaiser refused to accept the Supreme Command’s first two choices, former chancellor von Bülow and former navy minister Tirpitz) was a puppet of the Ludendorff regime with no personal support in the Reichstag. That didn’t matter to the Supreme Command because it had stopped listening to the Reichstag, which did manage to remove Michaelis in October – only to be saddled with another puppet, the elderly Bavarian right-winger Georg von Hertling – but otherwise exerted no significant influence on policy for the rest of the War.
In response to its loss of parliamentary legitimacy, and by way of providing a semblance of popular mandate for its pursuit of the Hindenburg Programme’s crazy targets, the Supreme Command put funds into a new political pressure group, the Fatherland Party. Led by Tirpitz, and loudly in favour of all the Supreme Command’s expansionist visions, it was launched in the autumn of 1917 and did eventually boast more than a million members, but most came from the conservative agrarian or military communities, and it had no impact on the gathering storm of disempowered opposition from practically every other sector of German society.
While Germany was being plunged into a deadly experiment in totalitarian post-democracy, a nation with rather less hubris when it came to world-changing destiny was taking its first, albeit faltering step towards a future as a sovereign democracy.
Until the fall of the Russian tsar in 1917, modern Estonia was part of the Russian Empire, divided between the province of Estonia to the north and the northern, Estonian-speaking part of Livonia to the south. The region was effectively ruled by an oligarchy of semi-feudal landowners, many of them German-speaking, but Russification during the nineteenth century had reduced the influence of the German language on popular culture. Nationalist and Estonian language groups had sprung up during the early twentieth century, particularly during and after the abortive Russian revolution of 1905, and had become well established without achieving anything much by 1917, when the February Revolution changed everything.
In line with its revolutionary principles, the new Provisional Government in Petrograd issued a decree on 12 April 1917, unifying the regions of Estonia and northern Livonia as an autonomous Governate of Estonia, and calling for elections to a national assembly. Using a system of two-tier suffrage designed to ensure the influence of reliably socialist soldiers and industrial workers, the elections were a political battleground on the Russian model, with Bolshevik and other revolutionary agitators competing for popular support with more moderate socialists, liberals and nationalists. The 62-seat Provisional Land Assembly (known locally as the Maapäev) that met on 14 July at Toompea Castle, the traditional seat of power in Estonia and the country’s current parliament building, reflected all those interests across seven fairly evenly matched party groupings.
While nationalist and moderate elements coexisted with revolutionaries for whom independence and liberal parliamentary institutions were merely steps on the way to a new world order, autonomy left Estonia open to the free passage of Russian agitators and ideas. Far from producing the basis for unified progress towards sovereign status, the arrival of democracy plunged Estonia into the same kind of chaotic factional warfare that was undermining the Provisional Government in Russia.
Months of instability culminated in a failed Bolshevik coup d’état in the wake of Russia’s October Revolution, prompting a declaration of full independence by the Assembly in November 1917. Revolutionary parties fared poorly in new elections held the following January, but Russian-funded Bolsheviks responded with a second, more serious attempt to seize power, and that persuaded the newly independent nation to ask for German protection.
Estonia got German protection in spades. After expelling revolutionary forces from the port of Revel (Tallinn to you and me) in February 1918, the German Army put the country under military occupation, inevitably coupled with economic exploitation. The small Estonian Army created by the Assembly was disbanded in April, which left the country virtually defenceless when the German withdrew after the Armistice, a situation immediately exploited by a Red Army invasion. The Soviet force (ostensibly made up of Estonian revolutionaries) was eventually prevented from retaking Tallinn by Royal Navy warships in the Baltic, and driven back into Russia by a reconstituted Estonian army the following January. Fighting inside Russia continued for most of 1919, and Russia’s Bolshevik regime officially recognised Estonia’s full independence by a peace treaty signed in February 1920.
So while a defiant expression of German liberal democracy left it helpless in the face of right-wing dictatorship, the first expression of Estonian liberal democracy plunged a country so far untouched by three years of fighting into virtual civil war as it fought off left-wing dictatorship. In both cases, the existence of democracy depended on the goodwill of authorities that were anything but liberal, and in both cases it would take a long, painful process to establish liberal democracy as genuine political force. If there’s a lesson for the future to be drawn from these vaguely linked events, I guess it’s that anything stuck in the middle of the political road – be it Bethmann Hollweg, Estonian nationalism or liberal democracy – is a fragile thing in extreme times. Oh, and that democracy handed out to populations by powerful third parties – be they kings, empires or multinational coalitions – can always be taken away again.