5 SEPTEMBER, 1915: Sowing Seeds

This seems a good moment to settle down with a cup of tea and reflect on two very different yet connected events that took place on Sunday, 5 September 1915.  In Russia, Tsar Nicholas II took personal command of the high command, Stavka; and in Zimmerwald, Switzerland, international socialism made its first attempt at rebirth since the Second International’s effective collapse in August 1914.  I’ll start with Zimmerwald.

As everyone ought to know, international socialism was generally accepted as a major force in world politics before 1914.  The leaders of industrialised nations feared, and many socialist leaders believed, that the pacifist declaration made by the Second International at Basel in 1912 would persuade some or all of its nine million members to refuse to fight against other workers if and when war came. That wasn’t how things worked out. Deprived of its most respected voice on the eve of war by the assassination of the Frenchman, Jean Jaurès – and half way through a year marked by popular anti-war demonstrations all over Western Europe – socialist pacifism failed to make any impact whatsoever on the war fever of 1914.  Its collapse was a shock from which the Second International never recovered, and the organisation had ceased to function long before it was officially disbanded in 1916.

Socialist parties in all the belligerent countries except Russia and Serbia reacted to pacifism’s sudden fall from grace by picking up a rifle and marching to a patriotic tune, but by 1915 at least some of their leaders were ready to take part in attempts to revive international socialism.  These centred on neutral Switzerland, the preferred place of exile for the more revolutionary European socialists, and culminated in September’s Zimmerwald Conference.

The Conference didn’t go particularly well, or achieve much more than an agreement to hold a second conference the following year. That failed too, but Zimmerwald’s real significance lies in those failures.

Debate proceeded along lines well established since the turn of the century. A minority of revolutionaries, with Lenin among their most outspoken leaders, sought the overthrow of governments, while a majority of more moderate ‘gradualists’ believed in improving the world by working within their states’ political and legal frameworks.

The two sides were no more inclined to agreement than they had ever been, so at the end of the conference the gradualists went back to the war, and could hardly prioritise socialist progress while the conflict raged on (and on).  Meanwhile the revolutionaries stayed in exile and reaped the benefits of the stresses and upheaval placed on belligerent states by the great carnage.  When those stresses overwhelmed a major belligerent state, Russia, and were exploited by Lenin’s Bolshevik coup, the nexus of international socialism shifted from Western Europe to the east, and stayed there.  At the end of the First World War most gradualists returned to mainstream national politics, while revolution remained the name of international socialism’s game for the next few decades.

While Zimmerwald was, by default, setting the table for future revolution, the Russian Tsar was taking a big step towards serving his empire up on a plate.  The disastrous decision to take personal command of Stavka was, unlike much in the life of Nicholas II, pretty much all his own work.

Nobody doubted that Stavka was in need of change, but as long as the Tsar’s appointees held command they could be, and were, held responsible for its failures.  For vast swathes of the Russian population, including many men and women rich and educated enough to know better, the Tsar remained a god-like figure, above the petty failings of his subjects, immune from blame or retribution.

Sadly court life – opinionated, deeply conservative and careful to stress the perfection of all the Tsar’s actions – could lead an autocrat into a dangerous belief in his own gifts.  The same environment gave those closest to the Tsar plenty of opportunity to exert influence over a monarch who can charitably be described as impressionable.

The Tsar’s decision to take over Stavka, and put himself in the firing line for any future setbacks, was bolstered by determined support from an ultra-conservative court party led by the Tsarina Alexandra and, in her shadow, the bizarre figure of Gregor Rasputin.  Wiser heads concerned for the survival of the monarchy did everything short of assassinate Nicholas to dissuade him from an act they rightly considered a triumph of symbolism over intelligence, but their conspiracies and petitions came to nothing. Always stubborn if challenged, Nicholas formally took command at Stavka on 5 September.  As history records, and I will no doubt mention in future, the move didn’t pay off for the Romanovs.

Both events were noted at the time, but they took place on a Sunday and were less exciting than all fluid, sensational news coming from the battlefronts.   Anzacs were throwing themselves hopelessly against Turkish defences at Gallipoli.  Italian and Austrian troops were getting used to trench warfare in the mountains.  If the Western Front was rumbling with little more than heavy skirmishes, dramatic German advances were still sending Russian armies tumbling east from Poland.  Greece and Bulgaria were pulsing with political crisis, as was Persia.  Turks, Armenians and Russians were squabbling over the same ground in the Caucasus, and Anglo-Indian generals in Mesopotamia were squabbling about whether to advance towards Baghdad.  Action was taking place all over the world, but for my money (though not, obviously, for the heritage industry’s) the two seeds of revolution sown in Zimmerwald and Petrograd are a shoo-in as world-changers of the week.

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