23 February 2010

The Germans and The Bolsheviks

The Germans and The Bolsheviks: A History of a Collaboration by Silvin and Maidi Eiletz is a book that is available in Slovene and in German and deals with the fascinating subject of German-Bolshevik collaboration during the First World War. The Eiletzs chronicle the links and the cooperation between the Bolsheviks and Imperial Germany. The story of Lenin's transport across Germany in April of 1917 is well known, but almost unknown is that the collaboration between the two parties did not end there. Germans transferred money to the Bolsheviks to fund their propaganda efforts, and actually continued to support them – and to use them for their own ends – once the latter took power in Russia. The book, which mainly draws from the documents of the German ministry of foreign affairs, present a convincing argument for the thesis of the authors that Germany played a decisive role in helping to bring about the emergence of Bolshevik totalitarianism.

To begin with the well-known Lenin's transfer to Russia in 1917 was much more important to Bolsheviks than is usually appreciated. It was the case that prior to it, all of their most seasons and prominent leaders were in emigration or exile. Thus the Bolsheviks in Russia were poorly led and commanded next to no influence. Lenin's transport organised by official Germany begun to change this. Additionally, it was also only the first of such undertakings and was quickly followed up by more transfers of radical Russian emigres. In all Germany transferred 350 radical Russian leaders from Switzerland and Belgium, which represented a huge boon to the Bolsheviks.

Immediately thereafter the Bolsheviks begun receiving financial aid from the Germans, which enabled them to churn out vast amounts of propaganda material. In February of 1917 the Bolsheviks did not even possess their own press, but by early July they were printing and distributing 320,000 issues of various publications daily. This was useful to the Germans because they saw Bolshevik agitation as a way to increase turmoil in Russia and, more specifically, because the Bolsheviks agitated against the war. The Bolshevik were particularly active in distributing their propaganda to soldiers, which served to help sap the morale of the Russian army. Throughout this time the two collaborating parties were also exchanging information on the situation in Russia.

Thanks to the agent networks inside the country, the Germans were aware that the Bolsheviks seizing power in Russia was not out of the question. They considered this a welcome outcome, which would be advantageous for them. They reasoned that with the Bolsheviks in power they could attain peace in the east and realise vast territorial and economic gains there at the same time. Once the Bolsheviks took power Germany was the first country to recognise the new government.

The book is unequivocal about the fact that Lenin was not a German agent. His goals and the goals of the Germans – the Bolshevik overthrow of the provisional government – merely happened to coincide. Lenin was very cautious in his dealings with the Germans and refused any direct contact in order not to compromise himself. However, he was surrounded with people who were in direct contact with the Germans, most prominently Karl Radek and Jakub Hanecki. Lenin looked forward to an international revolution sweeping up Germany, which is why he could agree to an unfavourable peace – he saw it as a tactical move with which to gain breathing space for his movement to consolidate power in Russia. The Germans for their part initially knew very little about Lenin other than his antiwar stance – they had not put in the effort to learn more about him.

Upon arrival to power the Bolsheviks wasted no time in using their embassy in Germany to aid the agitation of Germany's leftist radicals. The Germans soon curtailed this, but did not adjust their course of action even after they were now fully aware of the ultimate goals of the Bolsheviks. They saw in the Bolshevik government the best tool to keep Russia weak and in chaos and thus the best way to ensure the biggest possible gains for themselves at her expense. They also presumed that the Bolshevik stay in power would be short-lived and therefore saw the need to make the best possible use of that time. In short due to the weakness of the Bolsheviks in Russia they perceived no real threat emanating from them to themselves.

With the peace of Brest-Litovsk which was dictated to the Bolsheviks by Germany the latter achieved all of its war goals in the east. The most important aspects of the dictated settlement were that Ukraine would become a dependency of Germany and that Germany would be granted economic concessions in Russia. The signing of the treaty was an outcome of an ultimatum issued by Ludendorf on February 23rd, 1918. In December 1917 a truce had been declared between the Germans and the Bolshevik-led Russia. This meant that the Bolsheviks had already gotten the respite from the fighting that they wanted. They saw little reason to legitimise the German land grab that followed the truce and the simultaneous disintegration of the Russian army. Subsequently they went out of their way to stall the peace negotiations. They acquiesced to the hugely unfavorable terms only once the Germans saw through their strategy and Ludendorf threatened to push even further should the Bolsheviks fail to accept them within days.

The German military ejected the Bolsheviks from Finland, the Baltic, Ukraine and Crimea, but on the other hand the German ministry of foreign affairs continued to lavishly subsidise them for the purpose of their staying in power in the rest of Russia. By June 1918, however, the German ambassador to Russia, Wilhelm von Mirbach, was urging a change in course. He had come to believe that the Bolshevik position was untenable and wished to forge ties with their rivals and lend them aid in bringing down the Bolsheviks in order to have influence with the new government, which in his opinion would soon come about regardless. Ironically he was assassinated shortly thereafter by pro-Entante Social Revolutionaries who desired to trigger German punitive measures that would rip the Bolsheviks away from the Germans.

Instead the Germans dispatched a new ambassador, Karl Helfferich, who was an influential and high profile German politician. He quickly came to the same conclusion that Mirbach had reached before him and even succeeded for a short time to convince the German Emperor Wilhelm II that a change of course was necessary. Hefferich argued that the Bolshevik position was extremely weak. They were only able to maintain power thanks to a campaign of terror and a widespread belief in Russia that Germany was behind them. In light of that, Hefferich reasoned, the overthrow of the Bolsheviks could be achieved with a minimum of German involvement on the ground. A visible break with the Bolsheviks on the part of Germany would be enough to bring the Bolsheviks to the brink of collapse. He also envisioned that the Brest-Litovsk treaty would have to be modified to placate the anti-Bolshevik forces that would take power in their stead, and in this way distance them from the Entante. Just how weak the position of the Bolsheviks was at this junction is best illustrated by the fact that even general Vatsetis, the commander of the Latvian Riflemen who represented the only real fighting force at the disposal of the Bolsheviks at the time, entered into secret contact with the German embassy to communicate to them that he would be willing to break away from the Bolsheviks and take the side of a German intervention against them instead.

In arguing for the removal of the Bolsheviks Hellferrich found an unlikely ally in the German military personified by Ludendorf. The military, however, had a radically different plan in everything else. They argued for the removal of the Bolsheviks in which German military units would take a visible, even central part. The overthrow of the Bolsheviks by German troops would not be followed by a creation not of a government of patriotic forces of Russia, but of a puppet government subordinated to Berlin. This would eliminate the need to revise the Brest-Litovsk treaty, instead Germany would realise further gains.

Neither of these two visions prevailed. Instead it was the ministry of foreign affairs headed by Paul von Hintze that won over the emperor and had the last word. Von Hintze restated the familiar argument that the Bolsheviks presented the best way to exploit Russia and that any changing of horses mid-race carried unforeseen risks. Thereafter the Emperor determined the Bolsheviks should be notified that they have nothing further to fear from Germany. This was done on 23rd July and was a crucial boon to the Bolsheviks at the time when they were at their absolute weakest.

In summer of 1918 the Entante landed in Arhangelsk, anti-Bolshevik volunteers and the Don Cossacks were making gains in the south. Most importantly the Czechoslovak legion had revolted against the Bolsheviks, went on to remove them from power in Siberia and was now pushing back west taking Samara and dispersing the Bolsheviks there. The Bolsheviks had no reliable organised fighting force but the Latvian Riflemen who were positioned against the Germans. However, the German notification of July 23rd enabled the Bolsheviks to move the Latvian Riflemen from their positions facing the Germans to the east to face the Czechoslovaks and check their advance. Thus the Bolshevik government survived the deepest crisis they were ever to find themselves in.

The civil war would escalate further from here. The year of 1919 saw more bitter fighting and much larger battles, but by then the Bolshevik position was much stronger, since by then the effort of Trotsky to create the Red Army had bore fruit. Therefore despite the fact that actual fighting was more intense in 1919 the Bolsheviks were much less vulnerable and did not come as close to a collapse as they had in the crucial summer of 1918 when they were saved by German reassurances.

Henceforth the Germans and the Bolsheviks found themselves tied to each other like never before. The formal confirmation of this fact came in August 1918 when additional protocols to the Brest-Litovsk treaty were signed under which Bolshevik Russia would be compelled to pay massive war reparations to Germany but would be propped up by German military forces if necessary. The additional protocols envisioned a German military intervention on the behalf of the Bolsheviks against a possible Allied advance from Arhangelsk and against Russia's own anti-Bolshevik formations should it become necessary. With the additional protocols to Brest-Litovsk Bolshevik Russia became a client state of Imperial Germany.

The immediate reason why Germany needed to knock Russia out of the war was to free up divisions fighting there, transfer them over to the Western Front, and try to stave off defeat there. When this became a real possibility, however, the German military continued to step ever deeper into Russia. Though the victory Germany had won in the east was an outcome of intrigue and chance – the outcome on the battlefield was in its favour but  was not decisive – it would not forsake the spoils. Even though the Russian army had disintegrated in the wake of the Bolshevik-German truce of December 1917, when the war was to end in November 1918 the greater number of German soldiers who had been in the east a year earlier were still there. Having the choice between fully exploiting its position in the east and a greater chance of staving off defeat in the west German leadership opted for the former.

This along with the attachment to the Bolshevik provides an important indication that the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk did in fact represent a comprehensive treaty meant to lay the foundations of a vast German empire in Eastern Europe, and was not merely a temporary measure designed to help Germany continue the war.

As said, Germany aided the Bolsheviks to try to realise an advantageous peace in the east. Albeit it had at first expected their stay in power to be short it quickly realised continued support for the Bolsheviks was the most risk-free way of maintaining the enormous gains of Brest-Litovsk in perpetuity. The two alternate, anti-Bolshevik courses proposed by Hellferich and Ludendorf were rejected specifically because they either necessitated the revision of the treaty (as per the Hellferich plan) or else put it in jeopardy (as per the Ludendort plan).

Indeed while the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk brought about German aggrandisement in Eastern Europe it did far less to help the German war effort in the west that could have been expected. The German ambition still tied down numerous troops to the east who, despite requisitions, were just barely able to maintain themselves, and were not able to ship substantial supplies home.

To wrap up, should Germans ever look to assign blame for some 15 million of them ultimately having to endure Communism for 45 years they would do well to assign a portion of it to men like Romberg, Brockdorff-Rantzau, Kühlmann, Hintze, Ludendorf and emperor Wilhelm the II who in the 1917-18 period aided the Communists in Russia and shifted the odds in their favour.

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