Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Vanquished

Why the First World War Failed to End

Robert Gerwarth

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



A Train Journey in Spring

On Easter Sunday 1917 the ‘triumphal march’ of Bolshevism began with a train journey. In the late afternoon of 9 April the Russian Bolshevik, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, his wife and fellow activist Nadezhda (‘Nadya’) Krupskaya, and thirty of his closest associates departed from the main railway station in Zurich on a train bound for Germany.1

The authorities in Berlin who had approved the secret journey from neutral Switzerland through German territory, and provided the logistics for the onward journey to Russia, placed great hopes in a man that few people outside the Socialist International had heard of at the time, a man who used the pseudonym ‘Lenin’ for his journalistic articles in left-radical fringe publications with very small print runs. Equipped with significant funds, Lenin was to take charge of the small Bolshevik movement in his home country, radicalize the February Revolution which had toppled the tsarist regime earlier that year, and end Russia’s war with the Central Powers.2

Ever since the outbreak of war in late July 1914, the German Foreign Office had developed secret plans to destabilize the Allied home fronts by supporting revolutionary movements of different political complexions: Irish republicans aiming to sever ties with London, jihadists in the British and French empires, and Russian revolutionaries conspiring against the tsar’s autocratic regime in Petrograd.3 Although largely indifferent to the political ambitions of each of these movements, Berlin saw them as strategic partners in an effort to weaken the Allies from within.4 Much to the regret of the strategists in Germany’s capital, however, none of their efforts seemed to deliver the desired results. The roughly 3,000 Muslim prisoners of war who were first interned in 1914 in a special ‘Half Moon Camp’ in Zossen near the German capital, before being dispatched to the Mesopotamian and Persian fronts for propaganda purposes, never managed to mobilize large numbers of jihadists. In the spring of 1916, Berlin suffered a further setback when the German-backed Easter Rising failed to ignite a general revolution in Ireland, while Roger Casement, who had spent the first two war years in the Reich trying to set up an ‘Irish Brigade’ from prisoners of war in German captivity, was arrested shortly after disembarking from a German U-boat off the coast of Kerry in April and executed for treason in August.5

After the fall of the tsar in February 1917, Berlin decided to revive its strategy of smuggling revolutionaries back to their home countries. In line with Berlin’s strategic ambitions to cause upheaval on the Allied home fronts, the German embassies in neutral countries had started to draw up lists of exiled Russian revolutionaries in 1914. Lenin’s name first appeared on one of these lists in 1915. After the abdication of the tsar, the German Foreign Ministry informed its government and the Army High Command (Oberste Heeresleitung, or OHL) that they were aware of a number of radical Marxists in neutral Switzerland whose return to Petrograd would strengthen the anti-war Bolshevik faction of the Russian far Left. The political and military decision-makers in Berlin supported the plan.6

When Lenin embarked on his train journey in April 1917 he was forty-six years of age and could look back on several decades of revolutionary activism. Originally from Simbirsk (Ulyanovsk) on the Volga river, Vladimir and his family moved to his mother’s family estate near Kazan when his father Ilya, a hereditary nobleman and school director, died of a brain haemorrhage in 1886. Shortly thereafter, Vladimir renounced his belief in God. Family disaster struck again the following year when his older brother, Alexander, was arrested and executed for participating in an assassination plot against Tsar Alexander III. Following his brother’s death, Vladimir, too, became increasingly involved in Marxist circles. Expelled from Kazan State University for participating in anti-tsarist demonstrations, he kept up his political interest during his days as a law student in the Russian capital. Following his exams, he involved himself intensively in the revolutionary movement as a lawyer and cultivated contacts with leading Russian social democrats. In February 1897, after returning from a trip to Europe, he was banished to Siberia for three years as a political agitator.7 It was during this period spent in exile, sometime between 1897 and 1900, that he adopted a widespread revolutionary practice by taking an alias, ‘Lenin’ – probably after the Siberian river Lena – in an attempt to confuse the tsarist police.8

From 1900 onwards, Lenin lived in western Europe, first in Switzerland and then in Munich, where he edited the newspaper Iskra (The Spark), in which he also published his famous programmatic essay ‘What Is to Be Done?’ (1902). Although firmly based on Karl Marx’s analysis of capitalism, Lenin’s ideas for the creation of a Communist society differed in at least one important way. For Marx, the final stage of bourgeois society and the capitalist economic order would naturally result in a spontaneous popular uprising caused by class antagonisms. Lenin by contrast did not want to wait for this spontaneous revolutionary moment. It was predicated on an advanced industrial society as well as an equally well-developed class-consciousness among industrial workers, neither of which existed in Russia. Instead, he planned to seize power violently through a coup d’état, executed by a determined and well-trained avant-garde of professional revolutionaries.9 Soviets (or workers’ councils), of the kind that had sprung up spontaneously in many large cities of the Russian Empire over the course of the Revolution of 1905, were to replace the old power structure and accelerate a top-down development of class-consciousness among the still largely illiterate peasants and workers of Russia.10

In light of the revolutionary upheavals in Russia in 1905 and the tsar’s subsequent concessions in his October Manifesto, Lenin had returned to Russia, but was forced to flee again in December that year. He was to spend the next twelve years in exile again. During that time he lived in various European cities – Geneva, Paris, London, Cracow and, from 1916 onwards, in Zurich. The largest city in Switzerland was a particularly attractive refuge at the time, one of a handful of places in Europe not engaged in the war, but with good communication links and a tradition of sheltering dissenters. Zurich was not only the birthplace of the avant-garde Dadaist art movement surrounding Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara at the Cabaret Voltaire, but also became the temporary home of numerous radicals of the European Left who were propagating revolution while frequently disagreeing among themselves about how to achieve that objective.11

Such disputes among members of the socialist Left were not new. Ever since the formation of the socialist Second International in July 1889, different factions had argued endlessly about how to realize a proletarian utopia. Divisions between those advocating reforms and those insisting on revolution deepened further at the start of the twentieth century. In the case of Russia’s Social Democratic Workers’ Party, the irreconcilable positions of the two most important factions – Lenin’s radical Bolsheviks and the more moderate Mensheviks, who (in line with Marx’s theories) advocated a bourgeois-democratic reorganization of Russia before a proletarian revolution could take place – had led to a complete split of the party in 1903.12

The outbreak of war in 1914 had further deepened the rifts within the European labour movement. The majority of social democratic parties in 1914 had approved their countries’ war credits, thus placing national loyalty above international class solidarity.13 Lenin was an uncompromising critic of the reformist Left and a fervent advocate of radical revolution, a position that, in Berlin’s estimation, made him an ideal candidate for the task of further destabilizing Russia’s domestic situation.14

Lenin himself, who lived in modest circumstances and spent most of his days writing in Zurich’s public libraries, was surprised when the February Revolution against the Romanov dynasty broke out in Petrograd. The Zurich emigrants depended entirely on newspaper reports to keep abreast of the situation in Russia, and it was not until early March 1917 that Lenin learnt about it. On the urging of a Duma delegation and senior generals, the tsar had abdicated, and his brother Mikhail had also renounced the throne. Even if the exact outcome of the revolution was still entirely open at this point, Lenin spotted his chance. Unlike in 1905, when he had missed his opportunity to influence the course of that revolution, this time he did not want to waste any time. Instead, he wished to return to Russia as quickly as possible in order to become involved on the ground.15

Lenin was fully aware that in order to cross war-torn Europe he needed German support. It was unthinkable that the Allies would endorse anything that might take Russia out of the war, but the Germans had long tried to weaken their opponents from within. While he knew he was being used by the Germans, Lenin felt that the end – a potentially successful Bolshevik revolution in Russia – justified the means. In negotiation with German representatives he demanded extraterritorial status for his own train compartment and that of his fellow Russian travellers in April 1917; with a piece of chalk, ‘German territory’ was separated from ‘Russian territory’, and Lenin successfully insisted that no further contact should occur between the accompanying German officers and the Russian revolutionaries.16

Their train soon crossed into German territory. As they sped north and drove through German train stations and cities, the travellers from neutral Switzerland saw emaciated soldiers and exhausted civilians for the first time, raising Lenin’s hopes that the war would soon lead to revolution in Germany as well. On the German Baltic Sea island of Rügen, Lenin and his entourage were put on a ship heading for Copenhagen, before continuing their journey to Stockholm and boarding another train bound for Petrograd. Contrary to Lenin’s concerns, he and his party had no difficulty crossing into Russian territory. On 16 April 1917 – after twelve years in exile – Lenin arrived back in the Russian capital, where he was welcomed by an enthusiastic crowd of Bolshevik supporters, who played the Marseillaise, waved red flags, and offered flowers as the train entered Petrograd’s Finland station.17 Lenin was home.

Copyright © 2016 by Robert Gerwarth