The year 1918 was an extraordinary historical moment. As the Great War roared to an end after four long years of blood and horror, it appeared briefly that the future of the world lay wide open. The old order was overthrown. States were collapsing. Monarchs, the sons of dynasties that had ruled eastern and central Europe for centuries, abdicated and fled. Noisy, violent crowds of hungry civilians and grim, weary soldiers flooded grey city streets, demanding peace and a better life. In the countryside, peasants chased away the lords who had ruled over them and seized their land. Mad, bad and dangerous revolutionaries pushing radical ideals and preaching utopia saw that their hour had struck. The German theologian Ernst Troeltsch aptly named this time, when no one had a firm grip on power and anything appeared possible, ‘the dreamland of the armistice period’. These excellent books by Jonathan Schneer and Robert Gerwarth both show just how much was at stake and capture the breathless excitement and mortal fear that the upheaval generated.
The revolutionary tumult started in Russia in 1917, and Schneer’s pacey book transports its readers to the world’s first communist state in its early months. In hindsight, with knowledge of the monolithic, totalitarian superpower that the Soviet Union became, it is easily forgotten how tenuous the Bolshevik regime’s position was at the outset. Enemies were everywhere. To the west loomed Germany, who in early 1918 used its military might to impose a punishing peace treaty on Russia and seemed likely, throughout the first half of the year, to win the First World War. Within the war-ravaged country, monarchists desiring the return of Tsar Nicholas II, nationalists from minorities hoping to break away and even rival leftist groups disgruntled at being sidelined all plotted the Bolsheviks’ downfall. Only too willing to co-opt and assist these local opponents were agents of the Western powers, the United States, France and Britain. Charming, self-assured and already, at the age of thirty-one, a respected expert on Russia, Bruce Lockhart – the central figure in Schneer’s book – was the perfect choice as London’s ‘unofficial envoy’ to Red Moscow.
What unfurls is a gripping tale of counter-revolutionary intrigue. Lockhart’s initial brief was to persuade Russia’s new Bolshevik leaders to continue the war and rebuild the Eastern Front against Germany. When this quickly failed, the Western powers instead devised an ambitious scheme to trigger regime change by landing troops at the ports of Vladivostok, Murmansk and Archangel and there join with pro-tsar ‘White’ forces and armed Czechoslovak former prisoners of war who had seized control of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Part of the plan, Schneer tentatively suggests, was to cut the railways – and with them, the food supply – to the major cities of Moscow and Petrograd, provoking popular uprisings. If this all appears ridiculously unrealistic, one should recall that, with the revolution, the unimaginable had already happened. Lockhart, Britain’s man in Moscow, was at the centre of the plot. How far he was working on the instructions of London and how much on his own initiative remains murky. Yet unquestionably through the summer of 1918 he was building contacts and distributing money in the counter-revolutionary underworld. He also found time to pursue a passionate affair with a beautiful countess and spy, later a muse to both Maxim Gorky and H G Wells, the enigmatic Moura von Benckendorff.
The book is worth reading for its character portraits alone. Lockhart is a flawed hero: magnetic, quick-witted but never quite brave enough to follow through on his political or romantic convictions. The author’s clear sympathies are with his lover, the mysterious Moura. She is presented as a woman wronged but resilient, a survivor and a force of nature. Her letters to Lockhart, quoted throughout the book, testify to pure love – or deep deviousness. Yet, like Dante’s devil, it is the Cheka – the Bolshevik secret police – who steal the show and, ultimately, win out. Their chief, Felix Dzerzhinsky, had learned his revolutionary craft opposing the tsar’s regime, which imprisoned him many times and subjected him to beatings so hard that he lost the ability to smile. ‘Iron’ Felix epitomised the Bolsheviks’ ruthlessness, brutality and fanaticism. This fascinating figure proves, in Schneer’s telling, to have been Lockhart’s nemesis, thwarting the British plot to overthrow Lenin in a series of masterly countermoves.
The Bolshevik regime in Russia survived, and with the defeat of Germany and Austria-Hungary in November 1918 revolution quickly spread. ‘Central Europe is aflame with anarchy,’ wrote the panicking US secretary of state, Robert Lansing, in April 1919. ‘The Red Armies of Russia are marching westward. Hungary is in the clutches of the revolutionists; Berlin, Vienna and Munich are turning towards the Bolsheviks.’ Germany was regarded by both communists and their opponents as the key battleground in igniting world revolution. However, as Robert Gerwarth explains in his thought-provoking and readable book, the German revolution proved to be remarkably moderate and orderly. Ever since, historians of all ideological shades have dismissed it as a ‘failed revolution’ – because its leaders compromised with conservatives, because it bitterly divided the German Left and because the republic it created was undone barely a decade and a half later by Hitler. Yet in fact, Gerwarth convincingly argues, Germany’s democratic revolutionaries of 1918 chalked up, against the odds, considerable achievements.
Germany’s first democracy was born in the least propitious of circumstances. Although in the first half of 1918 it had appeared that Germany might win the war, shocking military reverses had followed and by November its army was irretrievably beaten on the Western Front. The monarchical and military elites who had brought this disaster on Germany scrabbled to avoid blame. When the admiralty ordered the High Seas Fleet out into the North Sea on a final, suicidal assault on the Royal Navy, its sailors mutinied, sparking a national revolution. Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and into the vacuum stepped the German Social Democrats, led by their principled and pragmatic chairman, the former saddle maker Friedrich Ebert. Ebert was a deeply reluctant revolutionary. He grasped power to save his country from anarchy, civil strife, occupation and dismemberment. The thought of Bolshevik revolution horrified him: ‘I hate it like sin,’ he declared.
The victorious yet myopic Allies gave the German moderates no help. Indeed, although they shared Ebert’s abhorrence of Bolshevism and although President Woodrow Wilson had called at the war’s end for democratic regime change, they continued to blockade starving Germany until June 1919 and then imposed the humiliating Treaty of Versailles on the country. Almost from the outset, Ebert’s government faced armed insurrection from left-wing forces. In January 1919, Spartacists led by the firebrands Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht rose in Berlin. Further red revolts flared that spring in the industrialised Ruhr, in Munich and again in the capital. To survive, Ebert’s government forged a Faustian pact with the old officer corps and deployed the Freikorps, military units filled with former officers and students, who vengefully suppressed the insurrectionists. Yet though the violence divided the proletariat, when a year later extreme right-wing elements attempted a coup, the Social Democrats were still able to call a general strike to defeat it.
Gerwarth’s invaluable book shows that, compared to their counterparts in other central European states facing similar turmoil, the moderate German revolutionaries had spectacular success in securing their democracy. By 1929, only cataclysmic economic crisis could overturn what was Europe’s most open and representative liberal state. Hitler, it seems, got lucky.