Wednesday, September 19, 2018

That elusive Berlin gold

Trotsky and Parvus, nothing to see here, move along... 

This is an interesting, disturbing but ultimately frustrating collection of documents from the Imperial German archives 1915-1918. It has long been assumed that the Russian Bolsheviks were literally on the German payroll during World War I. Direct evidence seems impossible to obtain, however. This volume contains no “smoking gun evidence” either. However, it *does* contain evidence for close contacts and even collaboration between Imperial Germany and some Russian revolutionaries, albeit not Bolsheviks sensu stricto. It also contains a lot of bragging by German diplomats that the Bolsheviks, too, were heavily subsidized by the Second Reich. If so, somebody made real sure to destroy any incriminating receipts!

The context of these documents is well known. During the First World War, Wilhelmine Germany was forced to fight on two fronts simultaneously: against Britain, France and (later) the United States in the West, and against Czarist Russia in the East. The German strategy soon became to convince (or pressure) Russia to sign a separate peace and hence drop out of the war, or, if this proved impossible, to overthrow the Czar and sign a peace treaty with the new government. To this end, Germany cultivated contacts with Russian revolutionaries of all stripes. The Bolsheviks and other socialist factions opposed the Czar's war. They were hardly pro-German, but Germany nevertheless felt it worthwhile to investigate whether the anti-war socialists could be used, as pawns or otherwise, to destabilize and neutralize the Russian Empire. This policy continued after the Czar had been overthrown in March 1917, since the provisional government (dominated by Alexander Kerensky) continued the war against Germany on the side of the Entente. The most famous part of the German grand design was Lenin's return to Russia through German territory in the famous “sealed train”. When the Bolsheviks took power in November 1917, they opened negotiations with Germany and, in March 1918, signed the infamous peace treaty at Brest-Litovsk. The Brest-Litovsk peace was favorable to the Germans and decidedly less favorable to the Bolshevik regime (which was militarily weak at this point) or the Entente (which had lost its entire Eastern flank in the world war when the Bolsheviks took power in Russia). In the end, not even German victory in the East saved the Central Powers. The war ended in September 1918 after the US intervention on the Western front had proved too much for the German military. When Bolshevik-inspired risings broke out all over Germany, the Russian revolutionaries got the last laugh…or so they imagined!

While the above is clear, the details are much murkier. The German documents translated in this volume doesn't mention Olof Aschberg and Nya Banken in Stockholm, while Bolshevik operative Jacob Fürstenberg alias Ganetsky is mentioned only in passing. “Bolshevik banker” Aschberg and Ganetsky (also spelled Hanecki) are the usual suspects when discussing war-time German transfers of money to the Bolsheviks. Another illustrious character, the Bolshevik Karl Radek, is mentioned, but it's not clear what contacts, if any, he had with confirmed German agents before the October revolution. More tantalizing are documents according to which anti-war socialist and pro-Bolshevik Christian Rakovsky, then active in Romania, was heavily subsidized by the Germans, a claim that (bizarrely) resurfaced during the Moscow show trials! One colorful character which *is* mentioned in the Imperial archives, and profusely so, is Alexander Helphand (Parvus), an independent Russian socialist who came close to being an actual secret agent of Germany. Parvus wanted to organize a revolution in Russia in 1915 and sent a detailed memorandum about the plans to the German government. Another scheme was to destroy the credibility of the Russian ruble by spreading false banknotes on a massive scale. It's clear from the documents that Parvus was well financed by the German authorities, worked for the Ottoman Empire (one of the Central Powers) but also that he was widely distrusted by many socialists (Lenin refused to see him when in transit through Stockholm). Another prominent figure in the German wartime files is Alexander Kesküla, an Estonian nationalist who had contacts with Lenin and other Russian socialists. Kesküla reported back to German authorities, perhaps without Lenin's knowledge. Germany supported anti-Russian separatists in Estonia, Finland, the Ukraine and Georgia, since a breakup of Russia would aid Germany's military efforts.

Since Germany spent considerable sums of money on their destabilizing efforts, it's clear that *somebody* in the Russian socialist movement must have taken the offer. Where did all the millions go? The documents mention German-funded “anti-war” propaganda in Sweden, Romania and Russia itself. As already pointed out, the secret files *do* claim that the Bolsheviks and their newspapers were heavily financed by the Germans, but without specifying sums or modes of transfer. What is more clear, is that the Germans supported the Bolsheviks after the October revolution, correctly divining that a revolutionary regime headed by V I Lenin and Leo Trotsky was more likely to sign a peace treaty with Germany than any other political constellation. Also, Germany gambled on Soviet Russia to remain weak for the foreseeable future. This created the somewhat anomalous situation that Germany had to subsidize the embattled Bolshevik government, something confirmed by Count Mirbach's cables included in this volume. Mirbach was the German ambassador to Soviet Russia. It seems that Kaiser Wilhelm was displeased with this course. Some documents contain marginal notes by the emperor, which express a strong animus against Lenin and support for Cossacks and other counter-revolutionaries. (There is also an unintentionally humorous note in which the Kaiser comments Mirbach's report about Bolshevik suppression of newspapers by stating that press freedom should be abolished in Germany, too!)

As the Russian Civil War drew closer, Germany did start to investigate other options than buttressing Lenin's soviet government. There was fear that the Bolsheviks might double cross Germany and make Russia rejoin the Entente, a fear which sounds weird in hindsight but wasn't entirely unfounded at the time. The Bolsheviks had struck deals with the pro-Entente Czechoslovak Legions, deals the Germans considered detrimental to their war effort. Entente troops had landed at Murmansk and Archangel with, the Germans suspected, the full knowledge of the revolutionary government. (Another book, David McFadden's “Alternative Paths” details how Trotsky in particular kept the lines of communications to the Entente open, and how he contemplated Western military aid in the event of a renewed German offensive against Soviet Russia. According to McFadden, Trotsky had originally approved the British landing at Murmansk, but rescinded the approval at the last moment. Another intriguing fact!) The last German documents included in the book recommend a change of policy. Instead of propping up the Bolsheviks, Germany should seek to recruit Kadets and Octobrists (two “bourgeois” opposition parties banned by the Soviet regime) in the hope that some of them might want to form a pro-German government after the revolution has been overthrown. The officials of the German foreign policy apparatus also wondered whether a reunification of the Ukraine (at the time a German-occupied puppet state) with Russia proper would be necessary in order to appease the anti-Bolshevik opposition.

In the unlikely case that you are a surviving Bolshevik, “Germany and the Revolution in Russia 1915-1918” will not be to your liking, since Lenin was supposedly a revolutionary defeatist and internationalist who, of course, opposed both imperialist blocs in the world war. He signed Brest-Litovsk strictly under duress and never took any “Berlin gold”, this being a vile Menshevik-liberal libel. In the more likely case that you are a conspiracy theorist, this collection might also be a bit disappointing, since that final piece of evidence which would change the course of discourse (or history) once and for all, is also lacking…as usual! However, dispassionate history students might find Z A B Zeman's edited collection very, very interesting indeed...

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