History 104: Western Civilization since 1648

Lecture: The Great War and Russian Revolution

Available in many languages since its original French, The Internationale is the international song opposing repression. It was used in the Russian Revolution, and was Bolshevik Russia's national anthem until 1944. See Lyrics for this section in Russian and English

Bolshevik preparing to pull down a statue of Tsar Alexander III --->

Lecture contents:

The Assassination and Alliances
The Technology and Trench Warfare
War Fever, Nationalism and Poster Art
Women and the War
The Peace to end all Peace
Russia Before the Revolutions
Revolutions of 1917


Bolshevik pulling down statue of Alexander II

War is a most uneconomical, foolish, poor arrangement, a bloody enrichment of that soil which bears the sweet flower of peace ...

-- M. E. W. Sherwood (1897)

British helping German soldiers
British soldiers helping wounded German prisoners on the Western Front

Textual description

The Assassination and Alliances

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie
When Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, went on vacation to Sarajevo in Bosnia, it was no simple vacation. To Austria-Hungary, Sarajevo was in a portion of their empire, and thus the heir was entitled to a royal welcome. Instead, he and his wife Sophie were assassinated shortly after getting into their car (the picture at left was the last one of them alive). The assassin was a teenager from a group of Bosnian revolutionaries, those who believed that Bosnian nationalism was superior to Austria's claims.

Austria-Hungary insisted that the nation of Serbia was harboring Bosnian terrorists and assisted them in assassinating the Archduke. There had been two previous Balkan Wars since 1900, and Serbian support of their fellow Bosnian Serbs was well-known. As Serbia hesitated to accept responsibility, Austria-Hungary attacked.

What followed should have been a short war. Austria-Hungary had the second-best army in Europe, and Serbia had only some mountain fighting units which had been rivals for years.

1914 Map

But what followed was the Great War. Why? Because the Balkan Wars and uncertainties of the new century had sent most European nations into secret alliances to protect themselves. Thus Serbia had a secret treaty with Russia, which declared war on Austria-Hungary. Austria-Hungary had a secret treaty with Germany saying if anyone declared war on Austria-Hungary, Germany would come in on her side. Since Germany had the best army in Europe, and the second-best navy, it still should have been a short war. But when Germany declared war on Russia, a secret treaty between Russia and France went into effect, and France had to declare war on Germany.

Germany's plan was to crush France quickly in the west (as she had in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871). That meant she could then turn all her energy toward Russia, who would take longer to mobilize. But France had spent the intervening years building defenses on the border with Germany, so the only possibility for easy victory was to go through Belgium. When Belgium refused Germany access, Germany marched through anyway. And Belgium had a secret treaty with Britain, which had the best navy in the world.

The Great War became a World War because the main players (Britain, Belgium, Germany and France) had global colonies, all of which fought each other. Victorious parties could gain valuable colonies through their participation, but only if those lands had been conquered. In addition, the Ottoman Empire joined the side of the Central Powers (Germany/Austria-Hungary), guarding the Bosphorus against assistance between western Allied Powers France/Britain and eastern Ally Russia.

Africa 1914 <- This map gives you an idea of the stakes in Africa, where Germany held 3 colonies in ideal locations: Cameroon, Southwest Africa, and German East Africa. Britain longed in particular for German East Africa, which would make a continuous British path from north to south. A German victory could similarly mean German colonial expansion.


The technology and trench warfare

The technology of this war put an end to gentlemanly warfare and the "don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes" mentality. Maxim gun

The machine gun had first been used effectively in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Both sides had thought it a secret weapon, but they had used it differently. The French had thought it a piece of artillery, and thus gave it to the artillery gunners at the back of the troops. The Prussians (Germans) recognized it as a new type of weapon and gave it to a special machine gun corps at the front, which mowed down the French before they could fire their guns. The machine guns made short work of the war, which is why the Germans were confident they could take Paris quickly in 1914.

barbed wireBut by then everyone knew how to use the gun effectively, and both sides used it at the front. Both sides immediately had difficulty taking ground against the overlapping fire of machine guns. Both sides had to dig trenches to prevent having their heads blown off, and had to develop new strategies to take enemy trenches.Trench soldiers
Poison gas, such as mustard gas and chlorine gas, was lobbed inside shells, fired into enemy trenches to poison the men and clear the trench, thus preventing the manning of machine guns. One man at a machine gun in the enemy trench could prevent an entire group from getting across the "no man's land" that separated the trenches.

Airplanes were used to drop bombs into the enemy trenches, and early tanks emerged to try to over-run them. But the reality of trench warfare on the Western Front was a stalemate and ultimately a war of attrition, where both sides tried to wear down the enemy's ability to wage war. Thousands died in a single battle. On the Eastern Front, there was much death but not as many trenches, since the Russians were often retreating. Even so, on the Eastern Front and at the Bosphorus it was quickly discovered that old styles of fighting (battlefields and cavalry attacks) were obsolete.

Culturally, most saw the war as a waste of millions of lives. But others saw it as a trial by fire that made life more precious:

bookWorkbook document: Jünger -- Storm of Steel (1919)

Hard to stomach when you look at the number of dead. Each flag below represents a loss of 100,000 lives.

Map of dead

War fever and nationalism

War fever gripped many young men in 1914, and many enlisted not only in Europe but throughout the colonies. Nationalism fueled the fires, and made it easier to see other nationalities as enemies instead of fellow human beings.

But after the war began, and the horrors were realized to a certain extent, enlistments declined. National governments issued propaganda posters to encourage volunteers, and throughout the war to encourage the purchase of bonds to finance the war. Poster art helped "sell" the war.

British poster
British poster showing a mother sending her son dutifully off to war
Remember Belgium
A reminder of what happened when the Germans invaded neutral Belgium, to sell war bonds
Save the Wheat
Conserving food, metal and power were a goal
On Her Their Lives Depend
Women were encouraged to enter factory work
German poster
This poster from Germany shows a female Viking-esque nationalist figure, like a Valkyrie
Russian war bonds
Russian poster selling war bonds

I don't want to leave the impression that all war art was pro-war. Here's a drawing from George Grosz showing the grotesque enthusiasm engendered by war fever:

War Fever


Women and the War

Women played a major role in the peace movement both before and during the war. The American women in WILPFWomen's Peace Party, formed in response to the war, is now the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (they have a website). They met in April 1915 in the Hague (Netherlands) and set forth resolutions to end the war, to get neutral nations to pressure the belligerents into negotiation, and to send delegations to all the nations involved. They did all this, and also presented petitions to Woodrow Wilson, who used some of their ideas in his peace plan.

I find it interesting that the WILPF was international from its inception. They eschewed the idea of being a national organization with foreign affiliates, and instead women joined from the many nations and were willing to approach any government with their demands. The American delegation is shown in this picture, and includes representatives of the Women's Peace Party, the National Federal Suffrage Association, and various trade unions including the American Federation of Labor.

Mata HariBut I don't want to give the impression that all women were either suffering mothers or peace activists. Some were active war participants, and this one on the left was the most fascinating spy of her day.

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle (known as Mata Hari) was a Dutch dancer who came to Paris and became a nude dancer and the toast of elite circles. The French Army asked her to spy on the Germans by mingling with them. She was arrested by the British, who had to let her go without evidence. In spending time with the Germans, it became evident that some paid her, presumably for favors in bed. But the French became suspicious that she was a double agent. She admitted as much when they arrested her, had a showcase trial, and was executed.Edith Cavell

British nurse Edith Cavell (right) was executed by the Germans for helping British soldiers escape from behind enemy lines. She ran an escape network from a Red Cross hospital in German-occupied Belgium, and helped at least 200 soldiers to escape. She is remembered at her grave in Norfolk Cathedral.


The Peace to End All Peace

This title comes from the book by David Fromkin, a historian who has set out a convincing argument that the peace arrangements following the Great War paved the way for greater violence and disaster, including World War II. While we can't study these arrangements in detail, we can examine the difference between the goals of Woodrow Wilson, the American president, and the final results.

bookWorkbook document: Wilson's Fourteen Points

You'll notice that Wilson starts with "open covenenants": no more secret treaties. You'll notice also a provision that lets colonial peoples participate in their destinies. Both of these deny the practice

Big Four
The Big Four: David Lloyd George (Britain), Vittorio Orlando (Italy), Georges Clemenceau (France) and Woodrow Wilson (United States)

of European countries in dealing with their own power. Britain and France had no intention of giving their empires any form of self-determination. At the peace conference in Versailles, the representative of Britain, France, the U.S. and Italy determined the peace. Although Wilson's Fourteen Points represented the American goal, Britain and France had their own ideas. France wanted Germany destroyed, and Britain wanted to gain colonies and not be involved in more wars. Italy was ignored, having offered Allied support only late in the war, hoping to gain territory. The Treaty of Versailles (there were many treaties, but this one dealt with Germany) left Germany with minimal military, responsibility for the war ("war guilt") and the requirement to pay reparations.
bookWorkbook document: The Treaty of Versailles (Excerpts)

This Treaty humiliated Germany; if you look again at the Fourteen Points, that was the opposite of what Wilson wanted to happen. The Treaty and its aftermath paved the way for the rise of the Nazi party in Germany.

MapIn the Ottoman Empire during the Great War, the British had promoted a unification of Arab tribes to overthrow the Turks, promising an Arab state in the Middle East after the war. The tribes had succeeded in destroying the Ottoman Turks in 1916, but at the Treaty conference their wishes for a pan-Arab state were ignored. Britain and France divided the Middle East, creating mandated colonies for each of them: Palestine and Iraq for Britain, Syria and Lebanon for France. Moving swiftly, Turkish nationalist leader Mustafa Kemal prevented the same happening to Turkey (the small core of the old Ottoman Empire), and removed it from European influence.

Similarly, the empires continued as before, but instead of colonies, they were administered as mandated territories controlled by the new entity for peace: the League of Nations. The League permitted the original conquering power to supervise the mandate, thus leaving the imperial map intact.

Eastern Europe 1919

In Eastern Europe, they didn't do any better. The empire of Austria-Hungary had imploded during the war, torn apart by the competing nationalisms of Austrians, Magyars, and Slavs. The Treaty victors attempted Wilson's self-determination, but in some cases just created new states. The perfect example was Yugoslavia ("land of all Slavs"). Cobbled together from the old Serbia and other Balkan nations, what happened in the Balkans has provided such a poor example of divvying up things that we call such debacles "Balkanization". Czechslovakia was similarly created by artificially fusing the Czechs with the Slovaks. All of this will dissolve after three generations of creating new nationalisms.

Fromkin's title is a play on the term "the war to end all wars". The organ for international peace was the League of Nations, the only point of Wilson's that came to pass. The U.S. Senate, however, refused to ratify the Treaty and thus the U.S. wasn't a member of the League, weakening its power. Women's international peace groups and many around the world counted on the League to prevent future wars, but it would prove unable to do that.



Russia before the revolutions

Unlike states which experienced revolutions in 1848, Russia remained relatively untouched by western liberalism. The Tsar ruled absolutely, and considered Russia his personal territory and responsibility.

The 1860s saw two interesting developments: the abolishment of feudalism and the rise of nihilism. Serfdom had been abolished after the Crimean War, the loss of which convinced Tsar Alexander II that modernization was needed. Nihilism was a philosophy of the young, who were rejecting traditional norms and traditional authority. ChernyshevskyThey didn't respect social conventions, promoting equality for women and living together in "common law" marriages. Women joined nihilist groups because it gave them far more freedom than conventional society.

One of the most outspoken of the nihilists was Nikolai Chernyshevsky, a socialist along the lines of Fourier. He wrote Alexander II that "liberal landowners, liberal writers, liberal professors lull you with hopes in the progressive aims of our government", believing the end of serfdom should be the beginning of socialist equality rather than liberal property ownership. His book What is to be Done? led to his arrest and prison in Siberia.

By the 1890s, Russia was becoming more industrialized, and a small proletarian class existed, though most were still peasants. Industrialization caused urbanization, and worker's parties began to form. All political parties were illegal in Russia, but strikes and demonstrations occurred that opposed the Tsar's rule. Marxist groups began to form, including the Mensheviks (majority) and Bolsheviks (minority). Mensheviks believed that Marxist revolution would come, with time. As the proletariat increased, pressure would build. They thus permitted anyone to join their party. The Bolsheviks restricted membership, believing that a socialist revolution would have to be led by "professional" revolutionaries who understood the intellectual concepts of Marxism. Lenin was one of these.
bookWorkbook document: Lenin on What is to be Done? (1902)

The title of his work was a deliberate reflection of Chernyshevsky's, though his approach was different. Lenin was exiled for his activities.

The RomanovsThe Romanovs

Tsar Nicholas II was a cousin of Queen Victoria of England, as were many of Europe's rulers (that made the Great War a huge family feud). His tsarina was Alexandra, a German princess who was raised a devout Lutheran Protestant and was a grandchild of Queen Victoria. When Nicholas fell in love with her, she was afraid because it meant converting to Russian orthodoxy. She was convinced by Victoria herself, her cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and Nicholas' aunt Ella, who was herself a convert.

1904-05 were pivotal years for the Romanovs. Their first son was born, after four daughters. Only males could inherit the throne. But the son had hemophilia (the blood fails to clot properly), an inherited disorder of the Saxe-Coburgs (Victoria's family). This had to be kept secret. The same year, the Russo-Japanese War occurred, and Japan had risen out of nowhere to destroy the Russian Pacific Fleet. This led to a wave of protest against the government, and Nicholas had to agree to allow a liberal assembly, the Duma, to meet. This has been called the Revolution of 1905.

Web document: Tsar's Manifesto of 1905

Tsar Nicholas dismissed them, though, when they criticized his rule. The same year, Siberian former-monk Gregory Rasputin arrived in St. Petersburg.

Rasputin and puppetsRasputin was quite a character. He seduced everyone's wives among the elite set, because he smelled like a man instead of like the perfumes everyone was wearing (my theory, anyway). He also had a reputation as a miracle worker; his eyes were hypnotic and some called him a Holy Man. He worked his way into the royal family, and got the Tsarina to permit him to see her son and heir, Alexi. Rasputin spent time alone with the boy, and when he left the child was cured of hemophilia. No one knows how he did it, but it earned him the Tsarina's profound devotion. When Nicholas left to lead the troops in the Great War (they were underequipped and had to take guns and boots off the dead on the Eastern Front), Rasputin was effectively in charge of the government. The cartoon at left shows him as the puppeteer controlling the Tsar and Tsarina.

A group of young aristocrats killed Rasputin. They had to get him drunk, shoot him, stab him, strangle him, and drown him to do it. Pretty spooky.


Revolutions of 1917

March: Provisional Government

In March of 1917, the Tsar was overthrown in what Marx would have considered a liberal or beourgeois revolution. At the time, most Russian men were at the front, and the cold and hungry women of Petrograd (St. Petersburg renamed to sound Russian instead of German) rebelled. When troops were sent to control the riots, the troops were persuaded to join the rebellion. Thus the Romanovs were placed under house arrest, and a new government was established.

The Provisional Government (until an election could take place) was Kerenskyunder the control of socialist Alexander Kerensky, who had emphasized unity with the liberal cause. He lifted decades of political oppression by freeing political prisoners and instituting freedom of speech and the press. In doing so, he sowed his own destruction, because Lenin came back from exile and the Bolsheviks were free to plot socialist revolution. In fact, Lenin was escorted through enemy territory by Germany, because they knew he'd cause trouble in Russia.

You see, Kerensky had made another fatal mistake, in insisting that Russia should continue in the war. Millions had died, and morale was terrible, but Kerensky wanted Russia to be a full participant in European affairs. If they did not hold up their end in the war, Kerensky feared rejection by the international community when the war was over. Russians tired of war and poverty were, however, prepared to support the Bolshevik cause if it meant an end to the war.

November: Bolshevik Revolution

The elections took place on November 6. 62% voted for moderate socialists like Kerensky. But it didn't matter, because on November 22 the Bolsheviks quietly took over the seats of government throughout the country.

The charismatic Lenin

They were excellent organizers, and had spent their time talking persuasively to factory workers and winning support with the slogan "Peace, Bread and Land". Having taken over power, they created a new political structure with the Communist Party at the top. The Bolshevik "vanguard" pledged to lead Russia to communism, a term at first synonymous with Marxist socialism. They created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR or Soviet Union), the Soviets having been the workers' councils in the cities. The first task was Civil War, as the Reds (communists) fought against the Whites (tsarists, anti-communists, liberals) from 1918-1920. The peasants were crucial in this war, because the Whites expected peasant support but the Reds didn't, and neither side got any. The Romanovs were executed. Lenin organized the economy with his New Economic Program of 1921. This included some private ownership, a gradual path toward communal ownership which was quite successful. But Lenin died in 1923, and the power struggle that ensued led to Stalin becoming a communist dictator.

Women's status

Since socialists had been promising women's equality, it is instructive to look at the early years of the Soviet Union. Lenin was committed to the educational, economic, legal and political liberation of women. He even was against the enslavement of women to housework, which he called "barbarously unproductive, petty, nerve-wracking, stultifying and crushing drudgery" (I love this guy). New laws allowed women into all Russian universities. They could keep their name and their status even if married, could divorce and inherit property. He legalized abortion, and outlawed prostitution. Women's groups tried to set up communes to share childrearing, and some, like Alexandra KollontaiAlexandra Kollontai, promoted sexual liberation. See one of her essays -- here's a quotation about the exclusivity of beourgeois marriage:

The claims we make on our “contracted partner” are absolute and undivided. We are unable to follow the simplest rule of love — that another person should be treated with great consideration. New concepts of the relationships between the sexes are already being outlined. They will teach us to achieve relationships based on the unfamiliar ideas of complete freedom, equality and genuine friendship.

It wasn't perfect and didn't last. Many of the advances ended with Stalin, whose superindustrialization program of the 1930s used women as workers, but accorded them higher status as mothers of children (they even got "maternity medals" for having lots of kids).

Art of the Revolution

Futurism, from Italy, came to Russia before World War I. It was a literary and artistic movement that tried to break with the past. Futurism celebrated modern technology, dynamism and power. The work tended to be abstract in form, but became public art in the early years of the Soviet Union. The Bolsheviks rejected "idle picture painting". They sanctioned art which glorifed the proletariat, the peasants and the revolution. Murals on railroad cars spread the message of the revolution. Art forms created a vision of an egalitarian future, which the Soviet Union represented to the world.

Art of the Western World:
Russian Revolution

The new art form, rather than distancing Russia from the rest of the world, actually brought it closer to the rest of Europe. The Bolshevik capital at Moscow became as much of a cultural center as Paris. Once Russia was culturally and industrially "caught up" with Western Europe, it became impossible to keep Russia out of European affairs.



All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.