Monday, November 11, 2013

What's Your Russia?

            Today, at least as I start writing this, is Armistice Day, or the anniversary of the end of World War One. I know that I already talked about the origins of World War One and how absolutely high school they all were, but since this is the last Armistice Day before we start recognizing the 100th Anniversary of a bunch of WWI stuff (that’ll be huge in Europe and I hope I get a chance to see it) I’ll share one of my favorite stories from the war. No, it isn’t about the Christmas Truce, although that’s a pretty awesome story on its own. It’s about how Germany changed the world for centuries on a bid to kick Russia out of the war.
            I know that, when it comes to World Wars, we tend to blame Germany for just about anything and everything. I mean, WWII in Europe was pretty much Germany’s fault, let’s admit, but you’re no better than the Conference of Versailles if you think the first war was solely on Germany’s shoulders.
            HOWEVER. The beginning of the USSR is a pretty great story, and Germany has a pretty front-and-center role in the whole thing. In case you didn’t know, Russia wasn’t very good at being a country, since, like, ever. It came to head in the extremely costly Eastern front of the war headed into 1917. Russia was falling apart economically and militarily, and there was no real relief in sight. In early March (they called it late February because they were on the old calendar, once again, not very good at the whole country thing), a peaceful protest during International Women’s Day turned into a full scale rebellion, centered in the capital.
            It accomplished quite a bit. The February Revolution (that took place in March) kicked the Czar out, ruined the reputation of International Women’s Day, and set the stage for the underappreciated animated film Anastasia. But now without the Czar and the rest of the Russian Monarchy in power, a provisional government was set up shortly after, lead by moderate socialists. The brand new government did a lot of great reforms for the people of Russia.
            They missed one pretty important sticking point in the minds of soldiers, though. They forgot to pull out of the war. This is pretty important.

            Meanwhile, in Switzerland, a bald guy named Vladimir Lenin was living in exile. Turns out that when the monarchy was strong in Russia, they didn’t appreciate socialist revolutionaries spreading discontent. He had been the star of many international socialist conferences that had taken place during the war in neutral Switzerland, and now heard about the uproar in his homeland.
            Many socialists thought of World War One as the death knell of capitalism. After such horror, the proletariat of the world would have no choice but to throw off their rulers and unite as a classless society, all across Europe. Lenin wanted to make sure Russia was the first to do so. The only problem is that, even for Europe, Switzerland is pretty far away from Russia, and there’s this whole “largest war in the human experience up to this point” thing going on between the two. How is Lenin going to get to Russia to take advantage of the turmoil and begin the Worker’s Revolution?
The small yellow piece in the middle is where he is. Everything else is war.
            “ROAD TRIP,” said Germany. Who had more to gain from increased problems for Russia than the Germans? They were tired from fighting a two-front war, after the Schlieffen Plan failed miserably. (By the by, if you ever need to write a paper on the First World War, the Schlieffen Plan will no doubt creep up.)
            So the Germans did a pretty cunning thing. They told Lenin they’d get him home, then sealed up him in a locked train car by himself, sent it north through the neutral Scandinavian countries, and dumped him off right outside St. Petersburg.  “Have fun!” I’m sure they said, backing out of the driveway.
            After a couple weeks of trouble, Lenin finally got a foothold in the tumultuous nation with his promises of “bread, land and peace.” He, along with his Bolsheviks, overthrew the provisional government in November, and installed themselves as the heads of the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republic. Their first act was killing a whole bunch of people, but not too far down the list was ending the war with Germany. By this time, there was already a civil war occurring in Russia, with the new Bolshevik Reds fighting against monarchists, conservatives, and foreign interventionalists. Side note: America actually had a few hundred soldiers fight in the Russian civil war, an event I’m very angry is underrepresented in American history courses.
There is so much going on in this picture I don't even
know where to begin: Giant red Trotsky, anti-Semitism,
mountain of skulls... It's like I'm back at high school.
            Germany, meanwhile, got a whole heap of territory from the USSR because they were so incredibly ready to be done with war. The border extended hundreds of miles eastward, further than any total advance made on the western front. Immediately, Germany’s focus on France and Britain could double. The United States’ effort in the war is, like always, exaggerated, but really, if the US hadn’t stepped up about the same exact time Russia was leaving, there’s a pretty great chance Germany could have been victorious.
            In order to kick the Russians out of the war, Germany helped overthrow the very idea of Russian monarchy, and create a nation that would grow up much stronger than anyone (including Germany!) could have ever thought, designing half a century of geopolitics in the process. All because they were willing to give a Russian a ride back home.


EPILOGUE

            It didn’t all work out in Germany’s favor. After they lost the war, the Allied forces were a little harsh with the peace treaties, much to the Germans’ chagrin. The French weren’t moved by the complaints, and pointed to the peace treaty that was forced on the Russians as proof the Germans weren’t above harsh peaces: The Russians gave away Baltic territories, let go of Ukraine, and paid Germany six billion gold marks. Because karma sucks even in politics, Germany’s government collapsed as well shortly before their end of WWI, and the Weimar Republic was left to sign peace treaties, which… didn’t exactly go well for them.

So much money that you're sweeping it off the streets: Strangely not a good thing.

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