While the Russian Revolution of 1917 that did end the rule (and life) of the Russian tsar Nicholas II is widely tied to the name of Vladimir Lenin that association is not entirely correct. Lenin only appeared in the Russian Empire after the Russian Revolution had already started since he had been in Exile in Switzerland since the failed Revolution of 1905. To get from his Exile in Switzerland to Saint Petersburg, the capital of the Russian Empire, he needed the help of the German Empire.
In the following article I would like to present why (and how) the German Empire helped a Bolshevik revolutionary to get to Russia and take over power even though the Russian tsar and the German Emperor Wilhelm II were cousins.
In early April of 1917, the German Empire allowed Lenin to travel from his exile in Switzerland through Germany to Saint Petersburg inside a sealed train. The reason was that the Russian Revolution had replaced the tsar on 14 March 1917 with a temporary government that wanted to continue the Russian participation in WW I against Germany. The Germans hoped that Lenin would take over the government and end the Russian participation in WW I which would free up German troops for new offenses in the West.
Ideally, these offenses would have allowed Germany to win the war even before the US-American troops would show up in Europe.
Let`s find out more!
The Russian Revolution until the arrival of Lenin
The Russian Revolution of 1917 had already long begun before Lenin, with the help of the German Empire, arrived in Saint Petersburg.
In February of 1917, the Russian Revolution began when women and workers of the Putilov factory, the largest industrial plant in Saint Petersburg (Saint Petersburg was called Petrograd since the start of WW I in 1914 since Saint Petersburg sounded too German) protested against the constantly shrinking rations of food that they received.
At that point in time the euphoria of the first weeks of World War I was long gone and the harsh reality of limited rations, enormous numbers of fallen soldiers, and no end in sight had demoralized the population. So the workers of many industrial plants, white-collar workers, and students as well as soldiers (including several guard regiments) joined the insurgent.
The Russian Tsar Nicholas II, who by the way was the cousin of both the German Emperor Wilhelm II and the English King George V, saw the Duma, a part of the legislative assembly in the late Russian Empire, as the source of the Revolution and ordered the resolution of the Duma.
But that failed.
Not only did the Duma stay together, but a new temporary Comitee was also formed from the ranks of the Duma to restore order. Simultaneously socialist delegates, as well as representitives of the workers and the soldiers, came together in so-called Soviets (= Council of Workmen`s and soldier`s deputies). These Soviets could quickly seize control over all public institutions.
On 15 March 1917, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia had to abdicate and his younger brother Michail was also forced to renounce the throne. They as well as their families would be executed during the Civil War that followed the Russian Revolution.
So to sum it up.
Since 14 March 1917, the Russian Empire was ruled by a temporary government that was made up of delegates who represented the bourgeoisie. The temporary government that was put in place by the Russian Revolution in March of 1917 wanted a political revolution but not a social upheaval! So while the civic freedoms (for example the freedom of the press) were proclaimed in March of 1917 and a Constituent Assembly was promised, the two main problems were not attacked. And that did cost the temporary government a lot of trust.
The two major problems that the temporary governments failed to address in March of 1917 were…
- The fair distribution of the land to the farmers
- Ending the Russian involvement in World War I
And both of these points bring us back to Lenin who at that point in time (March of 1917) was still living in his exile in Switzerland.
While Lenin had tried to travel to St. Petersburg as soon as the Revolution started he was not able to just cross through Germany since Germany and the Russian Empire were at war. And the allies of the Russian Empire had absolutely no intentions to help Lenin, who propagated to immediately end the Russian involvement in WW I, get to St. Petersburg, and overthrow the temporary government that wanted to continue World War I.
The reason for that is the exact reason why Germany eventually helped Lenin. France and Great Britain feared that the German troops that were fighting in the East against Russia would immediately be transferred to the battlefields in the West if Russia backed out of World War I.
Or in other words: If Russia left the war then Germany could focus its entire military against France and Great Britain.
And that brings us to the question of how the German Empire helped Lenin and why they did it.
Lenin – the trojan horse sent by the German Empire?
In March of 1917, the temporary Government (that represented the bourgeoisie and wanted to continue World War I) was fighting for the support of the Russian people with the growing revolutionary Soviets (= Councils of Workmen`s and soldier`s deputies) within which the Bolsheviks and their leader Lenin was just one among many groups.
The different groups within the Soviets, the Councils of Workmen`s and soldier`s deputies, as well as the Bolsheviks, were not united in their goals and as such not able to challenge the temporary government.
But that changed in April of 1917.
In late March of 1917, the German Empire allowed Lenin, who was still in his exile in Switzerland, to travel through Germany in a sealed train. His journey would lead Lenin from Switzerland through Germany and Skandinavia until he arrived in St. Petersburg after 9 days on April 16th, 1917.
But what was the goal of the German government?
As mentioned above. In early April of 1917, the Bolsheviks were splintered, important figures like Lenin were in exile and others like Stalin were still in Siberia. The ununited Bolsheviks, who wanted to immediately end the Russian participation in World War I, were too weak to challenge the temporary government that wanted to continue fighting against the German Empire and its allies.
The German leaders hoped that the arrival of Lenin would unite the Bolsheviks which would allow them to overthrow the temporary government, and eventually result in the Russian Empire leaving World War I.
That would have freed up the German Troops that were fighting in the East against the forces of the Russian Empire. After a peace treaty in the East, these German forces could then be bought to the West and used to finally defeat Russia’s western allies Great Britain and France before the looming danger of US troops intervening became a reality. There were multiple reasons why that didn`t work despite Lenin ending the Russian participation in WW I, but more on that later.
After he arrived in St. Petersburg on 16 April 1917 Lenin immediately started to unite the Bolsheviks and started working towards his goal of making the Bolsheviks into the spearhead of the socialist revolution.
One of the results of that were the April theses that Lenin had worked out during his travel in a sealed train from Switzerland to St. Petersburg.
The 10 April Theses of Lenin
On 4 March 1917 Lenin had officially formulated his April Theses that he announced after he had arrived in St. Petersburg.
The 10 April Theses of Lenin were…
- Winning a Bolshevik majority within the Soviets (= Councils of Workmen`s and soldier`s deputies)
- Ending the temporary government that he brands as bourgeoise
- Ending the Russian involvement in World War I
- All power to the Soviets (= Councils of Workmen`s and soldier`s deputies)
- Facilitating a Soviet republic
- Calls for a new revolutionary International
- Expropriation of big landowners
- Calls for industrial plants to be controlled by the workers
- Nationalization of the banks
- Renaming into the Communist party
Lenin had published his Theses under the slogan „Peace, Land, Bread“, the slogan of the Russian Revolution. But his April Theses met resistance, even within the Bolschwiki. Joseph Stalin for example refused these theses at first. It took some time that these Theses gained popularity inside the Bolsheviki.
April – September 1917: Lenin is struggling for power
Unlike the military leaders of the German Empire had probably hoped helping Lenin get to Russia did not show immediate results. At first, Lenin had to actually get to power. And that road would lead to another exile.
June & July of 1917: A new Russian offensive and riots in St. Petersburg
In June of 1917, the temporary government did, encouraged by Russia’s western allies, start a new offensive against Germany and the German allies. After some initial successes that offensive collapsed and increased the war fatigue within the Russian population even more.
One month later, in July of 1917, the rejection of the war sparked new riots in Saint Petersburg. This time the temporary government was even forced to transfer troops from the front line to Saint Petersburg to get the situation under control.
As a result of the riots in July of 1917, the temporary government ordered the closing of the party office of the Bolsheviks, some leaders of the Bolsheviks were arrested but others (like Lenin) could escape to Finland.
But that did not stop the Bolsheviks from gaining more and more popularity.
The Bolsheviks are growing in popularity
During the weeks that followed the riots, the Bolsheviks gained popularity.
That popularity increased even further when a military coup by General Kornilov could be prevented by the rail worker unions that were controlled by the Bolsheviks. These rail worker unions had simply sabotaged all military transports that would have brought the troops of Kornilov to Saint Petersburg.
September of 1917: The Bolsheviks have a majority within the Soviet of St. Petersburg and Moscow
In September of 1917, the Bolsheviks had finally achieved a majority within the Soviets (= Council of Workmen`s and soldier`s deputies) in both the cities of Saint Petersburg and Moscow. So they had managed to minimize the influence of the more moderate socialist parties like for example the Mensheviks.
But their leader Lenin was still in Finland.
The October revolution – the Bolsheviks take over
On the 7th of November 1917, the October revolution was started by Lenin who had secretly returned from his exile in Finland.
Now one might ask why it is called the October revolution if the start was on the 7th of November. Well, that has to do with the difference between the Gregorian and the Julian calendars.
The October revolution got its name because according to Julian Calendar (which was used in Russia until 1918) the October revolution started on 25 October 1917. But if you transfer that data to the Gregorian calendar then the revolution began on 7 November 1917.
But no matter which calendar you use, the effect is the same. The temporary government surrendered on the 8th of November 1917, only one day after the start of the October revolution.
On 8 November 1917, the Bolsheviks who now had a majority within the Soviets formed a new government, called the Council of People`s Commissars (= Sovnarkom). Lenin was named the leader of that council, Leon Trotsky was named Commissar of Foreign Affairs, and Joseph Stalin was named Commissar of People`s commissar of Nationalities. These three men would now shape the future of Russia and its people.
Immediately after Lenin was named the leader of the Sovnarkom he offered peace to the German Empire. On the 9th of November 1917 the freedom of the press that had only been granted in March of 1917 by the temporary government, was ended by Lenin and in December the „Cheka“ (a predecessor of the KGB) started its work.
Effects of Lenin taking over power in Russia on WW I and Germany
As mentioned, the reason why the German Empire had helped Lenin to get to St. Petersburg had been that he would seize power and end the Russian participation in World War I.
And that was exactly what happened.
After Lenin and the Bolsheviks had formed a new government on 8 November 1917 they immediately started negotiating peace with the German Empire and the German allies.
The reason for that was not only that Lenin was strictly against the war but much more practical.
The Russian Army was in a state of dissolution after the new government had ventured to eliminate all hierarchies in December of 1917. So even if Lenin would have wanted to continue the war, the army would hardly have been able to do so.
On 3 March 1918, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed. That treaty did not only end the Russian participation in World War I, but it also meant that Russia gave up Finland, Poland, the Baltic states, and Ukraine. Lenin saw that as a price worth paying since it would now be more important to win the Russian civil war.
So Lenin had fulfilled the hopes the German Government had put into him. He had ended the Russian participation in World War I.
But that didn`t help Germany.
Yes, the war in the East was now officially over. But Germany was not able to pull as many troops as they had hoped for from the East to the West since it was still necessary to guard the new borders. Additionally, garrisons had to be kept in the newly acquired territories.
So while the German plan to end the Russian participation in World War I by helping Lenin to install a Bolshevik regime was a success, the goal of being able to bring the bulk of the German troops that had fought in the East to the West and win the war against Great Britain and France had failed.
But not only did the violence on the western front of World War I continue.
From 1917 to 1921 the Russian Civil war would be fought between the Bolshevik Red Army and the White army (which was still loyal to the tsar). During that time a total of 20 million people would die in the fights or because of terror, counter-terror, starvation that was caused by the collapse of the food supply, and diseases.
In the end, the Red Army would win and after the death of Lenin in 1924 Joseph Stalin would take over. By the way, Joseph Stalin had also served as a commander during the Russian Civil War, he had defended a city that in 1925 would be renamed after him.
The fact that that city, the city of Stalingrad, had not only been defended by Stalin but also renamed after him would be one of the reasons why the Soviet Union was so keen on defending Stalingrad during World War II. Here you can find out more about the other 2 reasons that made Stalingrad so important to the Soviet Union.
I hope you enjoyed our trip into the fascinating world of the rise of the Soviet Union.
Haven`t gotten enough of history yet?
May I recommend my article here with more information on the reasons why the Berlin Wall was built?
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
K.H Zuber, H. Holzbauer (Hrsg.): bsv Geschichte 4. Vom Zeitalter des Imperialismus bis zur Gegenwart (München 1988).
Heinrich August Winkler: Geschichte des Westens. Die Zeit der Weltkriege 1914-1918 (München 2011).