Tag Archives: Russia

1917: Kerensky’s Sidestep

Alexander Kerensky and Map

Alexander Kerensky, briefly Prime Minister, 1917. Via Keystone/Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In early 1917, rebelling Russians wanted three things: political reform, economic reform, and for Russia to withdraw from the Great War. The Provisional Government that took over many of the Tsar’s administrative tasks attempted to satisfy the various Soviets that appeared throughout Russia, which represented the interests of soldiers, workers, and peasants (often in that order). Without mutinying soldiers, the February Revolution would likely not have happened, but many soldiers were divided about whether or not to continue a war that had proven disastrous for them under the Tsar.

The crisis of leadership following the February Revolution placed several key figures into powerful positions. Pavel Miliukov, a pro-monarchy and pro-war politician, became the Provisional Government’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, and in contrast, the moderate socialist Alexander Kerensky simultaneously held positions in the Petrograd Soviet and the Provisional Government, as the vice chairman and Minister of Justice, respectively. Kerensky’s role in the chaotic time between March and November of 1917 shaped Russian policy between the year’s revolutions.

At the start of the war, Kerensky was the leader of the center-left Trudoviks. After the February Revolution, he came to power in both the Petrograd Soviet and the Provisional Government against official Soviet policy, which made it illegal for Soviet members to hold government positions. Kerensky occupied  a position comparable to a US Senator who somehow managed to also hold a seat in the US House of Representatives.

Led by the Mensheviks, the Petrograd Soviet held a firm grip over the capital, but refused to act as a new government because Mensheviks predominantly believed that “the February Revolution was a ‘bourgeois revolution.’ . . it was the task of the workers’ party to refrain from compromising itself in the workers’ eyes by taking power” (Treadgold & Ellison 96). As a result, the Petrograd Soviet and Provisional Government created a power vacuum that could not be filled, preventing elites from exercising power but also making it difficult to pass economic or military reforms, what Trotsky called “dual power.” Kerensky managed to bridge that gap.

Kerensky was liked by those to the political right of him. In isolation, Tsar Nicholas II wrote in his journal that the “more power [Kerensky] gets, the better” (91), and Miliukov said in a speech to the Provisional Government shortly after its formation that he “just received the consent of [his] comrade A. F. Kerensky to assume a position in the first Russian public cabinet. We are eternally joyful to place into the trusty hands of this public activist the ministry that will mete out out just retribution to the servants of the old regime” (Daly and Trofimov 51).

He continued to rise to power as the year progressed and the Bolsheviks continued to attempt to stir up support after their mid-April return from exile. In late April, Miluikov’s pro-war policy found little support, and he resigned from office on May 2, days after the Minister of War, Alexander Guchkov, resigned. Once again, Kerensky filled the power gap by replacing Guchkov as War Minister on May 5. However, Kerensky adopted a similar stance on the war, and rededicated the Russian military to the Allies. Kerensky slid to the center and Russia stayed in the war.

After a failed coup in summer, he would replace Prince Lvov (appointed by the Tsar) as Prime Minister. In four months, Kerensky would rise to power by moderation, rhetorical savvy, and his continual sidestep closer to the right. The stalled gears of “dual power” in the capital made it possible for one person straddling both branches to exert more and more influence, foreshadowing Stalin’s power grab a decade later. But Kerensky was neither a dictator nor a cynic. His politics were pragmatic, though increasingly conservative. His betrayal of leftist idealism makes sense in the wake of leftist hesitation while his rise to power was possible only through the failure and resignation of other powerful figures. Because his lack of immediate shortcomings contrasted the inadequacies of those he continually replaced, his rise to power was seen as stabilizing rather than centralizing. But his military failures and insufficient land and economic reforms imitated the same failures that led to the Tsar’s ousting. If February was a bourgeois revolution against Tsarism, October was an intelligentsia’s revolt against Kerenskyism, which was a bourgeois liberal’s attempt at restoring order without changing the order of things.


Daly, Jonathan, Leonid Trofimov. Russia in War and Revolution, 1914-1922. Hackett Publishing Group, 2009.

Treadgold, Donald W., Herbert J. Ellison. Twentieth Century Russia. Westview Press, 2000.

1917: Fifty Shades of Red

Pins

After the February Revolution, numerous political parties fought for influence in the Provisional Government that formed as a response to the revolution. The political Left occupied a broad, ever-changing spectrum of ideas and strategies focusing on three key issues that most Russians, at least those rioting in Petrograd, wanted to immediately address: political reform, economic reform, and whether or not to remain involved in the Great War.

Socialist leaders were split in 1917. If the October Revolution was led by Bolsheviks (meaning majority), the February Revolution was at least informed by the Mensheviks (meaning little, or minority), two distinct socialist factions. In 1903, Russian Marxists tried to forge a cohesive political party, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, for the third time at their II Congress. Their initial division was small. Mensheviks were more willing to allow liberals and bourgeois activists into their circles, whereas the Bolsheviks were highly suspicious of liberals who might muddy their leftist proletarian-focused goals, and wanted tight control of who could join the Party.

The etymologies of Bolshevik and Menshevik are misleading. Bolsheviks were “an embattled minority” whose political success was unlikely leading up to the October Revolution (Daly and Trofimov xxviii). The moderate leftist Mensheviks represented the majority of leftists in the Provisional Government, while several far-left Bolshevik leaders (including Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin) were struggling to return from exile.

Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were torn over subtle nuances, but ultimately aimed for a radical leftist recreation of Russia, rather than mere top-down political reforms. Both camps “agreed that workers could not solve their problems through shopfloor-struggles exclusively,” but Mensheviks “proposed to restore production under management-control” as opposed to absolute proletarian control, whereas Bolsheviks took the more orthodox Marxist approach in their desire “to have workers themselves organise production collectively, and in their interests” (Marot 126). Mensheviks cautiously called for “dual power” between the Provisional Government and the Soviets, and many workers “quickly endorsed the political objectives the Mensheviks set for the working class” (126). Radical Marxism, then, was unlikely to come from the ground up exclusively.

In addition to Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, there were also the Trudoviks, a moderate peasant-based labor party, and the Cadets, who favored a constitutional monarchy with the Tsar in power but a strong Parliament, similar to England. Both the Cadets and Trudoviks represented what might be called Russian conservatism, emphasizing all-Russian patriotism, unity, and reform. The Cadets held a majority of votes in the Provisional Government for some time, which is why the Provisional Government never withdrew from the Great War (the Bolsheviks would in December). Between the Trudoviks and Bolsheviks were several shades of Marxist thought active in both the Provisional Government and the Soviets.

Within the tightly-knit Bolshevik community, which comprised an intelligentsia whose goal was to forge a communist state, were key distinctions. Vladimir Lenin believed that “‘professional revolutionaries’ were needed to lead the proletarian party” into action and to prevent liberal and/or bourgeois infiltration (Treadgold & Ellison 40-41). Often accused of “Jacobinism” (the idea that only an elite intelligentsia should lead revolutionaries), Lenin’s model of a “party system” reflected the sense of order he wanted to affix to the revolution. Leon Trotsky was critical of the risks that a centralized Party brought. Lenin and Trotsky wanted a dictatorship of the proletariat; Stalin’s eventual dictatorship at the expense of collective authority seems to validate Trotsky’s anxieties about centralized organization.

The lineage is crucial to follow: Lenin built his politics around an orthodox reading of Marx, further than Marx allowed himself to go. Lenin did not construct Leninism, but his particular reading and implementation of Marxism, emphasizing the organization of a Communist Party, became the tenets of Leninism, which influenced subsequent communist governments. Trotsky’s politics were not built as a response to Leninism, but as a response to Stalin’s reading and implementation of Leninism, which became Stalinism. Trotskyism, then, is a Marxist-Leninist rejection of Stalinism.

Trotsky spent much of his time before the October Revolution straddling the nuances developed between Bolsheviks and Menshevisk and advocating “permanent revolution.” Unlike Lenin, he did not trust the Russian peasantry to rise up alongside the industrial proletariat. Instead, he looked beyond Russia’s borders to the millions of other workers in western Europe who had been consumed by the Industrial Revolution. Trotsky wanted to spread communism actively beyond Russia, so that an international community of urban workers could unite in a global revolution, and this could only happen if revolution was perceived to have no stopping point. However, he gravitated toward Lenin’s party system in 1917.

What is key is that just about every political ideology present in the Provisional Government in April wanted some kind of reform. Even the Cadets recognized the need for more autonomy among workers and peasants. The unity of the Communist Party did away with these political tensions, which prevented peace and economic reform, but Lenin died before his party system could prevent individual dictatorship. The diversity of leftist thought in early 1917 may have prevented more radical reforms, but as such diversity diminished, the authority of the Party began to overstep the autonomy of the Soviets.


Daly, Jonathan, Leonid Trofimov. Russia in War and Revolution, 1914-1922. Hackett Publishing Group, 2009.

Marot, John. The October Revolution in Prospect and Retrospect. Brill, 2012.

Treadgold, Donald W., Herbert J. Ellison. Twentieth Century Russia. Westview Press, 2000.

1917: The First Soviets

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Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, 1917. Photograph by Viktor Bulla (1883-1938)

The Russian word Soviet means council or congress, a unified and organized body of persons, a congregation or polity. The first Soviet appeared in the Revolution of 1905 when urban workers organized. It diminished quickly soon after, and did not implement the socialist revolution that many early factions (Socialists, Marxists, Anarchists) had hoped for. It would take twelve years for Soviets to form again, in early 1917.

Lenin described the first Soviets as workers spontaneously developing class consciousness. In 1918, he called the Soviets the “direct organization of the working and exploited people themselves” (Lenin). He viewed them as self-organizing microstates, writing that “Soviets are the Russian form of the proletarian dictatorship [and should] be transformed into state organizations” rather than mere revolutionary organs (Lenin). From Lenin’s perspective, the Soviets could be utilized as more than workers’ organizations and instead be states.

But anything Lenin wrote about the 1917 Soviets should be taken with several pounds of salt. To begin with, Lenin and many other Bolshevik leaders were not involved in the Soviets’ formation because they were exiled from Russia at the time. Second, the Bolsheviks had a clear end in mind (a new state) whereas the early Soviets were motivated by economic relief rather than statehood.

World War One is an important context for the 1917 Soviets. In February, Tsar Nicholas II left for the Eastern Front, abandoning citizens to concentrate on a failing war that had already killed thousands of Russians. Additionally, as Mark Steinberg points out, the emergence of a “sphere of civic activities situated in a social space beyond private life and not completely under the control of the state, made enormous differences in the lives of many Russians. . . Voluntary associations proliferated. They included literacy and temperance societies, business and professional associations, workers’ mutual assistance funds, private schools, and varied cultural circles” as well as trade unions and new political parties (38). Turn-of-the-century organizations legitimized new political ideologies, including anarchism and socialism, which, coupled with increased literacy and private discourse beneath the radar of the regime, contributed to Russians’ range of organizational possibilities.

By March 8 (in the Gregorian calendar), on International Women’s Day, working-class women joined protestors and marched through Petrograd. A police officer named Ilia Mitrofanovich Gordienko recalls in a memoir that women chanted “‘Down with the war! Down with high prices! Down with hunger! Bread to the workers'” and that “Clashes with the police took place near the City Duma and in other places, but these were only minor skirmishes. . . The same thing happened the next day” (Daly & Trofimov 36). The Petrograd Police Chief, Aleskandr Pavlovich Balk, noted that on March 10, “the factories functioned less intensively than on the previous days. Workers walked off the job in groups, holding rallies as they went” and that soldiers from the Pavlovskii Guard Regiment not only protested but fired upon officers attempting to disperse them (41).

On March 12, desperate and with little left to lose, workers stormed Tauride Palace, occupying it while protests continued in the streets. Inside the Palace, striking workers and mutinous soldiers created the Provisional Executive Committee of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, a new Petrograd Soviet, as documented by the socialist witness Nikolai Nikolaevich Himmer:

“There was no order even in the meeting itself. There was no permanent chairman. Chkheidze, who later performed the chairman’s duties almost permanently, didn’t do much work in the Ex. Com. during its first days. He was constantly being summoned–either to the Duma Committee or the Soviet sessions or, above all, ‘to the people,’ the constantly-changing crowd standing in front of Tauride Palace. . . If anyone had the means to [restore order to the city] it was the Soviet, which was beginning to acquire control over the masses of the workers and soldiers” (46).

He later critiqued the Soviet as too disparate to function as a government, stating that it was capable only of “moral functions” (48). The act of occupying Tauride Palace was the moment of class consciousness Lenin and other orthodox Marxists obsessed over, but after that moment, the desire for restoring order became a difficult task, resulting in the negotiated creation of a Provisional Government meant to restore order in the absence of the Tsar, who would abdicate on March 15.

The spontaneous, illegal occupation of public space was the revolutionary moment of crisis that Lenin and the Bolsheviks missed. It was the moment workers and soldiers united for the primal task of surviving a system that was rapidly killing them. Like Egyptians taking Tahrir Square in 2011, the Women’s March on Versailles in 1789, and the successful slave rebellion of the Haitian Revolution, the impromptu formation of a Soviet in Tauride Palace was a purely revolutionary moment, one of Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zones. It occurred before the state could monitor and contain it. It resulted in a new government that Bolshevik elites like Lenin would dissolve to implement a prescribed plan for utopia.

This is why Bey describes autonomous zones as temporary. Utopia, if achieved in a revolutionary context, is always temporary. Soviets coalesced spontaneously without a clear end, but most managed to redistribute food, water, and health to suffering workers and rebellious soldiers. Like the Reign of Terror in France, the gradual rule of elites in Haiti, and the authoritarianism of el-Sisi in Egypt, the eventual October Revolution (more of a Bolshevik coup) undid the revolutionary potential opened up by the Soviet in Tauride Palace and other Soviets that formed in factories and military units throughout Russia in the Spring of 1917.


Bey, Hakim. From TAZ: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, in Cultural Resistance Reader, ed. Stephen Duncombe, New York: Verso (2002), 113-118.

Daly, Jonathan, Leonid Trofimov. Russia in War and Revolution, 1914-1922. Hackett Publishing Group, 2009.

Lenin, Vladimir. The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. 1918.

Steinberg, Mark. Voices of Revolution, 1917. Yale University Press, 2001.

1917: Rasputin and the Great War

anna_theodora_krarup_portrait_of_rasputin_1916

Portrait of Rasputin by Anna Theodora Karup, December 1916.

“Dear friend, I will say again a menacing cloud is over Russia lots of sorrow and grief it is dark and there is no lightning to be seen. A sea of tears immeasurable and as to blood? What can I say? There are no words the horror of it is indescribable. . . they will conquer Germany and what about Russia? If one thinks verily there has not been a greater sufferer since the beginning of time she is all drowned in blood. Terrible is the destruction and without end the grief.” -Grigorii Rasputin, in a letter to Tsar Nicholas II, summer, 1914

In late December in 1916, the Russian mystic Grigorii Rasputin was assassinated, two and a half years into the Great War, two and a half months before the Russian Revolution took shape. Aristocrats in the Empire, notably Prince Felix Yusupov, who had grown to hate the holy man invited him to dinner in Moika Palace in Petrograd, now Saint Petersburg. For years, the Tsar had placed Rasputin closer to his family, or Rasputin inserted himself into the family by influence. In 1907, the Romanovs invited Rasputin to visit the royal family and heal Alexei, heir to the throne and ill with inherited hemophilia. Regardless of who pulled whose strings, he became a strange, alien force in the regime’s inner circles, a peasant-turned-occultist who joined the royal family.

Rasputin was an independent religious leader claiming metaphysical power and an extensive knowledge of the Bible, but he ignored the moral norms of Christianity through his abuse of alcohol and frequent sexual affairs. He was not a priest, but served the role of priest to a family that was just as much a facade as he was. He may have been a sophist or a lunatic, serving an incompetent autocrat to preserve the Romanov lineage, however doomed it was.

He could also be seen as a Shakespearean fool, the peasant-turned-entertainer who speaks candid truths to the audience and characters. Rasputin was a pacifist opposed to the Great War, though his graphic prophecy was not enough to prevent Russia from entering the conflict. His description of the war, noted above, was apocalyptic, and predicted the horror Russia would suffer as a result. Here, then, was a man willing to help the Tsar despite knowing the violence he could allow.

Russia lost approximately 1,997,500 soldiers in the First World War, with France trailing behind at 1,400,000, colonies and all. The brutal winters of the war years devastated armies and limited supplies for the Russian population. Military historian John Keegan points out that the “nature of these titanic battles on the Eastern Front is difficult to represent at a human or individual level. The Russian army, 80 per cent peasant when a majority of Russian peasants were still illiterate, left no literature to compare with that of the Western Front” (161). The majority of those who survived the Eastern Front, in other words, could not record their experiences.

However, a few written texts are telling. A Russian nurse named Lydia Zakharova, for instance, described a trench on the Eastern Front one winter as a “city of the dead, its inhabitants frozen in the most unlikely positions, as if a raging, deadly hurricane had just swept past them” (Storey 116). She adds, almost numbly, that “there is a limit, by the way, beyond which the human mind can perceive no more horrors, as a saturated sponge can soak up no more water” (117). Rasputin did not live to see the totality of the violence he predicted in 1914, but millions of Russian peasants experienced it.

Tsar Nicholas II shares much of the blame for the failures of the Great War. In 1914, he took personal control of the military, deeming himself a kind of commander-in-chief. Like many European leaders, Nicholas naively thought the war would end by Christmas of 1914. Instead it continued year after year after year.

Finally, in early 1917, starved of food and hope, bled of its population, and openly mocked by the Tsar’s aggressive displays of wealth and indifference, Russians began to protest. The Russian Revolution began only as a series of strikes. People were hungry; they couldn’t work anymore; they stopped until they got food. The Tsar, whose brutality was clear in 1905 when he ordered police to shoot protestors in Russia’s Bloody Sunday, ordered soldiers to fire into the crowds of strikers.

However, those who were meant to guard Petrograd consisted of wounded veterans or very young recruits. Healthy, loyal, and experienced soldiers were stationed on the Eastern Front, and those left behind revolted too and chose to protect the protestors. First, the holy fool protested, then soon after the workers, soldiers, guards, and even a few aristocrats realized that 1917 was an apocalypse year for Imperial Russia.

Rasputin’s place in regime seems like an ill-fitting cog in a machine, but that might be a limited perspective because almost nobody in the regime was fit for rule. The Tsar was incompetent and disinterested, his children were sick with inherited hemophilia, his ministers were torn between the possibility of a democratic Russia or the Tsar’s brutal autocracy. The monarchy was a network of ill-fitting parts. Rasputin, for all his mysteries, might have had the last good idea for Russia’s future: don’t go to war, it will be the end. Instead, Nicholas ignored the dissenting fool and plunged Russia into the sea of tears immeasurable Rasputin predicted.


Keegan, John. The First world War. Vintage Books, 2000.

Storey, William Kelleher. The First World War. Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

Treadgold, Donald W., Herbert J. Ellison. Twentieth Century Russia. Westview Press, 2000.

Congratulations to Russia for Finally Winning the Cold War

oneway“We’re satisfied to be able to finish off the United States the first time round. Once is quite enough. What good does it do to annihilate a country twice? We’re not a bloodthirsty people.” -Nikita Khrushchev, comparing American and Soviet nuclear capability.

I’d like to extend my warmest congratulations to Mother Russia for finally winning the Cold War. Some say it’s too early to call, and that the popular majority of Americans (by 1.5 million at this point) who still think we have a leg in the race might suggest otherwise, but as it is, I think it’s safe to say that America concedes defeat. Congratulations, Russia. You win. Freedom and democracy, as it turns out, really don’t work after all. You’ve proven that much, Russia.

I’ll admit, you fooled us with that whole “collapse of your very way of life” trick back in 1990. I can’t believe we fell for the oldest trick in the book, and didn’t even notice when, out of nowhere, you elect a former KGB agent to take over for Boris Yeltsin. Smooth move. We also didn’t think trolling could be a successful war tactic. In the end, your trolls really knew how to rig an election. I’m just glad Reagan isn’t alive to see this day. He would have been sorely disappointed.

So, Russia, what’s next? What’s your end game? Warming the oceans and melting Greenland’s ice sheets enough to get our Cold War nuclear base? Our new president will ensure that happens. Spreading misinformation? Reducing our language to double plus good and double plus ungood? We’re already limiting our words to great or nasty.

I’m sorry, Russia, but when you come for the spoils of war, you won’t find anything worth taking. By the time you reach us, we’ll have run the continent into the ground with oil spills in our largest rivers, Midwestern earthquakes from fracking, dust bowls, forest fires, and uranium mining accidents. By the end of the Cold War, we killed off 93 percent of our varieties of fruits and vegetables, and who knows how many we’ve gotten rid of since then.

Do you want our healthcare? It’ll be cut. Do you want our Space program? We’ve been defunding it for a while now. Do you want our agriculture? One blight and our corn will be gone in a few months. Dearest Russian overlords, we are now ready for your conquest, but I will not say we are ripe for the taking, because as a nation we are actually rotten to the core, entrenched in racism, misogyny, anti-intellectualism, Evangelical opposition to science, the comfortable idea that we can actually survive the catastrophe of ourselves if we just buy the necessary tools.

America’s value has depreciated so much that you won’t find anything worth conquering. Keep in mind that we’re taking you with us, in the end. Mutually Assured Destruction never looked so appealing. So congratulations, Russia. I await your rule.

-jk

If Napoleon Had Won

View of Paris from the Louvre, by Lost Compass Photography

View of Paris from the Louvre, by Lost Compass Photography

Today, as we mark the two hundredth anniversary of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and a definite end to his conquest of Europe, I wonder what would have happened if he’d won. If the French had defeated the British-led coalition, France would still have faced Britain across the English Channel, Prussia (part of modern-day Germany) to the east, and Russia even further to the east. In other words, Napoleon would have faced a potential war on two fronts, the same situation Germany faced in both World Wars. French forces were already stretched thin, particularly from colossal defeats in Russia, so it seems unlikely that the French would win a two-front war.

Perhaps Napoleon would turn to diplomacy. Britain historically fears a continental empire, preferring a divided and contentious Europe. If Spain, France, Prussia, Russia, and the Netherlands cannot work together, England can keep them from uniting against the island Kingdom. Napoleon would be wise, then, to turn to Prussia and make a political pact against Britain. Such treaties were common during the nineteenth century, eventually creating a complex alliance system that some blame World War One on. So, to avoid a military defeat, Napoleon turns to Prussia and promises to work with them if Britain or Russia ever turn against their interests.

What would certainly be known as the Franco-Prussian Alliance creates a strong central-European power. Napoleon dies decades later of stomach cancer, but in this universe he dies a hero. Statues are built to him, poems in French and German are composed, and peace settles now that Imperial France has secured its assets abroad. A Franco-Prussian alliance changes the shape of Europe completely. German unification never happens, but Franco-Prussia probably allies with Austro-Hungary anyway. As a result, the First World War pits central European powers against Britain and Russia rather than France and Britain against Germany and Austria. However, the combined strength of France and Prussia, along with France’s imperial allies of Italy, Spain, Portugal, Romania, and probably the Ottoman Empire, manage to defeat Russia and Britain. The U.S. never involves itself regardless of the outcome, and France gains all of Britain’s colonies. As a result, French becomes the dominant language in the world, no fascist dictators come to power, and the U.S. keeps to itself and Latin America.

Of course, this is not an objective speculation. Counterfactual history is subject to individual decisions as well, namely those of the historian. My own bias against fascism motivates me to see a possible way out of it. There’s no indisputable likelihood that there would be no World Wars if Napoleon had won a single battle. There may have been a worse war, there may have been no more wars, but there’s no way of knowing for certain. As such, counterfactual history can sometimes show more about the historian’s own bias than about history itself. In any case, thousands died at Waterloo, and millions have died in combat since. Speculating about how we could have avoided past conflicts, while intriguing, can be a distraction from how to avoid conflicts now.

-jk

 

The War to Start All Wars

August 4, 1914

Political cartoon by Walter Trier (1890-1951).

Political cartoon by Walter Trier (1890-1951).

Today marks the hundredth anniversary of two major events in the First World War, Germany’s invasion of neutral Belgium to gain strategic access to France, and Britain’s declaration of war with Germany.

France was allied with Russia in 1914 through the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1892. Germany had declared war with Russia on August 1, 1914, to retaliate against Russia’s military organization and its allegiance with Serbia, which was in conflict with Austro-Hungary, Germany’s ally as part of the Triple Alliance of 1882 between Austro-Hungary, Germany, and Italy.

The conflict began with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Throne, on July 28, 1914 in Sarajevo. The assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was one of six Slavic nationalists whose plot was intended to cut ties between Austro-Hungary and Serbia in order to create Yugoslavia as an independent, pan-Slavic state incorporating Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, and other south-Slavic regions.

As the conflict escalated from a reactionary political crisis to a military conflict between powerful alliances, other nations entered the war, including Bulgaria, Italy, Japan, the Ottoman Empire, and the United States.

WWI

An estimated 9 million people died in the First World War. It brought to light outdated imperial agendas and alliances, introduced horrendous new military technologies including the tank and chemical weapons, and put on hiatus intellectual movements pushing for women’s rights, minority rights, and worker’s rights. Multiple nations are responsible for atrocities, including the German treatment of Belgian civilians and the Ottoman implementation of the Armenian Genocide.

Empires collapsed during the war. Irish and Russian political revolutionaries took up arms during the war, partially motivated by the appalling death toll by 1916 and 1917. As a result of subsequent events, England partitioned Ireland, the USSR replaced the Russian Empire, and the Ottoman empire dissolved along with the centuries-old Caliphate.

In a desperate effort to prevent another such war, the League of Nations was formed. So too was the Treaty of Versailles, which placed astronomical debt on Germany and fueled radical parties left and right. The aftermath of the War led to numerous other conflicts: civil wars, partitions, decolonization, and the Second World War. As a result of World War Two, superpower nations entered the Cold War, accompanied by the Space Race, Arms Race, nuclear proliferation, and military intervention in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Arab World.

The War influenced Modernism and ultimately obliterated popular perceptions of war as romantic. It changed art, literature, music, popular culture, and even cinema with the adaptation of Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.

The First World War was a humanitarian calamity; almost all conflicts today can be traced to the War. The exact causes are still contested. Some point to imperial allegiances; others point to an interest, especially by Britain, to suppress political activism from suffragists and socialists. Others point to a moment of panic among imperial leaders. Regardless of the causes, it repeatedly defined and redefined the twentieth century. Today, as Russia enters Ukraine, as Israel assaults Gaza, as complex networks of allegiances overlap and the U.S. flails when asked about whom it considers its allies, the conditions for a world conflict are strikingly similar.

The Great War mutilated the twentieth century, but it is not yet clear if it will do the same to the twenty-first. If political leaders panic in a moment of crisis and declare war within a month, world conflict may continue. Alternatively, we could all take a moment and consider the dangers of reactionary retaliation and ask ourselves if we want another century of war and genocide, if we want to see 9 million more dead for a war that can so easily be avoided. I hope that commemorations such as this one in London will motivate nations to pause before considering military action. One day, I hope military action will no longer be perceived as an easy option, because for the victims and survivors, there’s nothing easy about it.

-jk