Tag Archives: The Great War

1917: War and Journalism

Pravda

Russian newspaper Pravda, March 16, 1917.

The First World War was a global catastrophe. Because it was fought between colonial empires, it drew conscripts from Africa, Australia, India, the Arab World, Canada, and other regions. Outside the European theater, the Japanese Empire and China were involved in the war as well. In April of 1917, the United States joined the war. The war had high stakes for all involved across Asia, Africa, and Europe, so when Russia’s revolutionary factions debated pulling out of the war, other nations paid close attention. For most Russians, there were numerous uncertainties in 1917. For most journalists abroad, the primary question was about the war.

The lines between reportage, editorializing, and propaganda have always been messy, I think. The act of recording an event requires certain conscious decisions: what to include, what to leave out, the order of facts and events, what descriptions are useful for the reader. This is also the problem of historiography. These lines are increasingly blurred today, but in 1917, when war affected nearly every aspect of life from food rations to bonds to the draft, the press played a pertinent, easily abused role in swaying wartime opinions.

France, Britain, and the United States wanted to know if they would have an ally in the War, whereas Germany and Austria-Hungary wanted to know if they could move more forces to the Western Front to deal with the soon-to-arrive U.S. army. At the heart of Russia’s pacifist movement were the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, whose motivation for pulling out stemmed from their opposition to the connection between capitalism, imperialism, and war. As Lenin insisted, imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism. For British, American, and especially French soldiers, Russia’s withdrawal could become a death sentence. Newspapers recognized their readers’ interests and fears.

Many papers did not resort to “yellow journalism” in their editorializing, but were not above subjective writing. A New York Times article from September 5, 1917, by Harold Williams entitled “Extremists Sway Workman’s Council” is a prime example among many. Reporting on the Russian Provisional Government, Williams wrote that “The all-Russian executive proposed a resolution supporting the Government view of the necessity of the death penalty” (Williams).  According to Williams, The Menshevik politician Julius Martov “sat silent in a perpetual sneer. . . put his sneer into words, and with the help of Internationalists and Social Revolutionaries defeated” the pro-death penalty measure. He added that “The issue now is patriotism or internationalism.”

It was not uncommon for American newspapers at the time to refer to Mensheviks and Bolsheviks as “extremists” or “internationalists,” in contrast to Russian “patriots.” Pacifists and labor unions in general were seen as contrary to the war effort. Their demand for better wage and working conditions limited the production of weaponry and resources. Editorializing in 1917 was common, but strategically nuanced, in part because the Russian Revolution involved so many different players and interests.

Americans (who celebrate the day they declared independence from a tyrannical monarch) endorsed the sudden democratization in Russia and the end of the monarchy. The United States was quick to recognize the new, post-Tsar government. The New York Times reported on March 22 that America was “First to Recognize Freed Russia” and  The New York Tribune reported that the British politician David George Lloyd “believed the revolution in Russia was the greatest service the Russians had yet rendered to the Allied cause” (Tribune March 22, 1917). However, they could not endorse the striking workers and mutinying soldiers who were largely responsible for that democratization. Thus, Russia was influenced by “extremists” and “agitators” rather than citizens and soldiers.

The British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, in a slightly different nationalist gesture, included a poetic description of the Russian monarchy’s complete history on March 17, 1917, titled “Story of the Tsars” in which the author declares that the “story of the Tsars is like a conglomeration of the wild catastrophes of Elizabethan tragedy.” This story appeared next to others about the “Irish Question,” so that Telegraph readers saw Irish rebellions and descriptions of monarchical tragedies in the same document.

However, journalists had a diversity of perspectives, such as the American journalist John Reed. A reporter for Metropolitan Magazine, Reed was an adamant pacifist. He reported on the Great War in 1914 before the U.S. entered, and wrote editorials for the self-consciously socialist newspaper The Masses opposing the war. He lost work in 1917 because of his views, and traveled to Russia that year before the October Revolution. He died of typhus in Russia in 1920, in the midst of the Russian Civil War.

The majority of international journalists, pacifists and hawks alike, approached the Russian Revolution from a largely military-driven perspective. But the Great War was more a catalyst of the Russian Revolution. The 1905 rebellions sparked economic reforms as well as increased persecution. Poverty and oppression under Nicholas II had been a decades-long assault on numerous Russians and subjugated populations in Russia’s surrounding territories, so political involvement had increased in Russia. War was a crucial issue in the summer of 1917, but so too, clearly, were issues like the death penalty, press freedom, freedom of political dissidents, and wealth disparity, issues that the Tsar ignored and the Bolsheviks, in many cases, mishandled after the disastrous Civil War of 1917-1921.

What is clear is that there emerged competing narratives about the Revolution as it unfolded. Later Tribune articles, more neutral in tone, attest to the chaotic day-to-day changes that took place in Petrograd in October and November after the Bolsheviks seized power and counter-revolutionary forces attempted to retake the capital. The lived crisis in Petrograd appeared as a serialized daily drama for readers across the world, most of whom only wanted to know if their sons, fathers, or brothers would make it home alive. The Revolution’s far-reaching consequences had the potential to affect military families abroad and all workers within, but by summer, nobody knew what would come next.

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.

World War One: The Unpopular Prequel to World War Two

World War One BooksThis semester I’m taking a senior seminar on World War One, for many different reasons: it’s an important event that changed the shape of the world in the twentieth century, I want to know more about it, it’s the hundredth anniversary. I’m also frequently disappointed by how often popular media ignore World War One.

European military history appears in popular arts on a regular basis. We have numerous video games, movies, and documentaries about World War Two. The History Channel has a long list of Hitler-fetish programs (Hitler and the Occult, Hitler’s Henchmen, Hitler’s Women), and in the U.S., WWII movies often come out on or near Christmas Day (Schindler’s List, Valkyrie, and most recently Unbroken, because there’s no better way to celebrate Christmas than by watching portrayals of crimes against humanity). I was excited this past summer when the History Channel announced a six-hour special on both World Wars, but was disappointed when it ignored much of World War One in favor of yet another biography of Hitler; I jokingly called the series Hitler: Origins. Complete with historical inaccuracies, it was effectively a Hollywood trilogy.

Nevertheless, there are some very good portrayals of history in popular media, such as the documentaries of Ken Burns and the BBC series Foyle’s War. These and others pay close attention to detail and often avoid simplifying history. The problem with so many popular depictions is that they present a simple Good Guy/Bad Guy narrative, to the point that World War Two is often reduced to a standard action movie format: bad guys do bad things to good people, good guys intervene, and there’s a happy ending. On the other hand, World War One resists this narrative completely: morally ambiguous empires kept promises to invade each other, millions died without significant progress, and nobody was happy about how it ended.

Popular arts can be useful if treated with the proper attention, and understanding World War One, I think, is sometimes more important than understanding its wildly popular sequel. The problem is that history never translates easily into narrative. It’s not a study of plot and characters, it’s a study of variable circumstance and decision-making without foresight, which can be messy, scary, and uncomfortable. It almost never works out the way we expect or want. Nevertheless, I long for better popular depictions of history. If the History Channel and Hollywood will not grant this wish, then I’ll simply have to do my part as a writer and contribute better, more accurate stories to the canon.

-jk