The Russian Revolution; A New History by Sean McMeekin. Basic Books, 2017.


            The Russian Revolution became entangled with both a civil war in Russia and the last months of the Great War on the Eastern Front. It had many turns and Sean McMeekin has given greater order to this momentous event. It involved the “Reds” – an alliance of Bolsheviks, Poles, Russian army officers and their Cossack regiments – and the urban “bourgeois” calling themselves the “Whites.” Neither side of this civil war had any enthusiasm for continuing the Great War.

Sorting out the first years of the Russian revolution is, however, complicated. It was shaped by the active involvement of revolutionaries, Alexander Kerensky and Vladimir Lenin. Kerensky was the Minister of War and then Premier in the last days of Czar Nicholas II’s reign. he led the Socialist Revolutionary Party. The more ambitious of the two parties, the Bolsheviks hoped to export their revolution around the world. The SRs were ultimately overwhelmed by the Lenin-led Bolsheviks.

            After his abdication the Czar and his family were held under house arrest; the Bolsheviks feared that Britain or perhaps even the United States would try to liberate Nicholas and restore him to the Russian thrown. Fearing this outcome, he was executed by the Bolsheviks along with his four daughters and his son and heir.

McMeekin relates the interesting story of the relationship between the Russian and German Empires over the course of war and revolution. When the Great War began, the two empires were on opposite sides of an Eastern Front. The Germans realized that the war-weary Russian state could be further weakened by introducing the Bolshevik revolutionaries into the political mixture. Thus Lenin was allowed to travel across Germany and the Eastern front and reach St. Petersburg (Petrograd) safely.

The Bolsheviks were advocating a popular decision to leave the war, coinciding with Woodrow Wilson’s talk of a “war without victory.” Kerensky had, upon acquiring power, launched a disastrous offensive that had failed, making it clear that, despite Russia’s wealth in agricultural land, it was not going to win a prolonged war with the Germans. The Bolsheviks initiated a negotiation for an armistice along the lines of Wilson’s Fourteen Points.

The Russian army still had some fight left in its officers and men. However large numbers of Russian troops surrendered to the Germans and there were instances of German and Russian troops fraternizing. Agreement between Germany and Russia was hurriedly negotiated at the German military headquarters at Brest-Litovsk on 14 March 1918.

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk reflected the growing weakness of the Russian Empire.  The Germans insisted that the Baltics and Ukraine be cleared of Russian troops leaving the region as a zone of occupation. And there were huge territorial concessions in Eastern Europe. Germany was acknowledged as a protector of the large German population in these Borderlands and in Russia. Russian civilians and soldiers felt that they had been betrayed by the Bolsheviks.

 As the civilian and military regimes in Russia collapsed and the Bolsheviks appeared to be winning the civil war, Russia’s wartime Allies decided that they had no option but to intervene in the civil war. British and American troops landed in Murmansk and Archangel with the intention of supporting the “Whites” fighting the “Reds.” Equally unwise was the Allied support for the Czechoslovak Legion, one of several armies serving in Russia, which complicated any settlement. The Legion seized large portions of the Trans-Siberian Railroad eventually all the way to Vladivostok.  In 1920 after the Revolution, they were evacuated from Vladivostok by the British and US.

Herbert Hoover was known for his relief efforts after the War, the American Relief Agency. Russian agriculture and their rail system were not able to feed the population. Hoover placed conditions on the Bolshevik government in return for US grain and other scarce commodities. Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to make food relief to Russia and Poland part of a diplomatic give and take. Having to take handouts from a capitalist-bourgeoisie land was a bitter pill for the Bolsheviks to swallow.

Perhaps most offensive in Western eyes was that the Soviets confiscated the gold held by private individuals and then went after the churches. They were systematically stripped of their gold and their icons.  This gold was used to pay for food shipments.

What an informative book. Sean McMeekin has corrected the work of earlier historians of the Russian Revolution. And he has probably created his share of new stories that will then be reshaped as historians dig deeper into the archives of the Russian state.

The Long  Shadow; The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century by David Reynolds. W.W. Norton, 2015 paper.


David Reynolds explores how the Great War has shaped the rest of the twentieth century. He notes that by the end of the Second World War, historians were no longer talking about the Great War, but instead were referring to the European warfare between 1914 and 1918 as the First World War, the Second World War 1939-1945, and the years between the two wars became tagged the “Interwar Period.”

The history of the Interwar Years, The Long Shadow, has been well-charted: the Russian Revolution that ended Imperial Russia, the diplomacy surrounding the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations, the rise of nation-states in Eastern Europe to replace empires, the rise of fascism in Germany, Italy, and Spain. These years were also economically unsettling: reparation payments and hyper-inflation in Germany, the coming of the Depression in the US, the rise of the Welfare State in Britain.

Some historians lump the two wars together, including this Interwar period, calling the years from 1914 to 1945 a second “thirty-years war,” referring back to the prolonged warfare in Central Europe in the 1700s.

The death toll from the First World War was huge. Perhaps the most significant consequences of the war were the demographics that followed from that slaughter. Reynolds might have speculated on the impact of the death of so many men in their twenties and thirties in Britain, France, Belgium, and Germany. The loss of so many young men to the Great War’s killing machine affected many families over several generations.

The Great War is remembered for the trench warfare that is characteristic of the French-Belgium front. But the war also was a war of movement, and Reynolds makes that point. The term Blitzkrieg is associated with World War II; the German invasion of France in 1914 was equally and unexpectedly rapid, an earlier Blitzkrieg. Neither the tank nor the plane were important to outcomes in the First World War. But they were introduced. The horse and the cavalry charge disappeared, in favor of infantry armed with machine guns. Bombardment by heavy guns was true of both wars. German submarine warfare was one of the legacies of the Great War. The tank and the heavily armed truck saw their day only in the Second World War.

Reynolds suggests that an entirely appropriate response in the interwar period was pacifism, particularly in Britain. That response is a partial explanation for Neville Chamberlain’s fateful visits to Germany in 1938 to negotiate the agreement, involving the sudetenlanders  – Germans who had been included in Czechoslovakia by the Versailles settlement in 1918. Chamberlain returned from Germany, claiming that the agreement brought “peace for our time.”

Chamberlain and his government were also responding to the German complaint that Versailles had been a dictate and the reparations demanded from Germany too steep and detrimental to the post-war European economy. An eminent British economist, John Maynard Keynes, agreed. Germany paid those reparations with inflated Deutsch marks that further complicated the post-war economies of Central Europe.

How best to demonstrate the inappropriateness of the European imperialism after 1918 is to look at the mandate. The Ottoman Empire’s Middle Eastern lands were divided between France and Britain much to the detriment of an eventual peace in the area. At some point in the midst of the Great War, Britain came to the conclusion that in the future oil would fire its war machine, not Welsh coal and the most likely source of that oil would be the Middle East.

In November 1917 Arthur Balfour, then Foreign Minister in the wartime Conservative Government proclaimed Palestine as the national homeland for European Jewry. He ignored the fact that there was a population of Palestinians that would have to be forced off their lands. Balfour was also hoping that his Declaration would find favor with Russian and American Jews and get the former to pursue its war aims more rigorously and the latter to enter the war on Britain’s side. We now live in the shadow of that diplomacy.

To explain the German war machine’s collapse in 1918, German conservatives came up with the “stab in the back” myth. It was widely believed that the German Army had not lost the War but was instead betrayed by Weimar politicians. This theory was promoted by Erick Ludendorff, a General in the German army, who was given credit for the military victory at Tannenberg early in the Great War, later a prominent nationalist leader, and Paul von Hindenburg, later President of the German Republic.

The last veterans of World War I are gone. Soon there will be no living memory of the Great War. Veterans from World War II will follow them.  How we view that war will be left to the historians and to the rituals of remembrance that are performed by the descendants of those warriors.

When I was growing up in a small Iowa town, honoring those who served in both wars was a yearly Memorial Day ritual. Small flags and bouquets of lilacs were placed on their graves. The high school band played some patriotic tunes, there was a gun salute, and we then retired to our homes for a day off, having remembered for the moment those who had fought in both World Wars. How much longer will these remembrances cast their shadows over our homes and hearts?

When London Was Capital of America by Julie Flavell. Yale University Press, 2011 paper.

When London Was Capital of America by Julie Flavell. Yale University Press, 2011 paper.

            In the decades of the 1750s and 1760s London was a city of nearly 750,000 souls. Julie Flavell speaks of the city as the capital of America because the original thirteen colonies along the eastern seaboard had in varying ways made London their metropolis and, despite the long sea passage, flocked to its urban environment.

Most New Englanders that came to London did so on business. London was the banking center for the American colonies; it financed the triangular trade between Britain, West Africa, and the North American and Caribbean colonies. The major commodities traded were sugar, tobacco, and leather (later cotton) in exchange for what Flavell calls consumer goods. The American colonies remained Britain’s major trading partner until after the American War Of Independence.

Colonials looked to Britain for their “higher” education. The Inns of Court for the legal profession and the several teaching hospitals in London for medicine, eventually Edinburgh University. The more politically ambitious came to seek positions in the elaborate Imperial governing structure, the Franklin’s for example.

And they also came for the entertainments that London had to offer, London theater, then as now. Some of the available entertainments were considered to be unsavory. There were prostitutes and street brawls to make study breaks more interesting. Many of these North Americans sought the persona of the ‘macaroni’ a mid-eighteenth-century Englishman who dressed and spoke in the fashion of the day. The more politically inclined young man might take up the cause of John Wilkes and the radicals. Easy to understand why American parents were reluctant to set their sons loose in London.  

The colonials sought out their own kind in the coffee houses they chose to patronize. New Englanders were particularly clickish. They tended to live apart from visitors from the middle colonies who were a mixed Dutch, German, French, Irish, and African. Those from the American South wished not to be mistaken for provincial Englishmen.

Thrifty American planters often brought a slave or two with them to avoid having to hire out of the urban servant class who in Georgian London could shop around for the best position; they had options. They were determined to preserve the modest privileges of the serving class in the presence of New World slavery. They were not controlled by the whip. Unthinkable! The colonials thought them “spoiled” by American standards. The city’s serving class was disinclined to associate with the “Blackamoors” from the New World


The British slave trade, financed through London credit, was not prohibited until 1807. It was a profitable business for the British merchant marine. However a court decision in 1772 had held that no slave, once domiciled in England for a period of time, could be sent back to the colonies. Except as a free man. The decision effectively ended slavery in England, Scotland and Wales.  T

The American slave also benefited for a domicile in London. It gave him what he considered to be an urban polish. And his own ideas about his status as a piece of property.   

Flavell makes use of the correspondence between Benjamin Franklin and William Franklin, Ben’s acknowledged illegitimate son, to describe the patronage system that brought colonials to London to seek positions. William, at the elder Franklin’s instance, was appointed the Governor of New Jersey. Ben Franklin took advantage of the patronage system. He was the Deputy Postmaster General, appointed by the Crown. He served as the London agent for Pennsylvania and three other colonies. His knowing the right people in London also allowed Ben to speculate in western land.

Father and son eventually split over the conflict between the British Empire and the American colonies. William, remaining loyal to the Crown, continued to hold the New Jersey Governor’s office until American independence.

The American Revolution resulted in the exit of most Americans then living in London. On the other hand an estimated 7,000 of the 60,000 to 80,000 colonial royalists fled to London during the Revolution.

Would that we could journey back to a London when it was the Capital of America to understand better the character of the First British Empire. Julie Flavell’s book might be the next best thing.  




My Fellow Soldiers; General John Pershing and the Americans Who Helped Win the Great War by Andrew Carroll. Penguin Press, 2017.


Andrew Carroll has used letters and diaries written by American participants in the Great War to frame an account of the military career of John Pershing. Pershing was the senior most commander of American troops on the Western Front. Pershing was the commander of the American Expeditionary Force that was sent to the Western Front to assist French, Belgium, and British forces, locked in the trench warfare for which the First World War was notorious. Carroll has also used Pershing’s letters to his family and colleagues.

(It is interesting that the focus of letter-writing was to a “mother” rather than a “father” as it had been in the Civil War. Carroll doesn’t speculate on why this was so, and how that correspondence with a mother could indicate a different family structure fifty years later.)

Pershing’s military career did not begin in Europe. He commanded the forces that pursued Pancho Villa in west Texas and New Mexico just as the war in Europe began, August 1014. Having settled with Pancho Villa, Pershing arrived in Europe in June 1917.

From the beginning, Pershing insisted that the American doughboys be kept in their own units with American commanders, rather than being used as replacements in depleted French and British units.

Pershing was a career officer who had served in the Philippines before giving command of the Pancho Villa expedition. Tragically his wife and daughters died in a house fire in military housing in the Presidio in San Francisco. Pershing had failed to make arrangements for accommodations in Texas, and blamed himself for their tragic death.

General Pershing was, like many Americans enthusiastic about getting “over there” while the fight was still going on. However, Americans were not allowed to serve in foreign armies – swear allegiance to a foreign military establishment (We had not yet declared war on Germany.), but American volunteers could join the French Foreign Legion.

Pershing had been sent to the Western Front as an observer, despite President Woodrow Wilson’s pledge not to get us involved in “European entanglements.” Wilson was under pressure to enter the war against Germany. Three German “outrages” motivated American public opinion: the sinking of the passenger liner the Lusitania with the loss of American lives, the willful destruction of the Belgium town of Louvain, and the execution of an American nurse-volunteer, Edith Cavell.

Wilson was finally forced to declare war but he made it a declaration of war against “the Imperial German Government” not the German people. There was a sizeable community of German-Americans who, Wilson worried, would not be enthusiastic participants. President Wilson’s hand was forced as a result of the Zimmermann telegram. Arthur Zimmermann, then the German foreign secretary had sent a telegram to his ambassador to Mexico that proposed the Mexican government join the European war, promising his assistance in regaining the huge territory lost to the U.S. The telegram was leaked to the press. (Then as now the press was being used to weaken the federal government’s foreign policy.)

The war in Europe was not so glorious as the popular songs of the day made it out to be. Those trenches that American volunteers would be entering were filled with water and hence mud. And soldiers who helped win the war had to deal with new weaponry: tanks and armored trucks, flamethrowers, chlorine gas, rapid-firing machine guns, and heavy field pieces for long-range bombardment.

A system of bases were established here in the States, mostly in the South for training purposes. But before they were actually sent to the trenches, Pershing’s “fellow soldiers” were trained behind the lines and supervised by the generals who would be commanding the troops in battle.

That only partially solved the problem of training African-Americans for their role in the fight. African-American soldiers entered a racist military. Mostly they were responsible for the transportation essential the fighting force but generally kept apart from white soldiers. While Pershing had insisted on keeping his troops together, rather than their functioning as replacements, he did agree to use African-American troops to rebuild French African units rather than American. Those who continued to serve under Pershing established a reputation for bravery; eventually they came to be called the Harlem Hellfighters.

Some of Pershing’s soldiers later gained fame in World War II: George Marshall, Bill Donavan, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton. Truman and Eisenhower had subsequent political careers as well. Pershing was mentioned as a potential Presidential candidate for the Republican Party in the 1920 Presidential election, but no offer came his way, and Pershing had no interest in campaigning for office. The Republicans, instead chose one of their own, Senator Warren G. Harding, and Pershing retired as a respected former commander of the American Expeditionary Force in the First World War and to a grave in Arlington Cemetery. 


March 1917; On the Brink of War and Revolution by Will Englund. W.W. Norton, 2017.

Will Englund has described a fateful turn of events in both the Russian Revolution and the Great War focusing on March 1917 and two individuals, US President Woodrow Wilson and Russia’s Czar Nicholas II.

When war broke out in 1914, Europe’s major powers were divided into a complicated alliance system, the Russian Empire and its allies Great Britain and France – the Triple Entente. They were opposed by the Central Powers, the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires and Italy, though the latter only entered the Great War in its last years. The US stood clear of these “European entanglements” as of March 1917, but we were gradually drawn into the conflict.

Englund does not mention the history of this system of alliances and alignments. It was largely the work of Otto von Bismarck, Chancellor of the German Empire from 1871 to 1890. He dominated European affairs and kept the peace despite an armed continent and insurgent nationalism.

Fighting began with the German invasion of Belgium and France. Russia then sent armies into Germany’s Prussia and into Galicia to engage the Austro-Hungarian forces there. Germany provoked the US into joining the Entente after it declared a blockade of the North Atlantic to reduce the flow of military supplies and food to Great Britain. To enforce the blockade, German submarines began sinking British shipping, including the luxury passenger ship, the Lusitania, with American casualties.

This submarine warfare created a major international crisis which challenged President Wilson’s promise to “keep us out of the war.” Wilson fancied himself a peace keeper. (He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919.) In a speech to a joint session of Congress in January 1917, he announced a shift in our intentions to achieving “peace without victory.”

Given the huge number of casualties in WWI, it is difficult for us to understand how so many Europeans could have welcomed the outbreak of a war.  Perhaps to clarify the prolonged armed peace and its tangled diplomacy? Many young men saw it as the opportunity for them to show their valor. They assumed that it would be a brief war that their side would win.

Seventy million men got their opportunity. There were 9 to 11 million military casualties and 5 to 6 million civilians killed or wounded. Those estimates don’t include either prisoners of war, many of whom died of starvation, or those missing in action and presumed dead.

President Wilson’s efforts to keep us out of the war ended with a sensational intelligence master stroke. The Brits had been deciphering the codes used by the German Foreign Ministry. In late 1916 Arthur Zimmerman, the German Foreign Minister, sent a telegraph to his counterpart in Mexico, suggesting a military alliance between the two countries and support for Mexico’s recovery of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, lost in the Mexican War of 1846-1848.  When made public, the telegram became a raison d’être for American entry into the European War. Despite his reluctance, President Wilson had no option but to declare war, as many prominent Americans, including Theodore Roosevelt, had been urging him to do.

Wilson also found it easier to enter the war in 1917 because the Russian revolution and fall of the Czar’s regime had “changed the calculus” (Englund). Russia had joined the “liberal democratic camp” with a provisional government headed by Alexander Kerensky.  Not winning the war on the eastern front, the Russian army was still intact. Kerensky even ordered it to take the offense. And the army could still be counted on to back Nicholas II’s effort to control crowds of workers in the capital and in Moscow and put down mutinies of sailors at the Kronstadt naval base.

At this point Germany made what Englund calls an “investment in the Russian revolution.” It allowed Vladimir Lenin and several of his lieutenants to leave their Swiss exile and travel across Germany and the Eastern Front to reach St. Petersburg (soon to be Petrograd). The Bolshevik coup d’état that followed brought the Party to power. The Bolsheviks began a negotiation with the Germans that resulted in the Brest-Litovsk Treaty in early 1918, ending Soviet Russia’s participation in the Great War.

We declared war in December 1917, which brought some respite to the British Empire troops fighting on the Western Front. The “yanks are coming” as the famous song went. One of those many young males hoping for some excitement in the Great War was my father. From a small Iowa town, just turned 18, and facing conscription, he volunteered and had a great adventure, though he never got abroad.

The Great War, Englund argues, did not make the world safe for democracy. Nor did it usher in a new world order based on President Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Russia turned the Great War’s destructive forces upon itself. They fueled a deadly revolution, their socialist experiment, and a fast and deadly famine.