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.

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