The “War to End all Wars” dragged into its third dismal year in 1917, seeming as though it would go on forever. Like two exhausted prize fighters, neither side could muster the strength to deliver the killing blow. Many single days of the great battles of 1916 alone produced more casualties than every European war of the preceding 100 years, combined. At home, the social fabric of the combatant nations was unraveling.
By 1916 it was generally understood in Germany that the war effort was “shackled to a corpse”, referring the Austro-Hungarian Empire where the war had started, in the first place. Italy, the third member of the “Triple Alliance”, was little better. On the “Triple Entente” side, the French countryside was literally torn to pieces, the English economy close to collapse. The Russian Empire, the largest nation on the planet, was teetering on the edge of the precipice.
The first of two Revolutions that year began on February 23 according the “Old Style” calendar, March 8, “New Style”. Long-standing resentments over food rationing turned to mass protests in and around the Russian capital of Petrograd (modern-day Saint Petersburg). Eight days of violent demonstrations pitted Revolutionaries against police and “gendarmes”, that medieval remnant combining military units with the power of law enforcement.
By March 12 (new style), mutinous units of the Russian military had switched sides and joined with the revolutionaries. Three days later, Car Nicholas abdicated the Imperial throne.
Amidst all this chaos, Kaiser Wilhelm calculated that all he had to do was “kick the door in” and his largest adversary would collapse. He was right.
Following the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty, the more moderate Menshevik “Whites” vowed to continue the war effort. The split which had begun with the failed revolution of 1905 was more pronounced by this time with the radical Bolsheviks (“Reds”) taking the more extreme road. While Reds and Whites both wanted to bring socialism to the Russian people, Mensheviks argued for predominantly legal methods and trade union activism, while Bolsheviks favored armed violence.
In 1901, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov adopted the pseudonym “Lenin” after the River Lena, the easternmost of the three great Siberian rivers flowing into the arctic ocean. The middle-class son of a professor of mathematics and physics and the daughter of a well-to-do physician, Ulyanov became radicalized after the 1887 execution of his brother, for plotting to murder the Czar.
The man was soon convinced that capitalist society was bound to give way to socialist society with a natural transition to communism, not far behind.
Lenin was in exile when the war broke out, arrested and briefly imprisoned for his Russian citizenship. The radical revolutionary was released due to his anti-czarist sentiments when he and his wife, settled in Switzerland.
British historian Edward Crankshaw writes, the German government saw “in this obscure fanatic one more bacillus to let loose in tottering and exhausted Russia to spread infection”.
Lurching toward food riots of his own and loathe to unleash such a bacterium against his own homeland, a “Sealed Train” carrying Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and 31 dissidents departed from exile in Switzerland on April 9, complements of the Kaiser. Leaving Zurich Station amid the jeers and the insults of 100 or so assembled Russians shouting “Spies!” “Traitors!” “Pigs!” “Provocateurs!” Lenin turned to a friend and said. “Either we’ll be swinging from the gallows in three months, or we shall be in power.”
North through Germany and across the Baltic Sea, this political plague bacillus traveled the length of Sweden arriving in Petrograd on the evening of April 16, 1917. Like the handful of termites that brought down the mighty oak, this small faction inserted into the body politic that April, would help to radicalize the population and consolidate Bolshevik power.By October, Russia would experience its second revolution of the year. The German Empire could breathe easier. The “Russian Steamroller” was out of the war. And none too soon, too. With the Americans entering the war that April, Chief of the General Staff Paul von Hindenburg and his deputy Erich Ludendorff could now move their divisions westward, in time to face the arrival of the American Expeditionary Force.
On July 17, 1918, an assassination squad from the Ural Soviet of Workers’ Deputies murdered Czar Nicholas along with his wife and children, family physician, servants and dogs. It was the end of the Romanov Dynasty, the end of Czarist Russia. The citizens murdered by the totalitarian system of government which would rise in its place, has been estimated as high as sixty million.