As I write these lines, Russia is poised to invade the independent republic of Ukraine, under the pretense of “defending” Russian minorities or rebels. Pundits the world over are already making their pet historical comparisons. Some see this as a repeat of 1914, when Russia came to the aid of the small country of Serbia, helping to cement Europe’s slide into war. Others are seeing an obvious parallel to the 1930s, when Adolf Hitler took advantage of often legitimate complains of mistreatment of German minorities to destroy whole countries. For me, however, these events make me hark back to another time, specifically the year 1917.
1917 was the year of the blood and mud of Passchendaele. It was the year almost half the French army mutinied. It was also the year America entered the war, in a decision largely celebrated at the time but decried ever since. But in my opinion, 1917 was first and foremost the year of hope for freedom and democracy, thanks to the little-known and oft-lamented Russian Revolution of March 1917 (in my opinion, the October “Revolution” was nothing more than a coup d’état; more on that below).
To understand why 1917 was so revolutionary, pardon the pun, we need to understand what WWI was until 1917. Whatever the debates about the origins of the war, I think few can dispute that until 1917, WWI was a war over the balance of power and the integrity of the state system – whether its preservation (Russia, Britain and France), its changing (Austria Hungary) or its breaking (Germany).
People may have bandied about slogans about freedom, civilization and other big ideas, but at its heart it was all about changes in the old order, not its upending. In 1915 and 1916, both sides cut or prepared the kind of “sphere of influence” deals and horse trading that would later make them blush – things like the September Program, the Sykes-Picot Deal and the 1915 London Agreement.
The March 1917 Russian Revolution changed all that. Here was a genuinely popular uprising promising full representation and civil rights. Better yet, it happened in Czarist Russia, the most repressive state in Europe at the time. Jews the world over, later associated indelibly with the Bolshevik takeover even though most of them treated that event with ambivalence or outright hostility, gave full-throated cheers for this new ray of hope. Minorities and nationalities throughout the empire now hoped either for better treatment, autonomy – maybe even independence.
Nor was this enthusiasm confined to Russia. Even Germany was caught up in the mood. Before they were contemplating the outright annexation of much of the territory they took from Russia. Now Germany spoke the language of self-determination and civil rights in both the Brest-Litovsk and Bucharest treaties. It may have only been lip service, but it is also evidence of just how powerful the mood for freedom now was.
We now scoff at Woodrow Wilson’s slogan of a “war for democracy”, but that would be to betray the genuine feelings of tens of millions around the world who were just as fooled. His Fourteen Points were but one expression of the belief spreading among many that the way out of this mess and to ensure it didn’t happen again was a fundamental change in the world order – not just protection of state sovereignty but also greater freedom and representation.
Indeed, almost all the new countries established during and after the War in Europe were republics of one form or another – presidential, parliamentary or monarchical. Tens of millions – men and women – now had the right to vote and help shape their country’s destiny. Many remember the communists and nationalists who tried to take over Germany after the Armistice; they forget the much larger – and at the time stronger – elements who genuinely believed in a fresh start under a democratic or at least socialist-democratic republic.
The End of Democracy?
Sadly it was not to last. Indeed, the country that started it all was first to fall – in the very same year in fact. Political stupidity, social crises and above all the ravages of war weakened the Russian Provisional Government to the point of impotence. The final push came in November 1917 from the Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin, backed in turn by a short-sighted Germany desperate to win the war on its terms but either unaware or uncaring of just what they had unleashed.
The Bolsheviks wasted no time and spared no effort to crush all freedom and civil rights. They ended freedom of the press and many, many other rights; they also established what would become one of the most feared and ruthless secret police forces ever created. They dispersed the first genuinely representative Constituent Assembly in Russia’s history because they didn’t come close to winning. Their violent, minority takeover unleashed a civil war almost as brutal and bloody as the World War which sparked it. 1917, the year that had started with the light of hope was now enveloped in a totalitarian darkness which would make Czardom seem a benign memory.
As Russia went, so too much of the rest of Europe. One by one, whether due to fear of Bolshevism, economic distress, political immaturity or otherwise, by 1938 the democratic dream was dead. It was a horrific irony that at Munich, the Western Powers betrayed the only country left in Southern, Eastern or Central Europe which could seriously be considered a democracy. Surely, this was the ultimate vindication of all those cynics who think that WWI was a war fought for nothing.
I think they’re wrong, perhaps dangerously so.
The facts themselves cannot be gainsaid – freedom did indeed lose out in the 1930s. But I submit that to write the entire experiment off as doomed from the start would be to betray history and the ideal of democracy itself, to say nothing of the millions who supported that ideal – even if warily – in the wake of the Great War.
It betrays history, because it “reads history backwards” by ignoring all the contingent steps which led the initially democratic countries to abandon freedom, steps which could have gone the other way. It’s like a history of Weimar Germany that pays exclusive attention to Hitler and the Nazis and ignores the democratic parties which held on until at least 1930. It also forgets that the same countries emerged in the wake of the Cold War as fully functioning democracies. The Spain that fell to fascism in 1939, for instance, peacefully turned democratic. The same is true of most of the post-Cold War countries.
OK, so it isn’t so simple historically. But how does it betray democracy, you ask?
That’s easy: If we argue that democracy and freedom are great but that only the US and Northern and Western Europe were or are truly inherently capable of it, we betray the same kind of paternalism and contempt which we so rightly condemn in the great period of colonialism. By seeing the entire 1920s democratic project as doomed to failure rather than a product of contingent historical mistakes and human error, we betray our lack of faith in democracy itself. Ultimately, it was this loss of faith, more than any war or balance of power which destroyed the hope – yes, hope – of the war to end all wars.
The order that sparked the First World War is gone, and it is folly to expect this generation to fully understand it. But the hopes of hundreds of millions for freedom and prosperity in that period still hold strong, fighting mightily against many other competing ideologies – just as they did during and after the Great War. We owe it to them to treat these desires as genuine and sympathize, rather than sink into the easy and immoral cynicism which swept the world when utopia was not realized.
Perhaps then, we will one day see the fulfillment of the dream that started in March 1917 – yes, even in Russia.