The Enemy of My Enemy


This mistake is one of a lack of foresight. In April 1917 a truck, sealed almost airtight, entered Germany from Bern, Switzerland. In that truck were nineteen Russians. All nineteen had been considered too dangerous to allow to travel through, or even enter, virtually any nation in Europe. Only adamantly neutral Switzerland would tolerate them. Now they were going home. One of the nineteen men in that truck was Vladimir Lenin. The Russian revolutionary had fled the czar’s secret police and eventually ended up in Switzerland. From there he coordinated the actions of his outlawed and small, but fanatical, Bolshevik Party.

The start of World War I had made any communications with Russia difficult. It was a most frustrating time for a revolutionary being cut off and far from the action. Finally, Lenin approached the ambassador to Switzerland from one of the nations where he had been one of the most wanted enemies of the state, Germany. The kaiser’s government did not like revolutionaries. But Germany was three years at war, and losing. One of the nations allied against Germany was controlled by the same Russian government Lenin wished to overthrow. His promise of leading a revolution and then taking Russia out of the war was enough to interest the hard-pressed Germans. They agreed to return him to his native country. It is unlikely that anyone in the German army actually expected Lenin and the Bolsheviks to really seize power. There were barely 50,000 Bolsheviks spread across dozens of cities among the tens of millions of people living in Russia. But obviously anything that distracted the new Menshevik or Kerensky government, who had kept Russia in the war after the czar abdicated, would benefit Germany.

So Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was sneaked into Russia by the German army. He was even given some operating money. To the surprise and dismay of Germany, by November Lenin had succeeded. Alexander Kerensky, a middle-class moderate, had made a number of poor decisions, including keeping Russia in the unpopular war, allowing food costs to remain so high few soldiers or workers could afford to eat, and not redistributing land to the desperate peasants who had reluctantly supported him. When the Bolsheviks finally acted, only one small military unit, the Petrograd Women’s Battalion, actually fought to defend the unpopular Menshevik government.

In the short term, the German army got what it wanted. Lenin kept his word and withdrew Russia from the alliance fighting Germany. The German government then demanded a high price for what they had already done. They wanted to be given Poland, the Baltic nations, and Ukraine. Lenin and Russia refused, and with those demands and refusal, any slight goodwill between the two nations was lost. Germany assisted Poland and the White armies to battle the Red Army for almost another decade.

But by the time Russia had withdrawn from the war, it was too late to save the kaiser’s war effort. The German troops who hurried west arrived in time to die in the Verdun offensive. That offensive had been the last hope for Germany to defeat the Allies before the power of the United States could affect the war. The Germans were stopped at Verdun, and soon fresh and enthusiastic American soldiers had more than balanced out any German reinforcements from the Eastern Front.

It was years until the Red Army actually controlled all of Russia. By the time it did, the enmity with Germany was mutual and intense. Stalin now led Russia, and communists were aggressively pursuing world domination. It is surprising that Russia was almost as self-defeating when it assisted in the secret training of the German army. But that is a mistake of its own.

So while in the short term the German army got what they wanted by smuggling Lenin back into Russia, doing so may have been one of the worst judgment calls ever made in the twentieth century. The Bolsheviks were one of the smallest and most radical of all the many revolutionary movements in Russia. Without Lenin’s genius, the Bolsheviks would likely have remained a minor, extremist group of no importance. The much more moderate Mensheviks, or at least a less reasonable populist government, would instead have emerged.

No Lenin, then no Stalin. The millions of Ukrainians and Kulaks Stalin killed to allow the collectivization of the farms and factories would have lived. In Germany, the strong Communist Party led to a political reaction that in 1933 put the Nazi Party in power. So if those German intelligence officials had not decided to send Lenin back to Russia, there might not have been the mass programs and starvation in Russia in the 1930s: no Nazis, no Holocaust, no World War II, no Cold War, no Mao Zedong, no Castro. Assisting Lenin and enabling the Bolshevik revolution that gave rise to communism just may be one of the worst, world-changing mistakes in this book.

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