On 10th March, 1917, Tsar Nicholas II had decreed the dissolution of the Duma. The High Command of the Russian Army now feared a violent revolution and on 12th March suggested that the Tsar should abdicate in favour of a more popular member of the royal family. Attempts were now made to persuade Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich to accept the throne. He refused and the Tsar recorded in his diary that the situation in "Petrograd is such that now the Ministers of the Duma would be helpless to do anything against the struggles the Social Democratic Party and members of the Workers Committee. My abdication is necessary... The judgement is that in the name of saving Russia and supporting the Army at the front in calmness it is necessary to decide on this step. I agreed." (1)
Prince George Lvov, was appointed the new head of the Provisional Government. One of his first decisions was to allow all political prisoners to return to their homes. Lenin was living in Zurich and he did not hear this news until the 15th March. A group of about twenty Russian exiles arrived at Lenin's home to discuss this important event. Lenin's wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, explained: "From the moment the news of the February revolution came, Ilyich burned with eagerness to go to Russia. England and France would not for the world have allowed the Bolsheviks to pass through to Russia... As there was no legal way it was necessary to travel illegally. But how?" (2)
Aware that the British and French would never allow him a transit visa to Russia through Allied territory in Europe. It was suggested that he should try to return via England under a false passport, but it was decided that this was far too risky and if he was arrested he would be probably interned for the duration of the war. On 19th March 1917 a meeting of socialists was held to discuss the issue. The German socialist Willi Münzenberg was there and later reported that Lenin paced up and down the room declaring, "we must go at all costs". Julius Martov suggested that the best chance would be to send word to the Petrograd Soviet, asking them to offer the Germans repatriation of German prisoners in exchange for the group's safe conduct home via Germany. (3)
The Swiss socialist, Robert Grimm, who Lenin had described as a "detestable centrist", offered to negotiate with the German government in order to obtain a safe passage to Russia. He pointed out that Germany had been spending a great deal of money in producing revolutionary anti-war propaganda in Russia since 1915, in the hope of engineering a withdrawal from the war. This would enable German troops on the Eastern Front to be diverted to the western campaign against Britain and France. Grimm began talks with Count Gisbert von Romberg, the German ambassador in Berne. (4)
Alexander Parvus also arrived in Switzerland. The former German Social Democrat who had originally helped to fund Iskra, the Russian revolutionary newspaper, had now gone over to the German government, operating as an arms contractor and recruiter for the war effort. he had been heavily involved in the German propaganda drive among tsarist troops to destabilize Nicholas II. Parvus made contact with Richard von Kühlmann, a minister at the German Foreign Office. (5)
Von Kühlmann sent a message to Army Headquarters explaining the strategy of the German Foreign Office: "The disruption of the Entente and the subsequent creation of political combinations agreeable to us constitute the most important war aim of our diplomacy. Russia appeared to be the weakest link in the enemy chain, the task therefore was gradually to loosen it, and, when possible, to remove it. This was the purpose of the subversive activity we caused to be carried out in Russia behind the front - in the first place promotion of separatist tendencies and support of the Bolsheviks had received a steady flow of funds through various channels and under different labels that they were in a position to be able to build up their main organ, Pravda, to conduct energetic propaganda and appreciably to extend the originally narrow basis of their party." (6)
Parvus made contact with General Erich Ludendorff who later admitted his involvement in his autobiography, My War Memories, 1914-1918 (1920) that he told senior officials: "Our government, in sending Lenin to Russia, took upon itself a tremendous responsibility. From a military point of view his journey was justified, for it was imperative that Russia should fall." (7)
General Max Hoffmann, chief of the German General Staff on the Eastern Front commented: "We naturally tried, by means of propaganda, to increase the disintegration that the Russian Revolution had introduced into the Army. Some man at home who had connections with the Russian revolutionaries exiled in Switzerland came upon the idea of employing some of them in order to hasten the undermining and poisoning of the morale of the Russian Army."
Hoffmann claims that Reichstag deputy Mathias Erzberger became involved in the negotiations. "And thus it came about that Lenin was conveyed through Germany to Petrograd in the manner that afterwards transpired. In the same way as I send shells into the enemy trenches, as I discharge poison gas at him, I, as an enemy, have the right to employ the expedient of propaganda against his garrisons." (8)
Paul Levi, a close associate of Rosa Luxemburg, and a member of the German anti-war Spartacus League, handled the Berne-Zurich end of negotiations, with Karl Radek. Levi was contacted by the German Ambassador in Switzerland and asked: "How can I get in touch with Lenin? I expect final instructions any moment regarding his transportation". Lenin now negotiated the deal with the ambassador that would allow him to travel through Germany. (9)
In his farewell message to the Swiss workers Lenin explained his analysis of the situation in Russia. "It has fallen to the lot of the Russian proletariat to begin the series of revolutions whose objective necessity was created by the imperialist world war. We know well that the Russian proletariat is less organized and intellectually less prepared for the task than the working class of other countries... Russia is an agricultural country, one of the most backward of Europe. Socialism cannot be established in Russia immediately. But the peasant character of the development of a democratic-capitalist revolution in Russia and make that a prologue to the world-wide Socialist revolution." (10)
Lenin felt he needed the support of other socialists living in Switzerland for his journey through Germany. He sent a telegram to two French anti-war figures living in Switzerland, Romain Rolland and Henri Guilbeaux, asking them to appear in the railroad station on the day of his departure. Rolland refused and sent a message to Guilbeaux: "If you have any influence on Lenin and his friends, dissuade them from going through Germany. They will cause great damage to the pacifist movement and to themselves, for it will then be said that Zimmerwald is a German child." He then went on to quote Anatoli Lunacharsky who had described Lenin as "a dangerous and cynical adventurer". (11)
Lenin insisted that his party of thirty-two should include some twenty non-Bolsheviks, in order to offset the unfavourable impression produced by his trip under German auspices. The people who travelled with him included Gregory Zinoviev, Karl Radek, Inessa Armand, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Georgi Safarov, Zinaida Lilina and Moisey Kharitonov. Lenin's supporters milled around the waiting train carrying revolutionary banners and singing the "Internationale". There was a group of anti-German socialists, shouted, "Spies! German spies! Look how happy they are - going home at the Kaiser's expense!" Anatoli Lunacharsky said that Lenin looked "composed and happy". (12)
Willi Münzenberg was there to see Lenin off. He later recalled that as the doors closed Lenin leaned from the carriage window, shook his hand and said, "Either we'll be swinging from the gallows in three months or we shall be in power." (13) At the German frontier at Gottmadingen station, they were escorted by German soldiers to their own specially commandeered military "sealed train". A locomotive pulled "a green-painted coach comprised of three second-class compartments (mainly for the couples and children) and five third-class compartments, where the single men and women would have to endure the hard wooden seats. The two German officers escorting them took a compartment at the rear." (14)
Once the three of the carriage's four doors at the Russian end were closed shut, Fritz Platten, a Swiss socialist marked them with chalk in German as "sealed". The train was given a high traffic priority by the Germans. Crown Prince Wilhelm, the eldest son of Kaiser Wilhelm II, was delayed for two hours to let Lenin's train to pass. There was a several hours' layover in Berlin during which some members of the German Social Democratic Party boarded the train but were not allowed to communicate with Lenin. (15)
After Germany they travelled through Sweden and Finland. On 2nd April Lenin's family received a telegram: "We arrive Monday at eleven at night. Tell Pravda." Lenin feared being arrested at the Russian border. However, Prince George Lvov, pledge to allow all political prisoners the freedom to return to their homes was kept. At 11.10 at night on 3rd April the train arrived at Finland Station. He was greeted by sailors from the Kronstadt naval base, the Petrograd workers' militia and the Red Guards. (16)
As he left the railway station Lenin was lifted on to one of the armoured cars specially provided for the occasions. The atmosphere was electric and enthusiastic. Feodosiya Drabkina, who had been an active revolutionary for many years, was in the crowd and later remarked: "Just think, in the course of only a few days Russia had made the transition from the most brutal and cruel arbitrary rule to the freest country in the world." (17)
In his speech he announced what became known as the April Theses. Lenin attacked Bolsheviks for supporting the Provisional Government. Instead, he argued, revolutionaries should be telling the people of Russia that they should take over the control of the country. In his speech, Lenin urged the peasants to take the land from the rich landlords and the industrial workers to seize the factories. Lenin accused those Bolsheviks who were still supporting the government of Prince Lvov of betraying socialism and suggested that they should leave the party. Lenin ended his speech by telling the assembled crowd that they must "fight for the social revolution, fight to the end, till the complete victory of the proletariat". (18)
Some of the revolutionaries in the crowd rejected Lenin's ideas. Alexander Bogdanov called out that his speech was the "delusion of a lunatic." Joseph Goldenberg, a former of the Bolshevik Central Committee, denounced the views expressed by Lenin: "Everything we have just heard is a complete repudiation of the entire Social Democratic doctrine, of the whole theory of scientific Marxism. We have just heard a clear and unequivocal declaration for anarchism. Its herald, the heir of Bakunin, is Lenin. Lenin the Marxist, Lenin the leader of our fighting Social Democratic Party, is no more. A new Lenin is born, Lenin the anarchist." (19)
The journalist, Harold Williams rejected the idea that Lenin could play an important role in affairs: "Lenin, leader of the extreme faction of the Social Democrats, arrived here on Monday night by way of Germany. His action in accepting from the German government a passage from Switzerland through Germany arouses intense indignation here. He has come back breathing fire, and demanding the immediate and unconditional conclusions of peace, civil war against the army and government, and vengeance on Kerensky and Chkheidze, whom he describes as traitors to the cause of International Socialism. At the meeting of Social Democrats yesterday his wild rant was received in dead silence, and he was vigorously attacked, not only by the more moderate Social Democrats, but by members of his own faction. Lenin was left absolutely without supporters. The sharp repulse given to this firebrand was a healthy sign of the growth of practical sense of the Socialist wing, and the generally moderate and sensible tone of the conference of provincial workers' and soldiers' deputies was another hopeful indication of the passing of the revolutionary fever." (20)
Albert Rhys Williams, an American visitor to Russia, disagreed with this viewpoint. Williams was convinced that the Bolsheviks would become the new rulers: "The Bolsheviks understood the people. They were strong among the more literate strata, like the sailors, and comprised largely the artisans and labourers of the cities. Sprung directly from the people's lions they spoke the people's language, shared their sorrows and thought their thoughts. They were the people. So they were trusted." (21)
From the moment the news of the February revolution came, Ilyich burned with eagerness to go to Russia. England and France would not for the world have allowed the Bolsheviks to pass through to Russia... As there was no legal way it was necessary to travel illegally. But how? On March 19th there was a meeting of the Russian political emigre groups in Switzerland ... to discuss ways and means of getting back to Russia. Martov presented a plan to obtain permits for emigrants to pass through Germany in exchange for German and Austrian prisoners of war interned in Russia. But no one wanted to go that way, except Lenin, who snatched at this plan. When news came that the German Government would give Lenin and his friends safe passage through Germany in a "sealed train" Lenin wanted to leave at once.
The disruption of the Entente and the subsequent creation of political combinations agreeable to us constitute the most important war aim of our diplomacy. Russia appeared to be the weakest link in the enemy chain, the task therefore was gradually to loosen it, and, when possible, to remove it. This was the purpose of the subversive activity we caused to be carried out in Russia behind the front - in the first place promotion of separatist tendencies and support of the Bolsheviks had received a steady flow of funds through various channels and under different labels that they were in a position to be able to build up their main organ, Pravda, to conduct energetic propaganda and appreciably to extend the originally narrow basis of their party.
We naturally tried, by means of propaganda, to increase the disintegration that the Russian Revolution had introduced into the Army. Some man at home who had connections with the Russian revolutionaries exiled in Switzerland came upon the idea of employing some of them in order to hasten the undermining and poisoning of the morale of the Russian Army.
He applied to Reichstag deputy Mathias Erzberger and the deputy of the German Foreign Office. And thus it came about that Lenin was conveyed through Germany to Petrograd in the manner that afterwards transpired.
In the same way as I send shells into the enemy trenches, as I discharge poison gas at him, I, as an enemy, have the right to employ the expedient of propaganda against his garrisons.
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