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Germany’s Involvement in Russia’s Communist Revolution

In 1917, Lenin was in exile in Switzerland when the Russian Revolution began. To get back to Russia, he had to travel through Germany…

By 1906, Vladimir Lenin realized that he had become such an outspoken critic of the tsarist government that his life was in danger. Therefore, he spent the next eleven years in self-impossed exile in Europe writing books and pamphlets. In 1917, however, things changed. After the February Revolution (actually in March according to our contemporary calendar) and the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II on March 15, 1917, Lenin realized that these were the circumstances he had waited for and that now was the time to return to Russia.

Unfortunately, Lenin happened to be in neutral Switzerland during World War I when he needed to return to Russia. To get to Russia, he had to pass through one of the fighting countries. Furthermore, he had to travel through Germany unless he wanted to waste valuable time going several hundred miles out of the way. Given that the Germans at that time were hostile to communism, Lenin had little reason to expect Germany’s permission to pass through its territory.

Actually, Germany had a very good reason for allowing Lenin to return to Russia and, after negotiating with the Swiss communist, they did just that. The German government allowed Lenin to pass incognito through Germany because Germany was currently fighting a war with Russia at that time. The German government even gave Lenin 40 million gold marks. Despite that a revolution had, essentially, removed the tsar from power, Russia remained in a war with Germany. The German government hoped that sending Lenin to Russia would destabilize Russia further and force it to cease hostilities with Germany.

The gamble paid off. Germany allowed Lenin to travel through Germany on railroad. From there, he took a ferry to Sweden and arrived in Russia by way of Scandinavia. As soon as he arrived on April 16, 1917, he was greeted by a cheering crowd of followers. Soon, he became the leader of the Bolshevik movement. Although he soon left Russia for Finland for a brief time, within six months, Lenin and his followers had launched a second revolution, the so-called “October Revolution.” In this revolution, Lenin and his followers seized power and set up a new government. One of his first acts, once in power, was to end Russia’s involvement in the war.

This was a somewhat controversial move because Germany had refused to give up the territory it had gained along the Eastern Front during the war. This left Russia with no choice but to continue fighting or give up much of its territory in Eastern Europe. On March 3, 1918, Russia gave up its claims to its lost territory in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. This left Germany able to concentrate more on its Western Front. Unfortunately, it was too late for the Germans. Perhaps the October Revolution would have helped the Germans more if it had come sooner. By 1918, however, Germany’s ability to make war had been greatly reduced and it was only a matter of time before it would have to surrender.

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