Troops of the 1st Australian Division advance towards the Ypres front line, October 1917. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
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Before the First World War: what can 1914 tell us about 2014?

Old world decline, rogue empires, killing for God – looking at 1914, we can discover that there are many uncomfortable parallels with our own time.

As we enter the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War, many uncomfortable parallels with our own time spring to mind. In 1914 the superpower that dominated the world, controlling the seas and ruling over a global empire of colonies, dominions and dependencies – Britain – was being challenged by a rival that was overtaking it economically and building up armaments on land and sea to assert its claim for a “place in the sun” – Germany. All of this is alarmingly close to the situation today, when America’s global supremacy is increasingly being challenged by the rise of China.

The ideological rivalries between the superpowers now and then look strikingly similar, too, at first glance: on the one hand, Britain then and America now, with their democratic political systems that make governments responsible to legislatures and removable by popular elections; on the other, Germany then and China now, with appointed and irremovable governments responsible only to themselves. A free press and open public on the one hand contrast with a controlled public sphere on the other, in which censorship and the trappings of a police state in effect muzzle the government’s most trenchant critics.

And of course there was, and is, the baleful influence of nationalism, with China’s sabre-rattling over disputed islands today yielding little in rhetorical vehemence to the kaiser’s bombastic speeches asserting German claims in Africa and the Middle East before 1914. The clash of ideologies and religions was evident before 1914, just as it is today, and in both cases concentrated on trouble spots in specific parts of the world.

Currently it is the conflicts in the Middle East we have to worry about, with a vicious civil war in Syria between rival Islamic factions standing proxy for the rivalry between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, while an additional element of danger is provided by Israel, with its nuclear arsenal, and again Iran, with its persistent attempts to build one. China and Russia are lining up behind one side while Nato and the US line up behind the other.

Before 1914 the critical trouble spot was the Balkans, where nationalist passions were overlaid with religious conflicts between Christian states, such as Greece and Bul­garia, and the Islamic Ottoman empire. The Habsburg monarchy, run by a Roman Cath­olic elite, was being challenged by Orthodox Serbia. Just as there have been wars pre­viously in the Middle East (in 1948, 1967 and most recently in 1973), so too there had been wars in the Balkans, between Russia and Turkey in 1877-78 and between Serbia and Bulgaria in 1885. So 1914, sometimes known in the region as the third Balkan war, was nothing new for these countries.

All the Balkan powers were heavily armed, buying up the latest weaponry from Europe’s leading manufacturers with loans supplied by the British, French and German governments. All of these countries were politically unstable, with governments being violently overthrown and terrorist organisations such as the Serbian “Black Hand” and the Internal Macedonian Revo­lutionary Organisation flourishing.

The Balkan states, much like nations of the Middle East today, to a degree stood proxy for larger powers, notably tsarist Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary. They had come close to the brink during the first Balkan war in 1912-13, when Montenegro in alliance with Serbia attacked northern Albania, where there were virtually no Serbs or Montenegrins among the inhabitants. Austria-Hungary demanded Serbia’s with­drawal, Russia began to mobilise in support of the Serbs, and France declared its support for the Russians. The situation was defused only by a British intervention, resulting in an international conference that guaranteed independence for Albania.

The whole episode was an ominous foretaste of what happened in August 1914. With the break-up of the alliance of the Balkan states in 1913, Bulgaria went over to the patronage of the Germans, while Russia’s only client left in the region was Serbia. Serbian ambitions had already prompted Austria-Hungary to annex Bosnia and Herzegovina, with their substantial population of Serbs, in 1908. It would be just as wrong to dismiss all of this as irrelevant to the ambitions and rivalries of the Great Powers, as Boris Johnson has done recently, as it would be to dismiss the violent antagonisms in today’s Middle East as unimportant to international relations on a wider scale.

And yet the Balkan nations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were no more mere puppets of Germany or Russia than the Middle Eastern states of today are puppets of America, Russia or China. As President Obama has discovered, trying to control Israeli governments is no easy task; he might tell the Israelis not to build any new Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank but they carry on regardless. China and Russia might block western attempts to impose sanctions on the Assad regime in Syria and may continue supplying it with arms, but they have not been able to control it or stop its opponents, so they have become willing to explore ways of ending the conflict peaceably; their co-operation in the removal of chemical weapons signals their refusal to back the regime all the way.

China supplies Iran with weapons and with nuclear technology but can do little to mediate its policy in the Middle East, and its approach is tempered by the need to keep up good relations with the United States. Not least because of the growing importance of economic ties with the west, Russia has bowed to international pressure for sanctions on Iran and has curbed its arms supplies to the country. In all of this, there are few indications that the world’s great powers today are being drawn into regional conflicts as closely as they were in 1914.

One important reason for this lies in our changed attitudes to war. In Europe, the wars of the 19th century were limited in duration and scope, and seldom involved more than a handful of combatant nations. All told, deaths in battle between 1815 and 1914 were seven times fewer than combat deaths in the previous century. The wars of German unification in the 1860s, the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78 and similar conflicts were swiftly resolved by decisive victories for one side or the other. Even the Crimean war of 1854-56 did not move much beyond the hinterland of the Black Sea.

In the 19th century fear of the upheaval and destruction caused by the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars brought the leading European states together time and again in what was known as the Concert of Europe to resolve potential conflicts through international conferences. Though it was severely damaged in the 1850s and 1860s, the Concert was patched together again in the 1870s, when the Congress of Berlin redrew the map of the Balkans, while another Berlin conference sorted out colonial rivalries (without, needless to say, consulting any of the millions of people about to be colonised) in 1884. These institutions, like the United Nations of today, provided a forum in which diplomats and statesmen could work together to avoid war, and they largely succeeded.

If there is no sign that the UN, for all its inadequacies, is about to collapse, it is not least because the postwar settlement of 1945 rested on a general recognition that international co-operation in all fields had to be stronger than it was under the League of Nations, the UN’s ill-fated predecessor. The destruction caused by the Second World War, with its 50 million or more dead, its ruined cities, its genocides, its widespread negation of civilised values, had a far more powerful effect than the deaths caused by the First World War, which were (with exceptions, notably the genocide of a million or more Armenian civilians, killed by the Turks in 1915) largely confined to troops on active service. In 1945, Hiroshima and Nagasaki provided an additional, ter­rible warning of what would happen if the world went to war again.

In 1914, by contrast, very few people had any idea of the cataclysm that was about to descend on them. Just as admirals thought that the war at sea would be a rerun of the great naval engagements of the past, so the generals thought the war on land would be something like the conflicts of the 1860s, opening with rapid, railway-borne advances to the front, followed by a decisive encounter in which the other side would meet with a shattering defeat; peace would then be concluded after a few weeks or at most a couple of months. Since those days, however, barbed wire, patented in 1874, and the machine-gun, perfected in portable form a decade later, had become standard defensive equipment; at the same time, the internal combustion engine and armour plating were not yet advanced enough to produce tanks that could overcome these obstacles effectively and restore movement to warfare. A few recognised these inconvenient facts, notably the Polish banker Jan Bloch, whose Modern Weapons and Modern War, published at the turn of the century, argued that in the next major war, “the spade will be as important as the rifle” and forecast that the war of the future would be a gridlock in which quick victory would be impossible.

But nobody heeded this prediction, because generals, politicians and civil servants were unable to accept its denial of easy victory. By 1910 at the latest, the idea that a war was coming was shared by many – indeed, generated a momentum towards it. Admiral Jackie Fisher wrote of the atmosphere he created in the Royal Navy after 1902: “We prepared for war in professional hours, talked war, thought war, and hoped for war.” The chief of the German general staff declared in 1912 that war must come “and the sooner the better!”. War in this vision appeared as something not only inevitable, but also positive. A German novelist wrote of August 1914: “At last life had regained an ideal significance. The great virtues of humanity . . . fidelity, patriotism, readiness to die for an ideal . . . were triumphing over the trading and shopkeeping spirit . . . The war would cleanse mankind from all its impurities.” The war appeared as a chance to do something glorious in a prosaic age.

In like vein, British writers enthused about the opportunity that war would present:

To die young, clean, ardent; to die swiftly, in perfect health; to die saving others from death, or worse – disgrace . . . to die and carry with you into the fuller, ampler life beyond, untainted hopes and aspirations, unembittered memories, all the freshness and gladness of May – is that not a cause for joy rather than sorrow?

as Horace Annesley Vachell wrote in The Hill (1905). The war appeared as a release, a liberation of manly energies long pent up, a resolution to all the insoluble problems that had plagued European politics and society in increasing measure since the late 19th century: an escape into a simpler, clearer and more glorious reality.

War was also widely seen before 1914 by the upper classes across Europe as an assertion of masculine honour, like a duel, as it were, only on a much bigger scale. Duelling was a common way of avenging real or imagined slights to a man’s honour in virtually every European country at the time. The French politician Georges Clemenceau had fought a duel; so too had the Russian prime minister Pyotr Stolypin. Duelling was a frequent occurrence among the Junker aristocracy in Germany, and politicians in Austria-Hungary regularly engaged in duels. Only in Britain had they died out: the point of a duel was to vindicate one’s manly honour by standing unmoving as your opponent fired a bullet at you at twenty or thirty paces, and the invention of modern cricket, in which a man was required to face down a different kind of round, hard object as it hurtled towards him from the other end of the wicket, was a satisfactory (and comfortingly legal) substitute. Forcefulness, strength of will, self-assertion and standing firm against an enemy were all part of a code of behaviour of the upper-class men whose actions brought Europe and the world to war in 1914, in contrast to the flexibility and subtlety of the greater statesmen of an earlier generation, such as Bismarck, whose awareness of the precariousness of the German empire’s position in the international order was as great as Kaiser Wilhelm II’s disregard for it.

Such codes of male behaviour appear almost incomprehensible a century later. Politicians of the nuclear age are all too aware of the fragility of the world order. Masculine posturing nowadays earns only ridicule. The horrors of Nazi racism and genocide also put paid to the doctrine of social Darwinism, which had become widely accepted among European elites by the beginning of the 20th century but did not survive the war of 1939-45.


Remember them: wooden crosses recall victims of the 21st-century war in Iraq near Westminster Abbey, London, 2006. Image: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty.

Yet at the same time, the leaders of almost every European nation in 1914 were racked by anxiety about the future. Germany feared the growing might of Russia; Austria-Hungary was made nervous by the rise of Slav nationalism within its borders; Russia was afraid of further humiliation of the kind it had been forced to endure with its defeat in the war against Japan in 1904-1905. Internally, too, European states were in trouble, with strikes, suffragette campaigns and the threat of civil war in Ireland destabilising Britain; assassinations and labour unrest undermining tsarist autocracy in Russia; and the victory of the Marxist Social Democrats in Germany’s 1912 elections causing a crisis of confidence among the ruling elite.

One might point to the parallel of the present crisis in the eurozone, in which all the participant states hope to avoid a collapse but all are also pursuing their own interests and so differ on how it is to be averted; but the social unrest it has sparked has been confined largely to Greece, and the main states have been able to work together to limit the damage, with the result that collapse, so far, has been avoided.

Still, economic factors played a role in 1914 just as they do today. In France and especially in Britain, national debates opened up about the seemingly unstoppable success of the German economy. And indeed, German industry had already overtaken that of Britain by the eve of the war. It had increased Germany’s share of world industrial production fourfold since 1860, while Britain’s share had sunk by a third. Germany was producing twice as much steel as Britain, and dominated the chemical and electrical industries worldwide through firms such as Siemens, BASF, AEG and many others. In science the theories of Max Planck and Albert Einstein were revolutionising physics, while Robert Koch and his pupils were taking the lead in discovering the causes of one disease after another through their pioneering work in bacteriology. The motor car was a German invention, as was the diesel engine. There are parallels between such anxieties and the worry, sometimes extending to paranoia, in the US today about the rise of China. Yet so far American concerns have not translated into political action. The interventions of the US have been directed not against China’s role in other parts of the world but against medium or small regional powers such as Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Before 1914, however, there were many in Germany at least who thought that Ger­man economic and technological growth should, or would, translate into political power on the world scene. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the dominant notion of global power in Europe rested on the possession of overseas colonies. A newly united Germany had largely missed out on the spoils of empire in the “Scramble for Africa” in the 1880s. The British government was not opposed to recognising Germany’s claim to colonies; in fact, at one point there was a deal in the offing whereby London agreed to the Germans’ acquisition of the ramshackle and poorly defended overseas empire held by the Portuguese.

All this points to a huge difference between the world of 1914 and the one of today. A century ago, Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Russia possessed vast colonies with millions of subjects. With its growing power and influence, the United States was also starting to join the club. The First World War was a struggle between empires and one of its products was a repartition of the globe, with Germany’s colonies seized and distributed among the victors.

Colonialism lost all legitimacy after 1945. The early 21st century is witnessing the growth of former colonies such as Brazil, or Nigeria, or India, into major players in the global economic game. In contrast to the decades of the cold war, when international relations were a bipolar system that pitted the Soviet Union against the western powers in direct opposition to each other, we now have a multipolar system. The world has become more like that of the late 19th century, although Britain, despite its vast overseas empire, was nowhere near as dominant as the United States has been since the collapse of communism. Then, too, international relations were constituted as a multipolar system; the difference was that almost all the major competitors were from within Europe itself.

The breakdown of this system was one of the main factors leading to the outbreak of war in 1914. Up to 1904-05, Britain had regarded France and Russia as its main rivals for global influence, but as dangerous Anglo-French colonial differences in Africa were settled, and Russia turned away from Asia following its defeat by Japan, the rise of Germany took centre stage and Europe divided itself, along the lines of the later cold war, into two armed and increasingly antagonistic camps. In an atmosphere that fostered largely positive attitudes to war this was an ominous development, and one without parallel in the early 21st century, for all the posturings over Syria or Iran of Russia and China on the one hand and the Nato powers, on the other.

There is another parallel between the two ages. Just as we are in the midst of an era of rapid globalisation today, so in 1914 processes of globalisation were well under way, thanks to the telephone, the steamship, and potentially the aeroplane. Mutual investment by French and German companies created new economic entities that crossed the Rhine. Cultural exchange, tourism, economic interpenetration, all were reaching global dimensions by 1914.

For all the Marxists’ convoluted attempts to prove that the driving forces behind the First World War were economic, the logic of capitalism told against war rather than for it. Yet neither economic rationality nor cultural familiarity proved an obstacle to conflict. The reason for this is not, however, ideological. Nothing could be less plausible than the current attempts of Conservative politicians and writers such as Michael Gove and Boris Johnson to portray the outbreak of the First World War as a clash between Britain’s liberal democracy and Germany’s authoritarian militarism.

In 1914 40 per cent of adult males in Britain did not have the right to vote; the troops who signed up were not volunteering to defend rights that nearly half of them lacked. All adult males in Germany could vote. The largest political party in Germany, the Marxist SPD, initially opposed the war, voted for war credits only because the government successfully presented the issue as one of defence against tsarist despotism, and was committed to a peace without annexations. By the second half of the war the kaiser had been forced to con­cede democratic reforms in Prussia. Kaiser Wilhelm – erratic, indecisive, unstable – was not Hitler. Imperial Germany was not a dictatorship.

One thing that those who want us to celebrate the First World War as a fight for British values have in common with the Blackadder television series is that all of them focus exclusively on the Western Front. But we need to raise our heads above the trenches and take in the wider dimensions of the war. That one of Britain’s two main allies was the despotic Russia of Tsar Nicholas II should banish any thoughts of the war having been fought in defence of “western liberalism” until Russia’s exit from the war in 1917-18. British propaganda of course portrayed the conflict in moral and ideological terms, rightly pointing to German atrocities in Belgium in the opening weeks, though it quickly came to exaggerate them in the process. However, there were many atrocities in the Balkans and on the Eastern Front, too, and it would be wrong if the commemorations about to begin neglected the wider European and global dimensions of the conflict in a simplistic parroting of the British propaganda of the time.

Perhaps the most striking difference between the world in 1914 and that of 2014 lies, in a way that would have surprised our ancestors of a century ago, in the greater power of religion today to disrupt the inter­national order. Whatever the First World War was about, it was a determinedly secular conflict. Only in the Ottoman empire, and the Balkans, perhaps, did religion play a role, yet even the Armenian genocide was justified by the Turks mainly in ethnic and security terms. The leading combatants in the First World War were pursuing decidedly secular interests.

Absurdly, Nigel Biggar, a professor of theology in Oxford, has leapt into the fray in Standpoint magazine to claim, with all the self-importance of his tribe, that morality – in other words, God – was on the British side in 1914. The argument is irresistibly reminiscent of J C Squire’s epigram of the day: “God heard the embattled nations sing and shout/‘Gott strafe England’ and ‘God save the King!’/God this, God that, and God the other thing –/‘Good God!’ said God, ‘I’ve got my work cut out!’”

Terrorism today may be fuelled mainly by religion, and religious conflicts certainly underpin political tensions in the Middle East, yet despite the belief of some on the Republican right in the US that a war over Israel will lead to Armageddon and the Second Coming, there is no evidence that religion plays a significant role in international relations between the major world powers today. For all the parallels with the nationalist passions that swept Europe in 1914, there is even less evidence that they drove Britain, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary or France to war. Statesmen later claimed that popular pressure propelled them into the conflict, but this was an ex post facto self-justification that should be treated with the scepticism every such claim of this kind deserves.

Meanwhile, in 1914 and after, nationalist passions in the main combatant powers were overwhelmingly the product of the war’s outbreak, not the cause. The war inaugurated three decades of nationalist hatreds in Europe, driven by the need to justify the conflict. They were made worse by what now appears the calamitous policy of national self-determination propagated by President Woodrow Wilson in his “Fourteen Points”. Economic rivalries broke out between the new states created after the war, making it impossible to clear up the financially ruinous consequences of the conflict, first triggering a disastrous inflation and then contributing to the catastrophe of the Slump. Democracies collapsed under the pressure of nationalist passions all over Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. The idea of an ethnically homogeneous nation state then caused untold suffering and millions of deaths between 1918 and 1948, as minorities were oppressed, expelled and murdered all over central and eastern Europe.

As we commemorate the First World War, we surely need to focus above all on the lessons to be learned from these tragic experiences. During the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, President John F Kennedy showed that he had paid attention: his reading of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August convinced him that muddle, indecisiveness and poor communication between the leaders of the Great Powers in 1914 had caused the slide into war, and that a nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union could be avoided only if he made his position unambiguously clear to Nikita Khrushchev, as indeed he did.

In the early 21st century, however, when the threat of a nuclear conflict between the world’s leading powers has receded, the lesson we need to learn from the catastrophe of 1914 is a different one. Although France, Germany and other participants in the First World War will be telling us to stop a repetition of the disaster by building European unity and understanding, the focus of politicians should really be on the Middle East, the Balkans of the early 21st century, which still threaten to explode into a wider, more dangerous conflagration.

Richard J Evans is Regius Professor of History and President of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge

AKG-Images/Russian State Archive for Film and Photography, Krasnogorsk
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What caused the Russian revolution? Look to the powder keg of Petrograd

How unrest exploded in 1917 – with help from Russia’s Terrible Twins.

Nineteen seventeen is a year that resonated through the 20th century. But place matters here as much as time – “place” meaning not just Russia, but Petrograd, as the imperial capital became known after “St Petersburg” was de-Germanised on the outbreak of war in 1914. Though in due course 1917 was touted as a universal model for revolution, it cannot be detached from the impact of the Great War in a distinctive country and a uniquely combustible city. Nor can it be separated from the intertwined stories of two almost incomprehensible men, a failed autocrat and a ruthless dictator: Tsar Nicholas II and Vladimir Lenin, Russia’s Terrible Twins.

The Great War may as well have been called the Great Killing. In 1916, the London Annual Register offered this elegant summary of the callous calculus that passed for Grand Strategy: “[T]he number of men possessed by the Entente Powers was much greater than the number that the Central Powers could command. The war was therefore to be a crude process of sheer killing. And then, assuming that each side killed equally effectively, the Entente would reach victory in an inevitable manner through the working of a simple mathematical law.”

But each side did not kill “equally effectively”. Not only were the Germans more efficient killers than their opponents, but the homicidal potency of each country on the battle front depended on its industrial efficiency on the home front. Despite frequent strikes, Britain and France “worked” as societies and economies; the main member of the Entente, Russia, did not. Its Achilles heel was the supply of fuel and food by a broken transport system during the coldest winter in years. In early 1917 bread riots broke out in many cities. But only one of those cities was the crucible of revolution.

Petrograd was unusual, by Russian standards and those of the modern world. The fifth-largest metropolis in Europe, it was an industrial sweatshop of 2.4 million people in a predominantly rural country. Seventy per cent of the city’s workers were employed in factories with a staff of over 1,000, a proportion unmatched even in the conurbations of Germany and the US. Sucked in by the war boom, they lived amid squalor: more than three people on average to every cellar or single room, double the figure for Berlin or Paris. About half the homes lacked water supply or a sewage system; a quarter of all babies died in their first year.

Yet wealth and privilege were staring these workers in the face: the main factory district, on the Vyborg Side of the Neva, lay just across the water from the imperial palace and the fashionable Nevsky Prospekt. This cheek-by-jowl polarisation contrasted with more suburbanised industrial centres such as Berlin, London and Paris. Equally important, Petrograd was a large garrison, with over 300,000 soldiers in and around the city. That, an eyewitness said, was like placing “kindling wood near a powder keg”.

Today the barracks and the sweatshops are gone. But even in modern St Petersburg one can see why Petrograd literally walked into revolution in 1917. A 90-minute hike will take you from the Finland Station on the Vyborg Side, across the Liteiny Bridge, west along the embankment to Palace Square and then left down Nevsky Prospekt to the Moscow Station. Maybe an hour, if you cross the Liteiny Bridge and turn east to the Tauride Palace and Smolny Convent. Along these axes, within the space of a few square miles, the drama of 1917 played out.

Thousands of spectators looked on and many recorded what they saw. Some were foreign residents and journalists, whose impressions are the stuff of Helen Rappaport’s lively narrative Caught in the Revolution. Sticking closer to raw sources is John Pinfold’s Petrograd, 1917, which is lavishly illustrated with postcards and prints from the Bodleian Library’s collections. Some of the city’s biggest factories were British-owned and British-managed: the Thornton Woollen Mill, employing 3,000 workers, belonged to three brothers from Yorkshire. Many of the luxury stores along Nevsky Prospekt – tailors, dressmakers, food emporiums, bookshops – were British or French, catering for expatriates and wealthy Russians in the days when French was still the lingua franca of the elite.

For months it had been clear that trouble was brewing. “If salvation does not come from above,” one Russian duchess warned the French ambassador, “there will be revo­lution from below.” Yet few anticipated how Petrograd would stumble into a new era.

Thursday 23 February (tsarist Russia still followed the Julian calendar, 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar used in the West) was International Women’s Day, a red-letter date for socialists. Thousands flocked across the bridges and the frozen river from the Vyborg Side and other industrial areas and marched down Nevsky Prospekt demanding bread. Trams and other obstacles were pushed aside. “I have heard the Marseillaise sung many times,” wrote Florence Harper, an intrepid American journalist, “but that day for the first time I heard it sung as it should be” – with raw class hatred.

Marchons! Marchons! All day the tide surged along and around Nevsky. Across the river, strikes spread violently through the factory districts. More demonstrations followed on Friday, and clashes escalated with the hated mounted police. Yet life still went on: the Alexandrinsky Theatre, one block off Nevsky, was packed that evening for a performance of Nikolai Gogol’s classic comedy The Government Inspector, its tale of official corruption, incompetence and self-delusion from the era of Nicholas I still richly apt in the dog-days of Nicholas II. By the weekend, however, trams had shut down, most shops were closed and looting was rife. Troops and policemen massed around the main squares. But when the police started sabring the crowds, Cossack troops and even crack Guards regiments sided with the protesters.

On Monday 27 February, with temperatures rising literally as well as figuratively, thousands of mutinous soldiers joined the milling crowds, which were now armed with booty looted from military arsenals. Army officers were particular targets. One of them, bemedalled and swaggering, was pursued along Nevsky by a crowd of women who stripped him of his weapons. A grey-haired woman screaming abuse broke the officer’s sword over her knee and tossed the bits into a canal. By nightfall, the tsarist regime had lost control of most of the city, except the Winter Palace and a few government buildings nearby. It was “a revolution carried on by chance”, Bert Hall, an American aviator attached to the Russian Air Service, wrote in his diary – “no organisation, no particular leader, just a city full of hungry people who have stood enough and are ready to die if necessary before they will put up with any more tsarism”.

Although Hall’s account was rather simplistic, this was indeed a revolution in search of a leader. On 2 March the tsar abdicated, but plans for a constitutional monarchy evaporated when his brother Mikhail refused the throne, leaving Russia headless. A rump of the parliament dithered and bickered in one wing of the Tauride Palace, while a heaving jumble of soldiers, workers and activists in the other wing congealed into the “Petrograd Soviet”. Aptly, they were on the left of the palace and the politicians were on the right, with little to connect the two sides. The politicians became the Provisional Government but the soviet had authority over the army. “Dual power” signalled a duel for power.

The duel proved painfully protracted. Four coalitions ensued in less than nine months, not to mention seven major reshuffles. Meanwhile the country slipped towards civil war – a process well documented by Stephen Smith in Russia in Revolution, based on a deft synthesis of recent research. Peasants with guns and pitchforks looted the big houses and seized the estates. Workers’ committees took control of much of the defence industry. In the army, “all discipline has vanished”, the French ambassador told Paris. “Deserters are wandering over Russia.” Smith emphasises that February aroused idealism as well as anarchy: a yearning for political rights, decent living standards and, above all, peace. Yet the leader of the Provisional Government, Alexander Kerensky, decided to mount a summer offensive against the Germans, which quickly became a disaster, with vast losses of troops and territory. The people were turning against the government but the indecisive duel dragged on.

Enter Lenin. Contrary to Soviet mythology, he was not a “man of the people”. His father belonged to the provincial establishment – a reformist inspector of schools in the Simbirsk region, south-east of Moscow. Lenin’s pedigree was also hushed up by the Soviet authorities: his maternal grandfather was Jewish and his paternal grandmother was a Kalmyk from central Asia, hence those “Mongol eyes” and high cheekbones. Most of all, he was a man who had been going nowhere for years, or, rather, had been going round in circles. Yet when finally he went for the jugular it proved decisive for him – and fatal for Russia.

Victor Sebestyen brings the man’s complexities to life in Lenin the Dictator, balancing personality with politics in succinct and readable prose. Like other biographers, Sebestyen roots young Vladimir’s revolutionary turn in the double trauma in 1886-87 of his father’s sudden death and his elder brother’s execution for plotting to kill the tsar. From now on Lenin’s one-track, control-freak mind was fixed on the goal of a Russian revolution, in defiance of Karl Marx’s insistence that this would be impossible until feudal peasant Russia had first become a bourgeois society.

For three decades, however, the would-be revolutionary was a failure, spending much of his time in exile flitting between Munich, London, Paris and various “holes” in Switzerland – Geneva, Bern, Zurich – endlessly plotting revolution, frenziedly writing revolution, but not actually doing revolution. In fact, Lenin seemed to have a knack of being in the wrong place at the right time: outside Russia in the upheavals of 1905, likewise when war broke out in ­August 1914, and again when tsarism was toppled in February 1917. It was almost as if he was so obsessed with revolution that he could never see it coming.

This life of frustrated waiting took an enormous toll on nerves and health. Sebestyen describes particularly keenly how this ruthless, domineering, often vicious man depended on three women to sustain him. There was Maria Ulyanova, his mother, who provided financial and emotional support until her death in 1916. Then his wife, Nadezhda (“Nadya”) Krupskaya – written off in Soviet times as a mere cook and amanuensis, but who Sebestyen and other biographers show to be an intelligent and devoted partner in the revolutionary project and one with whom Lenin talked out his ideas before writing them down. And Inessa Armand, a chic French divorcee for whom Lenin fell, passionately, in the only real “affair” of his life. A superb linguist and accomplished pianist, Inessa was not only his sharpest intellectual critic but also an intrepid party organiser, undertaking dangerous missions in Russia. Nadya accepted the ménage à trois with remarkable equanimity and the two women seem to have become good friends. Nadya, who was childless, was especially fond of Inessa’s two young daughters.

Lenin might have gone to his grave playing out this pointless life of head and heart but for the accident of the February revolution. Now frantic to get back to Petrograd, he could not see how to travel from Zurich across or around war-torn Europe. His plans to do so became increasingly surreal. A wig to conceal his giveaway bald pate? Maybe a Swedish passport? (Forgeries were easily obtained.) “Find a Swede who looks like me,” he instructed a Bolshevik in Stockholm. “But as I know no Swedish, he will have to be a deaf mute.”

In the end, the kaiser’s Germany came to his rescue, eager to undermine Russia’s home front. To quote Winston Churchill’s celebrated one-liner, “They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland into Russia.”

In Lenin on the Train, Catherine Merridale tells the famous story with colour and detail, setting it in the crucible of a Europe at war. Her introduction relates how she faithfully retraced his 2,000-mile journey to Petrograd, even leaving Zurich on the same date as Lenin, though this personal odyssey is not then woven into the body of the book. And because her account does not extend as far as the October revolution, we finish the book on a slight sense of anticlimax. But Merridale offers an engrossing account of the physical train ride – in a single wooden carriage, painted green, consisting of three second-class and five third-class compartments plus a baggage room. German guards sat at the back behind a chalk line on the floor, to preserve the fiction that Lenin had no contact with Russia’s enemy.

A martinet as ever, he imposed specific sleeping hours on his Bolshevik fellow travellers, banned smoking in the compartments and corridor, and instituted a pass system to regulate use of the toilet between smokers and those answering the call of nature. After a tense delay in Berlin, the train chugged on to Germany’s Baltic coast, from where a ferry and then more train journeys through Sweden and Finland brought Lenin to the Finland Station in Petrograd on Easter Monday, 3 April.

That night he delivered a tub-thumping, two-hour speech to his socialist comrades explaining that the first phase of Russia’s revolution was over and the second was beginning. Not for him a coalition of the left, let alone the British/French staging post of liberal democracy: the Russian bourgeoisie was locked in to capitalism and wedded to the war. No, the second stage was quite simply to “place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasantry”. To most of his listeners, Merridale remarks, “this was not just bad Marxist theory; it was an invitation to political suicide”. Even Nadya was overheard telling a friend, “I am afraid it looks as if Lenin has gone crazy.”

Once home again, Lenin seemed to succumb to the Petrograd paralysis. He hectored large crowds and churned out endless articles, insisting, “No great question . . . has yet been resolved in history other than by force.” But in June he warned key aides not to let anti-war demonstrations get out of hand: “Even if we were now able to seize power, we’re in no position to hold it.” When the protests did escalate and the government cracked down, he fled to Finland, provoking bitter accusations of cowardice from many of his jailed supporters.

But finally he went for broke. After three months in exile again, he slipped back into Petrograd on the night of 10 October to browbeat the Bolshevik Central Committee into affirming that the time was “perfectly ripe” for “an armed uprising” against Ker­ensky and the Provisional Government, rejecting arguments that they should work for a peaceful transfer of power at the Second Congress of Soviets 15 days later. As Sebestyen observes, “If anything disproves the Marxist idea that it is not individuals who make history but broad social and economic forces it is Lenin’s revolution.”

On 24 October, Lenin’s comrades tried to keep him tucked away on the Vyborg Side because he was still on the government’s wanted list. But by the evening he could not endure to wait yet again in the wings. Crudely disguised with glasses, a grey wig and a worker’s peaked cap, he took off for the Smolny Institute where the Bolsheviks had their military headquarters. Without a car or tank for transport, he and one bodyguard got on a tram to the Liteiny Bridge and then tramped the rest of the way along the embankment, narrowly avoiding arrest. Like the protesters in their February revolution, Lenin walked into Red October – and finally into history.

Today Lenin’s mummified body still resides in its shrine in Red Square, in the heart of Moscow. But in fact, as Sebestyen writes, Tsar Nicholas “did as much as anyone, including Lenin, to bring about the destruction of the Romanov dynasty and to ensure the Communist takeover in Russia” – not just by setting his face against reforms that might have averted revolution, but also because he had “no understanding of the nature of power”. Russia in 1917 was “an ­autocracy without an autocrat”.

In The Last of the Tsars, Robert Service ­examines the mentality of this lost leader. He does so through the lens of Nicholas’s experiences and reflections during the 16 months between his abdication in March 1917 and his family’s grisly end in July 1918. The tsar’s limp surrender of the throne ­continues to amaze. Emotional exhaustion; pressure from the army command; concern for his haemophiliac son; the impossibility of squaring a constitutional monarchy with his coronation oath: one can intuit possible explanations. But it still seems astonishing that this proud scion of the Romanov dynasty, rulers of Russia for three centuries, signed away his throne on a provincial railway station with blank calm – as if, to quote one aide, “he were turning over command of a cavalry squadron”.

The abdication wasn’t something Nicholas discussed during his peripatetic house arrest in 1917-18 around western Siberia and the Urals. Nor did the eks-Imperator (as he was described on his ration card) express any regret about his record as a ruler: he blamed Russia’s woes on alien forces instead. Top of the list were the German invaders and the Bolshevik revolutionaries: he described the peace treaty that Lenin signed with the Kaiserreich, surrendering the Baltic states and the Ukraine, as a “nightmare”. The tsar may have been a devoted husband and father – romanticised in the movie based on Robert Massie’s 50th-anniversary encomium Nicholas and Alexandra – but, as Service writes: “In power and out of it, he was a nationalist extremist, a deluded nostalgist and a virulent anti-Semite.”

Originally the Bolsheviks had envisaged a show trial, like those of Charles I in England and Louis XVI in France. But by July 1918 the time had passed for political theatre: Russia was engulfed in civil war and hostile Czech troops were closing in on Ekaterinburg, where the Romanovs were now being held. Service has no doubt that Lenin authorised the killing but – as in 1917 when he was trying to cover up German help and money – any documentation was destroyed. Instead, conveniently in keeping with the Bolshevik slogan “All power to the soviets”, responsibility for the deed was ascribed to party leaders in Ekaterinburg.

Yet even after Nicholas’s death his regime lived on. “As a form of absolutist rule the Bolshevik regime was distinctly Russian,” Orlando Figes remarked in his 1996 classic, A People’s Tragedy. “It was a mirror-image of the tsarist state.” Lenin and Stalin replaced the Tsar-God, and the Cheka/NKVD/KGB continued (even more systematically) the brutal work of the tsarist police state. In a new introduction to a reprint of his book, Figes emphasises that Putinism is also rooted in this Russian past – in the enduring weakness of civil society and the scant experience of deep democracy.

Not that the West can easily point the finger at Russia. In the age of Trump and Brexit, with an ossified EU and a global refugee crisis, we should not be complacent about the sophistication of our own democracy, or about the thin screen that separates peace and civilisation from the law of the jungle.

The American diplomat and historian George Kennan described the Great War as “the seminal tragedy” of the 20th century – seedbed of so many horrors to come. The events of 1917 were its bitter first fruit. As Stephen Smith writes, “[T]here is a great deal to learn from the history of the Russian Revolution about how the thirst for power, the enthusiasm for violence, and contempt for law and ethics can corrupt projects that begin with the finest ideals.” 

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster)

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit