Detail of David Wilkie's The Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Waterloo Dispatch (1822). Image: Apsley House/The Wellington Museum/Bridgeman Images
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What the Battle of Waterloo teaches us about Europe today

The centenary of the First World War has reopened old wounds. Yet Germany and Britain once enjoyed a special relationship – as when they defeated Napoleon at Waterloo – and they could do so again.

The past few years have not been good for Anglo-German relations. The two countries have clashed repeatedly over the future of the European Union. A more robust London and a cautious – even appeasing – Berlin remain far apart on how to deal with threats as diverse as Islamic State/Isis in the Middle East and a resurgent Russia under Vladimir Putin. At the popular level, the start of a sequence of First World War anniversaries which will last until 2018 has reopened some of the old wounds. The question of responsibility for the conflict, which historians had long attributed largely to Germany, now rages anew with the publication of important and persuasive works on both sides of the Channel, including Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers, which spread the res­ponsibility more widely. And, of course, the Second World War remains omnipresent in British culture and popular memory.

However, the deadly “Anglo-German antagonism” – in Paul Kennedy’s resonant phrase – that so shaped the 20th century is of relatively recent provenance. For hundreds of years the British and the Germans enjoyed a special relationship.

The fate of central European Protestants was an important preoccupation for 16th- and 17th-century Englishmen and it played a decisive role in the downfall of the Stuarts. When Britons before the late 18th century spoke of “the empire”, they meant the Holy Roman empire – Germany – rather than their own overseas possessions. In the 19th century, British and German liberals were united in their opposition to tsarist autocracy and their belief in progress. Respect for German scholarship and music was more or less universal in Britain. Until shortly before the First World War, the two peoples thought of each other as kindred; the British often spoke of the Germans as “cousins”.

But the greatest symbol of the Anglo-German special relationship was the Personal Union of 1714. This brought George Louis, elector of the north German principality of Hanover, to the throne of Great Britain and Ireland, in order to provide a suitable Protestant, and non-Stuart, successor to Queen Anne, who had died without a surviving male heir. The 300th anniversary of this event has been somewhat eclipsed by the centenary of the First World War, but it was marked on 20 October with a service at St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, organised by the British-German Association. The royal family was represented by the Duke of Kent and members of the British and German governments attended.

After 1714 Britain’s geopolitical horizons were delineated by two German rivers, the Elbe and the Weser, as much as by the English Channel, the Ohio River in North America, or any other more obvious natural boundary. The Union flag – scarcely seven years old – remained unchanged, but the White Horse of Hanover became a distinctive feature of 18th-century political polemic and iconography. By virtue of the Hanoverian succession, Great Britain – or Britain-Hanover, as she might better be called – lay, whether she liked it or not, at the heart of Europe. For the next 120 years or so, Britain became indisputably a German power, reigned over by Germans.

The Hanoverians were well suited to their new role. They were not, as critics claimed, despotic rulers in Hanover, where they collaborated closely with the local nobility. As princes of the Holy Roman empire, with its panoply of imperial law courts, the imperial Diet and the at least notional supremacy of the emperor, the Georges were quite used to irksome constraints on their power. In Britain, they worked with and through ministers responsible to parliament. The Civil List paid only for the rudimentary civil service, the royal household, the diplomatic service and the secret service. Most other important expenditure, especially on the army and navy, had to be approved by parliament. There was plenty of political controversy under the Georges, but their rule was not marked by the destructive confrontations with parliament that had characterised the Stuart era. No bill that had passed both houses of parliament was refused royal assent after 1714.

The Hanoverian succession was also a big step in the development of a British national identity. This was originally moulded by the 16th-century struggles against Spain and forged again during the wars with Louis XIV. As Linda Colley has shown in her book Britons, fear of universal monarchy and anti-Catholicism were important factors in welding the English to the Scots, as was – increasingly – imperial expansion. The German connection reshaped this identity after 1714. To a significant minority, the allegedly “despotic” and “boorish” Hanoverians became a rallying point for nationalist display. To most, however, the Hanoverian connection reaffirmed the sense of a common European project to defend their own freedoms and the “liberties of Europe”. They saw George, who had served with distinction against France in the War of the Spanish Succession, as a British warrior king, the vindicator of European Protestantism, and thus the defender of the balance of power.

Thanks to Germany’s Salic law, which stipulated that only men could succeed to the Hanoverian throne, the accession of Queen Victoria in Britain in 1837 brought the Personal Union to an end. Relations between Britain and the German lands remained vibrant, not least because the queen married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. The close strategic link with central Europe was broken, however, thus changing the history of both Britain and Germany. Indeed, one of history’s more intriguing counterfactuals, which a BBC radio programme explored ten years ago, is how things would have turned out if Victoria had been a man. A “King Victor” of Britain and Hanover would almost certainly have brought London into the wars of unification, or deterred Bismarck from launching them in the first place.

The Personal Union left a substantial legacy. Streets in the capital city and across the country are named after German towns, provinces and figures. In the heart of New Town in Edinburgh lies Hanover Street, linking Princes, George and Queen Streets, the three main avenues on the grid plan. In London to this day, Hanover Square, Mecklenburgh Street, Brunswick Place and many other addresses testify to the strength of the German connection long before Victoria set her eye on Albert. Across the Atlantic, the Hanoverian link was reflected in the naming of towns, counties and provinces, sometimes spontaneously, sometimes by state action. There, too, the Hanoverian succession was widely welcomed as a defence against popery, absolutism and French or Spanish aggression. By the mid-18th century, there were Hanover or New Hanover Counties in Virginia and North Carolina. Hanover townships could be found in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. After all, George I ruled three kingdoms, 12 colonies and an electorate.

Bigger still was the strategic culture bequeathed by the Hanoverian connection. It was often contentious, with the 18th-century debates between blue-water Tory colonialists opposed to European “entanglements” and Whig continentalists, who supported alliances on the mainland, prefiguring the arguments of Eurosceptics and Europhiles today. The balance of the ledger was overwhelmingly positive. Hanover served as the cornerstone of the British alliance system in defence of the European balance of power, which in turn underpinned the Royal Navy’s dominance on the high seas. The electorate was also an invaluable source of troops, some of whom were used for home defence. There was scarcely a British conflict before 1815 which did not involve either German troops or a campaign in Germany.

During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars this relationship reached a new level of intensity. France represented an existential strategic and ideological threat to both parts of George III’s patrimony. Napoleon’s ambitions on the Continent were incompatible with the independence of Britain and the integrity of the electorate. His domestic programme struck at the heart of the old order in Germany and at parliamentary liberties in Britain. The battle against “French tyranny” thus became a common rallying cry.

The King’s German Legion epitomised this joint Anglo-German project. It was es­tablished in 1803 when Hanover was overrun by Napoleon. The War Office laid down that the legion should recruit “none but such are Natives of Germany and speak, or at least understand German, including all German countries”. Unlike most of the foreign formations that fought in the coalitions against Napoleon, the King’s German Legion was part of the British regular army. Some of its officers were British. The language of command was generally English and so was the rank structure; the men of its 2nd Light Battalion were equipped with standard-issue Baker rifles and wore the same distinctive green jackets as the British light infantrymen.

A hybrid Anglo-German identity developed in the legion. It adopted the English enthusiasm for physical exercises, such as rowing, wrestling, stick-fencing and boxing, and team sports such as football and cricket. Senior figures, including the commander of the British Light Division, Sir Charles von Alten, affected the manners of an English gentleman. Officers commonly switched between the two languages in conversation and correspondence. This acculturation extended to the rank and file. It was not unusual for enlisted men to adopt English first names.

The Legionnaires had a distinctive ethos. Far from mere Continental mercenaries in the king of England’s pay, they perceived themselves as ideological warriors against Napoleon and French domination in general. When enlisting, Lieutenant Emanuel Biedermann spoke of the need to “drive out the French who had no respect for any international law” and he looked forward to “we Germans and Swiss [having] an active role in the wars of liberation on the soil of the Fatherland”. The legion expressed none of the grudging admiration for “Boney” one often found in British ranks, nor the ideological sympathies for the Napoleonic project frequently expressed by other Germans. Friedrich Heinecke, who served as a recruiting officer for the legion in northern Germany, spoke of the men’s “patriotic sentiment”, their “mighty bitterness” against the hereditary enemy, and their determination to “fight against Napoleon and to cast off the yoke of French tyranny”. Such sentiments were shared by ordinary soldiers such as Rifleman Friedrich Lindau of the 2nd Light Battalion, who wrote a lengthy account of his experiences.

In 1815, the King’s German Legion came into its own. Early that year, Napoleon escaped from exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba and once more threatened the peace of Europe. The legion made up a substantial proportion of the allied army sent to Belgium under the Duke of Wellington to deal with him. As veteran troops, they were allotted critical roles in the resulting Battle of Waterloo, at which the campaign was decided. The greatest feat that day was the defence of the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte, in the centre of the allied line. For a whole afternoon, fewer than 400 riflemen of the 2nd Light Battalion under Major George Baring, together with their reinforcements, held off a vastly superior French force. When they finally gave way in the early evening it was too late for Napoleon to finish off Wellington before Field Marshal Blücher’s Prussians arrived in strength. Without this epic defence – a kind of German Rorke’s Drift – Napoleon would surely have prevailed.

The centenary of the battle in 1915 caused embarrassment to the French, British and Germans alike because the global conflagration united Britain to her former enemy France against her erstwhile ally Prussia-Germany. “Our ally of that time,” the Hannoverscher Courier noted sadly in June 1915, “is today our sworn enemy.” When later generations of Britons “compare the accomplishments of the auxiliary peoples whom they are employing against Germany in this war with the services that German armies rendered them a hundred years ago”, the paper predicted bitterly, echoing the words attributed to the Roman emperor on hearing of the loss of his commander Varus’s men in the Teutoburg Forest in northern Germany, “it is only to be expected that they will one day send the baleful cry across the Channel: Germany, Germany, give me back your Legions!”.

Instead, the 20th-century Anglo-German relationship was to be dominated by the Second World War, in which the British empire and Hitler’s Germany were locked in a life-and-death struggle. Even after the creation of a new and democratic Federal Republic of Germany in 1949 and its accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation six years later, the unifying experience of the Personal Union failed to regain traction. This was not least because the Anglo-German relationship took second place to the growing Franco-German partnership. For instance, in 1965, on the 150th anniversary of the battle, a British attempt to send the Queen to place a wreath at the Waterloo column in Hanover during her acclaimed state visit to the Federal Republic was thwarted by the German government, anxious not to offend Paris.

Against this background, the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo in 2015 represents both a challenge and an opportunity. The British government, mindful of the sensibilities of Paris, was initially reluctant to support the commemorations. Though it has since reversed course – as witnessed by George Osborne’s most welcome donation in the 2013 spending review to restore the Château d’Hougoumont, so courageously defended by Coldstream, Scots and Grenadier Guards and others – it is still not doing enough. This has caused widespread outrage. David Green, the director of the think tank Civitas, condemned the reticence, “especially if the reason is not to insult the French because celebrating the victory would be seen as triumphalist”. He added that “Britain was fighting a tyrant who had conquered Europe. It was a momentous moment that should be commemorated.” By contrast, Richard J Evans, the former regius professor of history at Cambridge, cautions against British triumphalism, partly out of respect for Napoleon’s progressive qualities, and partly because he stresses the “pivotal role” of Britain’s allies, which made the battle “more of a German victory than a British one”. The ambivalent nature of Bonaparte’s legacy is also a feature of Andrew Roberts’s monumental biography, published at the start of this month.

There is something in these reservations. The claim that Waterloo was a “German victory” was first made by the Prussian historian Julius Pflugk-Hartung before and during the First World War. He argued that the campaign was “a victory of Germanic strength over French rascality, in particular a success of the German people”.

This was elaborated on by Peter Hofschröer in a series of important but controversial works. It has even found popular expression in the James Bond film The Living Daylights. “I should have known that you would take refuge behind that British vulture Wellington,” the arms trader villain Brad Whitaker reproaches the hero. “You know he had to buy German mercenaries to beat Napoleon, don’t you?”

As many as 45 per cent of the men with whom Wellington started the battle spoke German of one sort or another, and the proportion increased with every Prussian formation reaching the scene. By the end, a clear majority of allied combatants were “German”; to that extent, Waterloo was indeed a “German victory”.

There are, however, no grounds for concern that the role of the allies will be neglected. The British have always been quicker to acknowledge the military contributions of foreigners than they generally give themselves credit for. Eighteenth-century heroes such as Prince Eugene of Savoy, who commanded in the War of the Spanish Succession, and Frederick the Great and Crown Prince Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, who commanded in the Seven Years War, were lionised by the British public in their own time. Sir David Wilkie’s famed Waterloo Dispatch painting (see page 22) shows a moustachioed Legionnaire alongside the usual assortment of Britons from across the United Kingdom. The Duke of Cambridge’s General Order, transferring the legion to Hanoverian service in February 1816, spoke of it having been “rendered immortal by the combined [author’s italics] exertions of British and German valour”. Foreign soldiers in British service feature prominently in the popular Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell and in their adaptations for television. The commemorative plaque recently unveiled on the wall of the farmhouse at La Haye Sainte was a British rather than a German initiative, executed by the Bexhill Hanoverian Study Group. There
is also a plaque in the Memorial Gardens, Bexhill, which was unveiled by the Wellington biographer Lady Longford.

Moreover, the Waterloo 200 campaign, which is co-ordinating the commemorations of the battle, not only rejects jingoism but also explicitly states: “Given the extensive structures which now exist within the European Union, with the profound habit of co-operation and pooling of sovereignty to defend and promote European values and common interests which has developed over the last 60 years among the European peoples, the commemorative themes of multinational co-operation, European integration and of pan-European security and stability are relevant and timely.”

We can in fact say that Waterloo was a “European” rather than a “British” or “German” victory. Thirty-six per cent of the troops in Wellington’s army were British (that is English, Irish, Welsh or Scottish), 10 per cent were King’s German Legion, 10 per cent were Nassauers, 8 per cent were Brunswickers, 17 per cent were Hanoverian regular army, 13 per cent were Dutch and 6 per cent “Belgian” (Walloons and Flemings). In the recent words of the D-Day veteran and former British chief of the defence staff Field Marshal Lord Bramall, Waterloo was truly “the first Nato operation”.

In this context, given the severe challenges the EU faces in eastern Europe and the Middle East, and the collective failure to address them by the eurozone generally and Berlin in particular, the King’s German Legion, and especially the 2nd Light Battalion, could serve as the model for a future European army. The citizens of the Federal Republic, understandably scarred by the experience of Wehrmacht crimes in the Second World War, should be comfortable with Major Baring’s achievement. The heroism of the garrison of La Haye Sainte was rational, not suicidal; they fought to the last bullet, but not the last man. Baring did not recklessly sacrifice his men on a point of honour, or in a spirit of death-defying hubris. He held on as long as he reasonably could, and then withdrew on his own initiative. He struck the right balance between completing the mission, the “honour” of the battalion and the responsibility he bore towards his men. Baring’s example is the very opposite of the “Thermopylae” or “Stalingrad” complex in German military history, where soldiers sacrifice themselves in total, whether usefully or pointlessly.

Baring’s men were a multinational unit, in a multinational army sent by an international coalition. In his final orders in February 1816, the Duke of Cambridge announced that at Waterloo, the legion had “powerfully aided the cause of Europe” as well as that of their sovereign, George III. The King’s German Legion, and especially Baring’s 2nd Light Battalion, thus represent a German military tradition on which the Federal Republic and the eurozone can draw to create a new unified military, either together with or alongside the UK. In this way, Germany will “give back its legions”, if not to Britain, then to the common project of European collective security. 

Brendan Simms’s latest book is “The Longest Afternoon: the 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo” (Allen Lane, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies

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