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The Sealed Train and the Bolshevik Revolution - German Support for the Revolutionary Movement in the Early 20th Century

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  Eamon McCormick                        

Russian History

      Ms. Miller

     May 4, 2018

The sealed train and the Bolshevik Revolution; German support for the revolutionary movement in the early 20th century.  


 This paper analyzes documents and telegrams from the German Foreign Ministry Archives in the years leading up to the 1917 revolution in order explore the Bolshevik party’s unlikely allies in their revolutionary efforts at the time. German assistance and financing helped facilitate the revolution, and the consequent negotiation of a peace treaty between the nations that secured land and resource concessions for the German’s revealed their hidden agenda.


While the Bolsheviks are often credited with toppling tsarist Rule in Russia with their sheer willpower and commitment to the revolutionary cause, the movement would have crumbled without the guidance of Vladimir Lenin. Lenin acted as a figurehead for the revolution and was often central to most Bolshevik actions. His “April Theses” denounced the Provisional Government and reaffirmed his belief that the time had come for the seizure of power by the proletariat, and his popularity was on full display when he stepped off the train upon his return to Russia to a roaring crowd of supporters. It is here that one can find an often overlooked aspect of the history of the revolution: how did Lenin happen to end up on that train, and who sent it? Before this question can be answered, it is crucial to first contextualize the time period, as Lenin had been in political exile in Switzerland for years while Russia held the Eastern Front against Germany in the First World War. The Germans were desperate to eliminate the Eastern Front and consolidate forces in Western Europe, however for this to happen Russia had to either be overcome with enough domestic turmoil to disrupt the war effort or experience political upheaval that resulted in more anti-war sentiment and peace efforts. In order for this to happen, the Germans invested in Russian revolutionary groups and propaganda for some time leading up to 1917. Eventually sensing that the working class revolution had reached its boiling point in Petrograd, Germany organized the transport of Lenin and a handful of his supporters back into the Motherland. The group of revolutionaries was granted uninterrupted passage through Germany, funding, and re-entry to Russia at any cost, even if that meant pushing them through the German front lines. Once the Bolshevik Revolution did occur the Germans were proactive and quickly negotiated peace terms with the new government that culminated in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. It is no coincidence that the terms of the treaty clearly favored Germany, and it is apparent that their mischievous strategy proved successful. This paper will analyze several aspects of German involvement in the 1917 Revolution: the incentivization for intervention, the passive support of the movement through the funding of revolutionary antagonists, the facilitation Lenin’s return, and the components of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The terms of the treaty will be discussed in detail, and they revealed Germany’s ultimate goal of improving their own economic standing by taking land and resources from Russia after the War.

        In the midst of the First World War Germany found itself attempting to juggle the trench warfare that dominated the Western Front with the expansive and fluid warfare on the Eastern Front. Realizing that their only hope to win the conflict was the consolidation of forces in Western Europe, the Germans sought ways to either neutralize or destroy Russian resistance. It had been proving difficult to settle fighting in the East, as although Russia started the war unprepared and under equipped they managed to fix their production issues and posed a credible military threat by 1916. Germany consequently turned to the “neutralization” option, as explained by Author Volker Wagener: “Berlin’s strategy was clear: Lenin and his Bolsheviks were meant to destabilize Russia thereby - in the middle of the First World War - easing the burden of fighting on the Eastern Front. The German Empire was relying on an old rule of diplomacy: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. And the plan worked.”[1] At the time, the Bolsheviks acted as an enemy to the stability of Russia and consequently an inadvertent ally to the German peace cause and as a result the Germans sought to ensure the success of the revolutionary movement.

Germany sponsored the fall of tsarist Russia through the funding of various antagonistic groups and their respective propaganda agendas, in an attempt to destabilize the nation and negotiate a much-needed peace treaty. A host of telegrams and documents from the German Foreign Ministry Archives reveal the extent to which funds were transferred to revolutionary parties in the years leading up to the revolution. For instance, the Foreign Ministry requested “15 million marks” to be spent on political propaganda in Russia that backed the revolutionary cause is detailed in document WK 11c Secr: Volume 23 (Document 75). The document, a telegram from the State Secretary of the Foreign Ministry to the State Secretary of the Treasury in Germany on the the 9th of November 1917, states, “On the basis of the discussions between Minister von Bergen and Ministerial Director Schroder, I have the honor to request Your Excellency to put the sum of fifteen million marks at the disposal of the Foreign Ministry, for use on political propaganda in Russia …. Depending on how events develop, I should like to reserve the possibility of approaching Your Excellency again in the near future with the request that you agree further sums.”[2] There are several conclusions that can be drawn from this request, but the most obvious is the fact that the Foreign Ministry was willing to allocate vast sums of money to the revolutionary cause in Russia. Governing officials evidently deemed the funding of revolutionary groups in Russia to be efficient and necessary enough to indulge in during a time of war. Furthermore, it should be noted that this was not a simple one time investment, as the final sentence in the telegram made clear that this type of investment would be reoccuring, further increasing the stake the Germans had in the revolutionary cause. Germany also desired to aid the post-revolution government in Petrograd that was having significant financial difficulties. Document 92 records the rather concise telegram from the under state secretary to the minister of Bern that was written on the 28th of November 1917, “According to information received here, the government in Petrograd is having to fight against great financial difficulties. It is therefore very desirable that they be sent money. Bergen.”[3] Although brief, this message displays the commitment of Germany to preserving the new revolutionary political scene. Had they not ensured the continued success of the Bolsheviks through funding or political support, a power vacuum would be inevitable in Russia and a peace treaty to eliminate the Eastern Front would prove even more elusive. Although this funding was not delivered “pre-revolution”, it worked to ensure the success of the revolution after 1917 and prevent counter-revolutionary powers from rising, thus making it a part of the revolution as a whole. German financial contributions to the revolutionary movement, however substantial, were not the only outlet of support.



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