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In considering the process of change in the relationships between the powers and the ways in which this affected the balance of power in the period 1879-1980, how far can the Russian Revolution of October 1917 be seen as a key turning point?
The Russian Revolution of October 1917 was potentially the most politically formative event of world history in the period 1879-1980. It saw the end of Russian autocracy, and gave rise to the first self-declared Socialist government. The Russian Revolution would serve to influence the world post-World War II, and supported by the Nazi-Soviet Pact, be of direct compliance of the largest ideological conflict in modern world history – the Cold War. In doing so, it would change the lives of millions of Europeans, for example the Berlin Wall, see the spread of Communism in the East, such as Eastern European spheres of influence, and plunge the world into nuclear darkness. However, it is also possible to argue that the revolution was merely one of many branches of political change that sprung from the First and Second World Wars. Similarly, the nuclear arms race and dï¿½tente were turning points in which mirrored the pre-World War One naval race – in their own right, militarism and influence superseded the Russian Revolution and ideology.
The Russian Revolution was a significant turning point in that it signalled the creation of the first major Communist state. The establishment of the Communist state and the Marxist-Leninist approach of ‘Permanent Revolution’ scared much of the firmly established liberal democracies and capitalist states in the West – predominantly America.
Lenin sought expansionism that would cause European states to quickly fall, otherwise the fate of the Russian Revolution would be failure just like the Parisian communists before them – an active effort by Lenin to fight international bourgeoisie would be the Comintern, which was set officially set up against the League of Nations by USA President Woodrow Wilson. In its first congress, it proclaimed it would “by all available means, including armed force, for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie and for the creation of an international Soviet republic as a transition stage to the complete abolition of the State”1 The establishment of such a group would in turn aggravate a Western world which was shocked by the nature and suddenness of the revolution and would arguably progress to a world threatened by looming nuclear war.
An immediate reaction by the West to the Russian Revolution was the ‘White’ involvement in the Civil War, between 1918 and 1922. Partial involvement was due to the sudden withdrawal of Russia from the First World War, and the store of arms and weaponry which had been amassed in the region. Further, with Lenin’s communist ideals came the firm decision to refuse to acknowledge Russia’s debts, and to isolate the country (with the exception of the Comintern) form the Capitalist world. Undoubtedly, this led to rising anxiety amongst Western nations, underlined by sympathetic historians like E.H. Carr:
“…for example, describes the allies’ declared intention of re-opening the World War in the east against Germany as ‘a pretext’, and speaks of ‘the fear and hatred felt by the western governments for the revolutionary regime”.2
A further example of icy relations between Russia and the West, and with it the very beginnings of the formation of Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ can be seen in the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939. It was founded in lieu of three important treatises which saw bettering relations between Germany and Russia; the 1917 Brest-Litovsk treaty; 1922 Rapallo Treaty; and the 1926 Treaty of Berlin. Although anti-Soviet rhetoric in Nazi Germany was high, Hitler proclaimed that he would “walk part of the road with the Russians, if that will help us”3 indelibly exercising the notion that whilst the Soviet Union was ideologically a polar opposite to Nazi Germany, they could perhaps seek refuge from the intolerable Capitalists in the West and seek conquests of much of Eastern Europe, e.g. Poland, together whilst keeping their interests quite separate.
The Nazi-Soviet pact sought an agreement between the Soviet Union and Germany to create a treaty which contained several articles, with a summation of the treaty could well be found in the first article, “both High Contracting Parties obligate themselves to desist from any act of violence, any aggressive action, and any attack on each other, either individually or jointly with other Powers.”
4 However, the treaty was subject to secret additional protocols, in which the pact spoke of the spheres of influence, which would be of great significance towards the end of the period, and outlined territorial borders of which would indicate the edges; the additional protocols ended with article IV stating: “This protocol shall be treated by both parties as strictly secret”5. This infers that both powers feared retaliation by the West of German violation of the Treaty of Versailles and other post-World War One treaties with Russia as its ally. Furthermore, the pact serves as a consolidation of twenty years of Soviet Russia wherein the country had further isolated itself from its pre-World War One allies, the Russian Revolution further being proved as being not just an internal, domestic affair but an international affair of arguably epic proportions.”
The Russian Revolution was as marked near end to the First World War as the Yalta conference would be to the Second – Russian soldiers camped just outside of Berlin and allied forces were near marching on the Rhineland. Therefore, the Allied Nations sat together to divide Germany into four ‘zones’ controlled by Britain, the USSR, France and the USA – as the Cold War began, Germany was an “intractable problem, dividing both the USA and the USSSR. Both knew that whoever controlled Germany would control Europe.”
6 With the creation of the Marshall Plan and Stalin’s reactionary Comecon (both financial aids to support and increase spheres of influence in West and East Europe respectively), Stalin was apparently more paranoid about Capitalist invasion into Eastern Germany, which had since the Russian Revolution been prophesied by Russian Communists – Stalin closed the road, rail and canal links between West Germany and West Berlin, resulting in the infamous Berlin Airlift by the Westerners to aid two million West Berliners. The underlying cause is generally understood by, at least more orthodox historians, to be an ideological one.
Furthermore, the course of the Cold War would re-emphasise the Russian Revolution’s significance in recent history, having blown away Russia’s pre-1917 understanding with the West. After the end of World War Two, Churchill proclaimed that “From Stettin, in the Baltic, to Trieste, in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”7 Edward R. Murrow, an American journalist, sought to blame the War on the Communist expansionism in a 1961 film clip called “The Ideological Battle Between the U.S. and Soviet Union”, although liberal historians argue that expansionism was not the cause, suspicion of the Western invaders and devastators otherwise were.
Nevertheless, both Churchill and Murrow, despite the 15 year separation between them, believed heavily in the ideological aspects of American-Soviet relations. Francis Fukuyama would write, as the Berlin Wall came down, “The End of History?”, an article which would ascertain a victory for liberal-democracies and denounce the feasibility of Communist revolutions: he would, in a word, denounce the Russian Revolution and the Soviet it created for all that it gained and eventually lost.
However, the Russian Revolution was not a standalone event of the 20th century, for example, the alliance system prior to World War One, arguably such a profound effect that historians like Friedrich Meinecke accuse Bismarck’s policy within Germany and towards other nations as inevitably creating the means for the disastrous two world wars; T. Morris and D. Murphy describe in “Europe 1870-1991” that
“If he was indeed such so great and successful a statesman, and if the Germany that he governed was his conscious and deliberate creation, then he should naturally assume much responsibility for the actions, and subsequent development, of the state”8
Bismarck saw, after the reunification of Germany in 1971, that if Germany could retain for itself a strong political stage, it was geographically placed to be the centre of a new balance of power. Bismarck then created what is oft referred to as the ‘Bismarckian system’ – its objective to continue to isolate France and hold friendly relationships with Russia and Austria-Hungary. This was due to the tensions over the Balkans and the potential threat of France allying with either side. Bismarck tried to support this aim with first the Dreikaiserbund, or the Three Emperors’ League, comprising of all three nations. When it would not work, he founded the Dual Alliance with Austria-Hungary and remained on good terms with Russia through the Reinsurance Treaty. When the new Kaiser came to power, he sacked the Chancellor, and with it, he threw away the legacy and the peace that was attached to him.
For example, Kaiser Wilhelm II, in 1896, proclaimed “Nothing must henceforth be settled in the world without the intervention of Germany and the German Emperor”9 which emphasises both the egotistical nature and insecurities that have been described of the Kaiser, and blamed on his withered arm by many historians. The Kaiser’s erratic and ill-informed actions led to the failure of the Reinsurance Treaty and a reliance of financial aid from Paris to Moscow. This critical miscalculation of diplomacy would ultimately lead to the creation of the several new alliances, the Franco-Russian Alliance 1891, the Anglo-French entente and then ultimately the Triple Entente. The 1907 alliance system in Europe, and also the world as it would be seen after World War One with Woodrow Wilson and his Fourteen Points10 was ever-changing, and as such, the Russian-Revolution was not as culpable for frosty relations later on in the period 1879-1980.
Furthermore, the Second World War was a cataclysm of events that ripped apart much of Europe, and left it financially and politically vulnerable, its significance supported by historians like Derrick Murphy who suggests that “it seems clear that some form of tension the USA and USSR would have sprung up following the end of the Second World War”11.
For example, the war had reaped huge losses in terms of skilled workers, many homes had been destroyed across Europe and according to the Yalta and Potsdam conferences, Europe was to be reorganised for the second time in twenty years. It left what some historians describe as a ‘vacuum of power’, of which was taken advantage of, for instance, by the Marshall Plan and Comecon initiatives – Stalin, for example, did not honour his promises at Yalta and continued to expand upon the Soviet sphere of influence, going as far as Cuba and triggered a period of nuclear darkness. It is arguable to suggest that the outcomes of the Second World War that was more influential and in its turn more ‘key’ to 20th century international relations.
Likewise, the arms race prior to 1917 was equally paralleled during the Cold War, and it is arguable to suggest that military strength usually holds more focus and blame for changing world relations than domestic affairs such as the 1917 Russian Revolution. The naval race prior to World War One between Germany and Britain is usually seen as the cause, as Britain was the key superpower of the world, and Kaiser Wilhelm II sought a policy of Weltpolitik to become a rival nation. Furthermore, the Dï¿½tente between East and West after 1962 is another significant turning point in that it emphasises changing relationships between the two nations, and focuses heavily on arms opposed to ideology; the Dï¿½tente in all its forms existed to bring down the cost of the Cold War (and nuclear arms) and let the two nations focus on expanding their spheres of influence.
In conclusion, the Russian Revolution was not a singular event – it, in itself, was not the cause of the Second World War or the Cold War, or the various events that compounded the two exponentially. Furthermore, one could argue that spheres of influence and military developments played clear roles in the development of world relations in the 20th century. Nonetheless, the ideological impact of the Russian Revolution was a significant turning point in the period 1879-1980, and arguably was the most formative and key turning point.
1 MI5 records [https://www.mi5.gov.uk/output/the-communist-threat.html]
2 T. Morris/D. Murphy, European History 1870-1991,
3 Rauschning, Hermann, Hitler Speaks: A Series of Political Conversations With Adolf Hitler on His Real Aims, Kessinger Publishing, 2006,ISBN 142860034, pages 136-7
4 The Nazi-Soviet Pact, original text [http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1939pact.html]
5 As above.
6 Farmer, Alan, “Access to History: An Introduction to Modern History 1890-1990” edit. Randall, Keith, Hodder Education, ISBN 978-0-340-75366-8, pp. 276
7 Churchill, Winston, “Sinews of Peace” speech, 1946.
8 D. Murphy/T. Morris, International Relations 1870-1991, pg. 78
9 Farmer, Alan, “Access to History: An Introduction to Modern History 1890-1990” edit. Randall, Keith, Hodder Education, ISBN 978-0-340-75366-8, pp. 44
10 Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points (and commentary), [http://web.jjay.cuny.edu/jobrien/reference/ob34.html]
11 D. Murphy/T. Morris, International Relations 1879-2004, pg. 117