6/7/1918 The Left SR uprising: a deadly threat to the Bolsheviks at the heart of their power

The Bolsheviks in Russia are embattled, with counter-revolutionary forces threatening their rule across the country. The Czechoslovak Legion provides a particularly potent threat, controlling the Trans-Siberian Railway; working in alliance with the Komuch government in Samara they threaten to bring an end to Bolshevik rule. Vladivostok has fallen to the Legion, which they now proclaim to be an Allied protectorate. The Allies begin to think of using the port to aid anti-Bolshevik forces in Russia, with the ultimate aim of bringing the country back into the war against Germany. President Wilson goes so far as to suggest that Japan could send forces to secure Vladivostok, allowing the Czechoslovaks to redeploy further to the west.

But the Bolsheviks face other threats further to home. When the Bolsheviks seized power last November, they did so in alliance with the left faction of the Socialist Revolutionary Party (the Left SRs). However the Left SRs were not supportive of the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty with Germany, seeing it as a betrayal of the revolution. Left SR commissars resigned from Sovnarkom, the Soviet government, but the party remained broadly supportive of the soviet regime, a kind of loyal opposition. Since then they have become increasingly disenchanted by the Bolsheviks’ authoritarianism and their perception that the country is being transformed into a German client state.

Now the Left SRs decide to act. One of their activists assassinates Count Mirbach, the German ambassador, an act of propaganda by deed intended to ignite a general uprising of the masses against the Bolsheviks. When Dzerzhinsky, Lenin’s head of the Cheka (the political police), tries to arrest the murderers he is himself arrested: most members of the Cheka in Moscow are in fact loyal to the Left SRs rather than the Bolsheviks.

The Germans are understandably furious at the murder of their ambassador. Lenin is summoned to the German embassy where he issues a grovelling apology. His situation is now desperate. The Left SRs have far more armed men in the capital than he does: if they press their advantage the Bolshevik regime could find itself decapitated.

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Wilhelm von Mirbach (Wikipedia)

1/7/1918 Writing on the wall for Austria-Hungary as France declares support for an independent Czechoslovakia

In 1914 Austria-Hungary’s leaders pushed for war with Serbia in the hope that it would restore the Habsburg Empire’s fortunes and reverse its long decline. Events since then have not progressed entirely to their satisfaction, with the underperformance of the Austro-Hungarian military turning the Empire into little more than a client state of the Germans. Now its continued existence is increasingly threatened. The travails of war have led to great hardships and discontent and the disaster at the Piave has shattered what remained of the Empire’s prestige, with Emperor Karl himself being blamed for the debacle. Now the various ethnicities and peoples that make up the Empire are restless, with many wishing to separate themselves from the Habsburgs.

The Allies meanwhile are increasingly intent on breaking up the Empire. In his Fourteen Points, Wilson had proposed that Austria-Hungary’s peoples should have every possible opportunity for autonomous development. Since then the US President’s views have developed and how he argues that “all branches of the Slav race should be completely free from German and Austrian rule”. Talk of joining Serbia with Austria-Hungary’s southern Slav territories to create a new state (Yugoslavia) is finding a receptive audience in most Allied capitals, with the notable exception of Italy. Meanwhile in Paris the cause of Czechoslovakia is being advanced by exiled Czech nationalist Tomáš Masaryk and his Czechoslovak National Committee. Today they achieve a diplomatic breakthrough, with the French government formally recognising them as the representatives of the Czechoslovak nation. With the Allies also talking of attaching Galicia to a newly independent Poland, it looks like there will not be much left of Austria-Hungary if the Allies win the war.

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Tomáš Masaryk (Českobudějovický deník: Jihočeské kalné ráno…)

11/2/1918 Wilson’s Four Principles #1918Live

President Wilson has already outlined the Fourteen Points that he sees the United States as having entered the war to achieve. Now in another speech to Congress he clarifies them by the addition of four principles that must govern any peace settlement. They are firstly that each part of a final settlement must be based justice, secondly that people and provinces are not to be transferred between states in pursuit of great power interests, thirdly that territorial adjustments must be made in the interests of the people of those territories and finally that national aspirations must be “accorded the utmost satisfaction that can be accorded them without introducing new or perpetuating old elements of discord and antagonism”.

Wilson is effectively saying that the principle of national self-determination must be paramount in any future peace settlement. This is bad news for multi-national empires like Turkey and Austria-Hungary, though it may also cause some disquiet to France and Britain, with their vast overseas empires. For now though Wilson’s principles are expected only to apply to the Central Powers.

In a time of realpolitik, Wilson’s aspirations may seem hopelessly naive, and certainly this is how some of his allies see them. However the US President is convinced that only a settlement on these lines will lay the basis for a permanent peace that will prevent the world from facing another catastrophic war.

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Woodrow Wilson (Wikipedia)

8/1/1918 Wilson’s Fourteen Points #1918Live

When the USA declared war on Germany, President Wilson stated that the Americans were not joining the Allies but were merely associating with them. To some extent this is hair-splitting, but it reflects the reluctance with which the United States was drawn into the war. Wilson sees the United States as fighting not a war of conquest or even one narrowly of self-defence, but a war that will serve to bring a final end to the scourge of warfare that has troubled humanity since the dawn of time.

Now Wilson addresses the United States Congress to articulate what America is fighting for, which he sees as “peace without victory”. He hopes to make the world “safe for every peace-loving nation” and he outlines fourteen war aims to advance this goal:

1. No more secret treaties between nations; no more secret negotiation of treaties

2. Freedom of the seas

3. The removal of barriers to trade between nations

4. The reduction of armaments held by nations to their lowest possible level

5. An impartial adjustment of all colonial claims (with the astonishing provision that attention should be given to the interests of colonised people)

6. The evacuation of Russian territory by other nations’ armies (a promise designed to undercut the Bolsheviks and keep Russia in the war)

7. The restoration of Belgium as a fully independent country

8. The restoration to France of Alsace-Lorraine, lost in the war of 1870

9. Italy’s frontiers to be readjusted along “clearly recognisable lines of nationality”.

10. The peoples of Austria-Hungary to be accorded “the freest opportunity to autonomous development”

11. Romania, Serbia and Montenegro to be restored and Serbia given access to the sea.

12. The non-Turkish parts of the Ottoman Empire to be given an “absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development”, the Dardanelles to be freely accessible to all international shipping and the Turkish part of the Ottoman Empire to remain independent.

13. An independent Polish state to be established, with access to the sea.

14. A “general association of nations” to be established.

He finishes by stating that the United States bears no malice towards Germany and is seeking merely for it to “accept a place of equality among the peoples of the world, the new world in which we now live, instead of a place of mastery”.

Wilson hopes that the achievement of these aims will remodel the world, ending the era of major conflict between nations. Some of the Allies however worry that Wilson has given himself over to lofty but unrealistic idealism. They are more intent on guaranteeing their post-war security by crushing their enemies and eliminating them as future threats.

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Wilson addressing Congress (Emerson Kent: the Fourteen Points)

18/5/1917 America introduces conscription

US warships have arrived in Europe to join patrols against the U-boat menace. President Wilson knows however that if the war is to be brought to an end it will be done so on land. Here the USA is at a considerable disadvantage. The country’s army amounts to just 145,000, insignificantly small compared to the great armies of Europe.

In order to make a difference in Europe, the American army will have to be expanded. Today the President signs into a law the Selective Service Act, which allows for conscription. Even so, it will be some time before the army will have been built up to a level that can take on the Germans. Given the task facing the Americans, that of building a large modern army almost from scratch, some wonder whether the USA will be able to deploy troops to Europe in strength before 1919.

In keeping with the traditions of the United States, draftees will be segregated by colour.

image source (Wikipedia)

2/4/1917 Wilson addresses Congress, seeking a declaration of war against Germany

President Wilson was re-elected last November on the slogan “He kept us out of the war”. Now he addresses a joint sitting of both houses of Congress, seeking a declaration of war against Germany. The German U-boat campaign has inflamed opinion in the United States. The interception of the Zimmermann Telegram (and the revelation that Germany was seeking an alliance with Mexico) has further poisoned relations between the two powers.

Wilson broke off diplomatic relations with Berlin last month. Since then Germany’s submarines have continued to attack ships without warning. So it is that Wilson now appears before Congress to ask it to back war against the Kaiser. Wilson asserts that the USA will not be joining the war for conquest or selfish advantage. Rather this will be a war to defend civilisation. Furthermore, Wilson argues that this will be a war to reorder the world so as to make future wars impossible. “The world must be made safe for democracy,” he says. “Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty.”

The Senate and House of Representatives will vote on the President’s request for war over the next few days. Support for war is not unanimous, but in the current climate it is highly unlikely that the supporters of neutrality will prevail.

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Wilson addresses Congress

Read the text of Wilson’s speech here.

1/3/1917 The Zimmermann Telegram published: Germany’s plot against America revealed

When American pick up their morning newspapers today they are greeted by the astonishing news that Germany is trying to recruit Mexico into an anti-US alliance. This shocking proposal is carried in a secret telegram sent by German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the German embassy in Mexico City. The German ambassador is to promise the Mexicans Texas, New Mexico and Arizona in the event of war, as well as financial incentives.

Zimmermann’s telegram had been sent in code, but British code breakers managed to decipher it and pass on its contents to the Americans. Now President Wilson has decided to make it public. To hide the fact that the British have cracked the German codes, an outlandish story about the telegram’s text having been retrieved from Mexico is concocted.

Relations between the United States and Germany are already tense. Wilson has severed diplomatic relations following the German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. Now the Zimmermann Telegram’s publication causes a sensation, further inflaming tensions between the two countries.

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The decoded Zimmermann telegram (US National Archives)

The Temptation (Wikipedia Commons, originally Dallas Morning News)

see also: WWI Centennial: The Zimmermann Telegram (Mental Floss)