1917: The Year of the Century

A painting of Lenin addressing the crowd upon his return to Russia during the Russian Revolution. Museum of Political History.

Jeremy Black
University of Exeter

Cross-posted from American Review of Books, Blogs, and Bull

1917 was a key year in a crucial decade. This was a decade of change, or, rather, transformation; of the destruction of what became old orders; and of the replacement of existing currents and practices.

From the perspective of 2017, possibly the most important changes of the decade came in 1910-11: alongside revolutionary crises in Mexico, Cuba, and Haiti was the crisis and overthrow of the Manchu dynasty in China. There had been a series of such crises in China before, of course notably with the Ming in the 1640s, and the Mongols in the 1360s. What made the crisis of the 1910s different, however, was the replacement of a dynasty by a republic and the difficulty, for the new system, of establishing its legitimacy. Indeed, China atomised, so that, by 1925, it was divided between a large number of independent polities, most of which were under the thumb of warlords and expressions of their power. China’s fragmentation made it vulnerable to Japanese invasion and, ultimately, to a destructive civil war and communist revolution in 1949.

Even with those earlier crises in mind, 1917 was crucial for a number of reasons. Here, we will look at three that were highly significant and where that significance is still readily apparent today: the Russian Revolution, America’s entry into World War I, and the Balfour Declaration and its implications in the Middle East.

The Russian Revolution was a direct consequence of World War I. The Romanov dynasty had seen off previous crises, such as the Decembrist conspiracy in 1825 and, more immediately, the 1905 revolution. In 1913, the Romanovs, like the Hohenzollerns in Germany, and the Habsburgs in Austria-Hungary presided over a society that was industrialising and becoming more prosperous. There were political strains but no sense that these would necessarily cause any breakdown. Moreover, the multi-ethnic character of these empires did not lead to breakdown. Russia had crushed rebellions in its Polish provinces in the 1830s and 1860s, and did the same in Central Asia in 1916.

War itself did not necessarily have to lead to socio-political collapse. Japan, indeed, benefited from its participation in World War I. Britain was hit hard in some respects, and the war led to the breakdown of its rule over much of Ireland. Nevertheless, as with France, Britain became an even more far-flung imperial power as a consequence of the conflict.

For Russia, however, as with Austria-Hungary, Germany, Turkey, and Bulgaria, participation in a major war led to a systemic breakdown. The war had gone badly for the Russians from the outset in 1914. Indeed, it had demonstrated anew the conclusion apparent from the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War—namely that the best use for the military is to be a presence/threat/deterrent, rather than to be exposed, eroded, or even destroyed by use. The devastating defeat of the attempt to conquer Prussia in 1914 at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes was followed by losses to German advances. In particular, Warsaw and the rest of Russian Poland was conquered in 1915, while, in 1916, the Germans intervened to stop the Russian advance at the expense of the Austrians in the Brusilov Offensive.

Repeated defeats undermined the prestige of the Romanov dynasty which was closely associated with the military. The Western Allies understood this threat, and a major reason for their offensives in 1915-17 was to take pressure off Russia. To an extent, pressure was taken off with the German decision to focus on the Western Front in 1916, but it was not possible to defeat the Central Powers, and the 1915 Gallipoli campaign failed to relieve Russia by taking Turkey out of the war.

Far more than prestige was involved. The war also caused a social crisis, with the pressures and disruptions of war greatly hitting living standards. There was also a major rise in inflation.

The crisis led to the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II in early 1917 and the creation of a reform government under Kerensky. Encouraged by the Allies in the West, Kerensky’s government crucially decided to remain in the war, and thus Germany remained exposed to a two-front war, the strategic crisis it had faced from 1914. However, the war did not go well for the Allies in 1917. The Germans continued to make major gains. In addition, Kerensky’s government faced opposition from a number of political directions and was unable to impose its will. This provided an opportunity for the Bolsheviks to seize power. German intelligence played a major role by assisting Lenin to return to Russia and encouraging unrest in Russia. Indeed, the role of intelligence and secret diplomacy deserves more attention in general accounts of the period. The Germans supported Irish opposition to British rule and sought to stir up Muslim dissidence in the British and French empires. So also with the British search for support within the imperial systems of Eastern Europe, a search that is one of the contexts for the Balfour Declaration as well as for the cause of national self-determination in Eastern Europe.

The Bolshevik revolution created a crisis for the Allies opposed to the Central Powers as it provided Germany with the opportunity to knock Russia out of the war.

This opportunity came from a number of directions. The Bolsheviks regarded the war as an alien, hostile conflict, a war of élites against peoples. The Bolsheviks sought peace and wanted to abandon the alliance with Britain and France. Meanwhile, the Germans continued to advance, and disruption within Russia made resistance more difficult. In the event at Brest-Litovsk, the Bolsheviks accepted a peace treaty that left the Germans with major territorial gains. These provided Germany with the opportunity both to acquire resources, such as Ukrainian grain (potentially obviating the Allied naval blockade) and to fight a one-front war on the Western Front.

In short, the Russian collapse spelled trouble for the Western Allies. Today, that may not trouble enthusiasts for counterfactual history who propose either that German success would have prevented the subsequent rise of Hitler and still worse calamities, or who argue that Germany has ultimately won the contest for Europe in the shape of the European Union. Those views are misguided as they compare markedly dissimilar phenomena. They also underrate the seriousness of the challenge posed by the Germans in World War I—their drive for domination, as well as the particular crisis created for the Allies by German successes in 1917 and early 1918. Aside from Russia, Italy had nearly been knocked out of the war by the Caporetto offensive, and required the transfer of British and French forces to be saved. In early 1918, the Germans launched heavy blows on Allied lines on the Western Front, leading the British to contemplate withdrawal from France.

It was scarcely surprising that American entry into the war became crucial. The German government argued that unrestricted submarine warfare would close the Atlantic, and thus destroy the impact of this entry, but this assessment proved totally mistaken. Indeed, it was an aspect of the militarisation of strategy that did not serve the Germans well at all.

American assertiveness had not matched the potential of national power during the 19th century, a point amply demonstrated by the rapid and near-total demobilisation after the end of the Civil War in 1865. Spain, America’s opponent in 1898, was scarcely a major power, and did not match the combatants in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. By 1914, the U.S. had a major fleet, thanks in large part to East Coast political and economic interests, but it lacked a comparable army and was not mobilised for war. This remained the pattern in 1914-16. Interventions in Mexico and the Caribbean in this period enhanced the contrast, as the small American armed forces barely sufficed for those operations. However, as the world’s leading economy, notably in industry and agriculture, and as the most significant of the neutral powers, American participation in World War I was decisive.

It also set a pattern. Although the U.S. disengaged from much of the new international order created in 1919 and did not sustain its intervention in the Russian Civil War or join the League of Nations, World War I had left American policymakers with a degree of concern about developments in Europe that had not been seen in the 19th century. Moreover, the intervention in Russia launched America into the “Cold War,” a confrontation with the Soviet Union that defined much of American policy, international and domestic, for the rest of the century. Thus, the Russian Civil War and American entry into World War I were closely related.

So also with the relationship between World War I and the Balfour Declaration. Aware of growing nationalist pressures on the imperial states and treating Zionism as one of several nationalisms with which it wished to ally, the British government saw Jews as a key group in Russia. In part designed to win support in Europe, the Balfour Declaration’s promise of a Homeland for the Jewish People was also regarded as a measure that would encourage American backing for Britain.

The Declaration also represented an attempt to reorder the Middle East against the background of the attempt to overthrow the Turkish empire. There was no obvious replacement for Turkish rule. The Ottoman conquest of modern Syria, Lebanon, and Israel in 1516 had been at the expense of the Egyptian-based Mamluk empire which itself, had conquered the region in the 13th century. There was no sense of native “legitimacy” to contest Britain and France’s interest in constructing a new territorial order. There was also a need to do so, not least to protect Egypt and the Suez Canal from the attack the Turks had attempted in 1915. In this context, the creation of a pro-British Jewish homeland appeared a necessary measure of strategic stabilisation, as useful in the Middle East as in Europe.

Promises were freely made in this period, and some clashed with other aspirations. In 1915, some of the gains that Italy was promised under the Treaty of London were subsequently allocated to Yugoslavia in the Versailles peace settlement. The Balfour Declaration was of longer standing significance because, despite reluctance, Britain allowed significant Jewish immigration and, more particularly, deployed considerable force to suppress the Arab Rising of 1937-9. Alongside ambivalence, British success in the war was therefore instrumental to the eventual creation of Israel.

As this brief sketch makes clear, the consequences of 1917 are important to the deep history of the contemporary world. They deserve widespread attention.

Jeremy Black’s books include The Great War and The Cold War.

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