Daily Archives: 13 April 2009

Commissar Trotsky’s Military Tactics

From The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, by Niall Ferguson (Penguin Press, 2006), pp. 145-148:

Between May and June [1918], the Czechs swept eastwards, capturing Novo-Nikolaevsk, Penza, Syzran, Tomsk, Omsk, Samara and finally Vladivostok. Meanwhile, Russia’s former allies sent expeditionary forces, whose primary aim was to keep Russia in the war. The British landed troops at Archangel and Murmansk, as well as at Vladivostok; the French sent men to Odessa, the Americans to Vladivostok. The Allies also supplied the White armies with weapons and other supplies. The Japanese seized the opportunity to march across the Amur River from Manchuria. Meanwhile, the cities that were supposed to be the headquarters of the Revolution emptied as factories closed and supplies of food and fuel dried up. When Denikin called on all the White forces to converge on Moscow in July 1918, it seemed more than likely that the Bolshevik regime would be overthrown.

On August 6, 1918, White forces in combination with the renegade Czech Legion captured Kazan. The Bolshevik 5th Army was haemorrhaging deserters. Ufa had fallen; so too had Simbirsk, Lenin’s own birthplace. Another step back along the Volga would bring the forces of counter-revolution to the gates of Nizhny-Novgorod, opening the road to Moscow. Having resigned his post as Commissar for Foreign Affairs in favour of Military Affairs, Trotsky now had the daunting task of stiffening the Red Army’s resolve. He was, as we have seen, by training a journalist not a general. Yet the goatee-bearded intellectual with his pince-nez had seen enough of war in the Balkans and on the Western Front to know that without discipline an army was doomed. It was Trotsky who insisted on the need for conscription, realizing that volunteers would not suffice. It was Trotsky who brought in the former Tsarist NCOs and officers – many of them hitherto languishing in jail – whose experience was to be vital in taking on the Whites.

Trotsky had two advantages. Firstly, the Bolsheviks controlled the central railway hubs, from which he could deploy forces at speed. Indeed, it was from his own specially designed armoured railway carriage that he himself directed operations, travelling some 100,000 miles in the course of the war. Secondly, though the Bolsheviks lacked experience of war, they did have experience of terrorism; like the Serbian nationalists, they too had employed assassination as a tactic in the pre-war years. It was to terror, in the name of martial law, that Trotsky now turned.

When he arrived at Kazan, the first thing he did was to uncouple the engine from his train; a signal to his troops that he had no intention of retreating. He then brought twenty-seven deserters to nearby Syvashsk, on the banks of the Volga, and had them shot. The only way to ensure that Red Army recruits did not desert or run away, Trotsky had concluded, was to mount machine-guns in their rear and shoot any who failed to advance against the enemy. This was the choice he offered: possible death in the front or certain death in the rear. ‘We must put an end once and for all’, he sneered with a characteristically caustic turn of phrase, ‘to the papist-Quaker babble about the sanctity of human life.’ Units that refused to fight were to be decimated. It was a turning point in the Russian civil war – and an ominous sign of how the Bolsheviks would behave if they won it. In the bitter fighting for the bridge over the Volga at Kazan, Trotsky’s tactics made that outcome significantly more likely. The bridge was saved, and on September 10 the city itself was retaken. Two days later Simbirsk also fell to the Reds. The White advance faltered as they found themselves challenged not only by a rapidly growing Red Army, but also by recalcitrant Ukrainians and Chechens to their rear. The Czechs were weary of fighting; the Legion disintegrated as it was driven back to Samara and then beyond the Urals…. By the end of November Denikin had lost Voronezh and Kastornoe.

The end of the war on the Western Front was well timed for the Bolsheviks. It undermined the legitimacy of the foreign powers’ intervention, especially as they now had left-wing outbreaks of their own to deal with. Only the Japanese showed any inclination to maintain an armed presence on Russian soil, and they were content to stake out new territorial claims in the Far East and leave the rest of Russia to its fate.

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Novelties of Turning States into Nations

From The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, by Niall Ferguson (Penguin Press, 2006), pp. 74-77:

Nation states were a comparative novelty in European history. Much of the continent in 1900 was still dominated by the long-established and ethnically mixed empires of the Habsburgs, Romanovs and Osmanli. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was another such entity. Some smaller countries were also ethnically heterogeneous: Belgium and Switzerland, for example. And there were numerous petty principalities and grand duchies, like Luxembourg or Lichtenstein, that had no distinct national identity of their own, yet resisted absorption into bigger political units. These patchwork political structures made practical sense at a time when mass migration was increasing rather than reducing ethnic intermingling. Yet in the eyes of political nationalists, they deserved to be consigned to the past; the future should belong to homogeneous nation states. France, which had nurtured in the Swiss political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau the prophet of popular sovereignty, also provided a kind of model for nation-building. A republic forged and re-forged in repeated revolutions and wars, France by 1900 seemed to have subsumed all its old regional identities in a single ‘idea of France’. Auvergnais, Bretons and Gascons alike all considered themselves to be Frenchmen, having been put through the same standardized schooling and military training.

Nationalism at first had seemed to pose a threat to Europe’s monarchies. In the 1860s, however, the kingdoms of Piedmont and Prussia had created new nation states by combining the national principle with their own instincts for self-preservation and self-aggrandizement. The results – the kingdom of Italy and the German Reich – were no doubt very far from being perfect nation states. To Sicilians, the Piedmontese were as foreign as if they had been Frenchmen; the true unification of Italy came after the triumphs of Cavour and Garibaldi, with what were in effect small wars of colonization waged against the peoples of the south. Many Germans, meanwhile, lived outside the borders of Bismarck’s new Reich; what historians called his wars of unification had in fact excluded German-speaking Austrians from a Prussian-dominated Kleindeutschland. Nevertheless, an imperfect nation state was, in the eyes of most nationalists, preferable to no nation state at all. In the late nineteenth century other peoples sought to follow the Italian and German example. Some – notably the Irish and the Poles, to say nothing of Bengalis and other Indians – saw nationhood as an alternative to subjugation by unsympathetic empires. A few, like the Czechs, were content to pursue greater autonomy within an existing imperial structure, keeping hold of the Habsburg nurse for fear of meeting something worse. The situation of the Serbs was different. At the Congress of Berlin (1878), along with the Montenegrins, they had recovered their independence from Ottoman rule. By 1900 their ambitions were to follow the Piedmontese and Prussian examples by expanding in the name of South Slav (Yugoslav) national unity. But how were they to achieve this? One obvious possibility was through war, the Italian and German method. But the odds against Serbia were steep. It was one thing to win a war against the crumbling Ottoman Empire (as happened when Serbia joined forces with Montenegro, Bulgaria and Greece in 1912) or against rival Balkan states (when the confederates quarrelled over the spoils of victory the following year). It was an altogether bigger challenge to take on Austria-Hungary, which was not only a more formidable military opponent, but also happened to be the principal market for Serbia’s exports.

The Balkan Wars had revealed both the strengths and the limits of Balkan nationalism. Its strength lay in its ferocity. Its weakness was its disunity .The violence of the fighting much impressed the young Trotsky, who witnessed it as a correspondent for the newspaper Kievskaia mysl. Even the peace that followed the Balkan Wars was cruel, in a novel manner that would become a recurrent feature of the twentieth century. It no longer sufficed, in the eyes of nationalists, to acquire foreign territory. Now it was peoples as well as borders that had to move. Sometimes these movements were spontaneous. Muslims fled in the direction of Salonika as the Greeks, Serbs and Bulgarians advanced in 1912; Bulgarians fled Macedonia to escape from invading Greek troops in 1913; Greeks chose to leave the Macedonian districts ceded to Bulgaria and Serbia by the Treaty of Bucharest. Sometimes populations were deliberately expelled, as the Greeks were from Western Thrace in 1913 and from parts of Eastern Thrace and Anatolia in 1914. In the wake of the Turkish defeat, there was an agreed population exchange: 48,570 Turks moved one way and 46,764 Bulgarians the other across the new Turkish-Bulgarian border. Such exchanges were designed to transform regions of ethnically mixed settlement into the homogeneous societies that so appealed to the nationalist imagination. The effects on some regions were dramatic. Between 1912 and 1915, the Greek population of (Greek) Macedonia increased by around a third; the Muslim and Bulgarian population declined by 26 and 13 per cent respectively. The Greek population of Western Thrace fell by 80 per cent; the Muslim population of Eastern Thrace rose by a third. The implications were distinctly ominous for the many multi-ethnic communities elsewhere in Europe.

The alternative to outright war was to create a new South Slav state through terrorism. In the wake of the annexation of Bosnia, a rash of new organizations sprang up, pledged to resisting Austrian imperialism in the Balkans and to liberate Bosnia by fair means or foul….

The Black Hand’s leader was Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, nicknamed ‘Apis’ (Bee), one of seven officers in the Serbian army who were among its founders. It was Dimitrijevic who trained three young terrorists for what was from the outset intended to be a suicide mission: to murder the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne when he visited Sarajevo. The assassins – Nedjilko Cabrinovic, Trifko Grabez and Gavrilo Princip – were sent across the border with four Browning M 1910 revolvers, six bombs and cyanide tablets. As if to entice them, the Archduke chose to visit Sarajevo on the anniversary of the fourteenth-century Battle of Kosovo – the holiest day in the calendar of Serbian nationalism, St Vitus’ Day (Vidovdan).

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