Until a century ago, Karl Marx was an unpracticed intellectual, a prolix babbler who inspired followers and generated movements, but remained an ideal rather than a reality. Then came the Bolshevik Revolution. On November 7 (October 25 on the old Russian calendar), the Soviet Union was effectively born.
This event may have been as momentous as the war that spawned the first communist state. Upwards of twenty million died in World War I at the hands and guns of the combatants. However, the Soviet Union alone killed as many (and perhaps far more) people during its lifetime. Even more died in the People’s Republic of China. In the small Southeast Asian nation of Cambodia, briefly renamed Kampuchea, the radical communist leadership killed between 20 and 30 percent of the population. We continue to live with the consequences of Marxism today.
Life was good in 1914. The industrial revolution delivered entire populations from immiserating poverty. Globalization spread prosperity ever farther afield. Democracy remained limited and fragile, but liberal currents affected even the great autocracies of Austria-Hungary, Germany and Russia. All were evolving, however irregularly, into freer, more prosperous and better societies. The future beckoned.
But on June 28, Austria-Hungary’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the venerable Hapsburg throne, and his wife Sophie were visiting Sarajevo in the recently annexed province of Bosnia. In a plot backed by Serbian military intelligence, the young Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated the pair, setting in motion diplomats and statesmen, generals and admirals, and armies and fleets around the globe.
Governments mobilized their militaries to the applause of their populations, who imagined glory and victory. Many on both sides predicted a quick triumph—a Russian princess gaily forecast, “There’s going to be war. There’ll be nothing left of Austria. . . . Our armies will meet in Berlin. Germany will be destroyed!” However, years of conflict ensued. Trench warfare on the western front created a human sausage grinder. The eastern front remained mobile, but also murderous: the population-rich Russian Empire substituted manpower for technology. Peasants died in a war started by aristocrats for reasons no one truly understood.
This was the central tragedy of the conflict. Before troops began marching in August 1914, common people’s lives were improving. Progress varied by nation and group, but even those at bottom in the great czarist despotism were doing better. Then came the continental war. Economic welfare was sacrificed by the various war machines; blockades, conquest and destruction wrecked once prosperous societies. Lives were sacrificed for no interest recognizable to those doing the fighting and dying. Just why were Germans, French, Britons, Russians, Austro-Hungarians, Serbs, Turks and others confronting each other on the battlefield?
Nowhere was the tragedy greater than in the mysterious, mystical, antiquated Russian Empire. Stretching from Europe to the Pacific, the vast country swallowed and destroyed Napoleon Bonaparte, Europe’s would-be conqueror, wrecking his imperial project. For a long time St. Petersburg was a force of conservatism, even reaction, opposed to Western liberalism and especially the French Revolution.
Germany’s “Iron Chancellor,” Otto von Bismarck, thought similarly while creating the new Prussian Empire. He forged the Dreikaiserbund, or Three Emperors’ League, which drew Germany together with its chief ally—Austria-Hungary—and Russia. Tensions between the latter two caused the arrangement to lapse in 1887, but Bismarck negotiated the Reinsurance Treaty with the czar, which provided for neutrality if either party ended up fighting Austria-Hungary or France. The pact ensured not just stability, but peace, by creating a firebreak to conflict in eastern Europe.
However, the young, bombastic, and unpredictable Kaiser Wilhelm II ascended to the throne and decided to take control. He ousted Bismarck and dropped the Reinsurance Treaty, assuming that Russia would never make common cause with the French Republic. However, the latter, anxious for revenge after losing a war and territory to Prussia in 1871, joined with St. Petersburg, which sought to dominate the Balkans to the detriment of Vienna. The new alliance effectively evolved into an offensive pact, since it would apply even if the treaty members instigated war.
But imperial Russia was a giant with feet of clay. In 1904 it lost an army, fleet and war to Japan in the Far East. Then popular unrest forced Czar Nicholas II to accept constitutional reform, including an elected State Duma. He lacked the intelligence and personality to stem the liberalizing currents; the regime staggered along unsteadily amid peace and prosperity.
Then came June 28, 1914. Russian officials probably knew of the Serbian plot against the archduke, which was an act of state terrorism. St. Petersburg nevertheless backed its small ally against Vienna, which was determined to destroy ethnic terrorists who threatened Habsburg rule. Austria-Hungary followed an ultimatum against Belgrade with a declaration of war, dragging in Russia, which defended Serbia; Germany, which backed Vienna; France, a treaty ally of St. Petersburg; and ultimately Great Britain, on Russia’s side as well. Other nations later joined Europe’s continental slaughterhouse.