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The German Plot Theory

Lenin at Stockholm Cetral Railway Terminal on his way to Russia, 31 March 1917

Controversy over the October Revolution has also given rise to a number of conspiracy theories. The most influential of these - the German plot theory - was  expounded by George Katkov, a Russia émigré writer.  He was convinced that the Revolution in Russia was brought about by the machinations of the German Foreign Office and military High Command, which financially underwrote the subversion of Russiaís war effort as part of their clandestine policy of fomenting social and economic unrest in the enemy country.


The relationship between the Bolsheviks party and the Kaiserís government during the First World War has long been a puzzle for historians. From time to time sensational pieces of information would surface indicating that the German government, interested in weakening  the Russian Empire and taking it out of the war, financed the activity of those socialist parties in Russia which waged a sustained propaganda of defeatism.  In the second half of 1950s certain documents came to light which allowed scholars to probe more deeply into the question of the German money and of the legendary Ďsealed trainí in which the group of Russian Bolsheviks under the leadership of Lenin returned to Russia in early April 1917.

The subversive activities of Germany in relation to Russia were part of Germanyís more general strategy aimed at weakening its adversaries. Its so called Ďpeaceful propagandaí was directed not just at Russia, but also, for example, at Romania, Italy and France. Tens of millions of German marks were spent just to bribe four French newspapers. In Russia, the only paper which appears to have accepted the German money in 1917 was Leninís Pravda.

It was therefore natural for the German government to see a revolution in Russia as a very desirable outcome of its overall subversive strategy. It had every reason to hope that the revolution would lead to the disintegration of the Russian Empire, its withdrawal from the war and the conclusion of a separate peace treaty promised by the revolutionaries in the event of their coming to power. By 1917 Germany badly needed peace with Russia, for it could no longer afford to wage war on the two fronts.

Thus, gambling on a revolution in Russia, the German government had chosen to support Leninís grouping in the days and weeks most critical for the survival of the Provisional Government and helped Lenin and other Ďdefeatistsí to travel across Germany and Sweden and eventually reach Petrograd. The October uprising did not take the German government by surprise. Rightly or not, it viewed the events in Russia as a result of its own subversive strategy. 

However, Germany would never have achieved its objective so easily if the interests of the German government had not dovetailed with the plans of the other interested side, i.e. of the Russian revolutionaries-defeatists, among whom Leninís Bolsheviks represented the most influential faction. The German government and the revolutionaries had certain common goals in the war. Both Germany and Leninís Bolsheviks wished for the defeat of the Russian government. Both Germany and the Bolsheviks worked for the disintegration of the Russian empire. The Germans wanted it, because their aim was to weaken a post-war Russia; the revolutionaries, among whom there were many representatives of ethnic minorities such as, Jews, Poles, Balts, Georgians, Armenians, regarded the growth of nationalist separatist tendencies as an integral part of the revolutionary  movement.

But while converging in some points, the aims of Germany and of the Russian revolutionaries were completely different in others. Germany viewed the revolutionaries merely as a tool of subversion to be used to achieve the withdrawal of Russia from the war. It had no desire to help sustain socialists in power in Russia after the war was over. As for the Russian revolutionaries, they regarded the assistance offered by the German government as a means of  achieving a revolution in Russia and even in the whole of Europe, and, in particular, in Germany itself. The German government was aware of the socialistsí plan to attempt a revolution in Germany. And the Russian revolutionaries knew that the German government would do everything to prevent German socialists from coming to power in Germany and yet would cynically use Russian revolutionaries to achieve its military objectives. Each side hoped to outplay the other. In the final count, it was Leninís Bolsheviks who outplayed the rest. As a man, totally dedicated to the idea of revolution and the seizure of power in Russia, Lenin was prepared to accept any help from any quarters to bring closer the cherished goal of revolution.

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