For three long years he had been trapped in Switzerland, as much a prisoner of war as the hundreds of thousands of Russian troops languishing in German, Austrian, and Turkish prison camps. Exiled from Russia prior to the start of World War I, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin had found a safe refuge in Switzerland where he continued to coordinate the underground activities of his small Bolshevik Party.
With the onset of hostilities, however, his tenuous links back to Russia grew increasingly fragile. The governments of France and Italy, to the west and south of Switzerland, had arrest warrants waiting for Lenin as an enemy of the Allied cause if he should dare to try and set foot across the border. As a citizen of an enemy nation he would be arrested as well if he headed north or east, into Germany or the Austrian Empire. Contact was reduced to occasional courier messages and coded tele-grams. So he was stuck, seething with frustration as the hated czarist government collapsed in March 1917 and was replaced with a republic headed by Alexander Kerensky. Lenin felt trapped by his circumstances, unable to participate in the opportunity he had plotted more than thirty years for, the establishment of a communist state in Russia.
He briefly considered donning a disguise, attempting a crossing of France with forged papers, and trying to take a boat to Russia from there. An absurd plan since it was assumed that Allied intelligence agents were keeping a close watch on him.
Finally he struck on a plan that had a certain surreal quality to it…he would approach the Germans for help. Meeting with the German minister in Bern, Lenin laid out his proposal…that Germany would provide transport across their country and help to smuggle him into Finland. From there he would go into Russia, raise a revolution, seize control of the government, and then pull Russia out of the war, thereby freeing Germany to turn its full power to the Western Front.
The German minister in Bern, along with his intelligence advisors, must have had a difficult time concealing his grin of amusement over this mad, wild-eyed scheme. It was estimated that the Bolsheviks numbered less than 50,000 throughout all of Russia. Granted, they had created problems for the Kerensky government’s war effort, but the thought of a communist takeover was as insane as Lenin’s proclamation that Germany would fall to communism as well. Nevertheless the decision was made to approve it. At the very least it would provide a bit of consternation for the Western Allies, who were terrified that Russia might bail out of the war and it might even help to trigger further revolts in the Russian army, which was already disintegrating in the confusion resulting from the overthrow of the czar. Lenin and eighteen others were thus sealed into a railroad car, transported across Germany in secret, and then shipped over to Finland. The German minister in Bern, and the military advisors who had approved the project, assumed that this would be the last ever heard of Lenin. Even if he caused a brief disruption, he’d be dead within a month. That in itself wouldn’t have been bad either. At least he wouldn’t be around to create problems after Germany won the war. But, as Winston Churchill later reflected, Germany had “turned upon Russia the most grisly of all weapons. They transported Lenin in a seal truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland into Russia.”
“Never wish too hard for something, you just might get it,” was what more than one German official on the Eastern Front and government representative in Moscow felt a year and a half later. Lenin had indeed pulled it off. When Germany had first presented the bill after the successful coup, with its harsh demands for territorial concessions, including all of the Ukraine, Lenin balked. Finally, the German government was forced to divert forces from the pending offensive on the Western Front to back up their demands, and they renewed operations on the Russian Front in February 1918. A month later Lenin agreed to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The problem, though, was that Germany was now forced to occupy its new territories. Hundreds of thousands of troops disappeared into the east as occupation troops on a little-understood campaign that would take some of them all the way to the Caspian Sea.
By the early summer of 1918 the German government viewed the monster it had created in the east with increasing concern. Though there was allegedly a peace on the Eastern Front, independent Soviets in the occupied territories were talking openly about the pending global revolution and, more shockingly, of Germany as the next target. Increasingly, German troops were getting involved in the secret support of counterrevolutionary White units, a most ironic mix since the Allies were supporting the Whites as well. Trotsky, head of the Red Army, also spoke of the need to liberate the rest of Eastern Europe, and declared that the liberation of Germany was an obligation to their prophet, Marx. Back on the home front, underground communist cells in Germany were looking to Russia for support. In a wild last-minute reversal, the German government now considered a plan to somehow kidnap the czar from the Bolsheviks and put him back on the throne. Before the operation could be launched Kaiser Wilhelm’s unfortunate cousin, along with the rest of his family, were murdered at Lenin’s order. Shortly thereafter the war collapsed on the Germans, and they signed an armistice with the West, an armistice that would lead a year later to the brutal terms imposed at Versailles.
The greatest terror now was not the Western Allies, but rather the specter of a communist revolution imported from Russia. With the signing of the armistice, any attempt to hold the Ukraine, the Baltic states, and what would be the new state of Poland collapsed as well. Throughout the 1920s the majority of citizens in Germany lived in dread of what Lenin had created. Many finally came to think that a strong shield held by an iron fist was their only hope. A disgruntled former corporal, who saw the sealed railroad car as part of the knife in the back of the German war effort, found that this fear of Bolshevism was an excellent tool for recruiting new members to his own political cause, Nazism.
Germany gained nothing, and for the rest of the century most of the world paid a high price for what they unleashed. Without their decision there would likely have been no Communist revolution, probably no Nazi Party, and no Cold War to bankrupt half the globe. As for the minister in Bern, and the intelligence officers in Switzerland and Berlin who had approved the scheme to send Lenin back to Russia…well, all that could be said was that, at the time, they thought they were doing the right thing.