World War II Series (Part Four): The Impact of Communism

Throughout this discussion, a great, red elephant has been standing in the room. Communism. This blog has touched on this topic numerous times throughout the discussion of World War II. This blog post went into details about the ideology of communism and socialism, and how these gave rise to fascism. A fear of communism pervaded the entirety of the 20th century, from the 1905 Revolution to the Cold War. This blog post with detail with the impact Communism had on World War II.

 Artistic depiction of the Bolsheviks, ca. 1920.

Artistic depiction of the Bolsheviks, ca. 1920.

Ideology and Communism’s Beginnings

Communism as we know it today was created by two Germans, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marx and Engels subscribed to a philosophical ideology called Dialectical Materialism. This meant they believed all matter comes into being as a result of conflict. The conflict in question during the late 1800s was the Industrial Revolution and the capitalist economy it produced. The most important facets to understand are its ideas about class systems and redistribution. In capitalism, the bourgeoisie (boor-zhwah-zee), or owners, profit off of the proletariat, or the working class. Marx and Engels believed that the proletariat would overthrow the bourgeoisie. This was often referred to as “seizing the means of production,” so that they would receive the profits of their own labor.

In pure communism, concepts of currency and ownership are completely absent. This is the end goal. And there have existed no communist countries in history. The countries we know as communist now or in the past have only ever achieved socialism. Socialism is considered the stepping stone to communism. Socialism means everyone gets an equal share of profit and property. Wealth is redistributed. Everyone works to the best of their ability and receive based on their need (rather than their contribution). It should be noted, however, that communism has historically led to lower standards of living. It takes away a primary incentive: greed, to work harder than is necessary.

The Days Before the Revolution

20th century Russia has become almost synonymous with communism. However, the story of the Russian Revolution begins in the 19th century with Tsar Alexander II of the Romanov Dynasty. On March 13th, 1881, Tsar Alexander the II was fearful of possible assassinations. The recent inventions of the revolver and dynamite made it much easier for inexperienced assassins to make an attempt on his life. At this time, Alexander II rode in a bulletproof carriage, which did not protect him from an explosion planted by a group called the People’s Will. This assassination was made in an attempt to overthrow the tsarist autocracy and incite a peasant uprising. It did not have these desired results, though it did set the tone for the rest of the Romanov dynasty. These assassins were hanged and Alexander III ascended to the throne.

Alexander III, while instituting industrialization reforms, was still tsar of a disillusioned country. Although the serfdom (a form of hereditary slavery) had been abolished, the middle class had no form of political power or voice at all. Defeat in the Crimean War against the British and the French also threw into sharp relief Russia’s technological failings. Marxist doctrine began to disseminate through the discontented masses of Russia. These ideologies opposed the Divine Right of the Romanovs to rule with an autocratic fist. They were quickly repressed with the help of the tsar’s secret police. The irony of Marx’s popularity is that Marx himself predicted Russia would be the last place for a communist revolution. Marx doubted the autocracy of the tsardom could be overthrown. He also presumed that a society needs to be capitalist before it could begin the revolution towards communism.

On March 13th, 1887, another assassination was planned - this time on Alexander III at his father’s memorial service. Alexander “Sasha” Ulyanov was one of the plotters on Alexander’s life. Sasha was the older brother of the man who would become Vladimir Lenin. The assassination plot failed due to intervention by Alexander III’s secret police. Sasha and the other perpetrators were quickly arrested. They were sentenced to death, but offered a chance to repent. However, Sasha Ulyanov refused.

It is sometimes a small incident that changes the course of history. When Vladimir Lenin learned of his older brother’s hanging, he tried to arrange transport for his mother to see him before he was executed. He pleaded with multiple individuals, all of them middle-class, liberal bourgeoisie. All of them refused. Some historians say this simple act turned Lenin to the side of the revolutionaries. On May 20, 1887, Sasha Ulyanov was hanged.

Alexander III died of kidney disease at age 49, putting his young and unprepared son, Nicholas II, in charge of the Empire. From the beginning, his reign was plagued with death. At his coronation, people were crushed to death by crowd trying to receive free gifts. In 1904, Nicholas II went to war with Japan, which led to a spontaneous protest in the capital in 1905. This protest ended with Russian troops firing on the protesters. This day came to be known as the Bloody Sunday Massacre. And Nicholas II earned the moniker “Nicholas the Bloody.”

It was around this time that two figures entered the lives of Lenin and Nicholas II that would forever change the course of history. Lenin met a young man who would later go by the name Josef Stalin. And Nicholas and his wife were introduced to a man called Rasputin.

 Political cartoon of the Tsar and Tsarina with Rasputin.

Political cartoon of the Tsar and Tsarina with Rasputin.

Nicholas and his wife only had one son (and four daughters) - Alexei. Alexei was diagnosed with hemophilia, though this was kept secret from few outside of the royal family. Rasputin had a reputation as a holy man and a healer. He was called to Alexei’s bedside when no doctors could stop his bleeding. However, no one knew the nature of Rasputin’s relationship with the royal family due to the secretive nature of Alexei’s disease. His supposed influence over the royal family, particularly the Tsarina, became a hotbed of scandal throughout Russia.

World War I

Please view this video as many times as you require to understand the causes of World War I.

The assassination of an archduke by a Serb caused the beginnings of the First World War. Despite the woeful lack of equipment, Russia joined the war. Soldiers were told to pick up the boots and rifle of the fallen soldiers in front of them. Needless to say, morale amongst Russian soldiers was low. It was also under the advisement of Rasputin that Nicholas II decided to lead the army himself. He relieved Grandduke Nicholas, a more capable soldier, of his duties as head of the army. This also left the Tsarina, who was to some degree under the influence of Rasputin, to run the country back home.

Finally, on December 16, 1916, the extended royal family and the aristocracy grew tired of Rasputin and his influence over the rule of Russia. There are various stories as to how the assassination occurred. Unfortunately, we only have the recollections of the assassins themselves as to what happened that night. Either through incompetence of the assassins or the supposed supernatural abilities of Rasputin himself, it took multiple attempts - poison, shooting, and drowning - to kill the man.

This did not sway the people back to the side of the tsar. Only a few months later would come the February Revolution. This spontaneous uprising forced Tsar Nicholas to abdicate, which left a power vacuum. This was filled by a provisional government, filled with ministers and aristocracy which had been in power under Tsar Nicholas. Their opposition were the soviets, a socialist group with Leon Trotsky, a prominent communist, as one of its key figures. At this time, Lenin was in Zurich, trapped with a belligerent Germany between him and Russia. However, a deal was brokered through intermediaries to get Lenin back to Russia. He could lead the soviets and if they were to come to power, Russia would withdraw from the war.

 The Romanov Royal Family ca. 1913-1914.

The Romanov Royal Family ca. 1913-1914.

Their plans came to fruition, though it took considerably more time than expected. After a failed coup, Lenin’s Bolshevik party managed to begin a civil war in Russia in October of 1917. The royal family, who had been sent to Siberia for protection, were imprisoned and later shot in 1918. Lenin’s promises of an end of Russian participation in World War I won the disillusioned soldiers to his side. It took until 1922 until Lenin’s party was able to fully seize power. Lenin died two years later after a series of strokes.

Prelude to WWII

 “Death to the Bourgeoisie and its lapdogs - long live the Red Terror” sign in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) in 1918.

“Death to the Bourgeoisie and its lapdogs - long live the Red Terror” sign in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) in 1918.

Why did other states fear communism so much that they would allow fascists to come to power? After all, many fascists came to power as the opposition to communism. Many of the excuses for allowing such a party was that it was the lesser of two evils compared to communism. There was a reason behind the name given to the actions of the Bolsheviks during the civil war: The Red Terror.

We are not making war on individuals. We are exterminating the bourgeoisie, as a class.
— Martin Latsis, one of the creators of the Red Terror

The total number of killings during this time are difficult to document, as it took place even in the most remote parts of Russia. Peasants overthrew landowners, clergy were beaten or murdered. It is generally agreed that the estimates range from 100,000-200,000 deaths.

The beast has licked hot human blood. The man-killing machine is brought into motion ... But blood breeds blood ... We witness the growth of the bitterness of the civil war, the growing bestiality of men engaged in it.
— Julius Martov, member of the opposing communist Menshevik Party

The impact of communism was widespread. Other countries feared a violent uprising brought about by communism. This was why ideologies such as fascism were allowed to fester and infect many other economically and politically unstable countries. These fears were not unfounded. Many other communist uprisings appeared throughout Europe, though none succeeded as aggressively as Russia. Russia's communists benefitted from the leadership of Vladimir Lenin. Lenin was intelligent. He used propaganda campaigns, including posters and movies. He sent activists across the country. He instituted a series of reforms based on his belief that Russia was backwards compared to the rest of Europe. He wanted a literate country and sent activists to rural areas to create literacy programs. And also indoctrinating those people to communism. Women were elevated to equal status with men and granted equal pay. Lenin also implemented state-funded infrastructure projects.

Enter Stalin. After Lenin’s death, Stalin became the leader of the Soviet Union. Stalin, too, instituted industrialization projects. In order to get the manpower needed for these projects, Stalin used forced labor of prisoners, who rarely lasted through one year of hard labor. Three million people were shot, exiled, or died in the camps.

 A so-called “Red Train” taking the first harvest of the season from the farmers to Moscow in 1932.

A so-called “Red Train” taking the first harvest of the season from the farmers to Moscow in 1932.

In particular, Stalin wanted to revolutionize farming. The kulaks received the most ire. The kulaks were a class of peasants slightly more affluent than their neighbors. Later, kulak also meant farmers who would refuse to turn their grain over to the government. This attempt at changing the way Russia farmed caused a country-wide famine. Seven million people died of starvation over five years.

Russia was the tantamount example of communism for the rest of the world. Not only did aristocracy and upper classes fear a violent red coup, ordinary people feared the repression and mass deaths. People received news from Russia of deaths from starvation, imprisonment, and from forcible suppression. The progressive reforms, such as increased literacy, equal rights, and industrialization, did little to endear many people to communist ideology. Not when communism became inexorably linked with turn of the century Russia.

This blog post used information from the documentary: The Russian Revolution (which can be found on Netflix) and from the documentary: Communism: The Promise and the Reality (which can be found in parts on Youtube).