Imperial Apocalypse World War I

Mobilization, Motivation, and the Staatsidee

One of the pleasures of a forum like this is that an author can see how his or her work is read and used by colleagues in “real time.” John Paul Newman’s comments about mobilization and ideas, more specifically the “limits of the Russian imperial idea to mobilize its peoples,” are particularly interesting for me in this regard. I had not expected this line of analysis, as I have actually long seen this project as a departure from my first book, Drafting the Russian Nation, which was very consciously about the relationship between ideologies and mobilization. Nevertheless, John Paul is right. Ideas – including ideas about empire – were certainly important to the war and to my book.

Which particular ideas were important? For whom? And how did they inflect action during the war years? Let me focus in this post on 1917. One of the points I try to make in my chapter on revolution is that the army’s behavior in 1917 was critical at every stage of the process. This is not a very controversial point. Trotsky said much the same thing. But I also try to show that the revolutionary politicization of soldiers was quite successfully structured around anti-imperial ideas. More specifically, it was centered on the slogan of “peace without annexations or indemnities.” The importance of this phrase and the military-political projects surrounding it is that it made anti-imperialism not just a “peripheral” concern, but a key plank of the Great Russian revolutionary platform as well. So it was not simply, as John Paul notes, that this total war made increasingly unbearable demands on Russian citizens, but it was also the case that the war’s essentially imperialist character was exposed with each passing month. Soldiers preferred defense of the nation to an exploitative German peace (for a year, at least), but they preferred peace to the achievement of imperial goals. Miliukov and Guchkov learned this to their regret as a result of Petrograd street demonstrations in April, 1917. Kerenskii would learn the same through mass refusals to fight in the June Offensive.

These clashes not only revealed the unwillingness of rank and file soldiers to die for the empire, they also showed the strength of the imperial idea among the Russian elite, including most of the (former) opposition. So, in response to John Paul’s query about an “alter-ego” to the decolonizing subjectivity, the (imperial) Staatsidee was certainly present and powerful. How else can we explain the Kadets’ seppuku in the summer of 1917, when they self-destructed over the question of Ukrainian autonomy? How else can we explain the categorical unwillingness to negotiate a separate peace on the part of everyone save the Bolsheviks? The Whites would fight on and on for this idea, not just through 1921 but until the ends of their grumbling lives.

This brings me to a final point, one that isn’t in the book but was spurred by having to answer John Paul’s question here. We have a bit of a conundrum when it comes to Russian soldier “mobilization” and “ideas.” One the one hand, Russian soldiers were successfully mobilized in the Great War, at least in the sense that the overwhelming majority of them showed up to their units and fought when asked to fight. On the other hand, it seems fair to say that their cultural “mobilization” was at best incomplete. Many soldiers deserted or fled to the enemy, they expressed doubts about the wisdom and purpose of the war from its beginning to its end, and they participated in the largest mutiny in history in 1917. Even many of those who stayed in the ranks did not fight for the reasons that they were exhorted to fight for. One way to explain this duality is to argue that they were uneducated, fatalistic peasants prone to buntarstvo, but I think there are more persuasive explanations. In the first place, we have to recognize that questions of “mobilization” and “motivation” are not as straightforward as the words might suggest. Soldiers with little political motivation can fight quite well, and ideological warriors do not always show steadfastness at the right moments. Indeed, once in the colors, political ideas and commitments often begin to pale in significance. Regardless of what a soldier thinks of a war, once he’s in it, the calculus changes. As the inimitable Slim Charles observed, “Don’t matter who did what to who at this point. Fact is, we went to war, and now there ain’t no going back. I mean, shit, it’s what war is, you know? Once you in it, you in it. If it’s a lie, then we fight on that lie. But we gotta fight.”

How do soldiers envision an end to such a war? Even if they’re “fighting on that lie,” they still want to end it by winning, of course. But, and this is crucial in Russia’s Great War experience, it is also possible to envision an end by “not losing” the war. I think it is fair to say that the mass of Russia’s soldiers, and more than a few of her officers, had serious doubts that they could “win” the war in the sense of marching into Vienna or Berlin, especially after the Brusilov Offensive sputtered to a close in 1916. The Eastern Front, as I had occasion to note on several occasions in the book, was a theater that had many tactical successes and failures, but few strategic gains. This experience quite logically would lead to participants seeking a strategy of “not losing” rather than “winning.”

It is, as they say, не случайно, that the two competing slogans of the war in 1917 (“war to a victorious conclusion” and “peace without annexations or indemnities”) mapped exactly onto this distinction. In other words, it need not have been a failure of the “imperial idea” that accounted for the strength of the soldier revolt in 1917. Just as likely, it was the hard-won experience of the conflict itself. Unconditional victory was unlikely. Peace was preferable to war. And if empire was the price to be paid, soldiers were willing to pay it and were willing to destroy imperialist politicians who got in their way.

By Joshua Sanborn

David M. '70 and Linda Roth Professor of History
Department of History
Lafayette College (Pennsylvania, USA)

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