The decline of the West and the joy in the East
Interview with Andrzej Chwalba, Polish historian and professor of history at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. Interviewer: Andrzej Zaręba
ANDRZEJ ZARĘBA: The title of your book about the First World War is (Samobójstwo Europy) (The Suicide of Europe). Suicide suggests a certain will and a lack of determinism. Hence my first question: What would have happened on June 28th 1914 had Archduke Franz Ferdinand not been assassinated? Would war not have broken out?
ANDRZEJ CHWALBA: There were many assassination attempts on many important people at that time. There was no month without at least one assassination attempt. In the months before 1914 there were at least a dozen successful attempts, including the killing of the king of Serbia, the king of Italy, the Russian tsar, two US presidents as well as many prime ministers. Based on data from Austrian intelligence, there were eleven attempts to assassinate Franz Joseph – the goodhearted and beloved leader. There were attempts on Franz Ferdinand’s life as well – the June 1914 assassination, as we know, was the successful one.
Would there have been no war? War was unavoidable because Europe reached such a level of mental and emotional preparation that it had to be released. The whole European culture, together with the European avant-garde, was supporting a forceful solution. Europeans had to spill blood as the continent was getting mentally old, not to mention the fact that men were starting to behave like women and Europeans were more and more emasculated. With the arrival of new world powers, such as Japan and the United States, this mental and emotional state was leading Europeans to a calm, but unavoidable death. For this death to not take place – a civil death so to speak – war had to take place. Therefore, maybe it would have appended a few months later, maybe a year or two later, but everything was indicating that this conflict was to take place…
Yet this conflict went beyond the expectations of all sides. To what extent, in your view, was this astonishment? What I have in mind was the technological aspect…
Franz Joseph did not live to see the time, but he and his advisors had a good imagination that allowed them to understand that the oncoming war would be different from any 19th century one which were much easier to predict – one or two battles followed by peace negotiations. The astonishment could have been avoided at least that moment… And there were others who foresaw that the war would be different. Among them, for example, was Jan Bloch – an entrepreneur and pacifist whose works are still talked about and quoted today. There were also some officers (especially British ones) who at the time said the war could last much longer than a few months…
What did they base these opinions on?
According to the British officers and war planners, there was a military and economic balance in Europe, and Otto von Bismarck’s construction had assumed the creation of a balance system that was perceived as well thought-out. However in 1914 representatives of the German elite began to believe that Germany had reached an economic and military advantage to fight for a new division of power, while Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, who served as the Chief of the German General Staff, was convinced that war would be short.
In addition there was also a naval race on the sea, which was irritating the British. Considering this context we can see that Eastern Europe – here I have Russia and Austria-Hungary in mind – did not have much significance in the whole mechanism of establishing a technological base, which later caused terrible destruction.
In terms of industrial potential it was indeed dominated by three countries – Great Britain, Germany and France – but also the United States which at the time was still neutral and on the other side of the Atlantic. It was these countries where new technology was introduced the earliest – and it was the most innovative. They were also decisive in the outcome of the war. Russia’s participation, on the other hand, was much more modest. But we need to remember it was Russia that invented the best gas mask during the war. In turn, it is also hard to imagine better mortars than those produced by the Austrians. The Czech military industry, when it came to the quality of equipment, was among the best in Europe if not the world.
In this context, the question of Russia is crucial. Did the Russians fully realise the threat they were facing? They had great espionage and yet the Romanov Empire was the first direct victim of the war…
They also had great resources – first of all, territory; second, a huge mobilisation capacity. The number of the tsar’s subjects was almost twice the size of the number of Wilhelm II’s. However the Russians believed in the end it would be British and French technology that would change the outcome of the war. Thus, we saw investments in Murmansk’s naval potential and the unsuccessful attempts to neutralise the Turks to gain access through the Turkish straits to the Allies. Third, after the conclusion of the French-Russian alliance, western capital investments in Russia were impressive. This was a very attractive and absorbing market. That is why, in just two decades, industry was developed even though it was in enclaves, but it was very modern nonetheless.
And yet the still frequently repeated myth about the October Revolution is that of an agricultural Russia. It suggests it was the Bolsheviks and Stalin who built industry in Russia. But this industry was there before…
Around a quarter of a million people worked for Petrograd’s industry. The Putilov Company, for example, employed between 12,000-13,000 people during the war. Their field cannons were comparable in quality to the best western artillery that was used in the Second World War. The Russians believed that industry sustained by modern technology would be able to produce as much as was needed for the three or four months of the planned military action. The question is whether some very serious weaknesses were taken into consideration?
First of all, the level of literacy.
How high was it among the recruits?
Among the recruits, on average one in three could read. However the generation of 18-20 year-olds had a higher level of literacy than their grandparents. Unfortunately before 1914, there was no census in Russia and we only have data from the 1897 census.
And the second problem?
The second more serious problem was that Russia paid a huge price for its railway system. Helmuth von Moltke Senior once said that rails will win the war. And indeed Germany created a dense railway network that was a huge advantage during the war. Located in the centre of Europe, they could transfer soldiers to any location thanks to this system. Russian railways were very thin. The negative outcome of that was, for example, the 1917 February Revolution when food could not be delivered from the south of Russia to Petrograd and people were starving. During the war, Russia also had a shortage of trains. While Germans would go to war in trains, at least to the border with Russia, Russian troops often marched on foot to the front.
When did Russia begin to notice Germany’s advantage?
Fairly quickly – as a matter of fact, in 1914 after the lost Battle of Tannenberg and the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes. From that time on, Russian troops would unwillingly attack German forces. They were more eager to attack Austro-Hungarian troops as they had a better chance for victory, especially since in 1914 they had a lot of success in Galicia. They were also not happy in 1915-1916 when they attacked the Polish Legions that – in their view – were the best troops on the Eastern Front.
After the war a book titled The Decline of the West, authored by Oswald Spengler, was published. Spengler was called a prophet, yet it is not too difficult to be a prophet after such an event took place. What, in your opinion, was the situation in Eastern Europe, in the context of Spengler’s announcement of the decline of the West? Was the East part of the West until war broke out?
For Spengler, or for Germans, the East was the East. Russia was a separate civilisation and a separate culture. Spengler and others claimed that war was to revive (and a short war could indeed do that) what was wasted. The war was to make Europeans stronger, both spiritually and militarily, but it led to their psychological and emotional demilitarisation. Hence, there was an increase in pacifism, which was there before the war but did not have much meaning. And it is difficult to understand the history of 1930, including appeasement, without understanding what the First World War was about and how it changed people’s minds and convinced them to be defensive and not offensive. On the other hand, it turned out that a broken Europe was a chance for future totalitarian regimes such as Germany and Russia. Their leaders came to the conclusion that the existing liberal model of power was ineffective. After nations showed that they can say “no” – where the people can debate and vote – they realised they had to take full control of human and material resources; assuming that, in this way, they could save civilisation – namely, the Bolshevik or the German race. A change from an economy of peace to war turned out much easier in totalitarian states where there is no room for discussion. In Soviet Russia a system of total control was established with the aim to save the country from the “decaying West”. Let me add that this phrase was not coined in the 1950s, but as early as the 1920s.
However, Great Britain rose up, but France did not…
But Great Britain was not the same Great Britain. It was not the great empire it was before, as the signal that it could also lose reached the minds of the elite in the colonies. This was a psychological change. Spengler’s The Decline of the West was an intellectual provocation but the amount and quality of discussion it generated proved that Spengler addressed the true problems that existed in Belgium, France, Scandinavia, and Spain. Also in England, although to a lesser degree…
Speaking still about Russia, do you think there was still a chance for democratisation in 1917?
Did Russia have a chance to democratise? Every answer is possible because our conversation is about alternative history. Russia could have probably become democratised had it not been for the Bolsheviks. Yet on the other hand, this new Russia, with its ambition to create a civil and liberal order which emerged after the fall of the tsar, was weak. Alexander Kerensky or Prince Georgy Yevgenyevich Lvov were not politicians who would get enough esteem to introduce comprehensive change, especially as the timing was so unfavourable; the war was still taking place and people were starving.
And the tsar was still alive… Couldn’t the elite have said: “Dear Nicholas, we are sorry…”?
The generals and monarchists, of course, wanted a return to tsarist Russia, but not with Nicholas II. The problem was that the tsar had lost and he was not a good candidate for the monarchists. He signed the act of abdication and after that, knowing him, no matter what we say about him he was a man of honour; he surely would not have wanted to return to power. His son, who was seriously ill, could not do that either. Maybe one of the cousins… But the future of Russia was dependant on a leader who would first get Russia out of the war. Kerensky and his people wanted to continue the war, which was irresponsible. But it was the British and the French who, to a great degree, were responsible for the pro-war policy of the Russian Provisional Government.
Kerensky opted for an offensive in a situation where the rank and file soldiers were murdering the officers, when the Russian army was being demoralised by the Bolsheviks who were calling for peace, and when the power of the individual regiments and divisions was being taken over by the revolutionary councils. Kerensky could count on the newly established Polish I Corps in Russia and the Czechoslovak legions, which were the best formations in the East. Yet for success this was not enough. In this way, it was impossible to implement democratisation. Had there been a deep liberalisation in Russia after 1906 with significant limits to the monarch’s power and assurance of the government’s responsibility to the Duma, then maybe the Bolsheviks would not have taken power.
The idea that Europe after 1918 was in a better position to build democracy also does not encourage a positive answer to the question about the chances of democracy in Russia. The truth is that in some European countries, democratic systems were completely destroyed, while in others they were significantly limited. We saw autocratic tendencies grow in Central and Eastern Europe as well as the victory of totalitarian regimes. Even when states put on the democratic costume, it did not necessarily mean their societies were willing to fully embrace democracy. Millions of Russians were also not ready for a functioning democratic system, because of low levels of education and high levels of illiteracy. It is difficult to build democracy with people who do not understand basic political categories such as constitution, power, state, division of power, etc. Even when they can put letters together to form sentences, they still do not understand the world as they have not seen much outside their communities.
This suggests that the Bolshevik Revolution was unavoidable.
Considering the facts, yes. Kerensky’s Provisional Government was too weak to counteract preparations for a military coup and Kerensky himself did not want to use drastic methods to demand obedience.
He would have to start killing…
Exactly and this is not what he wanted as he thought of himself as a democrat. A people’s man.
However, without Lenin and this complete political deconstruction, was any other form of political arrangement possible for Russia?
This is a difficult question to answer because, again, we are entering the waters of alternative history. Certainly, the decomposition of the Russian state was an opportunity for the Bolsheviks. That is why in the years 1914-1915 Lenin did not have much chance to start a revolution. He had to wait for momentum. The February Revolution in 1917 generated the energy of the masses and helped a lot. Yet, later came a time of anarchy and chaos. The greater the mess, the higher the chances of the Bolsheviks to gain power. Their seizure of power in the councils (soviets) and the army, the creation of the secret units of the Red Army gave the Bolsheviks an advantage over the Provisional Government before the revolution broke out. Thus, the revolution was just the icing on the cake. In the autumn the government had no control over the problem it, to some degree, generated. That is why the Bolshevik takeover of power in November 1917 was not a complicated operation. It was much harder to maintain it.
Russian historical policy today is based on the thesis that had there not been the bad Bolsheviks, the Christian-Tsarist order would have survived.
Such significant events like a revolution greatly depend on its leaders. This was the case with the French and English revolutions. The revolutionary process has to be set off, but the leader has to have the tools available. At the same time, he or she needs to know that the situation is mature enough – this is something the leader needs to determine. Of course, it just happens to be the case that someone like Lenin was born in Russia and was gifted with strategic talent. He knew the right moment to take power. In the political bureau of the Bolshevik party, there were differences in opinions: should there be a revolution or not, even though power was there for the taking.
The Bolshevik revolution was not made by millions of people. It was a Blanqui-style revolution. A few professional revolutionaries obtained power from the state. They hung red flags and announced the establishment of a new state. Millions of people just accepted it, believing that Lenin saved Russia from anarchy and a war of all against all. The revolution, and personally Lenin, also received help from Germany, which allowed him and his colleagues to return to Russia through Germany and to develop, with German financial support, active revolutionary propaganda which was to destroy the Russian state and army from within.
But perhaps without this mess there would not have been an opportunity for countries like Poland to regain independence?
Indeed a vacuum emerged in Central and Eastern Europe, and somebody had to fill this vacuum after the Austrians retreated. It would have been a disgrace if we had not used this opportunity, as we would have acted to our own disadvantage, just like other nations in our region.
In other words, the collapse of empires was a necessary condition for the independence of countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia and Ukraine?
The collapse of the Habsburg Empire and the problems in Russia created a favourable environment for the nations of “our” Europe. That is why it was possible to build a new political architecture.
Let us imagine there was no war. The Russian Empire and the Habsburg Empire survived. Would it have been possible, then, to create some kind of conditions to negotiate and discuss the Polish question?
Most likely, no. The Poles were not a subject in international relations, neither were the Czechs, nor the Slovaks, nor the Lithuanians or the Finns. If the future of the continent had been decided by one of the major powers of Europe, they would not have wanted significant changes as it was simply not in their interest. The 1815 Vienna System had indeed failed, but the idea that a large power decides what happens in Europe remained. As a result, there was no room for such dreamers like Józef Piłsudski had the war not taken place.
This is probably why there was a fundamental difference in interpretations of the war in the East and the West. The memory of Western Europe is a tragic one.
Yes, that is why later on pacifism became popular in France, while the war, despite the destruction, was celebrated in the East. It was a joy for the people who lived in mud huts. The people understood the value of having their own state.
Translated by Iwona Reichardt
Andrzej Chwalba is a Polish historian and a professor of history at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. He has written dozens of books on early 20th century history in Central and Eastern Europe, including Samobójstwo Europy. Wielka Wojna, 1914–1918 (The Suicide of Europe: The Great War, 1914-1918).
Andrzej Zaręba is completing his PhD in military history at the Jesuit University Ignatianum in Kraków. He is also the illustrator for New Eastern Europe.