John Reed

How Soviet Russia Conquered Imperial Germany

(January 1919)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 40, 5 October 1942, p. 3.
Originally published in The Liberator, January 1919.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

This is the story of how the Bolsheviks helped blow up the Kaiser and then brought the last world war to an end.

It was written by John Reed, the brilliant revolutionary journalist, and author of the famous Ten Days That Shook the World, who lived through the Russian Revolution of 1917 and recorded its stirring events. In the vast socialist propaganda campaign which the Bolsheviks carried on among the Germans in occupied Russia and in Germany itself, John Reed was himself an active participant. His record of that campaign, here reprinted, originally appeared in the revolutionary magazine, The Liberator, in January 1919.

Labor Action in its issue announcing this series by John Reed, published an introductory article which contrasted the behavior of the Bolsheviks of 1917 with the behavior of the Stalinists of 1942. To understand the story John Reed tells, to understand its vital significance as it relates to today, to understand it for what it actually is, an indictment of the Stalin regime written years before that regime was established, be sure to read the introduction in Labor Action of September 21.

(Continued from last issue)

The first week in November there was established in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs a Bureau of the Press, under Radek, and a Bureau of International Revolutionary Propaganda, in charge of Boris Reinstein, of Buffalo, N.Y., in which for a short time I held a position in the English-speaking section. I was succeeded by Albert Bhys Williams who, after the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, became Commissar of the whole bureau, then disguised under the name of Bureau of Political Literature.

We immediately began publication of a series of daily propaganda newspapers. The first of these was in German, Die Fackel (The Torch), issued in editions of half a million a day and sent by special train to the Central Army Committees in Minsk, Kiev and other cities,” which, in turn, by special automobiles distributed them to different towns along the front, where a regularly-organized system of couriers brought them to the front trenches for distribution.

During the daytime, at the official fraternization points, bundles of these papers were ostentatiously carried; and they were always confiscated by the German officers. But at night the real work of distribution began. In isolated spots there were continually secret meetings, at which the bundles of propaganda literature were put into the hands of Germati soldieers At other points Russian soldiers buried bundles of paperjt, in places agreed upon, where they were dug up by the Germans.

Publish Illustrated Paper

After about a dozen numbers the name of Die Fackel was changed to Der Völkerfriede (The People’s Peace). By this time we had daily papers in Hungarian, Bohemian, Rumanian (for the Transylvanian regiments) and Croatian. Williams and I also get out a weekly illustrated paper of four pages for the simpler, less educated German soldiers, called Die Russisch Revolution in Bildern (The Russian Revolution in Pictures). Each number contailed twelve or fifteen photographs of revolutionary events, with a caption underneath of extremely elementary propaganda.

Under a scene wherein a workman is tearing the imperial eagles from the roof of a palace, and the crowd is burning them:

On the roof of a palace, a workingman is tearing down the hateful emblem of autocracy. At the foot of the building the crowd is burning the eagles. The soldier is explaining to the crowd that the overthrow of autocracy is only the first step in the march of social revolution.
It is easy to overthrow autocracy. Autocracy rests on nothing but the blind obedience of soldiers.
The Russian soldiers merely opened their eyes, and autocracy disappeared.

For a photograph of soldiers meeting in a palace: Soldiers have often said: “Those who build the palaces should live in them!”

Here in Russia for the first time you can see workmen-soldiers, whose sweat and labor built the palace, whose blood was shed defending it, enjoying a palace as their home.

And under a picture of the German Embassy in Petrograd was this:

See the great banner. It is the words of a famous German. Was it Bismarck? Was it Hindenburg? No, it is the call of immortal Karl Marx to international brotherhood: “Proletarians of all lands, unite!”
This is not only a pretty decoration of the German Embassy. In all seriousness the Russian workmen, soldiers and peasants have raised this banner. To you German people they hurl back the same words that your Karl Marx gave the whole world seventy years ago.
At last a real proletarian republic has been founded. But this republic cannot be secure until the workers of all lands conquer the power of government.
The Russian workers, peasants and soldiers will soon send a socialist as Ambassador to Berlin, When will Germany send an international socialist to this building of the German Embassy in Petrograd?

Ask For Russian Citizenship

Emissaries were sent out to visit all the German prison camps in Russia and Siberia and encourage the formation of socialist organizations. For this work there were men who spoke German, Hungarian, Rumanian, Polish, Yiddish, Turkish, Croatian, Czecho-Slovak and Bulgarian. The response was immediate. In Moscow, for example, ten thousand German and Austrian prisoners organized along Bolshevik lines and started an active propaganda among their countrymen. Newspapers for the prisoners, published in their own languages, by their fellow prisoners, started up all over Russia and Siberia. The money was furnished by the Soviet government and the whole work was controlled by the Bureau of War Prisoners attached to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This work was so effective that when prisoners were returned to Austria and Germany they were confined for thirty days in “political quarantine camps,” fed and treated well, and “educated” with government promises, patriotic literature and majority social-democratic propaganda.

Hundreds of thousands of these German prisoners and deserters applied for citizenship in the new Soviet Republic. Thousands enlisted in the Red Army; in fact, it was the German and Austrian prisoners who put up the only effective resistance to the imperial German and Austrian armies marching into Russia after Brest-Litovsk ... On May Day, 1918, when Count von Mirbach, the German Ambassador, was watching the parade in Moscow, he was startled to see a company of German soldiers marching with the Soviet troops under red banners with inscriptions in their own language.

Another branch of the Propaganda Bureau work was the reception of deserters, who came across the lines in a continuous stream. They always had interesting information, if it were only how our publicity was going, and what interested the German soldiers most ... But sometimes they came on unusual errands; I remember a delegation from the German troops on the island of Oesel, who wanted literature AND SPEAKERS to take back with them! A couple of sailors who spoke German were sent back with them, smuggled across the lines in German uniforms; they stayed a week and converted about a thousand men.

Back of the German lines, near Kovne, at this time, was formed a camp of mutineers, about fifteen or twenty thousand of them, according to deserters’ stories. They refused to fight and declared that if the front line moved forward they would fire on it. Our delegates made their way across the lines to that camp, with detailed information about the Revolution, copies of Soviet decrees and proclamations. Just before the end of the Brest-Litovsk negotiations the camp was destroyed by artillery fire; but the poison spread.

Make Peace Negotiations Public

During the armistice and peace negotiations, which, at Trotsky’s instance were conducted in the open, the German newspapers intentionally falsified the reports. The Soviet government published daily the correct version in Der Völkerfriede, with which the German trenches were flooded. Proclamations, appeals, decrees, all in German, urging the enemy soldiers to upset their government, throw out the Kaiser, declare a revolutionary peace ... Every day or so General Hoffman threatened to break off negotiations if the Russian troops were not ordered to cease fraternization and to refrain from inciting German troops to revolt. After the armistice was signed, too, the imperial government warned the Soviets that revolutionary propaganda was a violation of the armistice.

To this the Council of People’s Commissars answered by apologies and promises. Krylenko, the Russian commander, publicly ordered that propaganda should cease and privately sent word to the troops to redouble their efforts.

On the 23rd of December the Soviet government passed the following resolution:

Taking into consideration that the Soviet power is based on the principle of international proletarian solidarity and the brotherhood of workers of all countries, that the struggle against the war and against imperialism can only lead to victory if it is carried out on an international scale, the Council of People’s Commissars deems it necessary to come to the assistance of the Left International wing of the labor movement of all countries, by all possible means, including funds, whether the said countries are at war with Russia, or allied to Russia, or occupying a neutral position.
For this purpose the Council of People’s Commissars resolves: That at the disposal of the foreign representative of the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs shall be placed the sum of two million rubles for the needs of the revolutionary internationalist movement.


Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars,
V. OULIANOV (Lenin),
People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs,

By September 1918, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had on its payroll sixty-eight agents in Austria-Hungary and more than that in Germany, as well as others in France, Switzerland and Italy.

(Concluded in next issue)

Last updated on 30 September 2014