John Reed

How Soviet Russia Conquered Imperial Germany

(January 1919)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 41, 12 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.

(Concluded from last issue)

Of course, most of the attention of the Bureau of International Revolutionary Propaganda was concentrated on the Central Powers. A weekly magazine in French-English was planned, as well as an Italian weekly, but never carried out. For one agent in the Allied countries, the Soviet government had fifty in Germany and Austria.

The Central Powers were Soviet Russia’s greatest menace. It was utterly impossible for Imperial Germany and Socialist Russia to exist side by side. Imperial Germany must be destroyed – and quickly. But while in Germany there existed the most sinister enemy of the Russian Revolution, on the other hand in Germany was also Russia’s greatest potential ally – a working class well trained in the fundamentals of Marxian doctrine, and better organized than any other in Europe.

This condition determined somewhat the form of Russian propaganda. It was all aimed at the German workers and soldiers. It would not do simply to cry out against the Kaiser and the Junkers; that is the truck of the bourgeoisie, practiced for four long years in the name of “democracy” by all the imperialists of the Western nations. The German workers were too well educated to be fooled by that. Propaganda had to be international, AGAINST ALL BOURGEOIS IMPERIALISTS, with special emphasis on the “secret treaties” and the imperialistic designs and actions of the Entente.

But the Bolshevik attack on the Kaiser and the German Junkers did not cease, for all of that ... In the first number of Rabotchii Soldat, organ of the Petrograd Soviet, published October 31, 1917, occurred the following paragraph:

The German Kaiser, covered with the blood of millions of innocent dead, wants to hurl his army against Petrograd. Let us call to the German workmen, soldiers and peasants, who want peace not less than we do, to ... stand up against this damned war!
This can be done only by a revolutionary government, which would speak really for the workmen, soldiers and peasants of Russia and would appeal over the heads of the diplomats directly to the German troops, fill the German trenches with proclamations in the German language ... Our airmen would spread these proclamations all over Germany ...”

This was one week before the Bolshevik insurrection. Eight days later, in an appeal to the German soldiers, the Council of People’s Commissars said:

Brothers, German soldiers! The great example of your comrade, Karl Liebknecht, the most eminent leader of international socialism, the persevering and long-continued struggle which yon have conducted by publishing newspapers and pamphlets, by numerous demonstrations and strikes, the struggle for which your government has thrown into prison hundreds and thousands of your comrades, and lastly, the heroic revolt of your sailors of the fleet serve as a guarantee to us that the mass of the working class of your nation is ready to enter the decisive struggle for peace.
Hasten to our assistance! In the name of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Government we guarantee that our soldiers shall not move one step forward if you decide to take in your hands the flag of peace, and even if the struggle for peace inside your country takes away part of your forces from the front ...”

After Brest-Litovsk, according to the provisions of the treaty, the Bureau of International Revolutionary Propaganda was abolished. But the first act of the new Council of People’s Commissars was secretly to reorganize this work, appointing an unofficial committee to take charge of it, and appropriating for this purpose twenty million rubles.

Revolutionists at Russian Embassy

At the same time Adolph Joffe was made Ambassador to Berlin. In his suite were ten expert propagandists who spoke German. They bought bicycles, on which they began a systematic tour of the country, organizing, spreading the word, preparing. The three million Russian prisoners were reached. Two of these couriers were caught and expelled from the country. Joffe was repeatedly warned by the German government, repeatedly apologized, and kept on.

His first act in the German capital was to hoist over the Russian Embassy the Red Flag, lettered with the device of the Soviet Republic: “Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic. Workmen of all countries, unite!” He refused to present his credentials to the Kaiser and invited to his first state banquet Haase, Ledebour, Dittman, Franz Mehring, Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin and Karl Liebknecht (then in prison).

The first act of the new German coalition Ebert government was to expel Joffe from Berlin – as was natural. However, he was invited to return a week later by the Berlin Council of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, and did so. Upon his release from prison, Karl Liebknecht, his flower-filled carriage escorted by hundreds of thousands of workers, went straight to the Russian Embassy, from the balcony of which he made a speech, saying that it was now time that the German people followed Russia’s example.

The New York evening newspapers of November 25 reported an address of Liebknecht’s before the Berlin Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council, upon the night of the overthrow of the coalition government.

Did the bourgeoisie while in power permit you to have a voice in the government? No! Then the workers must not allow it to have any say now. We need a government of soldiers and workmen, one typifying the proletariat, which will not have to bow down before the Entente.
There must be no dickering with Entente imperialism. We will dispose of that just as we did with German autocracy. The revolution is bound also to reach the Entente countries, but we, who made the Russians waste a whole year, are insisting that the revolution break out in England and France within twenty-four hours …”

Allied Propaganda Fails

During this same period the Allied governments were conducting an enormous propaganda, not only in the Central Empires, through Switzerland, Scandinavia and Holland, but also in Russia itself. The Russian branch of the American Committee on Public Information spent more than $300,000 in Russia, printing Wilson’s speeches in thousands of copies, producing great moving picture films and hiring Russian propagandists. The French and British governments maintained expensive information bureaus in all countries. In the neutral countries and in Russia newspapers were subsidized and even bought by the Allies, and local journalists were on the payroll of the Allied embassies ...

Why did Allied propaganda fail and Bolshevik propaganda succeed? The reason is simple, especially simple as regards American propaganda: The masses of the war-weary people of Russia and of the Central Powers were socialists. They had been educated to look forward to the social revolution, the destruction of the bourgeoisie, the public seizure of land, industrial plants and financial institutions. They were fundamentally trained to see in the war a simple clash of capitalistic interests ...

Allied propaganda harped on patriotism, on the advantages of the bourgeois political democracy; its language was the language of eighteenth century political economy. It showed hatred of socialism only less than its hatred of Kaiserism. American propaganda advocated the American form of government as the social and economic millennium. In America there was free speech, free press and universal wealth. By editing and perverting the words and deeds of real American socialists, it was proved that we had gone back on our internationalism, that we were heart and soul with the government. This was done in the case of Eugene Debs, Max Eastman, myself ... The activities of Gompers, Walling, Russell and Spargo were played up. Boasting about America’s part in the war, statistics, moving pictures showing the amount of gold bullion in the vaults of the United States Treasury ... all these phases of political and economic life which the Russian and German people had been working to get rid of for decades were displayed to them ... Root was sent to Russia. Frank Bohn was sent to Switzerland to get in touch with the Germans ...

In all these efforts at creating pro-Ally sympathy in the “hostile” countries, socialism was let severely alone. Only the most reactionary pro-government majority socialist groups in all countries were thought worthy of influencing. The liberal republican movements were fostered. Purely nationalist sentiments were encouraged in all the little oppressed countries.

To Allied propagandists the most effective weapons were President Wilson’s speeches, which the revolutionary working class of all countries refused to trust, and which did not interest them much anyway ...

Last updated on 30 September 2014