To Be Held Against Us – Russia’s First World War & The Process of Unforgetting

To mark the 100th anniversary of World War I, Russia is trying something totally different. They are actually erecting monuments commemorating their involvement in the war. The first ever national monument for the war on Russian territory has just been dedicated in Kaliningrad. This is rather astonishing. After all, more than nine million Russian men were killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoners of war. That total was greater than the entire population of such wartime belligerent nations such as Canada, Australia, Serbia, Romania and Belgium. Despite their suffering, Russian soldiers did not get a single national monument to memorialize their sacrifice.  This was a direct result of the Russian Revolution and creation of the Soviet Union which followed. The Bolsheviks would not allow any commemoration of the conflict which they termed a capitalist war. Conveniently they ignored the fact that the war caused dissension, bitterness, political upheaval and starvation which led directly to the Revolution.

The First Russian National World War I Monument in Kaliningrad

The First Russian National World War I Monument in Kaliningrad

Held Against Us – The Russian World War I Experience
How the Russian experience of the war would be viewed was accurately predicted by at least one officer during the conflict. In the dark days of December 1916, just months before the first revolution took place, a Russian General told his soldiers, “I have a feeling that, after all this is over, we are not going to be thanked for all the hardships and privations which we are going through now. Rather, that this is all going to be held against us.” Those words predicted both the immediate and long term remembrance of the First World War in Russia.

As Catherine Merridale states in her classic work Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth Century Russia, “It (World War I) shaped the way even the revolutionaries saw their world, colored their view of death, brought millions of their future subjects into contact with violence and fear for three long years before they came to power and brought it to an end. It claimed not tens, but millions of lives. Because it was not commemorated after 1917, however, it vanished from the Bolshevik foundation myth. Few stories illustrate the power of social memory more clearly. There is no Soviet National Monument to the First World War.” The vast and dramatic effect of the war on Russia and what would become the Soviet Union are not in dispute. It is hard to imagine that without the cataclysm of World War I, Russia would have had the type of revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power. Russia may well have had a revolution anyway, just not one that would turn out to be as radical and deadly. The war had set the precedent for what was to come.

Russian Troops marching toward the front - gone and nearly forgotten

Russian Troops marching toward the front at the start of World War I – gone and nearly forgotten

Konigsberg to Kaliningrad – The Prize & Price of War
It is fascinating that the first Russian national monument to the war has now been placed in Kaliningrad (Konigsberg, East Prussia during the war). Ironically this was a place the Russians were never able to occupy during the war. Early on, they attempted to besiege the city, but their effort was short lived. The Battle of Tannenburg further to the south destroyed the entire Russian Second Army. The First Army, which was given the job of investing Konigsberg then found itself in a fight for its existence. It soon gave up a siege which had barely begun. Soon the Second Army lost the First Battle of Masurian Lakes, causing a Russian retreat from Prussian soil. They would not return again until exactly 30 years later, now as the Soviet Army, during one of the final campaigns of World War II. Once again they found themselves on Prussian ground and this time they made sure it was the last. Within a year of their arrival, Prussia ceased to exist. Konigsberg was soon renamed Kaliningrad. Even after the Soviet Union crumbled, the Russians kept this exclave of territory as a lasting prize from the Second World War. Konigsberg had been the seat of power for Prussian kings throughout the centuries. It was said to be the heart of Prussian militarism, a scourge that had scarred Russia and the Soviet Union badly in each of the two wars. By imposing Soviet style communism on it, they eradicated nearly every lasting vestige of its former Prussian self.

A remnant of Konigsberg still exists with the Old Cathedral - Kaliningrad looms in the distance

A remnant of Konigsberg still exists with the Old Cathedral – Kaliningrad looms in the distance

The Process of Un-Forgetting
The brand new, eleven meter high monument in Kaliningrad now stands as a testament to both the various groups who sacrificed so much during the war and also a process of un-forgetting that is slowly taking place. Three soldiers are portrayed: a nobleman officer, a peasant and a third who represents governmental workers and lower court officials. It suggests commonality, a shared unity among all three groups that must have been present to a greater or lesser degree throughout the first two and a half years of the war. That unity eventually frayed as the empire suffered one catastrophe after another. It is hard to imagine how any other state could have stayed together under the circumstances. Considering the millions of lost lives, it is even harder to imagine how it lasted as long as it did. The eleven meter high monument is one of several that will be dedicated this summer. The piece de resistance will be unveiled this August in Moscow. These monuments can never make up for lost time, but at least do a bit of justice to the memory of millions who lost their lives.

Winning the Peace, Losing The War – The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk & German Empire In the East

Anyone studying the causes of World War II soon finds themselves going back to the aftermath of the First World War. Specifically, the Paris Peace Conference which negotiated among other things the Treaty of Versailles, which set the terms of peace between the Allies and Germany. The German reaction to this so called “unjust peace” is well known. Among other things, Germany was forced to pay reparations for war damages.  Humiliatingly, they also were forced to accept responsibility for the outbreak of the war. The treaty was used as propaganda by Hitler and the Nazis to build support for a campaign to redress what they considered a grievous wound to German pride. It was one of the leading causes of Germany’s disastrous entry into the Second World War.

Russian delegates who negotiated the treaty arrive at Brest-Litovsk where they are greeted by German officers

Russian delegates who negotiated the treaty arrive at Brest-Litovsk where they are greeted by German officers

The Seed of Self-Destruction
Less well known, but just as important was another treaty that was negotiated not after, but during the First World War, this was the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. It was this treaty which led the Germans to their real doom in the Second World War. The treaty itself actually ended fighting on the Eastern Front, but it was actually just the beginning. The beginning of a much enlarged Germany that occupied all of Ukraine, the Baltic states and even part of Belorussia. This was in addition to Russian Poland, which the Germans already held. The German memory this resulting occupation lasted much longer than the occupation itself. Even though they were forced by the Allies to surrender these areas by the end of 1918, the German interest in expansionism to the East had been piqued. They would be back with a vengeance in less than twenty-five years.

When Hitler stated that the German people needed living space, he knew where they could acquire it, in the east, by taking it from the Slavs. This treaty and its results have often been overlooked by historians. It actually sowed the seeds of destruction for the Third Reich. It led them on an eastern adventure from which they would never recover. It all came rather easily in 1917 and once again in 1941. These gains though, were ephemeral, historical mirages.

Trading Land For Peace
On the other hand, the Bolsheviks who initially gave up so much were the real winners of the peace.
The treaty was negotiated by a Bolshevik government whose main aim was to get out of the war at almost any cost. Lenin believed they could afford to surrender whole swathes of territory at the time. In his mind, the losses would be made up later. The Bolsheviks needed to consolidate the revolution in Russia first and cement Soviet power. After all, Bolshevism was going to foment a worldwide revolution, Germany would come later, the Soviet Union had to come first.

Following the treaty, the Bolsheviks were able to turn their attention back toward home. Eventually – in a very close call – they emerged victorious in the Russian Civil War. As for all the land they given up, much of it was handed back to them by the Allies. Sure they lost Poland, but it was now a republic which stood between Russia and Germany. The Germans would have to go through it first before they could get to the Soviet Union.

By the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk the Germans gained areas of Eastern Europe that had formerly been part of the Russian Empire - these areas had approximately 55 million people, 90% of Russia coal mines and a quarter of its industry

By the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk the Germans gained areas of Eastern Europe that had formerly been part of the Russian Empire – these areas had approximately 55 million people, 90% of Russia coal mines and a quarter of its industry

The World’s Largest Graveyard
Well the Germans did go through Poland and most of western Russia in the first three years of World War II, but all that land turned out to be a deadly lure. The Soviet Union was easy to invade and hard to conquer. What was conquered had to be occupied. Following Brest-Litovsk it took hundreds of thousands of soldiers to occupy these eastern lands, draining the lifeblood from the German Army. It was not much different in World War II, only worse. Not only did the Germans have to occupy the land, they also had to fight off a partisan insurgency fomented by Nazi racial policies. All of that land, all of that living space the Germans had acquired not once, but twice, became the world’s largest graveyard. On it died not only millions of soldiers, but also the German Empire and the Third Reich.

The Treaty of Versailles may have grievously wounded German pride, but the often overlooked Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was just as important. It displayed the true character of German imperialism. The Germans believed they were superior to their eastern neighbors, that it was their right to rule over them. First by treaty and then by arms they brought an occupation about. Both times it ended in disaster.

Without History or Memory – The Battle of Lake Naroch

To both western and eastern Europeans, the Battle of Lake Naroch does not exist. Knowledge at best is limited to a few obsessive World War I aficionados squirreled away in a campus basement of the Russian studies department. At best, they might mention the battle as one of many examples for the gross mismanagement of the war by the Russian Empire.

For those unfamiliar with the Battle of Lake Naroch, it occurred in late March of 1916. The Russian Empire had been asked by their allies, specifically the French, to relieve the massive pressure being placed upon it by the German attack on Verdun. The Russians were not exactly in the best shape to mount an offensive at this time.  They were suffering from an acute shell shortage while in the process of recovering from the defeat inflicted upon them in the Gorlice-Tarnow campaign the previous year. Nevertheless, they agreed to an operation which would draw German forces away from Verdun to the Eastern Front.

Lake Naroch

Lake Naroch

The Worst Time of the Year
Too say that early spring was not the best time of the year for the Russians to stage an offensive would be an understatement. Actually, it is hard to imagine a worse time in western Russia to mount an offensive than the late winter/early spring. This is when the annual thaw takes place. After long, bitter months of cold, the first hints of spring arrive in fits and starts. The frozen ground begins to slowly dissolve into a watery muck. Lake Naroch is located in what is today western Belarus, an area known for its swampy, marsh laden ground. The slush filled muck which materializes each spring brings impassable conditions. Add to this, the fact that Russian roads were notoriously awful, little more than vague tracks in many places. Even good metaled roads would disappear beneath an icy syrup of muddy water. Offensive operations in this environment were nearly impossible.

The Germans opposing the Russians on the Eastern Front understood this. The common Russian soldier who experienced this wasteland first hand must have realized this as well. Unfortunately, the Russian leadership did not. Tsar Nicholas II felt that it was important to support his allies no matter what the cost (this was part of the reason he would lose his throne). The Russian commanders at the front were neither resourceful nor logical. They treated the brave, peasant soldiery with contempt and felt no compassion for these men. This led to one of the worst disasters in a Russian war effort that was filled with them.

German World War 1 bunker on the shores of Lake Naroch

German World War 1 bunker on the shores of Lake Naroch

Five Times the Casualties
The strategy and tactics of the Battle of Lake Naroch need not detain us for long. A few telling details and anecdotes will suffice. Consider that Russian forces outnumbered their German counterparts by three and a half to one, but sustained five times the casualties. Five times! On the very first day of the battle, the Russians lost 4,000 men compared to 200 for the Germans. How did this happen? During the day, Russian soldiers assaulted German positions defended with heavy artillery and machine guns that were calibrated with deadly accuracy. The Russian soldiers did not so much assault as wade into battle. At times, they were up to their wastes in frigid water. Then at night, temperatures would plunge below freezing, cementing the troops to the ground. Companies froze in place and had to be cut out of the ice. They were riven with frostbite. The official figure of 100,000 wounded for the Russians is only a rough approximation. There was no accounting for those who due to hypothermia, frostbite or sickness were rendered useless.

Swallowed by Space and Time
The Battle of Lake Naroch was a disaster, but a relatively unknown one. It could be called “missing history,” as it falls into an abyss of space and time unique to Russia. It was swallowed in the vast spaces of the Eastern Front, where large battles with untold casualties took place. Much of this has been lost to history, as historical consciousness has never really grasped the sheer breadth and brutality of this front. Lost in that space as well, a vast sea of humanity that drowned or froze in the marshes, swamps and slate gray waters of Lake Naroch.

The battle was also lost in time, as it was swept away by the whirlwind of the Bolshevik Revolution. The valor and tragedy so indicative of the Russian soldiers experience in the First World War at battles such as Lake Naroch was eventually written out of the history books. According to the Bolsheviks, these imperialist forces were fighting for the wrong cause, not one worth dying for. Yet the Bolsheviks failed to mention that without the folly of this war, without those men wading into those icy waters, there would have been no revolution.

Missing History
Perhaps the Battle of Lake Naroch is most notable today for what it represents, as opposed to what actually occurred. It represents the folly of war, good men dying for a lost cause. The battle also represents a Russia today – the largest nation in the world – that can be searched across all eight of its times zones, but does not have one official monument to the eight million men who died fighting in the First World War. Now that is truly “missing history.” What a shame that the Battle of Lake Naroch is unknown to the west, what an even greater tragedy that it is unknown to Russia.