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When the Russian Revolution passed through Berlin

On Easter Monday 1917, Lenin boarded a train that passed through Berlin en route to Russia. With just two weeks left to see "1917. Revolution. Russia and Europe" at Deutsches Historisches Museum, Wladek ruminates on the legend of the sealed train.

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Lenin’s death mask. Photo courtesy of the Deutsches Historisches Museum

The Deutsches Historisches Museum’s 1917. Revolution. Russia and Europe only has a scant two weeks left (it closes April 15). Read one of the stories touched upon at the exhibition and then go check it out for yourself.

Easter Monday 1917 fell on April 9, the same day that Lenin ­– with the help of the German government – boarded a sealed train in Zurich and travelled through Germany (including Berlin). He was on his way to Petrograd (later Leningrad, and today St. Petersburg) where he ultimately led the October Revolution.As part of DHM’s excellent exhibition “1917. Revolution. Russia and Europe”, which is open only through April 15, you can see a tea strainer, a glass and a knife that the revolutionary leader carried with him on the ride. Next to it is a telegram from a representative of the German Foreign Office from April 21, 1917: “Lenin’s entrance into Russia successful. He is working according to our wishes.” A separate memo requests 10 million Marks from the Reich treasury for propaganda in Russia. 

So what is the real story?

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov – better known as Lenin – had been living in Zurich from the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Socialist exiles from across Europe met up in Switzerland to organise resistance to the war.

After two-and-a-half years of war, in early 1917, the revolution broke out in Russia. An armed insurrection swept away the Romanov dynasty, which had ruled Russia for half a millennium. This “February Revolution” installed a provisional government made up of liberal princes and politicians. But some socialists, including Lenin, wanted the revolution to go further.

All of a sudden, Switzerland had gone from being a sanctuary to a prison. Lenin needed to get home right that second – he wanted to lead his Bolshevik party to a second revolution. But how to pass through the warring countries on all sides?

Russian socialist Julius Martov (from the opposing Menshevik party) came up with the plan: ask the Germans for safe passage. Lenin soon agreed that this was their only hope, as he put it – despite the danger that Russia’s new provisional government would accuse them of colluding with the enemy, Germany, during war time.

Fritz Platten, a Swiss socialist, acted as an intermediary with the German embassy. The exiles would pass through Germany in a train – one treated as an extraterritorial entity inaccessible to the German authorities. Passports would not be checked, luggage would not be searched, no one would enter or leave.

Why did the Germans agree to help the revolutionaries? Back then Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau, German ambassador in neutral Denmark, developed a plan to create “the greatest possible chaos” in Russia. Keep the shake-up going in Russia, he reasoned, and they would be unable to continue the fight against Germany. The end goal was a forced peace treaty, separate from Russia’s allies in the entente – England and France.

The Abteilung IIIb, the secret intelligence service of the German army, agreed to the plan and the German embassy finalised the negotiations. On April 9 of 1917, several dozen Russian exiles met on the platform of Zurich’s Hauptbahnhof. These included members of Lenin’s Bolshevik faction, as well as Mensheviks like Martov, activists from the Jewish Bund and followers of Trotsky. To the Germans, they were all the same anyway.

On April 11, the train stopped briefly in Berlin. No one got in or out. And a few scant hours later it reached it’s destination at Sassnitz on the Ostsee, where the passengers boarded a Swedish ferry to Stockholm. From there, they took sleighs to cross the Finnish border. Finally, after exactly one week, Locomotive #293 pulled them into Petrograd.

Lenin’s actions once he got off the train made it clear that he was defintely not a the well-behaved “agent” the Germans thought he was. What did he do when he got back to Russia? Presented plans for a further revolution (later known as the “April Theses”). He obviously didn’t want the German government to win the war. While Germany may have wanted to use Lenin as a pawn, in the speech upon his arrival he emphasised his union with German socialist Karl Liebknecht. If Lenin was a paid agent, he was a double-crossing one at best.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history. Six months later, the October insurrection in Petrograd brought the Councils of Workers’ and Soldier’s Deputies (Soviets) to power.