The World on Fire: 1919 and the battle with Bolshevism, By Anthony Read

On the eve of the armistice in 1918, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson wrote in his diary that, from now on, the enemy would be "not the Boche but the Bolshevik". Four years later, Wilson, in full dress uniform on his way back from unveiling a war memorial, was assassinated on the steps of his London house. His assassins were not agents of the new Soviet state. They were two Irish veterans of the British Army now fighting for the IRA.

Wilson had not, however, been entirely wrong in his prediction. Like many of his kind, he used "Bolshevism" very loosely to refer to a variety of threats both to the social order at home and the British Empire abroad. In retrospect, of course, it seems absurd to imagine that nationalism in Ireland was "Bolshevik" – the Irish Free State was to become a bastion of Catholic Conservatism, a source of volunteers for General Franco's army, and political ideas for Marshal Pétain's government. But things did not seem so clear at the time.

Political leaders in Moscow hoped to foment revolution all over the British Empire, and a vague awareness of this fact partly accounts for the violence with which the British sometimes reacted. It was no accident that Brigadier General Reginald Dyer led British troops against the Soviet-backed forces of Afghanistan shortly after he had given the order to shoot unarmed Indian demonstrators at Amritsar. In Ireland, defenders of the status quo often imagined that political, nationalist and religious opposition to the British were all pretty much the same; one Belfast Protestant denounced "Papist Bolsheviks".

In some ways, it was the very vagueness and disorganisation of early Bolshevism that made it seem so threatening. After the Second World War, Stalin was a predictable and comprehensible politician. He observed, more or less, the cynical division of Europe agreed with Churchill in 1944. The ruthless discipline imposed on his followers provided the West with a guarantee that there would be no bursts of revolutionary fervour.

After the First World War, everything had been different. The Soviet Union was anything but a great power. Leaders in Moscow had very limited control over their own country. The Russian Civil War was a messy conflict involving numerous armies. It seemed likely that the most important Soviet leader after Lenin would be Trotsky, who believed that the future of revolution lay largely outside Russia.

Communist parties were not yet the disciplined movements – controlled by Moscow-trained ideological robots – that they were to become. Many Socialist parties still encompassed both those who were to pledge loyalty to Moscow and those who embraced democratic politics. In some countries, those who looked to Moscow were not really organised at all. In the US, two different parties were formed – one dominated by English speakers; the other made up largely of immigrants from Eastern Europe.

The porousness of the frontiers between Bolshevism and other political formations meant the capitalist world was uncertain how to deal with it. At first, the US president, Woodrow Wilson, favoured a mild policy. He thought about inviting the Soviets to the Paris peace conference and was not keen on heavy-handed intervention against revolutionary regimes. Churchill, by contrast, thought that dealing with Bolsheviks was a prospect as terrible as "legalizing sodomy".

Since Bolshevism was not clearly defined in the minds of its friends, it was hardly likely to be clear to its enemies. For many, every strike, mutiny or riot looked like a manifestation of the dangerous new creed. A whole range of organisations sprang up to fight against it. The Freikorps in Germany, the Fascists in Italy, the FBI in Washington and the revived Ku Klux Klan in the American South were all products of this anti-Bolshevik fervour.

Whole states – Pilsudski's Poland or Admiral Horthy's Hungary – were pretty much defined by their mission to contain or exclude Bolshevism. Cascades of violence could flow from small causes. The assassination of the Bavarian Socialist Kurt Eisner provoked a wave of killing from both sides – though Eisner was shot just as he was giving up power.

Anthony Read describes these events in a lively book that ranges over Europe and America. One of its great virtues is to remind the reader how much Bolshevism, or the fear of it, suffused places we now think of as supremely placid. There was a naval mutiny at Milford Haven, and Woodrow Wilson was obliged to abandon plans to hold the post-war peace conference in Geneva or Lausanne because there were so many revolutionaries in Switzerland.

What the book gains in geographical scope, however, it somewhat loses in chronological range. The tight focus on a single year, 1919, brings out the peculiar intensity of post-war fear and confusion, but left me wondering about the long-term consequences of revolution and counter-revolution. It is pretty obvious that General Weygand's experience of fighting Bolshevism, in the French military mission to Poland in 1920, played a role in his decision to support the Vichy government 20 years later. But did Weygand's subordinate, Charles de Gaulle, who was to take a very different stand in 1940, draw different conclusions from the same experience?

As for the British, the strangest thing is the way their involvement in the great struggle against Bolshevism just disappeared from national memory. Brigadier Harold Alexander commanded a force of Latvians fighting against Bolshevism in 1919, but I should guess that the officers who served under Alex of Tunis during the Second World War knew less about this episode than they did about their commander's performance in the Eton versus Harrow match of 1910.

Richard Vinen's 'The Unfree French' is published by Penguin

Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Arts and Entertainment
U2's Songs of Innocence album sleeve

tvU2’s latest record has been accused of promoting sex between men

Arts and Entertainment
Alison Steadman in Inside No.9
tvReview: Alison Steadman stars in Inside No.9's brilliant series finale Spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk