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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