In a single-carriage train at Gottmadingen, a tiny hillside station on the German side of the Swiss border, one of two German officers drew a line across the floor of the carriage corridor. This chalk divide would have the status of an international border, and if the carriage’s most notorious passenger stepped across it, he would be committing treason.
The passenger was not unduly alarmed. These were his own terms, in a deal made with the German Kaiser during brief moments in April 1917, when the two men’s short-term interests were suddenly aligned, and they conspired to change history.
The train that pulled out of the station at 3.10pm on the afternoon of Monday 9 April was like a missile, launched by the Germans, that would travel the long way around Europe to Russia, where it would deliver its incendiary human payload: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.
There had been a revolution in Petrograd (as St Petersburg then was) the previous month, fuelled by the deaths of more than 3 million soldiers in a war Russia was losing. But Lenin could only read about it via the newspaper-sellers on the shores of Lake Zurich in Switzerland. Like many Russian exiles, he had spent the war all but a prisoner there, in a neutral country hemmed in by enemy belligerents. He had to get back to Russia.
Meanwhile, in the war rooms of Paris, London and Berlin the events raised an urgent question: would Russia stay in the war?
Lenin had been agitating for peace, and loudly, for years. If Russia withdrew, it would shut down the Eastern Front, and the million German men stationed there could turn round and head west, to where the Americans were suddenly heading – having dramatically entered the war that week.
Consequently, Germany wanted “the highest possible amount of chaos” in Russia, according to its Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmermann. “It is in our interests that the influence of the radical wing of the Russian revolutionaries should prevail,” he wrote.
Both Lenin and the Germans wanted the same thing; and, via the Swiss Social Democrat Fritz Platten, a deal – extraordinary in both its grand intentions and its tiny details – was carefully brokered: the sealed train. It would be a rolling Russian Embassy – albeit a renegade one – that would carry Lenin and 30 other members of Russian dissident families the full length of Germany (Russia’s enemy) before heading by ferry to Sweden, then the long way up and down Scandinavia into a tempestuous Petrograd.
It was the greatest risk of Lenin’s life. He had been agitating for revolution in Germany, and yet here he was placing himself in the hands of the Kaiser. More importantly, the new government in Russia wanted to continue the war. Collaborating with the enemy to bring about peace was treasonous.
People-smuggling is a constant feature of times of conflict; so is treason. But it is rare for men, and indeed whole families, to be smuggled from safe havens, across war zones, and triumphantly back to the country against which they are conspiring.
As news of the journey emerged, the public train that had carried the conspirators from Zurich to the Swiss border had been met by a crowd of 100 or so Russians, who had called them, among other things, “provocateurs”, “spies”, “pigs”, and “traitors”.
“They’re going to hang you like German spies,” one spectator shouted.
That was why the train had to be “sealed”. Its passengers had to be able to insist that they were not German agents, but simply relieved emigrés finally free to come home.
Several accounts of the journey exist from co-passengers, including Lenin’s wife Nadya Krupskaya and his probable mistress, Inessa Armand. It is recorded how Lenin’s hatred of smoking forced smokers to light up in the solitary toilet, until that in turn angered those waiting to use it for its primary function. He also became intensely agitated at the loud singing and merriment from many of his fellow passengers.
At Frankfurt Station, something of a dressing-down was passed on from the German officers, via their Swiss go-between, over the loud singing of “The Workers’ Marseillaise” – a Russian revolutionary song set to the tune of the French national anthem – as they waited to depart. Germany was very much at war with both France and Russia, so the sound of the former’s national anthem sung in the latter’s accent could rightly be construed as inflammatory.
There was also a 20-hour lay-over in a railway siding at Potsdam Station in Berlin, where those more susceptible to such theories claim Lenin was handed the equivalent of 40 million deutschmarks in gold by German authorities – equivalent to hundreds of millions of pounds today – which would fund the October Revolution that he would eventually lead. (It is highly likely the Bolsheviks received funding from Germany, but highly unlikely that the methods used were this direct.) As the train chuntered along for long days and nights, concerned telegrams zipped around the globe between London and Berlin; Stockholm and Petrograd. Would the travellers be accepted by the Swedish authorities? Would Russia’s new government turn them away? To further complicate matters, at Halifax, in Canada, another “revolutionary leader”, called Leon Trotsky, had been arrested and temporarily detained.
The liberals in the new government feared – rightly, it transpired – that Lenin was coming not to consolidate the revolution but to lead a new revolution. Efforts were therefore made to undermine him – leaking information to the press, with instructions to “stress German involvement”.But it was ineffective.
On the final leg down to Petrograd, at seemingly every station, the train was met with cheers and hands reaching through the windows. Occasionally Lenin gave short speeches in return.
By this point, his major fears were over, but entertainingly minor ones lingered. It was Easter Monday now, a week since they had departed, and it was clear they wouldn’t be arriving at Petrograd’s Finland Station until late at night. Would they, Nadya Krupskaya wondered, be able to find a carriage to take them to where they were staying?
They needn’t have worried. “The throng in front of the Finland Station blocked the whole square, making movement almost impossible and scarcely letting the trams through,” recorded NN Sukhanov, a leading chronicler of the Russian Revolution who was waiting there that night. “Troops with bands were drawn up under red flags near the side entrance, in the former imperial waiting-rooms.”
The ensuing months would be momentous for Lenin (and disastrous for the Kaiser) But, for now, as Lenin was swamped and overwhelmed and tried and failed to give several short speeches, the bands played “La Marseillaise”. And, this time, there were no Germans around to tell anyone off.
‘Moments’ that have already been published can be seen at independent.co.uk/greatwar
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