November 1917

The October Revolution

By Joanna Sondel-Cedarmas

Between 25 and 26 October 1917 the final and decisive act of the Russian revolution, which had commenced in February of the same year, took place.  The Provisional Government was overturned with relatively little blood being spilled, however before the Soviet Republic could be established, it was to undergo the tremendous turmoil of civil war.

The October Revolution, which led to the fall of the Provisional Government on 25 October 1917 and the Bolsheviks seizing power in Russia, differed considerably from the 1917 February Revolution. As noted by the American historian Richard Pipes, it was in fact a classic coup d’état, carried out with the apparent support of the masses, but without these actively taking part in it. 

Two distinct stages can be identified in the Bolshevik revolution: during the first, which lasted from Lenin’s return to Petrograd in April 1917 up to July 1917, attempts were made to overthrow the Provisional Government through continuous demonstrations in the streets; the second stage saw the delegitimisation of the Provisional Government. In a speech made before the Bolshevik activists on 4 April (the April Theses), Lenin refused to support the Provisional Government demanding that all authority be transferred to the Soviets and announcing the need to move on to the second stage of the revolution. The Bolsheviks made an initial attempt to seize power at the end of April on the pretext of a dispute between the Government and the Petrograd Soviet over the way the war was being waged. The Soviet wanted to continue the war until a victorious conclusion was reached but to end it in peace without any annexations or reparations, while the Foreign Minister, Pavel Milyukov intended to claim the Turkish territories and Constantinople, which had been promised by the Allies in 1915. The Bolsheviks joined the soldiers demonstrating in the streets, spurred on by young officials chanting slogans calling for the Government to resign and for power to be turned over to the Soviet. As was reported by the Commander of the Petrograd military district, General Lavr Kornilov, the Government refused to suppress the demonstrations by force, and order was only finally restored thanks to the agreement reached with the All-Russian Central Executive Committee.

 

The April protests sparked off a crisis within the Government, which led to the creation of a new coalition government headed by Georgy L'vov and included socialist representatives from the Petrograd Soviet. The Bolsheviks remained outside the Government, which gave them the opportunity to present themselves as the only alternative to bourgeois power and depict themselves as the true guardians of the Revolution. Though they could count on much less support than other Socialist parties, they did have the best paramilitary organisation (the Red Guards) and a precise political programme

Thanks to the propaganda campaign carried out by Lenin on the factory committees and amongst military personnel, there was a sharp increase in consensus amongst workers and soldiers. On 10 June the Bolsheviks decided to organise a mass demonstration with the presence of armed militants, which was then cancelled on request of the Petrograd Soviet. Another Bolshevik coup was attempted in July 1917, which exploited the discontent of the soldiers after the government’s decision to send several units from the Petrograd garrison to the front. The revolts led by the Bolshevik military organisation, though ending in disaster, undermined the foundations of the Government and contributed to further consolidate the Bolshevik ranks. 

After the July Days, Lvov resigned and the Prime Minister’s portfolio passed over to Alexander Kerensky. According to Pipes, the new prime minister was more concerned about the monarchist counter-revolution than a possible coup by the Bolsheviks, and underestimated the strength of Lenin’s movement. Due to a controversy with the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, Lavr Georgiyevich Kornilov, who in late August 1917 was accused of treason and attempting to seize power, Kerensky closed down the liberal and conservative clubs in the armed forces. At the same time, in a country where anarchy was rife, and threatened by a new offensive from Germany, support grew amongst the people for the Bolsheviks, who by mid September had a majority amongst the military members of the Soviets of Petrograd and Moscow. In September 1917 Lev Trotsky became president of the Petrograd Soviet. He however avoided taking part personally in the revolutionary uprisings so as to give the impression that the insurrection was a direct expression of the Petrograd Soviet. His position differed from the idea put forward by Lenin, who had taken refuge since 29 July in Finland, and called for armed revolt. In the end, it was decided that the coup would take place on the eve of the Second Congress of Soviets on 25 October while the Assembly would be requested to approve the new state of affairs without opposing it. On 21-22 October the Revolutionary Military Committee (Milrevcom) assumed control over the city’s military garrison on behalf of the Petrograd Soviet.

The final act of the insurrection commenced in the morning of 24 October, when a small pro-government force decided to hold off the attack by the Bolsheviks and guard the Winter Palace, the residence of the Prime Minister and seat of the Provisional Government. These feeble forces numbered a few members of the minor nobility, 140 female soldiers from the Women’s Death Battalion, a group of Cossacks, a unit of bicycle infantry and 40 war invalids. On the same day an order was issued for the arrest of the Bolshevik Commissars. On the night between 24 and 25 October, the Bolshevik units assumed control of the city’s main strategic locations without encountering any resistance. Lenin, who in the meantime had returned to Petrograd, drew up a document claiming the takeover of power (To the citizens of Russia!). 

 

The Provisional Government was overturned and state administration passed into the hands of the representatives of the workers and soldiers of Petrograd. These did not however allow the Soviet Congress to be opened until all the members of the government had been arrested. At 18:30 of 25 October, the revolutionary military committee demanded that the Government surrender. At 21.40, the first blanks were fired at the Winter Palace from the Peter and Paul Fortress and the Aurora cruiser anchored at Novaya. Shots however were fired randomly. The Peter and Paul Fortress artillery fired over thirty shells though only two actually hit the upper floors of the Palace.

On 26 October at 02:10, the Bolsheviks broke through the barricade erected by the nobles and conquered the Winter Palace, arresting the members of the government present. Kerensky had meanwhile fled from Petrograd that morning in the vain attempt to convince the Cavalry Corps stationed outside the city to intervene in the Government’s defence.

In the meantime, in the Columns Hall of the Smolny Institute, the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets of Workers and Soldiers’ Deputies was opened, and approved two Decrees by Lenin, one on peace and one on the distribution of land. The Second Congress concluded with the appointment of a new government – the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom) – led by Lenin.

L'Onta di Caporetto
a cura di Giuliano Casagrande

Cosa accadde a Caporetto? Tradimento o catastrofe militare? Le analisi, le letture militari, politiche o sociali si sono alternate cercando di comprendere il come e il perché di quella immane tragedia. Già allora, nel dicembre del 1917, il parlamento discuteva sulle ragioni della rotta. Dai verbali della Camera emergono nitide le ipotesi e i giudizi che avrebbero dominato il dibattito lungo tutto il Novecento. Si ritrova in quei discorsi il sincero interesse per la salvezza dello stato, nell’impossibilità di ricomporre le distanze tra le fazioni politiche. A quel tempo però recriminazioni e accuse pesavano molto di più: il nemico non era ancora stato sconfitto, era avanzato di cento chilometri e il Piave, non ancora sacro alla Patria, veniva considerato “l’orlo dell’abisso”.

La domanda

“Caporetto! L’immensurabile disastro militare o l’incredibile rotta morale? La tremenda disfatta strategica e tattica, o l’abietto crollo, come lo hanno chiamato i giornali tedeschi, (…) dinanzi al mondo ed alla storia? La sventura delle armi o l’infamia dei nostri armati? Un esercito travolto dopo trenta mesi di pugne gloriose, o l’onore del popolo italiano trascinato nell’ignominia della viltà, del tradimento? (…) Ecco quanto il popolo d’Italia domanda, pretende di conoscere”

On. Pietravalle. Legislatura XXIV – 1° sessione – discussioni – tornata del 21 dicembre 1917 pp. 15335

La dittatura del comando militare

“Il Comando Supremo ha esercitato una innegabile dittatura entro i limiti dell’azione militare. (…) Di fatto si era costituito in Italia uno Stato nello Stato, un Governo sopra il Governo, ad una capitale politica si era sovrapposta una capitale militare: Udine. (…) L’opera della Camera si riduceva a riconfermare o negare la fiducia al Ministero. Troppo poco per tempi così grossi, così irti di problemi, di difficoltà e di pericoli di ogni genere. Questo regime della completa delegazione dei poteri del Parlamento al Governo e – per la parte militare – dal Governo al Comando Supremo ha fatto la sua esperienza. In 30 mesi di prova ha dimostrato i suoi vantaggi e i suoi danni, Non vi è nessuno che oggi osi dichiararsene soddisfatto. La delegazione integrale dei poteri ha prodotto il rilassamento dell’azione, l’addormentamento generale. Il risveglio è avvenuto a Caporetto ed è stato dolorosissimo e poteva riuscire fatale”.

Relazione dell’On. Bevioni citata nell’intervento dell’On. Sanarelli. Legislatura XXIV – 1° sessione – Discussioni – Tornata del 18 dicembre 1917 pp. 15193-15194

I socialisti capro espiatorio

Onorevoli colleghi, noi socialisti riprendiamo un discorso che in verità non credevamo di dover riprendere. Sono i fatti che ci obbligano a fare ciò, che ci suggeriscono una specie di Heri dicebamus. Noi dicevamo: Se i fatti premeranno più fortemente, noi saremo i più fortemente premuti. (…) Onorevoli colleghi, la notizia della disfatta corse, seguita immediatamente dall’accusa contro di noi. (…) Si ignorava ancora tutto quello che si sa adesso, si ignorava ancora e si giudicava e si condannava. La colpa è dei socialisti! L’anima collettiva ha un fondo di infantilità che è la fortuna di tutte le bugie e di tutti i bugiardi. Si disse: complotto per Caporetto, come si era detto: Tradimento per il Trentino (Strafexpedition N.d.r.). Due bugie, e i bugiardi erano coloro che si rifiutavano di credere, coloro che si facevano complici della bugia! Caporetto, Trentino, Ortigara sono le tre croci su cui si è crocifissa la verità e donde bisogna sconficcarla con coraggio.

On. Bentini Legislatura XXIV – 1° sessione – discussioni – Tornata del 19 dicembre 1917 pp. 15254 e 15257

Cadorna unico responsabile?

“Gravi, senza dubbio, furono gli errori del Comando Supremo o, se si voglia personificare quest’organo, di Cadorna; ma io che non l’ho mai conosciuto, che sono a suo riguardo «vergin di servo encomio e di codardo oltraggio» (rumori da sinistra), ho sentito con un certo stupore dai suoi critici e perfino dai suoi laudatori di ieri demolire completamente nell’ora dell’insuccesso la figura di quel Generalissimo, che pure per due anni e mezzo aveva portato a grande altezza il nome d’Italia, e sulla fronte Giulia e sul Carso aveva fatto sventolare vittorioso il vessillo della Patria nostra. (Vive approvazioni). Negarne i meriti significherebbe non poterne valutare adeguatamente le colpe: e tutto ciò sarebbe assurdo. Come sarebbe ingiusto dubitare del valore e delle virtù dell’esercito italiano sol perché in un momento di follia, facendoci perdere le terre sanguinosamente redente e facendo perfino invadere due nostre provincie, ha inferto un terribile colpo al nostro Paese. Caporetto non può cancellare le sublimi pagine di eroismo scritte dai nostri soldati lungo il ceruleo Isonzo o sul verde Carso o sulle nevose vette delle montagne: quegli atti di abnegazione e di sacrificio, che per sì lungo tempo ci consentirono di rintuzzare l’orgoglio del secolare nemico quando volle misurarsi da solo con noi, sono acquisiti alla storia e rifulgeranno nei secoli di purissima luce senza che alcun contrario evento possa offuscarli o velarli. (Approvazioni vivissime).

On. Abisso Legislatura XXIV – 1° sessione – discussioni – Tornata del 19 dicembre 1917 pp.15266-15267

Sciopero militare

“Io affermo ora, (…) che un nesso logico esiste fra la dimostrazione delle donne a Milano, nel maggio scorso, fra i fatti di Torino e i fatti di Caporetto: sciopero di Milano, sciopero di Torino, sciopero militare a Caporetto. (…) Accuso gli italiani di essersi imbevuti delle vuote formule di quella rivoluzione, alla quale in quest’aula inneggiammo da tutte le parti, perché credevamo che avesse potuto assumere la funzione propulsiva che ebbe la rivoluzione francese, la quale non gettò le armi, ma riorganizzò i suoi eserciti per affermare attraverso l’Europa il nuovo diritto del cittadino”

On. Pirolini Legislatura XXIV- 1°sessione – discussioni – tornata del 20 dicembre 1917 p. 15317

Coefficiente di resistenza

“Della rotta di Caporetto fu parlato a lungo, dal dibattito emerse che le responsabilità di essa si distribuivano equamente fra tutti. Non addurrò in proposito che un argomento che mi fu suggerito da un’espressione del collega Albertelli in una seduta del gruppo cui appartengo. L’Albertelli, ingegnere, ci diceva che nell’ingegneria, nella meccanica, si conosce una legge che va col nome di coefficiente di resistenza. Esiste un punto oltrepassando il quale una vòlta, un pilastro, un edifizio può crollare. Che dunque non si oltrepassa senza pericolo. La ragione vera, profonda della rotta di Caporetto, per la parte che riguarda la truppa, è che nel misurare la sua solidità dopo quasi tre anni di sforzo non si è tenuto conto del coefficiente di resistenza.

On. Morgari Legislatura XXIV – 1° sessione – discussioni – tornata del 21 dicembre 1917 pp. 15362-15363

Tutti uniti

“Anche tra le masse operaie (Rumori vivissimi all’estrema sinistra) si è ormai fatta strada la convinzione della giustizia della guerra, e della necessità della difesa nazionale. (…) Del resto, eleviamoci tutti al di sopra di queste recriminazioni sterili e perniciose. Mentre gli austro-germanici sono davanti la Piave non vi può più essere, da Torino a Trapani, che un solo pensiero, quello di difendere la Patria, di cacciare il nemico (Applausi vivissimi a destra ed a sinistra – Rumori all’estrema sinistra).”

On. Daneo Legislatura XXIV – 1° Sessione – discussioni – tornata del 20 dicembre 1917 p. 15322

Gli interventi sono disponibili al sito http://storia.camera.it/lavori/regno-d-italia/leg-regno-XXIV#nav

The shame of Caporetto
Ed. By. Giuliano Casagrande

What happened at Caporetto? Betrayal or military catastrophe? Analyses have alternated with military, political and social interpretations in an attempt to understand how and why this immense tragedy occurred. As early as December 1917, the Italian parliament was already discussing the reasons for the defeat. From the Minutes of the Meetings of the Chamber of Deputies clearly emerge hypotheses and opinions that were to dominate the debate for the whole of the twentieth century.  These speeches reveal a sincere concern for the country’s salvation along with the impossibility of cancelling the distances between the political factions. At the time however, recriminations and accusations weighed much more heavily: the enemy, still not defeated, had advanced one hundred kilometres and the Piave, not yet the Sacred River of the Homeland, was considered the “brink of the abyss”.

The question

“Caporetto! An immeasurable military disaster or an unbelievable moral breakdown? A tremendous strategic and tactical defeat, or an abject collapse, as the German newspapers called it, (…) before the world and in the face of history? Unfortunate weaponry or the infamy of our soldiers? An army swept away after thirty months of glorious fighting or the honour of the Italian people dragged into the ignominy of cowardice, of betrayal? (…) This is what the people of Italy are asking, demanding to know”

Pietravalle MP 24th Term – 1st Session – Round of Discussions 21 December 1917 page 15335

Dictatorship by the Military Command

“The Supreme Command has exercised an undeniable dictatorship within the limits of military action. (…) Indeed in Italy a State had been constituted within the State, a Government above the Government, and a military capital had been superimposed on a political capital: Udine. (…) The work of the Chamber was reduced to confirming or denying the Ministry confidence. Too little for such devastating times, so fraught with problems, difficulties and dangers of all kinds. This regime, which has delegated all Parliament’s powers to the Government  – and as far as military matters are concerned – from the Government to the Supreme Command, has run its course. In this probationary period of 30 months, it has demonstrated its advantages and the damage it has done, Today there is no one who dare declare himself satisfied. The complete delegation of power has led to a slackening in operations, somnolence prevailing. The re-awakening came at Caporetto and it was extremely painful and could have been fatal”.

Report by Bevioni MP cited in the speech by Sanarelli MP. 24th Term – 1st Session – Round of Discussions 18 December 1917 pages 15193-15194

Socialists as scapegoats  

Honourable colleagues, we Socialists take up a matter that, to tell the truth, we didn’t think we would have to deal with again. It is the facts that require us to do so, that suggest to us a sort of Heri dicebamus. We said: If the events come to a head, we will be the ones most seriously affected. (…) Honourable colleagues, the news of the defeat travelled fast, followed immediately by the accusation against us. (…)  Everything we know now was still unknown then, they still did not know and they judged and condemned. The Socialists are to blame! The collective soul has an undertone of childishness that is the fortune of all lies and liars. They said: Caporetto was a conspiracy, as they had said: Trentino (punitive expedition, Ed.) was treason. Two lies, and the liars were those who refused to believe, those who made themselves accomplices of the lie! Caporetto, Trentino, Mount Ortigara are the three crosses on which the truth has been crucified and from where it must be bravely uprooted.

Bentini MP 24th Term – 1st Session – Round of Discussions 19 December 1917 pages 15254 and 15257

Was Cadorna the only person responsible?

“The errors committed by the Supreme Command were undoubtedly serious, or if we want to personify this organisation, by Cadorna; but I, who have never met him, who as far as he is concerned am «Virgin of end-serving praise and the coward’s safe outrage» (noises from the left), was surprised to hear how his critics, and even those who till yesterday praised the figure of that Generalissimo, destroyed him completely in his hour of failure, a man who for two and a half years had held the name of Italy high, and on the Julian Alps front and on the Karst Plateau had waved the standard of our Homeland in victory. (Hearty approval). To deny him these merits would mean being unable to establish who is at fault: and that would be absurd. Likewise it would be unfair to doubt the valour and virtues of the Italian army just because in a moment of madness, by losing for us those lands we had redeemed with blood and letting them go as far as to invade two of our provinces, it has inflicted a devastating blow on our country. Caporetto cannot delete the sublime pages of heroism written by our soldiers along the blue River Isonzo or on the green Karst Plateau or on the snow-clad mountain peaks: those acts of self-denial and sacrifice, which for so long allowed us to keep our pride in the face of our long-standing enemy when he wanted to challenge us alone, are part of history and will shine with pure bright light through the centuries without any incident to the contrary being able to tarnish or overshadow them. (Very hearty approval).

Abisso MP 24th Term – 1st Session – Round of Discussions 19 December 1917 pp.15266-15267

Soldiers’ strike

“I state now, (…) that a logical link exists between the women’s demonstration in Milan last May, the events in Turin and what occurred at Caporetto: strike in Milan, strike in Turin, soldiers’ strike at Caporetto. (…) I accuse the Italians of being imbibed with the hollow phrases of that revolution which we, in this House, praised on all sides, because we believed that it would provide the propulsive function that the French Revolution had, which did not lay down its weapons but re-organised its armies in order to uphold the new citizen’s right across Europe”

Pirolini MP 24th Term – 1st Session – Round of Discussions 20 December 1917 page 15317

Coefficient of resistance

“The defeat at Caporetto has been discussed at length; it emerged from the debate that the responsibility lay equally amongst everyone. I shall not adduce a topic in this regard suggested to me by my colleague Albertelli in a session of the group to which I belong. Albertelli, an engineer, told us that in engineering and mechanics there is a law that goes by the name of coefficient of resistance. There exists a point which, when exceeded, may cause a pillar, a building, to collapse. So it is dangerous to exceed this point. The fundamental reason for the defeat at Caporetto, as far as the soldiers are concerned, is that the coefficient of resistance was not taken into account when gauging their resilience after almost three years of exertion.

Morgari MP 24th Term – 1st Session – Round of Discussions 21 December 1917 pages 15362-15363

All united

“Even amongst the working masses (loud noises from the extreme left) people have now become convinced of the justness of the war, and the need for national defence. (…) For the rest, let us all rise above these sterile and pernicious recriminations. While ever the Austrians and Germans are facing the River Piave there can only be one thought in our minds, from Turin to Trapani, that is, to defend the Homeland, to chase out the enemy (Enthusiastic applause from the right and left  – Noises from the extreme left).”

Daneo MP 24th Term – 1st Session – Round of Discussions 20 December 1917 page 15322

The speeches are available on the website http://storia.camera.it/lavori/regno-d-italia/leg-regno-XXIV#nav

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