Shooting Tsars - The revolution that redefined the world

Nov 10, 2017

Rundle: intrigue and skulduggery

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He was seen in the Unter den Linden, en route to the German Reich offices; boarding the Orient Express in Constantinople, headed to Vienna; in Copenhagen’s plush Klampenborg district; arriving in Zurich. A friend and confidante to ambassadors, generals and sultans, in silk-top hat, fur-collared coat, cravat and walking cane, hugely fat, he was the living embodiment of revolutionary socialists’ caricature of the millionaire they were going to sweep from the planet. Except, he was a revolutionary socialist, a friend — mostly ex-friend — to the leading radicals of the era. He made at least two revolutions, and the century, and if you’ve never heard of Alexander Helphand-Parvus, well, thereby hangs a tale.

Alexander who? He was born Israel Lazarevich Gelfand (a transliteration) to a Minsk Jewish couple in 1867, grew up in Odessa, and went to university in Switzerland, a common trek at the time. Studying economics, he became a Marxist, and moved to Germany in the 1880s, eventually becoming a writer and editor of note, under the pseudonym “Parvus”. He quickly acquired a reputation as an agile theorist on international trade.

In Munich, at the turn of the century, his salon was where Rosa Luxemburg met Lenin and Trotsky (though not together). In the early 1900s, he was famous for urging ambitious revolutionary schemes on the German social democratic party; and renowned for predicting the 1904 Russo-Japanese war, Russia’s loss, and the uprising — in St Petersburg, 1905 — that would follow it. There, as a leader of that new thing, a “soviet” assembly, with Trotsky, he developed the theory of “permanent revolution” — that middle-class revolutions could be pushed onto the next stage.

After returning to Germany from exile to Siberia, after the collapse of the revolution (he escaped en route), he wrote two key books on socialist “transition” (he looked to Australia, after the Harvester Judgment, as an example), which made no impact, started a Europe-wide socialist news service, which went bust, and produced a production of Gorky’s The Lower Depths, whose profits — meant for the socialist movement — went to pay off the news service, and for a couple of weeks in Venice with an actress (“I hope she was worth it,” Gorky remarked). By now, the Socialists had had their fill of Helphand-Parvus; a tribunal was convened to trace the lost profits, and he was drummed out of the movement.

He went, as chancers did in those days, to Constantinople (as it still was). There, he became an adviser to the “young Turk” leaders of the empire, and a broker for military supply deals. By the 1910s, he was rich, presenting himself as a German patriot, and he had made friends with Hans Freiherr von Wangenheim, the German ambassador, who was as impressed with this persuasive “ex”-revolutionary as anyone. War was coming, he told von Wangenheim, and Germany’s only chance to defeat Russia’s inexhaustible manpower was to cause a revolution inside it. Von Wagenheim agreed.

When war began in 1914, Helphand-Parvus wrote him a long memo for the general staff, setting out a plan of subversion. Millions of marks were given to him, to distribute to Russian dissidents and rogue nationalists. In the memo, he told the Germans of the most effective of the Russian revolutionaries — “a man named Lenin” — and went to see him in Bern in early 1915.

The meeting is famous. Helphand-Parvus took the top floor of Bern’s best hotel, distributed money amongst the penniless revolutionaries, and eventually visited Lenin at the radicals’ regular cafe. Lenin publicly refused to have any dealings with him; privately they had a long meeting, which Lenin reported as an argument about Helphand-Parvus’ pro-German position, and a refusal of further contact.

Maybe, but soon thereafter Helphand-Parvus had a new manager for his “export” business: a Polish revolutionary variously named Hanecki/Ganetsky/Fuerstenberg/De Toth. Hanecki was Lenin’s lieutenant; their association went back to the 1890s. The “export” business was a way of funnelling money into Russia; not to the Bolsheviks, but to fund a 1916 general strike in St Petersburg. A half-serious research group, the Centre for the Study of the Social Consequences of War, funded dissident intellectuals. Helphand-Parvus had invented the think tank, and also the front group.

By 1917, this unrest, which Helphand-Parvus’ activities had sharpened, had deposed the Tsar and set revolution underway. In Switzerland, the exiled revolutionaries had to get home. Hanecki and Helphand-Parvus arranged the famous “sealed train”, which took them through Germany to Sweden, and thence to St Petersburg’s Finland station. In Stockholm, Lenin’s other lieutenant Karl Radek stayed behind (he was an Austro-Hungarian national). Also in Stockholm, Helphand-Parvus’ company was regrouped, and he, Hanecki and Radek ran it for months, funnelling money from its trades — much of it from supplying the German army with equipment — to the only party advocating immediate withdrawal from the war.

In St Petersburg, the Bolsheviks hit the ground running, starting multiple newspapers, and sending dozens of organisers to factories and barracks. After a failed uprising in July, the Stockholm-German connection was revealed, and nearly got the Bolsheviks shot. But by October, the absence of a peace, had the Bolsheviks relentless propagandising pay off, leading to the uprising and seizure of power.

Helphand-Parvus soon repudiated the Bolsheviks — he remained a democratic revolutionary socialist — and died in 1924, after several more adventures. But he remained famous until World War II. Today, people scratch their heads at Nazi talk of “Jewish-bolshevik millionaires” who ran the war. But it was Helphand-Parvus of whom they were speaking. Nazi propagandist Alfred Rosenberg used him as the personification of Jewish manipulation of good German souls.

So why haven’t you heard of this extraordinary figure? By 1945, the memory of Helphand-Parvus was convenient to no one. Obviously neither Stalinists nor Trotskyists were going to acknowledge him. But post-war anti-communism, wanted to present the struggle with communism as a battle of ideas, not of murky conspiracies.

Helphand-Parvus disappeared. Perhaps he had to. For both sides, it is almost too much to admit that the originating event of the 20th century, this fundamental uprising of human beings, was at least in part a product of one man’s scheming in the drawing rooms, embassies and railway dining cars across Europe, as war raged.

Now in the second century of the revolution, there might be room to acknowledge these acts of supreme audacity, and to ask the difficult question: was the October revolution, usually taken as the most authentic act of modern history, in some sense a simulacrum of itself, an image that precedes the original? And, if so, what does that mean for history altogether?

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