March 15 marks the 100th anniversary of the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.
The milestone has attracted little notice. It is the opinion of most historians that Nicholas was a failure: feckless, dimwitted, reactionary—and henpecked to boot.
But as Robert Massie makes clear in his admirable biography, Nicholas and Alexandra, the real Nicholas was more complex, more human and more interesting than the caricature.
Massie notes that Nicholas was as least as intelligent as any other European monarch of his day. Certainly as intelligent as his cousin, George V of England, with whom he had so much in common. Massie is on target when he says that “in England, where a sovereign needed only to be a good man in order to be a good king, Nicholas II would have made an admirable monarch.”
Alas, it was Nicholas’s misfortune that he was not born King of England, but Autocrat of All the Russias—a position for which he possessed neither the ability nor the temperament.
When Nicholas assumed the throne in 1894, the Tsarist system had clearly outlived its time. It was riddled with dry rot, incompetence and corruption. But it had not entirely lost its vitality. The performance of the Russian Army in the First World War is one example of its residual vigor.
When the war broke out in 1914, German strategy was based on the so-called Schlieffen plan. France and Russia were allied against Germany and Austria-Hungary. In order to avoid having to fight a war on two fronts, the Schlieffen plan called for Germany to fight a holding action against Russia in the East, while hurling the bulk of its forces against France. Once the French had been crushed, and Paris occupied, the Germans could turn their full might on the Russians.
The plan assumed that the lumbering Russian bear would mobilize slowly. Instead, the bear showed surprising speed and agility. Two Russian armies struck at East Prussia while the Germans were still short of Paris. The unexpectedly swift Russian advance forced the German high command to violate the “inviolable” Schlieffen plan and transfer two army corps and a cavalry division from the French front to meet the Russians in the East. As a result, the weakened German invasion force was stopped just outside the gates of Paris. France was saved.
For the next three years, the Imperial Russian Army kept 160 German and Austro-Hungarian divisions tied down in the East. Without Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary would certainly have prevailed against the Allies. When the Bolshevik Revolution forced Russia to drop out of the war in 1917, it was only America’s entry on the side of the Allies that same year that ensured their final victory in 1918.
Is Nicholas II to be allowed no share of the credit for this outcome? Winston Churchill thought otherwise. Writing a decade later in his World Crisis, he offered a generous but unsentimental assessment of Russia’s last tsar; one that in the interests of fairness should be read alongside the many criticisms. Churchill wrote:
“It is the shallow fashion of these times to dismiss the Tsarist regime as a purblind, corrupt, incompetent tyranny. But a survey of its thirty months’ war with Germany and Austria should correct these loose impressions and expose the dominant facts. We may measure the strength of the Russian Empire by the battering it had endured, by the disasters it had survived, by the inexhaustible forces it had developed, and by the recovery it had made. In the governments of states, when great events are afoot, the leader of the nation, whoever he be, is held accountable for failure and vindicated by success. No matter who wrought the toil, who planned the struggle, to the supreme responsible authority belongs the blame or credit.
“Why should this stern test be denied to Nicholas II? He had made many mistakes, what ruler has not? He was neither a great captain nor a great prince. He was only a true, simple man of average ability, of merciful disposition, upheld in all his daily life by his faith in God. But the brunt of supreme decisions centered upon him. At the summit where all problems are reduced to Yea or Nay, where events transcend the faculties of man and where all is inscrutable, he had to give the answers. His was the function of the compass needle. War or no war? Advance or retreat? Right or left? Democratize or hold firm? Quit or persevere? These were the battlefields of Nicholas II. Why should he reap no honor from them? The devoted onset of the Russian armies which saved Paris in 1914; the mastered agony of the munitionless retreat; the slowly regathered forces; the victories of Brusilov; the Russian entry upon the campaign of 1917, unconquered, stronger than ever; has he no share in these? In spite of errors vast and terrible, the regime he personified, over which he presided, to which his personal character gave the vital spark, had at this moment won the war for Russia.
“He is about to be struck down. A dark hand, gloved at first in folly, now intervenes. Exit Tsar. Deliver him and all he loved to wounds and death. Belittle his efforts, asperse his conduct, insult his memory; but pause then to tell us who else was found capable. Who or what could guide the Russian State? Men gifted and daring; men ambitious and fierce, spirits audacious and commanding—of these there were no lack. But none could answer the few plain questions on which the life and fame of Russia turned.”
As Churchill said, Nicholas and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Their bodies were thrown down a mine shaft. Not until after the fall of the Soviet regime were the remains recovered and accorded Christian burial. In the year 2000, the members of Russia’s last imperial family were canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church.
Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site: www.ringingwords.com. Like this post? Share with your friends using the button below! Also be sure to like PunditWire on Facebook.