International Affairs

Vol. 32, No. 1, April 1956

German Foreign Office Documents on Financial Support to the Bolsheviks in 1917

George Katkov

Document No. 1 reproduced on page 189 in an English translation will contribute to the elucidation of one of the most controversial questions of recent history:  that of the relations of the Imperial German Government with the Russian Bolshevik Party in the period between the fall of the Russian Monarchy and the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in 1917.  The document has been found in one of the files of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, now in the custody of the British authorities.  It is a typescript of fave pages dates 3 December 1917 with a number of corrections and marginal notes.  The caption 'Tel. Hughes' provides for transmission by the Hughes direct line telecomunication system.  The message was addressed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Baron R. von Kühlmann, to an official who was to communicate its content orally to the Kaiser.  Document No. II shows that the message was duly dispatched and received;  and that the Kaiser expressed agreement with its contents.

Document No. II is the deciphered text of the reply to Document No. I, dated 4 December 1917, from the German General Headquarters and signed 'Gruenau', an official of the German Foreign Office attached to the person of the Emperor.

The urgency and frankness of the message are due to the circumstances in which it was written.  The german Government was at the time about to dispatch a special mission to Petrograd to start negotiations on the return of German prisoners of war and the resumption of trade relations with the newly formed Bolshevik Government.  The mission was to be headed by the representative of the Foreign Office, Count Mirbach, and a representative of the GHQ, Admiral Kurt Keyserling.  Besides, the Armistice negotiations in Brest-Litovsk were about to begin.  The outcome of the war might well depend to a large extent on the success of these negotiations.  The outline of Germ,an policy towards Russia had been discussed between the Kaiser and his Foreign Minister at some length on a previous occasion.  The Minister had now to draw up the necessary instructions for these various actions.  He wished to have the Kaiser's approval of their general tenor, and as the Kaiser was then at the GHQ the State Secretary had recourse to telegraphic communication.  The text was then files with the other top secret documents concerning, for the most part, affairs involving the Kaiser personally.  The Minister felt it necessary to remind the Monarch of certain recent political activities.  This takes up the first four or five sentences of Document No, I, where it is stated as a fact that financial support was given to the Bolsheviks by the Germans in the spring and summer of 1917.  These statements are important, for it is difficult to assume that Kühlmann lied to his Sovereign.  They make plain that the German Government had given financial support to the Bolsheviks on a considerable scale;  that this support was afforded in a continuous flow through various channels and 'under a variety of labels';  and finally that it was given with the aim of weakening Russia as a partner in the Entente and of detaching her from her allies.

These statements of fact differ considerably from the two main opposing views put forward regarding the relations of the Germans with the Bolsheviks.[1]

According to one view, all accusations of contact with the Germans were counter-revolutionary fabrications, invented to mislead and to discredit the leaders of the Revolution.  This of course is still the thesis of official Soviet historiography.  But the influence of this idea extended far beyond the borders of Communist orthodoxy.

That German agents were seeking to undermine army discipline by inciting soldiers to attack their officers was suspected from the very beginning of the February revolution.  When, at one of the earliest meetings of the Provisional Government, in March, the Kadet leader P.N. Milyukov referred casually to interference by German agents, Kerensky, then Minister of Justice and 'the hostage of Revolutionary Democracy', shouted in tones of hysteria that there was no place for him in a gathering where the glorious Russian Revolution could be calumniated as a machination of the Germans; he left the meeting, announcing his resignation, which needless to say, he almost immediately withdrew.[2]  Such was the repulsion felt in 1917 at any suggestion of the contamination of the revolutionary process by German influence, that even the arrival via Germany of the sealed train with the Bolshevik leaders did not produce anything like the 'furious barking of the Defencists and the Bourgeoisie', which Lenin had expected.  All that happened was that he (Lenin) failed to secure the official approval of the Executive Committee of the Soviet for his decision to take advantage of German favours.  Not until the Bolsheviks had developed their propaganda in the army, inciting the soldiers to insubordination and urging fraternization with the German troops, did the Provisional Government start a cautious investigation of possible contacts with the Germans.  The collapse of the Imperial police machine and the disruption of the military counter-espionage service (which had worked with the secret police) made this investigation very difficult.  However, with the aid of the allied counter-espionage services and following the confession of an agent, recruited by the enemy while a prisoner of war in Germany, certain information was gathered on which legal proceedings against the Bolshevik leaders could be initiated.[3]  By the end of June 1917, with the failure of the Kerensky offensive and the progressive decline in army morale, the arrest of Bolshevik leaders for treasonable activities was seriously considered.  It has even been suggested that the abortive Bolshevik coup in early July was motivated by the hope of preventing these arrests.  The political effectiveness of accusations of contact with Germans was demonstrated during the July disturbances.  When troops of the Petrograd garrison began to waver in their support of the government and of the Petrograd Soviet against the Bolshevik mutineers, the Minister of Justice Pereverzev arranged for some of the evidence against the Bolshevik leadership to be published by two journalists;  these revelations changed the mood of the troops and greatly contributed to the collapse of the rising.  Although that evidence was tenuous enough it was widely believed, because it gave to an ordinary patriotic Russian a more plausible explanation of Bolshevik defeatism and how it worked than the Bolsheviks themselves with their Zimmerwald ideology could provide.  Kerensky had left Petrograd on the first day of the rising.  On his return, by then vested with almost dictatorial powers, he ordered the arrest of Lenin, Zinoviev, and other Bolshevik leaders together with a number of their suspected intermediaries with the Germans.  Some of the latter, e.g. a woman by the name of Sumenson and the lawyer Kozlovsky, were in fact arrested in Petrograd on 7 July.  Two of the others involved, the notorious A. Helphand (alias Dr Parvus) and his close collaborator Fürstenberg-Haniecki were abroad.  At the same time however Kerensky forced his Minister of Justice, Pereverzev, to resign.  The reason given officially at the time (and later repeated in Kerensky's numerous personal memoirs) was that, by prematurely divulging the allegations against the Bolsheviks, Pereverzev had wrecked a deeply laid scheme of the Provisional Government--namely to arrest Fürstenberg-Haniecki on the Swedish-Finnish frontier;  this individual was believed to be about to cross into Russia carrying large sums of German money and documents compromising the Bolsheviks.[4]

Pereverzev's resignation discredited the revelations published on his orders.  His selected publicists, Grigory Alexinsky (former member of the 2nd Duma) and Pankratov (former political prisoner), lacked the authority to sustain the accusations.  And indeed very soon after the shock produced by these revelations a significant reversal in the mood of the so-called 'Revolutionary Democracy' took place.  First came protests against wholesale accusations aimed at the Bolsheviks as a Party;  if some Bolsheviks were German agents or if they had touched German money they should, it was said, be put on trial, but in the new Revolutionary Russia there could be no place for the persecution of a political party as such, however misguided it might be.  At the request of the Bolsheviks the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets set up its own Commission for the investigation of the case of Lenin and others, and appealed--pending this inquiry--to all comrades to stop the spreading of slanderous allegations.  This Commission later joined the Government's Commission of Inquiry.  While these Commissions were leisurely pursuing their investigations the suspicion gained ground that the whole affair had been staged by officers and 'counter-revolutionaries' with the aim of discrediting the leaders of Revolutionary Democracy.  The fact that such accusations could have induced the wavering troops of the Petrograd garrison to side in an armed conflict with the Provisional Government convinced the Left that they amounted to a dangerous weapon in the hands of the Kadet Party and the Defencists.  And yet, Lenin's flight into hiding (he had disappeared by 7 July when an attempt was made to arrest him) seems to have greatly disturbed many of his followers and associates.  The reaction of a man like Sukhanov is highly significant.  Having mentioned, in his memoirs, the 'monstrous slander' (of having touched German money) directed against Lenin, Sukhanov goes on to express his amazement at the course of action Lenin had chosen.  'Any other mortal', Sukhanov writes, 'would have demanded an investigation and trial, even under the most unfavourable conditions.  Any other mortal would personally and publicly have done everything possible to rehabilitate himself.  But Lenin proposed that others, his adversaries, should do this, while he sought safety in flight. ... In the whole world only he could have behaved in this way'.[5]  Sukhanov does not share Lenin's professed opinion, that the impartiality of the Courts under the Provisional Government could not be trusted.  Moreover Lenin, according to Sukhanov, could have had no difficulty in disproving 'the nonsensical accusation', which 'in a little time dispersed by itself--like smoke'.  The only explanation of Lenin's behaviour which occurred to Sukhanov was Lenin's superhuman nature ('... no mortal would ...').  Kühlmann's revelation should make a less metaphysical explanation at least probable.  Lenin might have known -- or at least suspected -- that the money he was using was German money and that the accusations were in substance true.  Then his action would appear only human--all too human.

At that time, however, the Provisional Government had only indirect evidence against Lenin and not entirely reliable witnesses.  The persons arraigned by the Public Prosecutor on 22 July 1917 for organizing the rising and for treason were never put on trial, and those who were arrested were released on bail in September;  although, according to the counter-espionage officer Nikitine, some of them had made pretty full confessions.[6]  It should be emphasized that if the accusations dispersed 'like smoke' in the turbulent atmosphere of the last months of the Provisional Government they were never proved to be false before an impartial tribunal.  Nor were they forgotten, least of all by the Bolsheviks themselves.  They became indeed ammunition in the arsenal of Communist propaganda.  Lenin refers to them as the 'Russian Dreyfusiade';  Trotsky speaks with temperamental scorn of 'the great slander';  members of the Institute of the Red Professors headed by M.N. Pokrovsky ridiculed them.  More surprising is the fact that impartial historians in the West seem--as time went on--to attach less and less importance to accusations which at a given moment threatened to cost the Bolsheviks their popular support in Russia and possibly their very existence as a party.  In his monumental history of the Bolshevik Revolution E.H. Carr makes no reference whatever to the 'great slander', to the alleged links between Bolsheviks and Germans, or to the question of German money.  In his account of the steps taken for the arrest of the Bolshevik leaders he makes no mention of the treason issue[7];  the reader is left to understand that the intended arrests were merely part of the police measures to suppress the July rising.  Of course, even the attempt to examine impartially allegations which have been branded as counter-revolutionary, would have caused offence to those who share the 'great slander' school of thought.  On the other hand, only by examining all the possible causes of Bolshevik success in 1917 can one provide an explanation for the inevitable course of historical events, and the German money might have been one of these causes even though Kühlmann's estimate of its importance might be self-flattering and exaggerated.

A careful study of the German archives will probably occasion some re-thinking and re-writing of the history of the Russian Revolution.  Some of the hero-worship of Lenin might be affected by it.  Not only to his own Party, but to the Left wing of the Russian Revolutionary Government, Lenin's personal character was the best guarantee that he had never worked with German money.  He himself never claimed, as he well might have after the German collapse, to have successfully carried out a Machiavellian plan, and beaten German imperialism with the German money the Germans had provided.  On the contrary, he always maintained that the accusations were a monstrous and malign attack on his revolutionary honour.  The result was that those who, like Bernstein, sincerely--and, as we now see, rightly--believed that he was supported by German money were ostracized as counter-revolutionaries or renegades.

The documents here reproduced should do away once and for all with the legend of a Bolshevik Party strictly adhering to the principles of revoiutionary ethics which they professed in common with other Russian revolutionaries.  Suspicions that Bolsheviks were financially supported by the German Government were not slander but a fair guess.

And yet no comfort can be derived from these documents by those who believed that Lenin and his associates were agents of the German Government or the German General Staff.  This view, spread among Russian anti-Communists of all creeds, is shared by Kerensky and has found a protagonist in the former Kadet leader and historian of the Russian Revolution, P.N. Milyukov.  According to this view, Lenin came to an agreement with the Germans by which the latter should help him to seize power in exchange for the demoralization of the Russian Army and the conclusion of a degrading separate peace.

The absence of any documentary evidence for the existence of such an agreement between the Germans and Lenin was largely compensated by speculation on the possible motives of both sides in helping each other:  did not the Germans show exceptional solicitude in letting the Bolsheviks return home, and did not Lenin repay them by working for the destruction of the Russian army ?  Those prone to such conclusions found them confirmed by the fact that the Bolsheviks were receiving German money.  The evidence for this was not watertight but all these assumptions and guesses formed one consistent although sensational picture, which in a time of acute political struggle had great power over the imaginations of all those unaffected by the spell of revolutionary enthusiasm or of the mystique of Lenin's superhuman personality.  The anti-Communist movement in the Civil War found it politically expedient to represent Lenin as a paid agent of the Germans.  The 'Whites' were looking for allied support and this--they believed--would be forthcoming more readily if intervention in Russia could be represented as part of the general war against the Central Powers and their allies.  In support of this conception, in the winter of 1917-18 a series of documents allegedly smuggled from Petrograd to South Russia was produced.  They purported to be originals, photo-copies and copies of State papers taken from the files of the Bolshevik Government, and they purported to prove close and organized contacts between the German authorities and the Bolshevik Party both in 1918 and before.[8]  However, for those who already believed that Lenin had received German money, the Sisson Papers--as these documents, since published in the United States, are called--were only belated additional proofs of his being a German agent.  Ironically, now that the fact of German financial aid is established there is even less reason to believe that Lenin was a German agent (unless one uses the word 'agent' in a Leninist-Stalinist sense, in which even a scholar carrying out independent research with the help of a fund established by an industrialist qualifies for the title of an 'agent of bourgeois imperialism').  It is obvious from Kühlmann's report to the Kaiser that in giving their support to the Communists the Germans were giving a 'grant in aid' to an independent subversive movement and not financing political agents and spies working on instructions.  In the first years of the war the Germans seem to have favoured the various separatist movements of national minorities, but after the fall of the monarchy the Bolsheviks had their day.

The 'various channels and varying labels' of the aid to the Bolsheviks may not be easy to determine.  Kühlmann mentions in a telegram to General Headquarters dated 29 September 1917 that action in such matters was undertaken by the German Foreign Office in close collaboration with the Political Section of the General Staff of the Army in the Field (Colonel von Hülsen), and it is possible that details will be found in the German military archives.[9]  As far as the German Foreign Office is concerned there can be no doubt that the German Government's official denial, in 1921, of the existence of any documents referring to the financial support of Russian Bolsheviks in Foreign Office archives was less than candid.  The files of the Berne Legation contain, for instance, an 'absolute secret' report of 30 April 1917 in which the German Minister in Berne, Baron Romberg, relates his conversation with the Swiss social democrat, Fritz Platten (who had made the final arrangements for the first sealed train and had accompanied Lenin and his fellow travellers from Switzerland to the Finnish border).  Platten conveyed the gratitude of the Russians far the efficiency of the arrangements made, expressed his regrets that he was prevented from entering Russia, and gave a hearsay description of the enthusiastic reception given to Lenin on his arrival in Petrograd, where, according to Platten, three quarters of the workers supported him.  'It was clear from what Platten told me', Romberg goes on in his report, 'that the émigrés are very short of money for their propaganda, while their opponents naturally have at their disposal unlimited means.  The funds collected for the use of émigrés fell mainly into the hands of social patriots.  I am arranging for a confidential agent to investigate the very delicate question as to whether there is any possible way of letting them have money without their finding this objectionable.  In the meantime I would be grateful if I might be informed by telegram whether the revolutionaries are already receiving financial help through another channel'.

No reply, telegraphic or otherwise, is to be found in this particular file[10], and the trail--as so often happens when highly confidential matters are concerned--disappears.  There is however a reference to the efforts of Romberg's confidential agent in a file concerned with the activities of another German agent, a certain Alexander Keskuela.  This file contains a report from the German Military Attaché in Berne dated 9 May 1917 to his Minister.  Romberg's agent, referred to as Herr Baier, had written on 4 May to the Military Attaché that following preliminary soundings with the Bolshevik, Dr Shklovsky, and the Menshevik, P. Axelrod, he had had a further interview with representatives of the various nuances of the peace-minded Socialist Party in Zurich' (Baier does not say who they were) who were interested in promoting an immediate separate peace at all costs between Russia and Germany.  The question of financial support had been discussed.  Herr Baier had offered to contribute a substantial sum, and had hinted that other wealthy friends of his might do the same.  He summarized the result of these negotiations as follows:  '(i) The personality of the donor should guarantee that the source of the finances is unimpeachable.  (ii) The donor and the intermediary should be enabled to cross the Russian frontier with the money, having secured an official or semi-official recommendation for this purpose.  (iii) To facilitate immediate use funds should be brought in cash and not in other valuables, the encashment of which might present difficulties and attract attention.  Swiss currency would be the easiest to convey, to convert and to use'.  Needless to say Herr Baier considered himself a reliable intermediary for such an operation.

These communications throw some light on the nature of the channels and labels.  The peace-minded Russian socialists contacted expressed satisfaction at the idea that wealthy comrades and friends would afford financial support to their propaganda.  The peace-minded socialists are obviously none other than the Zimmerwald Left, of whom Lenin was the most extreme defeatist.  Melgounoff in his above-quoted book reports a conversation in 1917 in Moscow with the historian Pokrovsky, who told him that the Bolsheviks had received money from German Social Democrats.  This might well have been a source acceptable to the Bolsheviks, although socialists of different creed would probably have considered it unsatisfactory.  The material published by Nikitine indicates that the sums transferred through Madame Sumenson came from Fürstenberg-Haniecki (a member of the Polish Social Democratic Party).  Money coming through this channel could be considered as coming from 'friends and comrades'.  'Dr Parvus' was by then universally known as an agent of the German Government: he had behaved with so little discretion that Lenin refused to see him on his way to Russia and avoided direct contact with him.  But Lenin throughout maintained contact with Fürstenberg-Haniecki, who was Parvus's employee in business, associate in politics, and co-conspirator in German ployee in business, associate in politics, and co-conspirator in German intrigues: and in July 1917 Pravda went out of its way to defend the man's revolutionary integrity.

In any case it is now clear that whatever the labels may have been, the money was that of the German Government.  Will the German Archives throw a light on whether or how far Lenin was aware of the fact ?  The content of the high-level document here reproduced seems to indicate that detailed research into the lower strata of German-Bolshevik contacts would prove rewarding.

BERLIN, 3rd December 1917.
Add A3 4486.
Tel, Hughes I.Z.
To Tel. No. 1771

The disruption of the Entente and the subsequent creation of political combinations agreeable to us constitute the most important war aim of our diplomacy.  Russia Appeared (to me)[11] to be the weakest link in the enemy's chain.  The task therefore was gradually to loosen it and, when possible, to remove it.  This was the purpose of the subversive activity we caused to be carried out in Russia behind the front--in the first place (vigorous)[11] promotion of separatist tendencies and support of the Bolsheviki.  It was not until the Bolsheviki had received from us a steady flow of funds through various channels and under varying labels that they were in a position to be able to build up their main organ, Pravda, to conduct energetic propaganda[12] and appreciably to extend the originally narrow basis of their party.  The Bolsheviki have now come into power;  how long they will retain power cannot yet be foreseen.  They need peace in order to strengthen their own position;  on the other hand it is entirely in our interest that we should exploit the period while they are in power, which may be a short one, in order to attain firstly an armistice and then, if possible, peace.[13]  The conclusion of a separate peace would mean the achievement of the desired war aim, namely, a breach between Russia and her Allies.  The amount of tension necessarily caused by such a breach would determine the degree of Russia's dependence on Germany and her future relations with us.  Once cast out and cast off by her former Allies, abandoned financially, Russia will be forced to seek our support.  We shall be able to provide help for Russia in various ways;  firstly in the rehabilitation of the railways;  (I have in mind a German-Russian Commission--under our control--which would undertake the rational and coordinated exploitation of the railway lines so as to ensure speedy resumption of freight movement) then the provision of a substantial loan, which Russia requires to maintain her state machine.  This could take the form of an advance on the security of grain, raw materials, etc., etc., to be provided by Russia and shipped under the control of the above-mentioned Commission.  Aid on such a basis--the scope to be increased as and when necessary--would in my opinion bring about a growing rapprochement between the two countries.

Austria-Hungary will regard the rapprochement with distrust and not without apprehension.  I would interpret the excessive eagerness of Count Czernin to come to terms with the Russians as a desire to forestall us and to prevent Germany and Russia arriving at an intimate relationship inconvenient to the Danube Monarchy.  There is no need for us to compete for Russia's good will.  We are strong enough to wait with equanimity;  we are in a far better position than Austria-Hungary to offer Russia what she needs for the reconstruction of her State.  I view future developments in the East with confidence but I think it expedient for the time being to maintain a certain reserve in our attitude to the Austro-Hungarian Government in all matters including the Polish question which concern both monarchies so as to preserve a free hand for all eventualities.

The above-mentioned considerations lie, I venture to believe, within the framework of the directives given me by His Majesty.  I request you to report to His Majesty accordingly and to transmit to me by telegram the All-highest instructions.

St. S.

A.S. 4607

General Headquarters, 4th December 1917, 7.30 p.m.
Received 8.25 p.m.
The Imperial Legation Councillor at the Foreign Office.

With reference to your telegram No. 1925 A.S. 4486.  His Majesty the Kaiser has expressed his agreement with Your Excellency's exposé concerning a possible rapprochement with Russia.



1 The best analysis of the question is to be found in S. Melgounoff, Zolotoi Nemetsky Klyuch Bolshevikov, published by the author (Paris, 1940).  Melgounoff uses mainly Russian sources.

2 See Arkhiv Russkoy Revoliutsii, ed. T.V. Gessen, 2nd ed., Vol. I (Berlin, 1922), p. 23.

3 B.V. Nikitine, The Fatal Years, Fresh Revelations on a Chapter of Underground History (London, Hodge, 1938).  Nikitine served in a counter-espionage service hurriedly organized in Petrograd by the Provisional Government.

4 See Kerensky, The Catastrophe (New York, Appleton, 1927), pp. 239 ff.  Kerensky's view is opposed by Nikitine, op. cit., p. 169, and by Melgounoff, op. cit., p. 116.

5 N.N. Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution 1917.  Translated by Joel Carmichael (London, Oxford University Press, 1955), p. 472.

6 Nikitine, op, cit., p, 124, and Kerensky, op. cit., p. 232.

7 E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-23 vol. I (London, Macmillan, 1950-3), p. 91.

8 The authenticity of the Sisson Papers has often been put in question.  See Melgounoff, op. cit., pp. 131 ff.

9 In his reply to this telegram Ludendorff wired on 2 October 1917 expressing his gratitude for the large sums which the Foreign Office had allocated for the support of subversive movements in Russia.

10 A note on the text of Romberg's dispatch to the German Foreign Office mentions that the reply to this query had been communicated orally but does not say what it was.

11 Crossed out in the original.

12 The words 'to conduct energetic propaganda' written on the margin and inserted in the text.

13 An asterisk in the original text refers to a handwritten marginal note saying:  'There is no question of supporting the Bolsheviki in the future'.  It remains doubtful whether these words were included in the text as telegraphed or whether they are of a later date.