The World on Fire: 1919 and the Battle with Bolshevism by Anthony Read

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The World on Fire: 1919 and the Battle with Bolshevism by Anthony Read

Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: Focusing mainly on the year 1919, this is a detailed account of the aftermath of the First World War when countries throughout the world, mainly in Europe and the United States of America, thought, hoped or feared, that the Bolshevik revolution would become universal.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: August 2009
Publisher: Pimlico
ISBN: 978-1844138326

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In 1919 the world was an extremely unstable place. They say history often repeats itself, and there were parallels with 1789 - but on a far greater scale.

During the First World War, with the Russian revolution and the overthrow of the Tsarist regime, one tyranny was supplanted by another which was even worse. Lenin took the new upstart socialist republic out of the conflict, accepting unbelievably harsh peace terms from Germany in order to save and nurture the still fragile Bolshevik revolution. Consolidating his power was no easy task. Much as the people might have been glad to see the end of imperial Russia (if not the cold-blooded butchery of the former sovereign, his consort and their children), they were less than enthusiastic about Bolshevism, which secured only 24% of the votes in the new assembly. Lenin dealt promptly with the problem by shutting the assembly down.

By sheer terror, including a 'Food Army' empowered to occupy villages in Russia, extract their 'surplus' grain, and plunder agricultural supplies (25,000 killed in the resulting 'bread wars'), Lenin not only consolidated his grasp on the country but also created fear among the western leaders that civilisation was being extinguished over huge areas, and that the menace of Bolshevism could spread throughout their own lands.

Read looks in detail at the situation in several countries during 1919. While ministers were gathering in Paris to draft the peace treaty of Versailles, there was starvation in Vienna, where people plundered food shops, chicken ate coal dust, and official relief kitchens mixed sawdust and wood shavings with gruel to make it go further. As the New York Times asked, when countries were starving and facing political chaos, could Bolshevism be any worse? On the other side of the Atlantic, the Manchester Guardian reminded its readers that 'hunger is the parent of revolution'.

In India, unrest coupled with the British authorities' fear of Bolshevism culminated in the tragic miscalculation of what became known as the Amritsar massacre, which in ten minutes destroyed Indian trust in British justice built up over one and a half centuries. Meanwhile in the United States of America, terrorist bombing in Philadelphia and racial unrest resulted in grim episodes of mob rule, lynch killings and the establishment of the Ku Klux Klan, professing to conserve 'the ideals of a pure Americanism' in its ruthless warfare against Catholics, coloured people, and Jews.

Britain was bedevilled by Irish unrest, miners' and police strikes, and Lloyd George (regarded with hindsight as the most left-wing Prime Minister Britain ever had) played a skilful game, while admitting in his memoirs years later that after a police strike 'this country was nearer to Bolshevism…than any time since'.

An epilogue deals with the 1920s as they began with civil war in Russia, and simmering 'red scares' over much of the west, while Lenin was forced to concede that the rest of the world did not want his brand of international communism. It can have been no easy task for the author to focus on simply one year which naturally left many loose ends to be tied up, but he has done a very good job in putting those deeply troubled twelve months in the spotlight. I think that any reader interested in modern history will find it rewarding.

Our thanks to Pimlico for sending us a copy for review.

If you enjoyed this, why not also try A History of Warfare by John Keegan.

Buy The World on Fire: 1919 and the Battle with Bolshevism by Anthony Read at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The World on Fire: 1919 and the Battle with Bolshevism by Anthony Read at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The World on Fire: 1919 and the Battle with Bolshevism by Anthony Read at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The World on Fire: 1919 and the Battle with Bolshevism by Anthony Read at Amazon.com.


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