The Treaty of Brest Litovsk

The signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918 officially ended Russia’s involvement in World War I. The treaty was signed in time for the Germans to devote all of their resources to a spring offensive on the Western Front. It provided the infant Soviet Republic a short “breathing space” to regroup before the coming civil war.

While often disregarded as a historical footnote because it would be abrogated after the German collapse in November 1918, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk actually signaled the emergence of the Soviet Union in the international community. Soviet thinking, attitudes, and conduct toward disengaging from World War I were rooted in their October 1917 “Decree on Peace” which had proclaimed Russia’s desire to make peace with all of the world’s belligerents. Despite the oratorical skills of the Soviets’ lead negotiator and Commissar of Foreign Affairs, Leon Trotsky, this approach fell flat owing to the Germans’ pressing geo-political concerns in the conduct of the War. While the Bolsheviks were propagandizing the notion that it was in the interest of all parties to end the War without annexation and indemnities, the Germans sought to secure all possible resources from the Soviets’ western borderlands in order to continue prosecuting World War I on their western front.

The contrast between the two peace delegations at Brest Litovsk revealed the broad gap that was emerging between the Soviet Union and the rest of the world as a result of the 1917 revolution. The leader of the German delegation sent to Brest Litovsk in November 1917, General Max Hoffman, sought the quickest possible solution to his country’s Eastern conflict. Together with a group of fourteen representatives from the Central Power nations (five German officers, four from Austria-Hungary, three from Turkey, and two from Bulgaria) Hoffman’s well-groomed delegation represented the spit and polish of imperial armies—the splendor and glory of the ancient regime. By contrast, the Bolshevik delegation represented the exact opposite. The Russian peace delegation, assembled by Trotsky, consisted of twenty-eight members including workers, soldiers, sailors, women, and (at the last minute) a peasant. These individuals were supposed to represent the masses who had been responsible for the Bolsheviks coming to power. Simply put, the Germans and their allies had never seen such a spectacle at a formal diplomatic meeting. They had little idea how to manage the situation.

Trotsky sought to control the agenda from the start with his pronouncements on peace. The facts for the infant Soviet regime, however, were harsh. In December 1917, Germany’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Baron Rikhard von Kuhlman, demanded the Soviet delegation present their peace conditions. Using A.A. Ioffe as their spokesman, the Bolsheviks maintained that they intended to quit the war. They expected the Germans to leave Russia without any tangible gains for their years of wartime sacrifice. Although German diplomats responded by acknowledging that both sides had reached a point of departure for their negotiations, the German military would have nothing to do with Soviet rhetoric. As 1917 faded into 1918, the Bolsheviks had to digest that they had done an excellent job in destroying Russia’s military power. Now they were forced to come to terms with Germany’s demands for territory and resources. Without an effective military to counter the Germans, the Soviet position deteriorated on a daily basis.

Negotiations reached a breaking point in February 1918 when, after persistent Soviet stalling, the Germans lost patience. They launched an offensive which culminated with the delivery of new, non-negotiable peace terms arriving in Petrograd on February 23rd. Aware that the Bolsheviks possessed no financial resources to pay indemnities, the German government decided to extract its pound of flesh in the form of territorial annexations. The Germans demanded that the Soviets to cede the following territories: Finland, Russian Poland, Estonia, Livonia, Courland, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Bessarabia. In addition, the Bolsheviks were expected to the provinces of Ardaham, Kars, and Batumi to the Ottoman Empire.

While opposition within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to these terms was strong, V.I. Lenin, forever the pragmatic politician, understood the consequences of refusing the Germans. In the end, it came down to Lenin insisting firmly, yet calmly, to the Party’s Central Committee that there was no time for theoretical meanderings; that the terms of the treaty, no matter how harsh, had to be accepted to preserve the future of the revolution. Absent armed forces to counter the Germans, the Soviets chose to accept the provisions of the draconian peace settlement.

What the Germans effectively accomplished at Brest-Litovsk was a short term solution to their pressing material needs. In the long term, however, their harsh and unrelenting demands from the Bolsheviks established the precedent that the allies would, in turn, impose on them with the Treaty of Versailles.

John W. Steinberg, Georgia Southern University (USA)

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