The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (wikipedia)

The peace at Brest-Litovsk and the transformation of international power relations

Central powers signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Russia on March 3, 1918. Russia lost 780 thousand square kilometres of land and 56 million inhabitants, but made peace temporarily. This supported the consolidation of Bolshevik rule. The Germans won in the short term, but the Bolsheviks strengthened in the long run – for a price though: Brest-Litovsk could also be a symbol of breaking up with the West, the Entente.

“Since, as it was foreseeable, any calls for the Germans to cease their military operations remained ineffective, the peace delegation decided to accept all terms without examining the conditions, and immediately travel home after signing the peace treaty on a private train”, this is how the Telegram Agency of St. Petersburg justified the peace at Brest-Litovsk signed on March 3, 1918 from the Russian perspective. This was reported on by Az Est two days later. The report thereby was written on the basis of a report from St. Petersburg about the separate peace that had an extraordinary influence on the Eastern front of the First World War, and an even larger effect on the faith of Soviet Russia.

But why were the Russians forced – as we will see later – to sign a contract that was humiliating for them?

We have to jump back a bit in time to find an answer: Though Lenin already issued a peace decree in November 1917, on the peace negotiations starting from the end of 1917 in Brest-Litovsk, no agreement was achieved with the Germans and the central powers, since Trotsky’s “neither peace, nor war” viewpoint, i.e. the postponement of agreement by the Russians prevailed.

Meanwhile, Berlin saw that the Bolsheviks attack Ukraine – who wanted independence and were about to come to a compromise with the Germans –, where the Rada was settling in. The Central Rada filled the role of the Ukrainian Parliament in 1918, but there was a smaller body, “Mala Rada”, which filled a function similar to the government. Berlin made a separate peace with the Rada already in February 9, 1918. However, the Ukrainian Parliament was just being squeezed out of Kiev when troops of Muravjov, who was loyal to the Bolsheviks, occupied the city.

However, for central powers fighting with shortage of food, Ukraine was importance since they viewed the Southern areas of the tsarist empire as a source of food. The great offensive planned on the Western front also urged the German military leadership to make final peace on the Western front. For this purpose, it had to demonstrate its power and force the Bolsheviks to make peace. This is why Trotsky got tired of the postponement tactics of the Bolsheviks and launched an attack against Soviet Russia on February 18.

Directly preceding the attack, on February 10, 1918, Trotsky walked out of the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk and announced to refuse the annexation separate peace with the Germans, but cease the war with Germany and their allies and disarm troops against the Germans. Meanwhile, the Soviet government declared not to repay the foreign debts of the Tsarist government. Regarding Russian debts, 43 percent was held by the French, 33 percent by the British, 6-6 percent by Belgium and Germany, and 3.4 percent was the USA’s share from the loans. So this Bolshevik decision mainly struck the Entente, the previous allies of Russia.

For a few days, the Germans did not know what to do, but on February 16, they had enough of Trotsky’s tactics since the Bolsheviks continued to march forward in Ukraine. On 16 February, referencing Kölnische Volkszeitung, Az Est wrote: “the decision of the Russian government on ceasing the war against central powers has a hazardous significance”. Bolsheviks “made troop dislocations”, aimed against Ukraine. The newspaper wrote about Trotsky’s expedition against Ukraine in this respect: “relevant circles of central powers are not willing to tolerate that Trotsky tears down the fruit of our peace treaty with Ukraine just like this”. Therefore the paper did not find it impossible that “Germany, Hungary and Austria will restart military operations immediately on the Russian battlefront in order to prevent the Bolsheviks from winning against the government in Kiev”.

Therefore it is well visible that, though the relationship between the German and Soviet Russian government was not at all bad after the Bolshevik takeover of power, the conflict became decisive between them due to Ukraine (Ukraine’s huge corn producing lands and coal mines were really attractive for both parties). Trotsky’s “neither peace, nor war” viewpoint became unsustainable when the Germans launched an attack on 18 February. Az Est wrote on 17 February, on Sunday, that the German-Russian war would be relaunched on that day, i.e. on Sunday. Since Berlin “considers the armistice lost as a result of Trotsky’s statement on the tenth of February about the unilateral cessation of the state of war”. The paper also wrote that the German and Austrian-Hungarian delegation left the Russian capital, thereby “the relationship between Russia and the central powers broke off”.

On 21 February, the Germans occupied the Belarusian capital, Minsk. This is when Lenin signed a decree entitled “The Socialist home is in danger”. Meaning that the country is endangered by German invasion. Trotsky then started to consult with the French delegate whether the Entente powers would be willing to help if they declared war against Germans. The French said yes after consultation with the British and the American.

Though the Soviet-Russian government wrote the Germans after the German offensive that they would accept previous peace conditions that caused the demur in January, but at that time, on 21 February, the Germans had harsher demands and gave 48 hours for the acceptance of conditions. Lenin threatened with resignation, so the central committee voted for accepting German demands on 23 February. However, due to military accesses, it was exactly the day that has become the birthday of the Red Army. Meanwhile, on February 24, the Bolsheviks occupied Rostov from the whites, General Kornilov. On the same day, the Germans occupied the current Estonian capital, Tallinn, but the Soviets already stopped the German advancement near Narva.

On 28 February, the Soviet peace delegation arrived again to Brest-Litovsk, the Germans gave them three days to sign the peace. On March 2-3, the Germans occupied Kiev, which the Ukrainian Soviet government left. The Germans then restored the Rada government in Kiev. Eventually, the peace was signed at Brest-Litovsk on March 3, as a result Soviet Russia lost the control among others over Baltic regions, Finland, a part of Belarus and Ukraine. The Soviets were also bound by the peace at Brest-Litovsk to make peace with the Ukrainian Rada and recognize the separate peace of the Rada with the central powers. Turkey also got hold of significant areas in Eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus region.

Hungarian readers could learn about the peace agreement from the March 5 issue of Az Est. Pursuant to the paper, Article I of the treaty declared: “Germany, Hungary, Austria, Bulgaria and Turkey on the one hand, and Russia on the other hand declare that the war state between them: has ceased and they are dedicated to live in peace and friendship with each other”.

István Lengyel’s book about the peace at Brest-Litovsk, written in 1975, and an experimental Russian textbook from 1997 – issued by the Russian Independent Institute of Social and Nationalities Problems – both describe a land loss of 780 thousand square kilometres. Through this, Russia lost 56 million inhabitants as well. The country was deprived of one-third of its rail network, three-thirds of its iron and steel production, 79 percent of coal mining, 278 sugar factories, 918 textile, 574 beer, 133 tobacco, 1685 spirit and 244 chemical factories, 615 paper manufacturing plants and 1073 machine factories. Lenin surrendered one-third of textile production and 40 percent of industrial workers.

Article V of the peace treaty declared, according to Az Est, that “Russia will completely demobilize the army without delay, including parts of the army reformed by the current government. In addition, Russia also withdraws battleships into Russian ports and leaves them there until the conclusion of general peace or immediately demobilizes them.”

This article declares the separation of the Baltic from Russia as well, at that moment did not bring about the independence of the region, but Germany soon had a military collapse, which the three Baltic states could really use, so the peace at Brest-Litovsk was one of the first steps toward their future independence – which were of course followed by internal processes for independence as well.

Though the Soviet-Russian state recognized the independence of Finland at the turn of 1917–1918, the peace at Brest-Litovsk also involved this region, because meanwhile a civil war broke out in Finland between reds and whites. The Brest-Litovsk treaty declared: “Russian troops and Russian Red guards shall immediately empty Finland and the Aland Islands, Russian battleships and Russian marine troops shall also leave Finnish ports.” Russia will cease all agitation and propaganda in Finland against the government and state authorities.”

The peace was clearly beneficial for German interests at that moment, it is not accidental that Emperor Wilhelm wrote about the Russian peace to Count Herling Imperial Chancellor as follows: “The German sword in the hands of great military leaders brought the peace with Russia. My heart is filled with deep gratitude to God, who was with us, as well as proud joy for the deeds of my army and the persistence of my people. The fact that we managed to save German blood and German culture makes me especially happy. Accept my warmest thanks for your loyalty and strong participation in the great work. Wilhelm I. R.”

So the peace at Brest-Litovsk was humiliating for Lenin and the Bolsheviks, but the “victory” of Germans as well as the central powers was not lasting in the East. Even more, long-term effects were summarized by István Lengyel in his book written in 1975: the peace treaty and peace negotiations from the end of 1917 “stand out among general diplomacy negotiations from the perspective of significance. As a result, the newly born, young Soviet state could finally breathe”. Lengyel here visibly represented the “post Leninist” viewpoint in 1975, stating that, through the treaty, “revolutionary powers got the option to square matters, conquer their inner enemy, the initial lack of organization and prepare for the severe fights that await them. By providing the time required for this, the peace at Brest-Litovsk, despite its extremely severe conditions and the will of central powers controlling the peace largely contributed to the foundation of the Soviet Union, which is today viewed as a world power”.

Lenin and his companions won time, but it did not mean that the Bolsheviks had a unified and strong standpoint with Germans on the peace negotiations in 1918. Trotsky’s “neither peace, nor war” theory failed, Buharin rather wanted a revolutionary war. Eventually peace was made for the pressure by Lenin – the required decisive vote was obtained by Lenin through Trotsky changing sides in the party leadership. (Stalin was originally at Lenin’s side – this is stressed more rarely.) Subsequently, after the victory of the Reds in the Soviet-Russian genocide-like civil war, the peace at Brest-Litovsk proved Lenin, who was thereby praised to be a cosmic figure in “Soviet mythology”. Though Brest-Litovsk was a message for the West too in the given situation, indicating that the Bolsheviks have broken up with the Entente. This, on the long run, also contributed to the international isolation of the Soviet Union, which is exampled by the period between the two world wars – more specifically the Soviet Union will have one partner in Europe anyway since they occasionally cooperated with the German Weimar Republic.

Regarding the short term effect of the peace at Brest-Litovsk, significant German powers were freed on the East, though still a relatively large number of soldiers were stationed in the region owing to the uncertain situation in Russia. Their – as it later turned out, last – large offensive could be launched two and a half weeks later on the Western front, though this attack in France did not reach its strategic goal, getting a peace that is acceptable to Berlin out of the Entente, either.

Megindul a harc az orosz fronton? = Az Est, 1918. február 16.
Vasárnap újra kezdődik a német–orosz háború = Az Est, 1918. február 17.
Megbízottaink elutaztak Pétervárról = Az Est, 1918. február 17.
Az orosz békeszerződés szövege = Az Est, 1918. március 5.
Orosz jelentés a béke megkötéséről = Az Est, 1918. március 5.
Vilmos császár távirata az orosz békéről = Az Est, 1918. március 5.
Lengyel István: A breszt-litovszki béketárgyalások. Budapest, 1975.
Stephen A. de Mowbray: Key Facts in Soviet History. Vol. I. 1917–1941. London, 1990.
Isztorija Rosszii. Szovjetszkoje Obscsesztvo. (Szerk.: V. V: Zsuravljev) Moszkva, 1997.

Written by: Iván Miklós Szegő