BOOK: John Wheeler-Bennett, "Brest-Litovsk"
John W. Wheeler-Bennett: Brest-Litovsk: The Forgotten Peace, March 1918. London: Macmillan, 1938; 5th printing, 1963. xx + 478 pp.
This is a book about the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk, concluded in March 1918 between Russia and the Central Powers. The latter took advantage of Russia's weakness to make large territorial demands upon her, intending to establish in these territories a number of quasi-independent states that would really be little more than German satellites. Of course, a few months later, Germany lost the war in the west and Russia repudiated the treaty; besides, the Entente obviously didn't have the slightest intention of allowing Germany to have any pretensions to influence in the East, so they added a clause annulling the Brest-Litovsk treaty in the Versailles peace treaty that Germany had to sign with the Entente after the war.
For some reason, the Brest-Litovsk treaty fascinates me, even though it was so short-lived and is in many ways just a footnote in the history of the WW1. The text of the treaty is available on the web site of Yale's Avalon Project, but tantalizingly, it lacks a map. It's clear from the text that Russia was about to lose a lot of territory, but not exactly how much and where. This made me even more curious about the treaty. [Wheeler-Bennett's book does include a map, between pp. 274 and 275.] Besides, I am always fascinated by ruthless, megalomaniac imperialism, even though I am also always glad when it fails to achieve its goals. We aren't really used to seeing this sort of large-scale imperialism and wars of conquest on the European continent in the modern era, except during WW2. In the 19th century, European imperialism was mostly directed externally, at other parts of the world (e.g. Africa and parts of Asia). As for the WW1, we usually remember the trench warfare on the Western front where the front lines hardly ever moved, and we often don't remember that at the same time on the Eastern front Germany occupied huge swaths of Russian territory and certainly had no intentions of relinquishing control of those territories as long as she could help it. We expect this sort of thing in the WW2, but not in the WW1 — at least I don't, and that's why it fascinates me. In the end, German greed for Russian territory was not all that much smaller than in the WW2.
So I have for some time been intending to read something about the Brest-Litovsk treaty, but I didn't know of any suitable titles. Then, a few months ago, I heard about Wheeler-Bennett when reading Richard Evans' The Coming of the Third Reich. Evans cites another of Bennett's books, a biography of Hindenburg, but then I noticed in Bennett's Wikipedia page that he also wrote a book about Brest-Litovsk. Soon afterwards, a saw a cheap copy on eBay and bought it.
The book perhaps isn't quite what I had hoped for, but that's not intended to be a criticism of the book; it just happens that my expectations were slightly incompatible with the book. Most of the story deals with Russia, much less of it with Germany, and almost nothing with the actual territories whose fate was being discussed in Brest-Litovsk. There is a fair amount of background about Russia in 1917, particularly about the October revolution; and later, while we read about the negotiations and the aftermath of the treaty, we also hear a great deal about Russian politics at this time, the endless bickering between Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Left and Right Social Revolutionaries, Lenin and Trotsky, the innumerable Soviets and Committees and who knows that other organizational structures, all ceaselessly debating, arguing, etc., etc. Germany and the other Central Powers get much less space in the book, and, as I said, the territories most directly concerned by the treaty get almost no space at all. I guess I really should read Liulevicius' War Land on the Eastern Front (which I also found cited in Evans).
Anyway, apart from this minor complaint — i.e. that the book wasn't quite what I was looking for — this is really a perfectly decent book. It's readable, not too short but also not so long as to exhaust the reader, and it doesn't assume that the reader has very much background knowledge about the WW1 (e.g. I don't, and I found the book accessible enough).
Russia wasn't doing terribly well in the First World War. Its poorly equipped army suffered great losses in 1916 (“In certain divisions only three men out of ten went into action with rifles”, p. 8), and the economic situation had deteriorated to the point where there was widespread famine in the cities (pp. 9, 12). Clamours for peace arose from all parts of the political spectrum (p. 11), and by March 1917 the Tsar had been forced to abdicate (p. 13). A provisional government took power and preparations for a constitutional assembly were begun. Russia's allies, Britain and France, were happy enough to recognize the provisional government — after all, it supported the policy of Russia remaining in the war, and besides, Russia no being longer an autocracy “removed the last obstacle to the participation of the United States of America in the war on the side of the Allies”, and the social democrats in the Entente powers were also more comfortable participating in the war now that they no longer had to count an autocratic Tsar among their allies (p. 31).
The provisional government wanted to repect Russia's obligations towards its allies, Britain and France, which prevented her from concluding a separate peace. (“It is ironical, in view of the general desire for peace which permeated Russia at the moment of the Revolution, that the power should have fallen into the hands of the one group which was in favour of continuing the war”, p. 23 — i.e. both the Tsar, had he retained power, and the Bolsheviks, had they seized it, would be more likely to hurry towards peace than the liberal politicians of the provisional government). The provisional government did in fact make some efforts to get the allies to release Russia from her obligations and let her make separate peace with the Germans, but they refused — probably an unwise decision, as allowing Russia to withdraw from the war would likely stabilize the situation in Russia and prevent the subsequent Bolshevik revolution from taking place (pp. 51–2). As it was, the disaffection of the Russian population grew until the Bolsheviks made use of it to carry out the October revolution and assume power for themselves.
“The Kerensky régime perished, as it had lived, ingloriously and with infirmity of purpose. [. . .] the Provisional Government simply melted away. Kerensky on the morning of the 7th left Petrograd to look for an army. He neither found one, nor returned. [. . .] the remaining members of the Government [. . .] were arrested during their last session at the Marinsky Palace. Their final defenders were bewildered old Palace servants, a handful of army cadets, and some singularly ineffective military amazons.” (P. 61.)
The Bolsheviks made withdrawal from the WW1 one of their top priorities in foreign affairs. They realized that without this, it would be impossible for them to consolidate their position, to organize a new ‘Red’ army to replace the old tsarist one, to suppress the various opponents of the revolution that were gathering their forces at that very moment; and besides, they knew that the Russian army was simply not in a condition to fight the Central Powers. It was mostly just retreating; waiting any longer would just mean that Russia would be in an even worse position once the peace talks finally began.
Many of the Bolsheviks, in fact, mistakenly believed that the other European nations (and especially their workers) were just as tired of the war as the Russians were: “The theory was that only the declaration of the principles of a general peace was needed for the peoples to rise and compel the Governments to enter into the necessary negotiations.” (P. 66.) Of course, things were not so simple, and nothing came of these efforts. At the same time, there was much war-weariness, especially in the Central Powers: “the Quadruple Alliance was only held together by the hope of a victory by German arms. [. . .] The war spirit of Vienna was at an end [. . .] Germany could only count on Bulgaria remaining faithful [. . .] so long as all went well with the German armies. [. . .] Turkey [. . .] was at the end of her strength.” (Pp. 80–1.) Thus, Germany was quite interested in concluding peace in the East so that it could move some of its soldiers to the West and force the Entente to make peace on terms that were good for Germany (p. 82). Austria-Hungary was even more interested, due to its growing food crisis, to alleviate which they would need to import grain from the Ukraine, an impossibility until the conclusion of peace and resumption of normal economic relations (pp. 169–71).
Thus, the Bolsheviks agreed on an armistice with the Central Powers quite quickly, in December 1917 (pp. 83–4). The representatives of both sides met at Brest-Litovsk to discuss the terms of the peace treaty. The Russian delegation (pp. 85–7) was somewhat bizarre; “since the Revolution had nominally been made in the name of the soldiers, sailors, workers, and peasants, representatives of all these categories had to be included in the delegation. [. . .] They were produced for ‘window-dressing’ and had no other duties than to create an atmosphere of revolutionary democracy” (p. 85). The peasant representative was picked up at the last moment, when the delegation was already on the way to the train station: “ ‘There's no need for you to go to your village,’ the old man was told. ‘Come with us to Brest-Litovsk and make peace with the Germans.’ ” (Pp. 86–7.) See pp. 113–14 for more anecdotes of the worker, soldier and peasant representatives.
“ ‘We began peace negotiations’, wrote Trotsky, ‘in the hope of arousing the workmen's parties of Germany and Austria-Hungary as well as those of the Entente countries.’ ” (P. 115.) They hoped this would be a first step towards the establishment of socialism all over the world. Hence they tried to procrastinate and delay the negotiations to give the labour movements of the other countries time to respond. The Russian delegation presented a set of principles for a general peace without annexations or indemnities, and the Central Powers in principle agreed with the Russian suggestion that the Entente should be invited to participate in the negotiations of such a general peace on the basis of these principles. However, it soon became evident that the Entente had no intentions of concluding peace with the Central Powers in this way (pp. 136–7), and, what is more, there Central Powers and the Russians disagreed strongly in the interpretation of some of those principles, particularly that of self-determination (p. 128). The Russians took ‘no annexations’ to mean they would get Poland and the Baltic provinces back; but to Germans, ‘self-determination’ meant that the referenda and elections that were carried out in those territories while they were under German occupation during the war should be considered valid (pp. 124–5) — of course, in these elections, under the influence of the German military commanders and also of the German or pro-German landowning classes, these territories mostly decided to separate from Russia and organize themselves into little more than German satellites (p. 107, 215–6).
Unlike many other leading Bolsheviks, Lenin soon realized that the proletarian revolution which the Russians had hoped to trigger in other European countries, particularly Germany, through their example and propaganda, was not likely to happen anytime soon (pp. 138–9; it's remarkable how long the other Bolsheviks refused to accept this fact, pp. 186, 190). Thus, he now focused his attention on consolidating the revolution in Russia. “[B]oth for achieving a world upheaval [i.e. a worldwide proletarian revolution] and for securing a breathing-space for the Russian Revolution, a policy of delay was necessary at Brest-Litovsk. The peace negotiations must be protracted by any possible means. Against the might of the German militarism Russia had but one remaining weapon, the incalculable capacity of the Slav for interminable conversation, and this weapon Lenin was prepared to use to its utmost capacity” (p. 139). Trotsky became the new leader of the Russian delegation, and protracting the negotiations was one of his chief goals.
It was clear from the start that the two sides' views on self-determination and the status of Poland and the Baltic states were irreconcilable (p. 157). Nevertheless, “for four mortal weeks did Kühlmann and Trotsky circle round each other like duellists upon a cloak, debating the ethics, forms, and principles of self-determination and its application to the border states.” (Ibid.) “Their debates travelled from Dan to Beersheba, and from China to Peru, embracing such apparent irrelevancies as the degree of dependence of the Nizam of Hyderabad upon the British Crown, and the scope and powers of the Supreme Court of the United States.” (P. 158.) One good thing from the Russian point of view is that during the course of these negotiations, it became clear to the world-wide public that Germany was really quite under the control of its military Supreme Command (i.e. Ludendorff and Hindenburg), and that the German aims in the East really were about keeping under German control the territories that they had occupied, while the German diplomats' professed support of self-determination had really been little more than a sham (pp. 163, 165). Trotsky ironically described the German position as: “According to the Germans the terms of the treaty would be—first, the right of self-determination of the people is recognized, and there will be no annexations; secondly, Germany annexes everything.” (P. 216.)
Despite all that, however, it eventually became clear to Trotsky that the negotiations cannot be protracted indefinitely, nor can he get the Germans and their allies to sign a peace without yielding to so many of their demands that many people both in Russia and abroad would believe that he and Lenin were really German agents, or that Lenin had accepted German money at the time of his return from Switzerland to Russia at the outbreak of the revolution, and was now repaying the favour (pp. 184–5). Trotsky therefore proposed a curious formula of ‘no war — no peace’: Russia would unilaterally cease hostilities and demobilize, but it wouldn't sign a peace treaty; he was convinced that Germany would not continue its war against Russia, and that if it tried, the German masses would oppose that and start a revolution (p. 195; an unrealistic hope). Still other notable Bolsheviks supported the even more foolhardy plan of interrupting the negotiations and plunging into a ‘revolutionary war’ (p. 187), which would of course be a dismal failure given the then state of the Russian army. Lenin was inclined to be more pragmatic and would prefer signing a peace with Germany, but he “had not yet reached that point when he could dictate his terms to his colleagues” (p. 186), and so Trotsky's formula was eventually adopted as a compromise.