Brest-Litovsk is now Brest, a regional capital of some 340,000 people in Belarus, close to the border with Poland. For much of the last three centuries this has not been a peaceful part of the world, one of those unhappy regions stuck between the ambitions of competing empires that I mentioned a couple of weeks back (6 December, 1917: The Lucky Country?). During the First World War, the town stood in the path of three imperial armies on the Eastern Front, and was reduced to a burned, battered wreck by the Russian Army as part of its ‘Great Retreat’ in 1915. By late 1917, when the front line had shifted some 150km to the east, what remained of Brest-Litovsk was serving as the German Army’s regional headquarters, and on 22 December 1917 it played host to the first formal peace talks between Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria on one side, and Bolshevik Russia on the other.
When posterity ponders peace treaties and the First World War, the Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles loom large. Fair enough, because nobody should try and wrap their head around modern geopolitical history without appreciating the mess made at Paris and the principles behind it – but you can’t do that without context, and you can’t really put Versailles into context without some understanding of the various wartime treaties that preceded it. By blotting out the sun when it comes to looking at other treaties, the heritage industry’s obsession with the tournament-style pomp of Paris actually makes understanding it more difficult – and of all those other treaties Brest-Litovsk was the big one.
I’m not giving away any secrets (or I shouldn’t be) by saying that the negotiations begun on 22 December produced a treaty of enormous significance, in terms of both immediate impact and historical reach. It triggered a breathtakingly ambitious (if not bonkers) German attempt to establish an instant eastern empire, and was a pivotal step in the painful birth process of the Soviet Union – but it wasn’t destined to be signed for another three months, so for now I want to talk about the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk.
A combination of hindsight and a worm’s eye view makes it very easy for us to invest history’s chaos with coherence, and to assume that great historical events, in particular great staged events, came with the kind of trappings and organisation we associate with a modern summit meeting or World Cup. This tendency can turn blind blunders into plans of action and make stumblebums look like statesmen, or it can make the results look stupid because the circumstances look sensible.
For example, punitive Allied attitudes towards Germany during the postwar peace process are much discussed and deplored as fundamental to the ruin that followed. They can’t really be explained if, like much of the heritage industry, you ignore the agreements signed at Brest-Litovsk, which can’t be understood without an appreciation of the improvised, occasionally farcical process by which they were reached. So let’s have a look.
Pretty much the moment it took power in Petrograd, the new Bolshevik regime in Russia had declared peace. The government in fact declared peace between all the warring nations, on the grounds (not seen as altogether fanciful by many reputable foreign observers) that Western European war efforts were anyway about to be overwhelmed by socialist revolution. Given that ‘bread and peace’ had been the Bolshevik call to revolution in Russia, it was necessary to deliver peace in advance of world revolution, and so three Russian emissaries had crossed German lines under white flags on 26 November 1917, empowered to discuss the terms of an armistice between Russia and the Central Powers. A general ceasefire was agreed with the Germans on 4 December, signed at Brest-Litovsk by representatives of all the Central Powers on 5 December, and came into official force next day.
Talks towards a full armistice then began, also at Brest-Litovsk, at which point things got a little slapstick. On the Russian side the recently appointed Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Leon Trotsky, sent a 28-strong delegation that expressed Bolshevik disdain for old world diplomacy. Led by an old revolutionary ally, Adolf Joffe, aided by a couple of veteran revolutionaries in Lev Kamenev and Lev Karakhan, it included soldiers, sailors and factory workers as representatives of the revolution’s core support, along with a female representative (Anastasia Bizenko, notorious as the assassin of an imperial official). Legend claims the delegation completed the set by picking up a passing peasant en route for the railway station.
The Russians arrived at Brest-Litovsk to face old world diplomacy in full effect, as organised by General Max Hoffmann. Hoffmann was an interesting figure, a staff officer who had taken much of the credit for the campaigns that had made the names of Hindenburg and Ludendorff during 1914 and 1915, and who had been theatre chief of staff since Prince Leopold, the King of Bavaria’s younger brother, had taken command of the Eastern Front in August 1916. A born fixer, energetic, imaginative and equipped with the kind of vaunting ambition appreciated by his former chiefs at the Third Supreme Command, Hoffmann effectively controlled subsequent German strategy in the east. He organised the return of revolutionary leaders (like Lenin) to Russia, and suspended offensive operations after the attack on Riga in September 1917 to avoid the risk of igniting Russian patriotism at a revolutionary moment. Perhaps with one eye on a wider world scared of Bolsheviks, he now assembled a negotiating team of old school, elite diplomats.
Five Germans, four Austro-Hungarian representatives, three Ottoman and two Bulgarian treated the Russians – housed in wooden huts within the, largely intact, Brest-Litovsk fortress – to the wining, dining and conversation in French that came with the territory, and by all accounts the days that followed were an exercise in mutual bewilderment and contempt. Bad vibes made little or no immediate difference to the process. The Russians had no bargaining chips remotely comparable to the German Army, while the Central Powers, especially Germany, were in a hurry to get on with formal peace negotiations and associated annexations, so a 28-day armistice was arranged in three days.
A delay followed because Joffe had been instructed to sign an armistice for every battlefront, including those contested exclusively by Russia’s allies, and had to go home for new orders. Demanding world peace may seem as ridiculous to modern eyes as it did to many contemporary observers, but it followed from the genuine conviction among Bolsheviks that the workers of other countries were about to seize power. The same belief made any delay to the negotiating process a good thing from Petrograd’s point of view, because it bought time for world revolution to gestate. The Russian delegation eventually returned to Brest-Litovsk a week later, and a 30-day armistice was signed on 15 December.
The Central Powers brought their big diplomatic guns to Brest-Litovsk for the actual peace negotiations, including German foreign minister von Kühlmann and his Austrian counterpart Count Czernin. The Russian delegation was strengthened by the addition of a professional historian and, as military advisor, a former Tsarist general, but was stripped of its symbolic revolutionary representatives (although Anastasia Bizenko kept her place at the table). The banquets seem to have passed off rather more convivially as a result, and in more languages, but the negotiations themselves collapsed into almost instant confusion.
Joffe began proceedings by presenting Bolshevik peace demands, which amounted to the established slogan of peace ‘without indemnities or annexations’, and the German delegates agreed to this in principle, provided it was also accepted by all the other belligerent nations. Joffe was delighted at what the Bolsheviks thought was an agreement not to carve up the old Russian Empire, but had to reverse his optimistic reports home when, a day later, Germany’s position was explained in more careful detail. In accordance with the principle of national self-determination, as espoused by the Bolsheviks, territories under German occupation would be granted their independence… and then treated as German puppet states.
Protest as they might, and did, the Russian delegation had no way of preventing the Germans from doing whatever they liked, whenever they liked, because the one force on any Russian front that was still an effective instrument of state policy, the German Army, had remained in potentially offensive positions for the duration of the armistice. The only tactic left to the new Russian regime was to delay agreement for as long as possible, and hope revolution reached Western Europe before a treaty reached the statute books. Under strict instructions from Trotsky – who would later lead Russian negotiations in person – Joffe and his team responded to the certainty of a punitive settlement by doing just that.
And so it went; an elaborate dance between two mutually hostile worldviews seeking peace but refusing compromise. The German Empire and its virtually powerless allies were desperate to get their hands on the resources of Eastern Europe before the wider war was lost, but stepped lightly to exploit a rare shot at looking like the good guys, or at least more acceptable than the Bolsheviks, to their prospective new subjects. The Russians, equally determined to incorporate those same resources into their new world order, stepped nimbly because every day wasted at the negotiating table brought the downfall of their former enemies a little closer. When the music finally stopped, in March 1918, the two sides would be left with a treaty that lasted no more than a few months but changed the world forever – and is another story.