The treaty of Brest Litovsk is now largely forgotten but was important and remains relevant to modern Europe. After military reverses, the new Bolshevik government offered an armistice to Germany towards the end of November 1917. The treaty finally imposed by Germany was intentionally punitive being designed to economically cripple Russia and provide Germany with space for eastern expansion by creating new notionally independent pro-German countries. Negotiations commenced on December 20th 1917 in what Wheeler-Bennet describes as “one of the strangest gatherings in the history of modern diplomacy”. The treaty itself was signed on March 3rd 1918.
The literal meaning of Brest Litovsk is Brest Lithuania and was so called to avoid confusion with Brest in France. The name therefore reflects the history, changing politics and borders of central Europe as the city has been Lithuanian Polish, Russian and now Belarussian. Situated 205 kilometres due East of Warsaw, the situation of the city is important. The military citadel is on high ground (unusual in that part of the world) and surrounded by water, being at the confluence of the Rivers Mukhavets and Bug. Today the Bug is the border between Poland and Belarus but equally important it was and remains the dividing line between the Orthodox religion and the Western Church and between the Cyrillic and Roman alphabet.
The negotiations at Brest, the headquarters of Prince Leopold of Bavaria took place in various buildings and were signed in the officer’s mess at Brest Litovsk then known as the White Palace. The principal negotiator for Germany was Secretary of State Kuhlmann with General Hoffman as the special representative of General Headquarters; however, the real power was Hindenburg who controlled the proceedings via telegraph and telephone. The Russian side was represented by Leon Trotsky and so the two sides across the table were thus both socially and ideologically divided. The German elite talked of land and (non-Russian) provinces to be ceded and economic advantaged to be gained. The Bolsheviks were committed revolutionaries and were happy to give up land if it would ferment a working class uprising in those areas. Time was the essence, the Germans wanted to release troops for the West and the coming spring offensive, Trotsky wanted the opposite and prevaricated attempting to convert the German soldiers to socialism. Thus, whilst the Germans wanted a speedy conclusion, the Bolsheviks wanted the opposite. In the words of Wheeler- Bennet (1940) for the next six weeks the negotiations became a debating society. Trotsky then declared his policy of “neither war nor peace” and this, for the Germans was the end of negotiations. On the previous day the German had signed a separate peace with Ukraine such was their desperate need for food and energy. In frustration at the Bolshevik tactics, Hindenburg and Ludendorff forced the Kaiser to resume hostilities and the German army moved East and the Russian army collapsed. After a bitter internal struggle the Bolsheviks sued for peace and the Germans issued an ultimatum of three days to conclude a treaty which had to be ratified within two weeks.
What happened next was the only time in the war when Hindenburg, Ludendorff and even the Kaiser were distracted from winning the war in the West. The German demands were far more punitive than the Treaty of Versailles and a warning to other combatants as to their fate if Germany were to win. The Russians signed on March 3rd and with supplementary agreements, Russia was to cede Russian Poland, Lithuania, Courland, Livonia and Estonia to Germany. In addition, Russia also had to recognise the independence of Finland, Ukraine and Georgia. Furthermore Russia also had to cede certain Eastern territory to Turkey. German good fortune was not to last however, as Ukrainian miners went on strike; harvests were slow to be garnered and never achieved the promised million tons of grain. Similarly the agreed oil and grain quotas from Rumania never materialised. The German army then had become strike breakers and policemen rather than an army fighting on the Western Front. Ludendorff’s time was spent creating kingdoms, keeping a garrison of troops in the Baltic States, an army of occupation in Rumania and an expeditionary force to Finland. These armies in the East to enforce the treaty were estimated to be about a million men. An ironic touch to the whole affair was that in fermenting revolution, Lenin was far too successful as German prisoners and occupying soldiers responded enthusiastically to the new politics and this was to have an effect on German politics in 1918 and 1919 when they were returned home. As Wheeler Bennet succinctly states “such stabbing- in- the- back as was done is attributable to the Supreme Command itself for they had supplied the original daggers.”
In Brest today there is almost no record of the treaty. The White Palace is a ruin in the citadel, the result of the invasion of 1941. In the Brest City museum there is a small display cabinet with photographs of the delegates and two interesting political cartoons of the time. Brest today remains a strategic location and is a railhead for the new “Silk Road” as a terminus for the huge container trains from China to Europe. The name Brest Litovsk is not quite dead though as the local dairy still uses the name, and it is somewhat pleasing that the name Brest Litovsk now refers to the best ice cream in Central Europe.
My thanks to John for this contribution.
The Ruined White Palace May 2017 Brest City Museum: Treaty of Brest Litovsk Display
Brest Citadel May 2017 The Negotiating Building at Brest Litovsk Citadel
(Imperial War Museum Exchange Collection)