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  • James Houser

March 3, 1918 - Treaty of Brest-Litovsk & Russia's Exit from World War I

Updated: Jun 2, 2021

March 3, 1918. In German-controlled Brest-Litovsk, representatives of the Russian Bolsheviks and the Central Powers meet to hammer out the deal that will take Russia out of the First World War. The shockingly harsh terms the Germans lay forth, and virtually force the Russians to sign, will come back to bite them in a year at Versailles.

Russia had not had a good First World War. Well, nobody had, but Russia had had a worse one than most. With an industry unprepared for war, poorly trained and equipped troops, and staggering incompetence and corruption in its high command, the armies of the Tsar staggered their way through three brutal years of conflict. By 1917, Russia had fought Germany to a stalemate, but its economy was collapsing under the pressure of the war and the colossal casualties and food shortages were beginning to strain the state's capacity to function. Something was going to snap.

In March 1917, it did. Urban unrest in St. Petersburg spiraled into a revolution that forced the Tsar to abdicate and set up a Provisional Government. The Provisional Government's biggest mistake, however, was to try and continue the war. Its liberal government was soon opposed by the leftist Bolsheviks, who favored ending the war. Following another disastrous year of war that saw the Russian armies dissolve and the German armies advance virtually unimpeded, the Provisional Government lost whatever power it had.

In October 1917, the Bolshevik Red Guards overthrew the Provisional Government and seized control. The Bolsheviks were by this point led by Vladimir Lenin, who the German government had smuggled to Russia in an attempt to strengthen the Bolshevik faction. Now with Lenin in control, the Bolsheviks sent messages to the Central Powers suing for peace. Lenin's slogans promised the end of the war, land redistribution, and enough to eat for every peasant: "Peace, Land, Bread." The Bolsheviks reassured the people they would make peace with "no annexations or indemnities."

Germany wanted to end the war in the East on a high note so they could turn their full attention to the Western Front and crush Britain and France before the Americans could arrive. However, they had the Russians over a barrel and they knew it. Lenin had risen to power on the promise of peace, and the Russian Army had nearly dissolved. They could demand virtually any terms they desired.

On December 15, the Soviets and the Central Powers concluded a ceasefire, and began peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk. (Nowadays it is simply Brest, in Belorussia.) The negotiations began on December 22 and were held in crude wooden buildings; the Russians had burned the city of Brest during their retreat from Poland in 1915.

Signing of the Ceasefire, December 15

The initial Soviet terms for peace presented by Revolutionary Adolph Joffe included Lenin's guarantee that no Russian territory be annexed. At first it seemed the Germans agreed, but this was soon corrected. Sharply, General Max Hoffmann informed the Russian delegation that huge portions of Russian territory - Poland and the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia - were to be set up as German puppet states. Joffe was described as looking "as if he had received a blow on the head." These were catastrophic terms, far worse than any of the Russians had expected. After some back-and-forth, the Germans and Austrians decided to give the Russians some days to argue.

In January, the talks reconvened and Joffe was gone, replaced by hardliner and Foreign Minister Leon Trotsky. Trotsky still refused the loss of territory, but time was not on the Soviet side and the Germans knew it. On January 22, a Ukrainian National Council - the Rada - had declared independence from Russia and sent its own delegation to Brest-Litovsk, offering a separate peace deal and grain for the starving German and Austrian populations. Trotsky's inflexible behavior and undiplomatic rhetoric, shouting and arguing day after day, convinced the Central Powers that further pressure would have to be exerted on the Bolsheviks. On February 8, the Central Powers signed a separate treaty with Ukraine and dispatched troops to assist the Rada against the Russians.

Trotsky at Brest-Litovsk

With this coup in hand, Hoffmann informed Trotsky that there would be no more negotiations; the Russians had nine days to decide whether or not to sign. Trotsky returned to meet with Lenin and the other Bolsheviks, where he and the further Left argued against signing the Treaty. They were convinced that the Central Powers were all on the verge of their own revolutions and that they could wait the Germans out. Lenin was less sanguine; he believed the Bolsheviks should accept the peace before the war resumed and the terms only got worse. The other Communists prevailed, and Trotsky returned to Brest-Litovsk on February 10 to announce that the terms were unacceptable.

General Hoffmann was having none of it. He allowed the Russians to stew for a few days, thinking they had won, before he notified them on February 16 that the war would resume in two days unless the Russians signed. Thunderstruck, the Russian delegation protested, but it was too late. On February 18, 53 German and Austrian divisions advanced against nearly empty positions and penetrated deeply into the Russian heartland. Five days later, the Germans presented a new treaty with far worse terms than before. The threat was simple: accept the offer, or we take it all.

Trotsky still protested, but Lenin realized that they had no choice. Trotsky resigned as Foreign Minister (though he later became War Minister during the Russian Civil War) and a replacement was sent to Brest-Litovsk.

On March 3, Russia and the Central Powers signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. It was a catastrophe for Russia. The Baltic States - Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania - would be ruled by German nobles subservient to the Kaiser. Poland was to be annexed by Germany and Austria-Hungary, and Germany also received most of Belorussia. Russian troops would withdraw from Finland and Ukraine, virtually abandoning those lands to the independence movements that had arisen there. Those independence movements, by default, would be totally dominated by Germany. Russia also gave up territory in the Caucasus to the Ottoman Empire.

Russian losses under Brest-Litovsk

These huge land losses were dwarfed by the economic consequences. Russia would lose 90% of its coal production, a third of its population, and half of its industry. To add insult to injury, they were forced to pay six billion marks to Germany in compensation for losses. This was the harsh peace - almost a disembowelment - that Germany forced on its humbled foe.

Of course, none of this held for very long. The Germans used the new peace on the Eastern Front to transfer a million troops to the West to try and knock Britain and France out of the war. This, to put it bluntly, failed as the Allies resisted the attack and American troops arrived to restore, then tilt, the balance. The Germans had left a million more troops in the east to try and secure their new consequences, a futile task when Eastern Europe was disintegrating beneath their feet. The Russian Civil War had begun, and not even the iron hand of Imperial Germany could stop the whole of Europe between the Oder and the Volga from coming completely unglued.

On November 11, 1918, the Armistice that concluded World War I contained a single clause canceling the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Germans who complained about the Treaty of Versailles the next year were coldly reminded of Brest-Litovsk, which was a far worse peace forced on the Russians than the Allies ever sought to impose on Germany. They were not receptive to this irony. Indeed, the German desire to regain the Eastern territories they had "rightfully" won in the East at Brest-Litovsk and that had been "stolen" at Versailles would lead directly to Hitler's drive to the east in World War II.

As for Russia, its World War was over but its agony was not. The Russian Civil War would be almost as ruinous as World War I and end with one of history's most brutal regimes - Stalin's Soviet Union - in power. Brest-Litovsk had unleashed potent national uprisings across the former Russian Empire, and the collapse of Germany and Austria-Hungary accelerated the unraveling of Eastern Europe. The next five years, 1919-1923, would be some of the most decisive in European history as the violent struggles of World War I's afterbirth laid the seeds for the greatest crimes of the 20th Century.

Book Recommendations: Try a recent scholarly history of the treaty - Borislav Chernev's Twilight of Empire: The Brest-Litovsk Conference and the Remaking of East-Central Europe, 1917–1918 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017).

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