The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was the peace agreement that formally ended Russia’s involvement in World War I. It was signed in the Polish city of the same name on March 3rd 1918.
The path to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was a bumpy one, filled with demands, delays and divided opinions. The Bolsheviks, a party which had derived considerable public support from its consistent demands for peace, found themselves under pressure to produce a rapid peace settlement.
The Brest-Litovsk treaty was signed five months after the Soviet Decree on Peace and almost a year after Lenin’s April Theses. Even then, this peace came at a great cost for Russia, which was forced to surrender vast areas of land, including important food-growing areas.
The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk also created some significant political divisions, both between the Bolsheviks and their Left SR allies and within the Bolshevik Party itself. So while Brest-Litovsk fulfilled Lenin’s 1917 promise and delivered peace to the war-weary Russian people, its other outcomes were detrimental for the new regime.
Lenin’s Decree on Peace
The road to Brest-Litovsk began with Lenin’s famous Decree on Peace, presented to the Congress of Soviets the day after the October Revolution in 1917. This decree ordered the new government to “start immediate negotiations for peace” – though it also insisted on a “just and democratic peace… without annexations and without indemnities”. In other words, any peace deal with Germany must not incur excessive costs or concessions for Russia.
This condition was problematic because at the time, Germany was in a much stronger position militarily. German forces occupied all of Poland and Lithuania. Some German forces had pushed into the southern tip of Ukraine while others were poised to move deep into the Baltic states. Even St Petersburg itself was in striking distance of a German advance.
It was clear that any German peace delegation would demand the surrender of large amounts of Russian territory – and the Bolsheviks were in no position to make any demands or threaten the resumption of hostilities.
In mid-December 1917, German and Russian delegates met at the Polish town of Brest-Litovsk and agreed to an indefinite ceasefire. Formal peace talks began five days later.
Privately, members of the German delegation at Brest-Litovsk loathed the Bolsheviks who were sent to negotiate peace. Amongst their number, one German delegate noted, were Jews, convicted criminals and even a woman.
Recognising the inexperience of the Russian delegation, however, the Germans hid their contempt. Instead, they cultivated an atmosphere of informality, friendliness and candour. The German delegates dined and socialised with the Bolshevik group, toasting their revolution and praising them for casting off the corrupt Provisional Government and securing peace for the Russian people.
As the Russians became more relaxed and confident (and on some occasions, more drunk) they leaked information about the state of their government, their military and their nation. The interim leader of the Russian delegation, Adolf Joffe, was one of the worst offenders. This gave the German delegation some useful insight into the weakness of the Bolshevik position, both domestically and militarily.
The arrival of Trotsky
This fraternisation ended a week later with the arrival of Leon Trotsky, the Soviet commissar for foreign affairs. Trotsky ordered an end to socialising and mixed dining and demanded that all negotiations be done across the table.
Whereas Joffe had been calm and conciliatory, Trotsky was indignant, defiant and confident to the point of haughtiness. As later observed by Paul von Hindenburg, he behaved “more like a victor than the vanquished”.
Several times Trotsky lectured the German delegation about the imminent socialist revolution in their own country. On one occasion he even produced socialist propaganda, printed in German, and distributed it to German soldiers.
Trotsky, who was convinced that a socialist revolution would erupt in Germany, probably sometime in 1918, also engaged in stalling tactics to prolong the peace negotiations. He demanded peace without concessions, knowing the Germans would never accept. He requested several adjournments and deferments so he could return to Russia for advice.
The Germans lose patience
All this infuriated the Germans, who were impatient to end the war on the Eastern Front so they could redeploy their forces to the West. Germany’s demands were initially quite modest, seeking only the independence of Poland and Lithuania – but in January 1918, the Berlin delegation presented Trotsky with a new and more expansive set of demands.
Trotsky responded by demanding peace without concessions. He began to purposely stall discussions, arguing endlessly over minor points, threatening to quit the negotiations and continually calling for recesses. The Germans could not believe his tone, one general commenting that Trotsky ‘negotiated’ as though the Russians were winning the war rather than losing it. When the Germans presented another list of demands in January, Trotsky refused to sign and returned to Russia.
Division in the party
Meanwhile, the Bolshevik party was divided over the terms of any treaty with Germany. Lenin’s wish was for the German proposal to be signed immediately. To delay this was to risk a German offensive that might overrun St Petersburg and crush the Soviet government.
Another faction, led by Nikolai Bukharin, rejected any suggestion of a peace treaty between the Soviets and a capitalist country. The war must be continued, Bukharin argued, to inspire German workers to take up arms against their own government.
Trotsky’s position was somewhere in the middle. He argued that German treaty ultimatums should be refused – but he did not believe but the Russian military or the Red Guards were capable of withstanding a revived German offensive.
These internal divisions rumbled on until mid-February 1918 when the German high command, frustrated at the lack of progress, suspended the armistice. German forces began the bombardment of Russian positions and invaded the Baltic States, the Ukraine and Belarus. German troops advanced into Russian soil, at one point reaching the outskirts of Petrograd. This forced the Bolsheviks to relocate the capital to Moscow.
The German offensive forced the Bolsheviks back to the table in late February. This time, the German delegates issued the Russians with an ultimatum, giving them five days to negotiate and sign the treaty.
Under the terms of the agreement they concluded, Poland, Finland, the Baltic states and most of Ukraine was surrendered to Germany. Russia lost 1.3 million square miles of important territory, including important grain-growing regions in Ukraine. It surrendered around 62 million people to German rule, around one-third of its total population. It also lost 28 per cent of its heavy industries and three-quarters of its iron and coal reserves.
By any measure, this Brest-Litovsk agreement offered humiliating terms. It treated Soviet Russia as a defeated nation and Germany as a conquering power entitled to the spoils of war.
With the Soviet regime at risk of capitulation, Bolsheviks negotiators signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3rd 1918. Lenin got his own way by arguing that any losses – a nation on the “doorstep of socialist revolution” – would be rendered temporary by the advent of socialism in Germany. Lenin also hinted that he would resign as party leader if the treaty was not accepted.
The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed on March 3rd and ratified at the Fourth Congress of Soviets on March 15th. The final vote for this ratification was 453 to 38. According to the ratifying resolution, the terms of the treaty “were imposed on [the Soviet government] in the form of an obvious ultimatum and by undisguised force” but “the international workers’ revolution is not far away and the full victory of the socialist proletariat is assured”.
Despite this, Brest-Litovsk had opened up divisions and tensions within the party. Trotsky was dumped as commissar of foreign affairs and refused to attend the final signing of the treaty. At the Seventh Party Congress on March 7th, Bukharin condemned the treaty and called on the party to reject it and re-start the war with Germany. Meanwhile, the harsh territorial and economic terms of the treaty would soon be felt by the Bolshevik government as it entered a three-year fight for survival.
A historian’s view:
“It was a device, the Bolsheviks admitted, to trade space for time, the time which they needed to consolidate their revolutionary rule in the territory they held, and to defeat anti-Bolshevik forces… Yet the space they yielded was enormous. The Treaty gave the Germans and Austrians domination over the vast food-producing areas as well as the rich mining regions and industrial zones in the south-west of now technically independent Ukraine.”
Richard J Crampton
1. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was an agreement between Russia and Germany that ended Russia’s involvement in World War I. Negotiations for this treaty began in the Polish town of Brest-Litovsk in December 1917.
2. Germany’s negotiators, having established the political and military weakness of the Bolshevik government, put forward a series of extensive demands for territory and resources.
3. Russian representatives, hoping that socialist revolution would break out in Germany, attempted to stall negotiations. The Germans threatened to end the ceasefire after negotiations with Trotsky broke down.
4. Once the treaty was finalised it had to be ratified by the Soviet government. Lenin pushed for it to be ratified immediately, however, the party was divided on whether to accept its harsh terms.
5. In February 1918 the Germans, frustrated at delays in finalising the treaty, relaunched an offensive and issued an ultimatum. The Bolshevik government ratified the treaty in March 1918. It imposed severe terms on Russia, surrendering large amounts of land, people and heavy industry to German control.