Brest-Litovsk: A Peace Deal in Wartime

ZOiS Spotlight 7/2018 by Nikolaus Katzer (28 February 2017)

German Officers meet the delegation of Soviet Russia at the train station of Brest-Litovsk.

On 3 March 1918, the Bolsheviks, who had taken control of government in the capital Petrograd three months earlier, signed a treaty with the Central Powers, led by the German Empire, the like of which has never been seen at any other time in Russia’s history. A quarter of the country’s European territory, arable land and railways was signed away, along with a third of its textile production capacity and three quarters of its iron and coal industries. In all, under the terms of the Treaty, Russia ceded 1.42 million square kilometres of land and signed over some 60 million people – more a third of its population. Finland and the Polish provinces had already been granted independence, and now Lithuania, Courland, Ukraine and parts of Armenia were lost as well. But there was more to come: under a supplementary agreement concluded on 27 August 1918, Russia renounced sovereign claims to Livonia and Estonia and recognised the independence of Georgia. But what drove the Soviet government to make these unprecedented sacrifices?

As 1917 rolled on, “peace” had become the most politically charged word of the year in Russia. Spring and summer offensives had failed to produce the desired victory over the Central Powers – Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria. Even after the Tsar was deposed in February 1917, the Provisional Government had maintained its allegiance to the Western allies. Meanwhile, workers and soldiers were defecting en masse to the Bolsheviks. Lenin, whose return to Petrograd from Swiss exile was aided by the German Imperial government, had announced Russia’s immediate withdrawal from the war, demanding “peace without annexations or indemnities”.

Does an armistice bring peace?

Immediately after the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks issued the Decree on Peace, whose explosive potential was heightened by a further Decree on Land. It dramatically changed the situation at the Eastern front as soldiers fell back behind the lines or even absconded to their home villages to secure land for themselves. This was followed by the signing of a two-month armistice on 15 December 1917. The prospect of Russia’s early withdrawal from the Triple Entente alliance encouraged separatist movements to push for national independence. Meanwhile, the food supply crisis was fuelling revolutionary unrest.

On 22 December, negotiations on a separate peace commenced in the town of Brest-Litovsk, located on German-occupied territory not far from the front. Anti-imperialist rhetoric and conventional diplomatic language collided with full force. Unbridgeable divides caused the talks to be suspended on multiple occasions, and ultimatums were delivered, betraying the nervousness of the participants. Adolph Joffe, the first head of the Soviet delegation, advocated for a global model of peace; by contrast, his successor Leon Trotsky attempted to delay the formalisation of the Soviet position with his doctrine of “neither peace nor war”. The key figures in the Central Powers’ delegation – Foreign Secretary Richard von Kühlmann, Count Ottakar Czernin and General Max Hoffman – were united in their rejection of this tactic and raised the stakes. In response to one of their increased demands, a delegation from Kiyv was received, culminating in the signing of a separate peace deal with Ukraine on 9 February 1918.

A dual foreign policy

The repercussions of this diplomatic intermezzo between December 1917 and March 1918 are still reverberating today. The victorious powers were convinced that with the signing of the Armistice at Compiègne and the annulment of all the Brest-Litovsk agreements, the validity of international law would be restored. But by then, the wider Eurasia region had long been transformed into the backdrop for countless civil wars, which neither conventional diplomacy nor military interventions were able to contain. While diplomats in Versailles wrangled over the “Great Peace”, a fait accompli was being created on the ground through the use of force in Eastern Europe and a new conflict flashpoint was emerging in the Far East after the Japanese intervention.

The dual nature of the Bolsheviks’ foreign policy – a blend of ideological warfare and conventional negotiation – set a precedent which found numerous imitators throughout the 20th century. In that sense, Brest-Litovsk was a dress rehearsal – a successful one, despite the enforced acceptance of “a dictated peace”. The popular press was the conduit through which calls for world revolution were carried from the diplomatic arena into the streets of Berlin, Vienna, Sofia, Constantinople and other capitals. Everything was to be out in the open, with secret deals a thing of the past. Lenin threatened to resign unless his comrades were prepared to pay “any price” for Russia’s withdrawal from the theatre of war. Well aware that the time was not yet ripe for the planned “revolutionary war” due to a lack of loyal troops, he accepted the consequences when the Bolsheviks’ sole coalition partners, the Left Socialist Revolutionary Party, resigned their positions in government. Like almost all the political forces in the country, they accused him of “treachery” against Russia. Lenin himself, on the other hand, was more preoccupied by what he saw as a threat to the internal security or, indeed, the very existence of the first socialist state in history. From his perspective, a failure to halt the advance of German troops would be a “betrayal” of the revolution.

The past in the present

In Soviet times, it sufficed to pay tribute to Lenin’s strategic vision, without looking too closely at the fine detail of the Brest-Litovsk agreements. Today, a century later, a renewed encounter with this almost forgotten peace deal puts even the most fervent Russian patriots on the back foot. Although a taboo subject, the implication that the Bolsheviks plotted with the Germans has taken hold among adherents of conspiracy theory. Above all, however, the separate peace is a reminder of how complex were the consequences of this international gamble. Ukrainian historiography draws attention to the implicit recognition of Ukraine as an independent state, albeit as a German protectorate ripe for economic exploitation. Each one of the diverse national perspectives on the Brest-Litovsk system (the Bulgarian and Turkish versions are generally neglected) presents intrinsically sound arguments. Both individually and collectively, however, they do not go far enough in capturing all the ramifications for the history of Eastern Central Europe between the Elbe and the Dnieper, let alone the Balkans. Brest-Litovsk has left an ambivalent legacy which persists to this day, for not all the states created during the ongoing hostilities and not all the borders drawn with precarious legality under international law stood the test of time, nor were they all later confirmed and guaranteed by a general peace treaty.

Whatever term we ultimately use to describe the Treaty – a “dictated peace”, “peace for bread” or “violent peace” – it was an earnest attempt to end the World War. However, it also laid bare the conflicting interests that made practical compromises more difficult to achieve. The wartime alliances themselves generated internal tensions which impeded efforts to find a way out of “total war” towards a just peace. And ultimately, the right to self-determination, proclaimed by Lenin and US President Woodrow Wilson, awoke utopian expectations which in practice were almost impossible to fulfil. The hopes invested in the collapse of empires often proved to be illusory.


Prof. Dr. Nikolaus Katzer is director of the German Historical Institute Moscow.