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This week in history: Germany, Russia sign the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

On March 3, 1918, Bolshevik Russia and Germany signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, a peace accord that ended World War I in Eastern Europe. The treaty proved a very harsh peace toward Russia, yet it could not stop the disintegration of Germany's military power in the face of the Western Allies.

February 1917 saw the Russian people rise up against the autocratic czarist regime in Petrograd (the city's name had been changed with the outbreak of war in 1914 from St. Petersburg, in an attempt to make it sound less German). The “February Revolution” forced the czar to abdicate and the led to the creation of a provisional government representing Russia's liberal elements, who wanted Russia to become a republic. More radical interests created the Petrograd Soviet, a “council” for workers and soldiers who advocated communism.

Vladimir Lenin, the leader of Russia's Bolshevik faction, was in Switzerland when the war broke out and had been unable to return to Russia. Not long after the February Revolution, the kaiser's government in Berlin agreed to allow Lenin transit through Germany so he could return to Russia and foment anarchy — thus helping the German cause. When Lenin returned to Petrograd in April, he began agitating against the provisional government and calling for all political power to be consolidated with the Soviet.

The summer saw a failed Russian attack against the Germans which weakened the credibility of the provisional government. By October, Lenin felt he had enough political support to launch a coup and seize Petrograd. This “October Revolution” was not a mass movement of the people like what had occurred in February, but rather a relatively small number of agitators securing key parts of the city and intimidating their enemies to silence.

For most Russians, the war against the Central Powers had been popular only at its beginning, but the shortages in food and consumer goods, as well as the catastrophic loss of life, ensured that widespread support for the war did not last. Lenin knew if his regime was to gain the support of the people, he had to find a way to end the war. Unlike a light switch, however, a war is not an easy thing to turn off.

Lenin believed he had an ace in the hole, however. Consumed with Marxist ideology, Lenin believed that Germany, too, would soon experience its own communist revolution. Once the kaiser was overthrown and a German Bolshevik government was in place in Berlin, it would make common cause with Petrograd, and the two nations would then work to spread communism around the world. Lenin believed he just had to wait out the kaiser.

Lenin appointed fellow Bolshevik Leon Trotsky — who had been a Menshevik before the February Revolution — to the post of commissar of foreign affairs (the Bolshevik title for foreign minister). Trotsky was then charged with finding a way to bring the war to a close. In December 1917, the Germans and the Bolsheviks signed an armistice and began peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk, in what is today Poland.

The Russians were in the weaker position, and both sides knew it. While what remained of the Russian army was itself disintegrating quickly, the German army remained relatively strong and organized. Morale among the Germans was also relativity high, considering the sad state of their opponents. Germany's military leaders, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and Gen. Erich Ludendorff, wanted to punish Russia, and the German demands capitalized on their relative military positions. They told the Russians the cost of peace would be the whole of Ukraine, as well as many other concessions.

The Bolsheviks balked at the German high-handedness, and soon the negotiations reached an impasse. Trotsky proposed a new, revolutionary way to end the war he called “No war, no peace.” Essentially, he let it be known that the Russian army would not prosecute a war, nor would they seek any official kind of settlement — they would just let the war wither away until the absence of fighting itself became the new peace.

Predictably, the Germans did not share Trotsky's revolutionary notions of war and peace and resumed the fighting in February 1918. In the book “The Russian Revolution,” historian Sheila Fitzpatrick quoted a German military commander shortly before the renewed offensive: “No other way out is possible, otherwise these brutes (the Bolsheviks) will wipe up the Ukrainians, the Finns and the Balts, and then quietly get together a new revolutionary army and turn the whole of Europe into a pigsty… The whole of Russia is no more than a vast heap of maggots — a squalid, swarming mass.”

The Central Powers launched Operation Faustschlag on Feb. 18, 1918, the last great offensive in the east during World War I. In the course of 11 days the Germans advanced over 150 miles into Russia, Ukraine and the Baltic States. With the German army now less than 100 miles from Petrograd, the Bolsheviks moved the capital to Moscow, further to the southeast. With Russian troops throwing down their weapons and surrendering en masse, German Gen. Max Hoffman noted the ease of the campaign, supposedly saying it had “the charm of novelty.”

Lenin and Trotsky knew the policy of “no war, no peace” had failed and that the Germans were playing to win, not merely for an unsatisfactory stalemate. Though Lenin still held out hope that the German revolution would appear soon, he reluctantly acknowledged the facts. A treaty must be concluded, or the entire Bolshevik experiment in Russia would be jeopardized. He therefore ordered Trotsky back to the negotiating table to accept the German terms, which were now much more harsh. In the book “The German High Command at War: Hindenburg and Ludendorff Conduct World War I,” historian Robert B. Asprey wrote:

“The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed on March 3, 1918. Its terms, dictated almost entirely by Hindenburg and Ludendorff, were violent in the extreme. … The Bolsheviks lost control of Georgia, the Ukraine, Russian Poland and Russia's Baltic lands — nearly a million and a quarter square miles, 56 million people or 32 percent of her entire population, a third of the railways, 73 percent of iron production, 89 percent of coal production, over 5,000 factories, mills, distilleries and refineries, control of the navy, a reparations payment of 6 billion marks: 'a peace of humiliation … without precedent or equal in modern history,' in the words of one historian.”

For the Germans, the defeat of Russia lifted morale in the face of growing Allied strength in the west and appeared to counteract the advantages that American entrance into the war had brought to the British and French. The German army immediately began to shift more troops to the western front, and a series of offensives soon began that met with initial success. For the first time since September 1914, the city of Paris appeared to be in real danger.

The German advances had come at a tremendously high cost, however, and were ultimately unsustainable. Likewise, though Germany had gained significant land and resources in the east, its already stretched economy ensured that those gains could not be integrated in a timely fashion. Food piled up on Ukrainian farms while Germans, suffering the weight of the British naval blockade, continued to starve at home. The infrastructure to transport goods across the continent simply did not exist, nor could it be created with the war on.

In Russia, the treaty proved highly controversial, with many now turning on the Bolsheviks for selling out the Ukrainians and others to the Germans. Lenin held firm, however, convinced that the German revolution was just around the corner, and then everything would work itself out as Moscow and Berlin cooperated with each other. In August 1918, Lenin was shot by Fanny Kaplan, a social revolutionary (as opposed to a Bolshevik), who believed Lenin had sold out the Russian revolution with the treaty. Kaplan was executed for the assassination attempt, and though Lenin recovered, his health took a turn for the worse. The assassination attempt undoubtedly contributed to the stroke that killed him in early 1924.

Germany ultimately agreed to a negotiated peace with the Western Allies in late 1918. The next year produced the Treaty of Versailles, a peace that, while certainly harsh toward Germany, proved far less draconian than the peace Germany inflicted upon Russia. Meanwhile, Russia tore itself apart in a civil war over the next few years, only to see the Bolsheviks emerge victorious.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's in history from the University of Utah and has taught at SLCC. He is currently a salesperson at Doug Smith Subaru in American Fork. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com