World War I and The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
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After a nearly a year of turmoil in Russia, the Bolsheviks ascended to power in November 1917 after the October Revolution (Russia still used the Julian calendar). As ending Russia's involvement in World War I was a key tenet of the Bolshevik platform, new leader Vladimir Lenin immediately called for a three-month armistice. Though initially wary of dealing with the revolutionaries, the Central Powers (Germany, Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire) finally agreed to a ceasefire in early December and made plans to meet with Lenin's representatives later in the month.

Initial Talks

Joined by representatives from the Ottoman Empire, the Germans and Austrians arrived at Brest-Litovsk (present-day Brest, Belarus) and opened talks on December 22. Though the German delegation was led by Foreign Secretary Richard von Kühlmann, it fell upon General Max Hoffmann—who was Chief of Staff of the German armies on the Eastern Front—to serve as their chief negotiator. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was represented by Foreign Minister Ottokar Czernin, while the Ottomans were overseen by Talat Pasha. The Bolshevik delegation was headed by People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs Leon Trotsky who was aided by Adolph Joffre.

Initial Proposals

Though in a weak position, the Bolsheviks stated that they desired "peace without annexations or indemnities," meaning an end to the fighting without loss of land or reparations. This was rebuffed by the Germans whose troops occupied large swaths of Russian territory. In offering their proposal, the Germans demanded independence for Poland and Lithuania. As the Bolsheviks were unwilling to cede territory, the talks stalled.

Believing that the Germans were eager to conclude a peace treaty to free troops for use on the Western Front before the Americans could arrive in large numbers, Trotsky dragged his feet, believing that moderate peace could be achieved. He also hoped that the Bolshevik revolution would spread to Germany negating the need to conclude a treaty. Trotsky's delaying tactics only worked to anger the Germans and Austrians. Unwilling to sign harsh peace terms and not believing that he could delay further, he withdrew the Bolshevik delegation from the talks on February 10, 1918, declaring a unilateral end to hostilities.

The German Response

Reacting to Trotsky's breaking off of the talks, the Germans and Austrians notified the Bolsheviks that they would resume hostilities after February 17 if the situation was not resolved. These threats were ignored by Lenin's government. On February 18, German, Austrian, Ottoman, and Bulgarian troops began advancing and met little organized resistance. That evening, the Bolshevik government decided to accept the German terms. Contacting the Germans, they received no response for three days. During that time, troops from the Central Powers occupied the Baltic nations, Belarus, and most of Ukraine (Map).

Responding on February 21, the Germans introduced harsher terms which briefly made Lenin debate continuing the fight. Recognizing that further resistance would be futile and with the German fleet moving towards Petrograd, the Bolsheviks voted to accept the terms two days later. Re-opening talks, the Bolsheviks signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3. It was ratified twelve days later. Though Lenin's government had achieved its goal of exiting the conflict, it was forced to do so in brutally humiliating fashion and at great cost.

Terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

By the terms of the treaty, Russia ceded more than 290,000 square miles of land and around a quarter of its population. In addition, the lost territory contained approximately a quarter of the nation's industry and 90 percent of its coal mines. This territory effectively contained the countries of Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Belarus from which the Germans intended to form client states under the rule of various aristocrats. Also, all Turkish lands lost in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 were to be returned to the Ottoman Empire.

Long-Term Effects of the Treaty

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk only remained in effect until that November. Though Germany had made massive territorial gains, it took a large amount of manpower to maintain the occupation. This detracted from the number of men available for duty on the Western Front. On November 5, Germany renounced the treaty due to a constant stream of revolutionary propaganda emanating from Russia. With the German acceptance of the armistice on November 11, the Bolsheviks quickly annulled the treaty. Though the independence of Poland and Finland was largely accepted, they remained angered by the loss of the Baltic states.

While the fate of territory such as Poland was addressed at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, other lands such as Ukraine and Belarus fell under Bolshevik control during the Russian Civil War. Over the next twenty years, the Soviet Union worked to regain the land lost by the treaty. This saw them fight Finland in the Winter War as well as conclude the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany. By this agreement, they annexed the Baltic states and claimed the eastern part of Poland following the German invasion at the start of World War II.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I and The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). World War I and The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I and The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).