Monday, 22 January 2018

The Brest-Litovsk Conference and Treaty

Leon Trotsky in 1918. started
well at Brest-Litovsk, finished
In the early days following the Bolsheviks seizure of power, their consistent policy of withdrawal from the war rebounded on them rapidly. The ideological stance of the party was that a global proletarian revolution would inspired by their example, and that would soon lead to the laying down of arms by the other main combatant countries. There was indeed much war weariness in each of those countries – Germany, France and Britain – but their leaders had a firmer grip on events than Kerensky’s Provisional Government, and the resources to counter any unrest. In particular the military leadership of Germany (now virtually a dictatorship, as the Kaiser shrunk to bit part player) had no intention of missing out on the new opportunity to exploit the collapse of Russia. This was the non-ideological reality that posed great danger.

Lenin was quick to recognise Russia’s vulnerability to further German invasion. Half of his Bolshevik ruling central committee, led by Bukharin, argued for a revolutionary war by peasants and workers to any German invasion, both to save the revolution and to inspire the global proletariat. Lenin pressed his view that a predominantly peasant army would not be capable of waging war against the might of Germany to protect the revolution. Negotiating peace with Germany was imperative. It would buy time for the Bolshevik party to consolidate its position and to build up its own army, thereby protecting the revolution at home, even if delaying revolution elsewhere. In debate, Lenin’s view prevailed, as usual. However, Bukharin’s group remained strongly opposed and Trotsky – after years in exile working for global revolution – was only grudgingly onside with Lenin’s position. So, Russia’s negotiations with the Central Powers (aka Germany) started from very weak positions – militarily and politically.

The first delegation set out from Petrograd on 16th November 1917. Brest-Litovsk was a historic but miserable city, largely obliterated by three years of warfare, situated in (today’s) Belarus, close to the (today) Eastern Polish border. For such a complex and delicate mission, the composition of the delegation was unprecedented:  three senior Bolsheviks led by Yoffe, an ally of Trotsky, and an assortment of representative, purely symbolic, revolutionaries – soldiers, sailors, workers, women and peasants. Indeed the peasant was added almost as an afterthought, when Yoffe’s car (en route to Warsaw station) picked up a peasant sheltering from the snow in a roadside hut. Having briefly established the man’s revolutionary credentials, Yoffe added him to the delegation!
On arrival at Brest-Litovsk they found a large group ranged opposite them. Although completely dominated by the Germans, it included political and military representatives also of Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey, all eager to press the Russians for their own purposes. Despite their protests none of the newly declared independent states of the Baltic, Ukraine or Finland were represented. Poland’s status and wishes were completely ignored.
The first task was to agree an armistice, pending a formal treaty. This was wanted by all those present at the conference, for their own reasons, but Lenin’s ‘Decree on Peace’ had been overoptimistic in expecting the other Allied nations to send delegates, or be interested in an armistice. That was a non-starter. Although spontaneous local ceasefires were occurring along the Russian front, there were no instances recorded anywhere else, and on 3rd December the Russian delegation reluctantly signed an armistice that was confined to the Russian front and for one month only (Lenin had wanted six months). Two days later, the remaining Rumanian forces at the extreme east of the front were obliged to follow suit. At this point Lenin decided to dispense with Yoffe (and the superfluous revolutionary delegates) and send Trotsky to take over. He urged Trotsky to use his formidable rhetoric and cunning in stalling the peace talks. Trotsky had great success initially with his filibustering, running rings around his opposite number, the German Foreign Secretary and distinguished diplomat Baron von Kuhlmann. By the new year the German Military Command in Berlin (i.e. Ludendorff) was losing patience, and took advantage of the arrival of a Ukraine national delegation at the conference to rack up the pressure on Trotsky. 
Richard von Kuhlmann.
German Foreign Secretary
Tortoise to Trotsky's hare.
Ukrainian independence had been declared in November (see Post 21/12/2017) but Kharkov and eastern Ukraine were being occupied by Russian forces (sound familiar?). Germany and Austria-Hungary, needing Ukraine badly as a vassal state rich in food and industrial resources, were happy to respond positively to requests for support from the Ukrainians. They threatened Trotsky with the annexation of Ukraine as a protectorate unless a peace treaty was signed rapidly. Trotsky called for an adjournment and hurried back to Petrograd to report to Lenin.* A crucial meeting of the Bolshevik central Committee was held on 11th January 1918, where the three factions fought for their positions. The largest, Bulkarin’s, continued to argue for a revolutionary war against Germany to inspire world revolution. Trotsky, speaking for the second group, supported international revolution, but knew that a peasant army had little chance of resisting the German forces. He coined a slogan “No war, no peace” and suggested Russia should simply walk away from the conference. The smallest group supported Lenin’s demands for immediate signing of peace terms. He argued that delay would worsen the situation, and within a short time the Germans would sweep away the Bolsheviks and their revolution. Faced with defeat in the vote, Lenin was forced to side with Trotsky to avoid (what he saw as) Bukharin’s suicidal proposals.
Trotsky returned to Brest-Litovsk armed with the “No war, no peace” slogan, and instructions to play for more time. Remarkably, he spun things out for three more weeks before Ludendorff sent an ultimatum - either to sign the treaty on offer, or face resumption of the war next day. Trotsky’s bluff was called, but he astounded the conference by announcing that Russia was leaving the war, and would not sign the treaty. With that he left Brest-Litovsk and returned to Petrograd**.
Once the delegates had recovered from the shock, Ludendorff ordered Kuhlmann to announce that Germany and Austria-Hungary would resume hostilities on 18th February, two days hence. This duly happened, and within five days the invaders had captured up to 150 miles of territory along great sections of the Eastern Front, meeting virtually no resistance.
Now a febrile and panicky session of the Central Committee in Petrograd raged for hours, with resignations threatened from all sides.  At midnight on 21st February an offer of peace was sent by telegram to Brest-Litovsk. Some last minute appeals to the Allies for support became irrelevant when the German peace terms arrived on 23rd. They exacted harshly punitive terms (that would rebound on them at Versailles in 1919), demanding all occupied territory, including that gained in the past few days. In effect, Germany was annexing all of  Ukraine, Poland and most of the Baltic states.
Lenin forced through the humiliating vote of acceptance at the Central Committee, winning only with the support of Trotsky. Later on that day the vote was ratified in a stormy meeting of the Soviet executive, by 116 votes to 85. Lenin left the meeting with shouts of ‘Traitor’ and ‘Judas’ ringing in his ears.

The Brest-Litovsk Treaty was finally signed on March 3rd (the main terms are summarised below). Russian’s humiliation was complete. Within days, fearful of German proximity, Lenin moved the government to Moscow. Within a few months the nightmare of civil war would envelop what remained of Russia.
All the Central Powers gained material advantage from the treaty, but less than they had hoped. For Germany the main advantage was military, handing Ludendorff more resources and flexibility for the planning of his masterstroke on the western Front.

Brest-Litovsk Terms
Kuhlmann finished on top in his duel with Trotsky:

*Bolshevik Russia ceded the Baltic States to Germany (they were to become German vassal states under German rule).
*Russia recognized the independence of Ukraine (to become a vassal state of Germany)
*Russia ceded its province of Kars Oblast in the southern Caucasus to Turkey.
*Reparations (financial) from Russia to Germany would follow later in 1918

Poland was not mentioned in the treaty, as Germans refused to recognize the existence of any Polish representatives.
Russia lost 27% of its arable land; 26% of the railway system; 33% of the manufacturing industries, and 75% of coalfields

* the unfolding of this crisis is described graphically in Figes’ marvellous book The People’s Tragedy pp543-548

** The method in Trotsky’s apparent madness was that he still held out hopes that an attack by Germany on a ‘peaceful’ and defenceless Russia would provoke sufficient outrage in Berlin to trigger an uprising.

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