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Treaty of Brest-Litovsk
Traktat brzeski 1918.jpg
The first two pages of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk,
in (from left to right) German, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Ottoman Turkish and Russian.
Signed 3rd March 1918
Location Brest-Litovsk, Kholm Governorate
(Ukraine under German occupation)[1]
Condition Ratification
Signatories Austria-Hungary Austro-Hungarian Empire
 Kingdom of Bulgaria
 German Empire
 Ottoman Empire
 Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic
Languages Bulgarian · German · Hungarian
Russian · Ottoman Turkish

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was a peace treaty on March 3, 1918, between the new Bolshevik government of Russia (the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey), which ended Russia's participation in World War I. The treaty was signed at Brest-Litovsk (now Brest, Belarus) after two months of negotiations. The treaty was forced on the Soviet government by the threat of further advances by German and Austrian forces. By the treaty, Soviet Russia defaulted on Imperial Russia's commitments to the Triple Entente alliance.

Russia ceded Baltic States to Germany, recognized the independence of Ukraine, and agreed to pay six billion German gold mark in reparations. Historian Spencer Tucker says, "The German General Staff had formulated extraordinarily harsh terms that shocked even the German negotiator."[2] Russian-Poland was not mentioned in the treaty, as Germans refused to recognize existence of any Polish representatives, which in turn led to Polish protests.[3] When Germany later complained that the Treaty of Versailles of 1919 was too harsh on them, the Allies (and historians favorable to the Allies) responded that it was more benign than Brest-Litovsk.[4] The effects of the treaty meant that Baltic states would become nothing more than vassal German princedoms, Poland and Finland satellite states.[5]

The treaty was practically obsolete in November 1918, when Germany in effect surrendered to the Allies. However it did provide some relief to the Bolsheviks, already fighting the Russian Civil War, by renouncing Russia's claims on Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Lithuania.


By 1917, Germany and Austria had defeated Russia on the Eastern Front of World War I, but had occupied only a small part of Russia's territory. However, Russia's economy nearly collapsed under the strain of the war effort. War casualties and food shortages in major cities led to the February Revolution, which overthrew the Imperial government of Tsar Nicholas II. The Provisional Government that replaced the Tsar decided to continue the war, believing that defeat was due to the incompetence of the Imperial government. Also, the new provisional government was offered a substantial amount of money to stay in the war by the United States Government.

Many patriotic Russians supported the pro-war policy of the Provisional Government, and few wanted to surrender to the invading Germans. But the army and people were exhausted, and radical socialists wanted to follow the overthrow of the Tsar with a complete socialist revolution. The radicals formed the Petrograd Soviet, and called for soldiers to ignore their officers and form their own soviet councils. Other soviets were formed throughout Russia, challenging the Provisional Government.

To destroy the Provisional Government, the Germans supported the Russian radicals, in particular the Bolshevik faction within the Socialist Party, who called for Russia's withdrawal from the war. In April 1917, Germany brought exiled Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin back to Russia, and offered financial help. Under Lenin's leadership, the Bolsheviks gained control of the radical opposition over the next seven months.

After the failure of the Provisional Government's Kerensky Offensive in July, the army disintegrated, and soviets began to wield power in many places. Finally, the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government in the October Revolution.

The next day (26 October 1917 old style), Lenin signed the Decree on Peace, which was approved by the Second Congress of the Soviet of Workers', Soldiers', and Peasants' Deputies. The Decree called upon "all the belligerent nations and their governments to start immediate negotiations for peace" and proposed an immediate withdrawal of Russia from the war. Leon Trotsky was appointed Commissar for Foreign Affairs (more or less Foreign Minister). He appointed his good friend, Adolph Joffe, to represent the Bolshevik government in peace negotiations.

Armistice negotiations

Lev Kamenev arrives at Brest-Litovsk.

Trotsky greeted by German officers.

Special edition of the Lübeckischen Anzeigen.

On December 15, 1917, Soviet Russia and the Central Powers concluded an armistice and fighting stopped. On December 22, peace negotiations began at Brest-Litovsk.

Germany was represented officially by Foreign Secretary Richard von Kühlmann, but the most important German figure was General Max Hoffmann, Chief of Staff of the German armies on the Eastern Front (Oberkommando-Ostfront). Austria was represented by Foreign Minister Count Ottokar Czernin, and Turkey by Talat Pasha. All these men were conservatives from monarchical countries. The German representatives had effective control of the Central Power side.

The Russian representatives were all radicals and supporters of world revolution. They were led by Joffe, a veteran Red agitator, and included Anastasia Bizenko, who had assassinated a high Imperial official.

The first impressions after a common dinner were ambivalent. Czernin later wrote:[6]

The leader of the Russian delegation is a Jew, named Joffe, who has recently been released from Siberia [...] after the meal I had a first conversation with Mr. Joffe. His whole theory is simply based on the universal application of the right of self-governance of nations in the broadest form. The thus liberated nations then have to be brought to love each other [...] I advised him that we would not attempt to imitate the Russian example and that we likewise would not tolerate a meddling in our internal affairs. If he continued to hold on his utopian viewpoints the peace would not be possible and then he would be well advised just to take the journey back with the next train. Mr. Joffe looked astonishingly at me and was silent for a while. Then he continued in a tone I shall never forget: "I very much hope that we will be able to raise the revolution also in your country."

At the start of the negotiations, the two sides were far apart.

The Germans demanded the "independence" of Poland and Lithuania, which they already occupied. The Russians demanded "peace without annexations or indemnities" — in other words, a settlement under which the revolutionary government would give up neither territory nor money.

After a week of negotiations, the Central Powers delegation withdrew from the conference on December 28 to consider the Bolshevik peace proposals. Over Christmas of 1917, the Central Powers released a declaration stating that they were in favor of the separate peace with all the Allies without indemnities and without annexations, provided the peace was immediate and all belligerents took part in the negotiations. But this did not supersede the demand for the "independence" of Poland and Lithuania.

Lenin was in favor of signing this agreement immediately. He thought that only an immediate peace would allow the young Bolshevik government to consolidate power in Russia. However, he was virtually alone in this opinion among the Bolsheviks on the Central Committee.[7]

For the second round of negotiations, Trotsky replaced Joffe as the head of the Soviet delegation. He later reported:[8]

I met with this sort of people for the first time. It is unnecessary to emphasize that I had no illusions about them. But I admit that I had expected the level to be higher. The impression of my first meeting could be summarized in the following statement: These people do not have a high estimation of their counterparts, but they also do not have a high estimation of themselves.

On January 8, 1918, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed his famous Fourteen Points which centered around the concept of national self-determination. The Bolsheviks had long espoused the right of national peoples to self-determination as a part of the anti-imperialist struggle.[9]

While Lenin wanted to accept the German peace proposal immediately, a majority of the Bolshevik Central Committee disagreed. The "Left Communists", led by Nikolai Bukharin and Karl Radek, believed that Germany, Austria, Turkey, and Bulgaria were all on the verge of revolution. They wanted to continue the war while awaiting revolutions in those countries.[10] It is important to note that these negotiations were taking place about nine months after the United States had declared war on Germany, but before Americans made a significant contribution on the Western Front. The Left Communists likely believed that the Germans would make a quick peace with Russia, so that they could defeat France and Britain before the Americans arrived in strength, even if this meant they would have to settle for less generous terms. Thus the Soviet delegation returned to the peace conference without instructions to sign the proposed treaty.

Von Kuhlman and Hoffmann now proposed independence for the Baltic states, Poland, and Ukraine, as in accordance with the Soviets' own national self-determination doctrine.[7] Indeed the Germans were already negotiating with a separatist government in Ukraine. On February 9, 1918, Germany recognized that government and signed a treaty with it.[7]

Frustrated with continued German demands for cessions of territory, Trotsky on February 10 announced a new policy. Russia unilaterally declared an end of hostilities against the Central Powers, and Russia withdrew from peace negotiations with the Central Powers - a position summed up as "no war — no peace".[7]

Other Bolshevik leaders denounced Trotsky for exceeding his instructions and exposing Soviet Russia to the threat of invasion. Trotsky subsequently defended his action on the grounds that the Bolshevik leaders had originally entered the peace talks in the hope of exposing their enemies' territorial ambitions and rousing the workers of central Europe to revolution in defense of Russia's new workers' state.

Resumed hostilities

The consequences for the Bolsheviks were worse than what they had feared in December. The Central Powers repudiated the armistice on February 18, 1918, and in the next fortnight seized most of Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic countries. Through the ice of the Baltic Sea, a German fleet approached the Gulf of Finland and Russia's capital Petrograd. Despite strikes and demonstrations the month before in protest against economic hardship, the workers of Germany failed to rise up against their government. On February 23, the Central Powers sent new terms for peace. These terms included cession of Dünaburg, Livonia, and Estonia to Germany, cession of western Armenia to Turkey, recognition of independent Ukraine, immediate evacuation of Russian troops from Finland and Ukraine, and complete demobilization of the Russian Army.[7] Additionally, the Central Powers required that these terms be agreed to within 48 hours. Lenin again pressed for acceptance of these terms. This time a majority of the Central Committee supported Lenin. The Soviet government sent a new delegation headed by George V. Chichern and Lev Karakhan, with instructions to accept this proposal.[7] On March 3, Chichern signed the treaty.[11] Thus the new Soviet government agreed to terms worse than those they had previously rejected.


Signing of armistice between Russia and Germany


Borders drawn up in Brest-Litovsk.

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed on 3 March 1918. The signatories were Bolshevik Russia on the one side and the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey on the other.

The treaty marked Russia's final withdrawal from World War I as an enemy of her co-signatories, on unexpectedly humiliating terms. In all, the treaty took away territory that included a quarter of the population and industry of the former Russian Empire [12] and nine-tenths of its ing.[13] Almost all of this area was territory which Russia had absorbed by conquest, with populations that did not speak Russian.

Territorial cessions in eastern Europe

Russia renounced all territorial claims in Finland (which it had already acknowledged), the future Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), Belarus, and Ukraine. (The territory of Congress Poland was not mentioned in the treaty.)

The treaty stated that "Germany and Austria-Hungary intend to determine the future fate of these territories in agreement with their populations." Most of these territories were in effect ceded to Germany, which intended to have them become economic and political dependencies. The many ethnic German residents (volksdeutsch) would be the ruling elite. Two new monarchies were created: in Lithuania, and in Latvia and Estonia; German aristocrats were appointed as rulers.

This plan was detailed by German Field Marshal Erich Ludendorff, who wrote, "German prestige demands that we should hold a strong protecting hand, not only over German citizens, but over all Germans."[14]

Continued German occupation of the ceded territories required a lot of manpower and transport, yet yielded little in the way of food or other war needs of Germany. Germany transferred hundreds of thousands of veteran troops to the Western Front for the 1918 Spring Offensive which badly shocked the Allies, but ultimately failed. Some Germans later blamed the occupation for significantly weakening the Spring Offensive.

Transfer of territory to Ottoman Empire

"Three bones—a bountiful tip", a political cartoon from the American press of 1918.

At the insistence of Talat Pasha, the treaty declared that the territory Russia took from Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878), specifically Ardahan, Kars, and Batumi, were to be returned. At the time of the treaty, this territory was under the effective control of the Armenian irregular forces. After the Soviets conquered these republics in 1921, the territory under Armenian control, by and large, went to Turkey. The territory under Georgian control mostly reverted to the Soviet Union after Georgia's fall in March 1921.

Paragraph 3 of Article IV of the treaty states that:

"The districts of Erdehan, Kars, and Batum will likewise and without delay be cleared of the Russian troops. Russia will not interfere in the reorganization of the national and international relations of these districts, but leave it to the population of these districts, to carry out this reorganization in agreement with the neighboring States, especially with Ottoman Empire."

Protection of Armenians' right to self-determination

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Russia supported the right of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and Russia to determine their destiny, by ensuring the conditions necessary for a referendum:

  1. The retreat (within 6–8 weeks) of Russian armed forces to the borders of the First Republic of Armenia, and the formation in the First Republic of Armenia of a military power responsible for security (including disarming and dispersing the Armenian militia)[citation needed]. Russia were to be responsible for order (protecting life and property) in Ardahan, Kars, and Batumi until the arrival of the Ottomans.
  2. The return by the Ottoman Empire of Armenian emigrants who had taken refuge in nearby areas (Ardahan, Kars, and Batumi).
  3. The return of Ottoman Armenians who had been exiled by the Ottoman Government since the beginning of the war.
  4. The establishment of a temporary National Armenian Government formed by deputies elected in accordance with democratic principles (the Armenian National Council became the Armenian Congress of Eastern Armenians, which established the First Republic of Armenia). The conditions of this government would be put forward during peace talks with the Ottoman Empire.
  5. The Commissar for Caucasian Affairs would assist the Armenians in the realization of these goals.
  6. A joint commission would be formed so Armenian lands could be evacuated of foreign troops.

Russian-German financial agreement of August 1918

In the wake of Russian repudiation of Tsarist bonds, nationalization of foreign-owned property and confiscation of foreign assets, Russia and Germany signed an additional agreement on August 27, 1918. Russia agreed to pay six billion marks in compensation to German interests for their losses.

Lasting effects

"Poland & The New Baltic States": a map from a 1920 British atlas, showing borders left undefined between the treaties of Brest-Litovsk, Versailles and Riga.

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk lasted only eight and a half months. Germany renounced the treaty and broke diplomatic relations with Soviet Russia on 5 November 1918. Turkey broke the treaty after just two months by invading the newly created First Republic of Armenia in May 1918. In the Armistice with Germany that ended World War I, one of the first conditions was the complete abrogation of the Brest-Litovsk treaty. Following the German capitulation, the Bolshevik legislature (VTsIK) annulled the treaty on 13 November 1918, and the text of the VTsIK Decision was printed in Pravda the next day. In the year after the Armistice, the German Army withdrew its occupying units from the lands gained in Brest-Litovsk, leaving behind a power vacuum that various forces subsequently attempted to fill. In the Treaty of Rapallo, concluded in April 1922, Germany accepted the Treaty's nullification, and the two powers agreed to abandon all war-related territorial and financial claims against each other.

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk marked a significant contraction of the territory which the Bolsheviks controlled or could lay claim to as effective successors of the Russian Empire. While the independence of Finland and Poland was already accepted by them in principle, the loss of Ukraine and the Baltics created, from the Bolshevik perspective, dangerous bases of anti-Bolshevik military activity in the subsequent Russian Civil War (1917–1922). Indeed, many Russian nationalists and some revolutionaries were furious at the Bolsheviks' acceptance of the treaty and joined forces to fight them. Non-Russians who inhabited the lands lost by Bolshevik Russia in the treaty saw the changes as an opportunity to set up independent states not under Bolshevik rule. Immediately after the signing of the treaty, Lenin moved the Soviet Russian government from Petrograd to Moscow.[15]

The fate of the region, and the location of the eventual western border of the Soviet Union, was settled in violent and chaotic struggles over the course of the next three and a half years. The Polish–Soviet War was particularly bitter and ended by the Treaty of Riga in 1921. Although most of Ukraine fell under Bolshevik control and eventually became one of the constituent republics of the Soviet Union, Poland and the Baltic states emerged as independent countries. This state of affairs lasted until 1939. As a consequence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact the Soviet Union advanced its borders westward by invading Poland and Finland in 1939, and annexing the Baltic States and Bessarabia in 1940. It thus overturned almost all the territorial losses incurred at Brest-Litovsk, except for the main part of Finland, western Congress Poland, and eastern Armenia.

For the Western Allies, the terms which Germany imposed on Russia were interpreted as a warning of what to expect if Germany and the other Central Powers won the war. Between Brest-Litovsk and the point when the German military situation in the west became dire, some officials in the German government and high command began to favor offering more lenient terms to the Allies in exchange for their recognition of German gains in the east.

Russia's post-1991 western border bears a marked similarity to that imposed by the Brest-Litovsk treaty.

Other information

Emil Orlik, the Viennese Secessionist artist, attended the conference, at the invitation of Richard von Kühlmann. He drew portraits of all the participants, along with a series of smaller caricatures. These were gathered together into a book, Brest-Litovsk, a copy of which was given to each of the participants.[16]

See also


  1. (Ukrainian) To whom did Brest belong in 1918? Argument among Ukraine, Belarus, and Germany. Ukrayinska Pravda, March 25, 2011.
  2. Spencer C. Tucker (2005). World War One. ABC-CLIO. p. 225. 
  3. Mapping Europe's Borderlands: Russian Cartography in the Age of Empire Steven Seegel - 2012 At Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, no Polish delegation was invited to the negotiations, and in the Polish press, journalists condemned it as yet another great-power partition of lands east of the Bug Riv
  4. Zara S. Steiner (2005). The Lights that Failed: European International History, 1919-1933. Oxford U.P.. p. 68. 
  5. A History of the Habsburg Empire, 1526-1918 By Robert A. Kann page 479-480
  6. Czernin von und zu Chudenitz, Ottokar Theobald Otto Maria (1920). In the World War. New York and London: Harper & Brothers. Internet Archive, retrieved 28 February 2009.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 Ruth Fischer, Stalin and German Communism: A Study in the Origins of the State Party (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transition Books, 1982) p. 32-36.
  8. Haffner, Sebastian (1988). Die Teufelspakt: Die Deutsch-Russischen Beziehungen Vom Ersten Zum Zweiten Weltkrieg. Manesse. ISBN 3-7175-8121-X. 
  9. Ruth Fischer, Stalin and German Communism, p. 24.
  10. Ruth Fischer, Stalin and German Communism, p. 39.
  11. Ruth Fischer, Stalin and German Communism, p. 38.
  12. John Keegan, The First World War (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), p. 342.
  13. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 1960, p. 57
  14. Ludendorff, Erich von (1920). The General Staff and its Problems. London. pp. 562. 
  15. "LENINE’S MIGRATION A QUEER SCENE", The New York Times, March 16, 1918
  16. Emil Orlik (1870–1932) - Portraits of Friends and Contemporaries, accessed 24 August 2009.

Further reading

  • Kennan, George. Soviet Foreign Policy 1917–1941, Kreiger Publishing Company, 1960.
  • Kettle, Michael. Allies and the Russian Collapse (1981) 287p.
  • Wheeler-Bennett, Sir John Brest-Litovsk the Forgotten Peace, March 1918, (W. W. Norton & Company, 1969)

External links

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