Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, March 4, 2016

High-Stakes Poker: The End Game on the Eastern Front

A German courier arrived in Petrograd on the morning of 23 February 1918 with Germany's new and more brutal peace terms. Since the Russians had stalled throughout the peace process, employing radical, indeed shocking, diplomatic practices which necessitated the German Army's return to operational activity, and since the Russians obviously had no capital or the prospect of raising capital in the immediate future to pay indemnities, the Germans decided to extract their pound of flesh in territorial annexations that outstripped the line Hoffman showed to Trotsky earlier on 30 January. The Germans now expected the Soviets to cede the following territories: Finland, Russian Poland, Estonia, Livonia, Courland, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Bessarabia. In addition, the Bolsheviks also had to cede to Turkey the provinces of Ardaham, Kars, and Batumi. Although this ultimatum came with a 48-hour deadline, half of this period had elapsed by the time Lenin saw it. When Bukharin stubbornly opposed agreeing to this draconian peace, Lenin calmly yet firmly announced to the Central Committee that there was no time for theoretical meanderings. In Lenin's mind, these brutal conditions were in fact a last chance to save the revolution from the imperialists.

The only task remaining was to sign a document that is the infamous Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In an effort to convince the Germans that the Soviets had decisively shifted course, Trotsky resigned as commissar of foreign affairs and was replaced by one Grigorii Sokolnikov as the acting commissar. He went to Brest-Litovsk, where General Max von Hoffman, who ultimately negotiated this peace at gunpoint, waited. The treaty was signed with little fanfare on 3 March 1918. The Germans stuck to their claim that they had not annexed any territory. Instead they were safeguarding the rights to national self-determination of the peoples of Central Europe. Moreover, the Germans also maintained that they sought no indemnities from the Russians. But the appendix to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk revealed a financial agreement that granted them the status of conquering power and the Russians that of a dependent colony.

German General Max von Hoffman
While the Germans had accomplished their goal of achieving peace in the east in time for the spring campaigns in the west, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk did little to solve their crushing problems. For the bounty of Ukraine to have an impact on Germany, the Germans now needed more time for the crops to be planted, to grow, and be harvested. The Entente's ultimate victory prevented the Germans from enjoying the spoils gained at Brest-Litovsk. Even more demoralizing, the German soldiers on the Eastern Front who had come into contact with the Russians had been infected with Bolshevism, thereby rendering them ineffective as operational forces. Instead of being able to transfer vast numbers of soldiers to the Western Front, the German army in Russia remained in place, acting as a pseudo police force until November 1918.

Germany's collapse in the autumn of 1918 proved Lenin to be correct, at least in part. Lenin viewed the treaty as a political necessity that he would obey only as far as her was forced. The Treaty of Breat-Litovsk did grant the infant Soviet Union a brief breathing space from the upheavals of war and revolution, but Lenin still had to wage a tenacious battle with stiff inner party opposition before he won confirmation of the treaty at the Fourth Party Congress, 14–16 March. Leftwing radicals did indeed get their revolutionary war, but it proved to be very different from the conflict they envisioned. Instead of a war to liberate the workers of the world from capitalistic bondage, the Russians found themselves embroiled in a brutal civil war. Fortunately for the Bolsheviks, when Trotsky resigned as commissar of foreign affairs, Lenin appointed him commissar of war, and in April/May 1918 they would start the process of winning the civil war and consolidating the power and authority of the Bolshevik party over the Russian people.

When the Germans lost the Great War the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was negated and the Bolsheviks managed to gain back much territory ceded to the Germans once they emerged victorious from the civil war. The challenge that the Bolsheviks placed before the world was not lost on the leaders of the Entente. Because of Woodrow Wilson's 14 points, the Germans arrived at Versailles believing that they were about to negotiate a peace without annexation and indemnities. Despite the best efforts of President Wilson, the Europeans were not ready to pursue peace without draconian consequences for the defeated foe. 

The Germans did it to the Russians, and in the minds of the French and British, it was now their (the Germans') turn to suffer a devastating defeat. Ironically, the Russian Imperial Army fell victim to the collapse of Russian society and was not decisively defeated by the Germans. In addition, the German military entered the postwar period believing that the failure of civilians and politicians—not military operational performance —allowed the Entente to dictate the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.

From a paper delivered by Professor John W. Steinberg at the 2001 Conference, "The Great War on the Eastern Front."