The German and Austro-Hungarian troops stationed at Pskov near the modern Estonian border might have thought their orders were a mistake. After months of inaction, as the Eastern Front fell quiet following the fall of the Russian Provisional Government the prior November, 53 divisions of the Central Powers were launching a massive offensive. Despite hundreds of thousands of their soldiers having already departed for the Western Front, Berlin and Vienna were again on the march in the East.
The few Russian soldiers at the front were equally as shocked. Many of them had already been demobilized and were waiting for transportation to take them home. Leon Trotsky himself had announced just weeks earlier that the Soviets considered the war over, albeit without a formal peace treaty.
On February 18th, 1918, the last offensive of the Eastern Front, Operation Faustschlag (“Fist Punch”), would land like a prizefighter hitting air. The offensive would seize hundreds of miles of new territory against almost no resistance, causing the Soviets to hurriedly began exploring the option they said they’d never consider – continuing to fight in the Great War.
Beyond the myriad issues of internal political struggles and deprivations among the general populace, it was the issue of continuing the war that undermined the Russian Provisional Government. Despite the promises of peace from the February Revolution that toppled the Tsar, the Provisional Government had stayed in the fight, even launching an offensive that July which failed almost as soon as it began. While the Bolsheviks depicted the Provisional Government as fighting for the same imperial concerns as the Tsar, the government’s rationale was economical, not nationalistic. St. Petersburg/Petrograd owed over 11 billion rubles to their Allied partners, and in order to secure additional funding, the Russians had shipped another 2 billion in gold to Britain and Canada as collateral. Inheriting this financial mess from the Tsar and Duma, the Provisional Government attempted to create a new currency, which would quickly become mocked as “Kerenskys” after the embattled Prime Minister. In short, the war was on it’s way to costing the Russians 50 billion rubles, all in an economy that was generating only 750 million rubles a month in tax revenue. The Russian State was broke.
The Bolsheviks were not going to repeat the Provisional Government’s mistake. Before they had even fully seized power, the Soviets had declared peace. Merely days after the October Revolution, Vladimir Lenin and the 2nd Soviet Congress had signed the “Decree on Peace.” The ambitious, if somewhat naïve, declaration announced that Russia had withdrawn from the war and hoped other combatants would do the same in the pursuit of a “just and democratic peace.” The thousands of workers and soldiers who had rebelled to achieve such an end were delighted – for Russia, the war was over.
For the Central Powers, there was still the matter of negotiating the peace. While Berlin, Vienna and Constantinople were relieved to have been victorious on the Eastern Front, freeing up millions of their soldiers to potentially turn against the Allies in the West, the fate of the hundreds of miles of Russian territory captured by the Central Powers was very much in dispute. Vague promises of independence to ethnic groups like the Poles had been made, and in addition, the Russian Empire appeared to be breaking apart as regions such as Georgia, Ukraine, Finland declared their own governments. Having lost millions of men in battle, and with their nations starving to death, the potential of outright annexation of Russia’s former territories appeared as a very real goal of any peace treaty.
With a temporary armistice signed on December 15th, 1917, the stage was set for formal peace talks at Germany’s Eastern Command Headquarters in Brest-Litovsk. The old-world diplomacy of the Central Powers was about to come face-to-face with the revolutionary zeal of Russia’s new rulers.
The delegation from the Central Powers arrived at the fortress of Brest-Litovsk (now in modern Belarus) with large entourages. The Germans, Austro-Hungarians, Ottomans and Bulgarians had sent many of their highest ranking officials, including many actual Foreign Ministers, to represent the Central Powers’ coalition. The Soviets preferred to send a mixture of sailors, soldiers, peasants, and workers, almost all of whom lacked any political or diplomatic experience. The Soviet contingent seemed designed more to offend the elitist sensibilities of their opponents – the group’s female representative, Anastasia Bizenko, had been chosen because of her high-profile assassination of a Russian Imperial official. The group’s leader, Adolph Joffe, had gained the position due to his relationship with Leon Trotsky, and waffled between intransigence and naïveté.
Trotsky hadn’t wanted the negotiations in Brest-Litovsk in the first place. The new Foreign Minister of the Soviets preferred a neutral venue, and one that would be made public to the world. Trotsky and the Soviet delegation believed making their demands for self-determination public – a theme preceding Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” – would rally international support to their side and perhaps start revolutions in other countries. Joffe would communicate these goals in the first meeting, stating the Soviet position that “no annexations or indemnities” should be included as precursors to peace. Self-determination would resolve the various republics that had sprung up around the Russian Empire and there would be no exchange of territories or finances – the borders would otherwise reset to their 1914 lines and Europe would apparently forget the terrible death and destruction the war had wrought.
The Central Powers delegation agreed – on the condition that the rest of the Entente followed suit. Joffe interpreted this as an acceptance of the Soviet demands; the Central Powers believed they had deflected Russia’s terms – how could revolutionary St. Petersburg/Petrograd force London, Paris or Rome to surrender their gains in Asia, Africa and the Middle East? The head of the Central Powers delegation, General Max Hoffmann, had to explain to Joffe what the seasoned diplomats thought was well-understood – that Germany believed that the territory it currently occupied was now part and parcel of the German Empire. To demand self-determination in areas like Poland, the Baltic States or Ukraine, was now tantamount to meddling in internal German affairs. If the Soviets weren’t willing to understand this, in the words of the Austro-Hungarian representative, they would “be well advised just to take the journey back with the next train.”
Joffe “looked as if he had received a blow on the head” and would say very little for the rest of the negotiations, with some likening his expression to a “wounded puppy” at the realization that the Central Powers had no intention of agreeing to “no annexations or indemnities.” Poland would be divided between Berlin and Vienna, with a rump independent Polish State, and the Baltic States would be independent, but under German influence. Tons of grain and flour in Russian hands would be immediately transferred to the Central Powers – part of the condition of even continuing the negotiations. The Soviets hadn’t even reached a peace agreement and were already being fleeced.
If the Soviets weren’t willing to concede territory to the Central Powers, it was in part because St. Petersburg/Petrograd controlled so very little of the Tsar’s former empire.
The Social Democrat Mensheviks had declared a Republic in Georgia, with neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan soon to join them in the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic. Despite the so-called “Decree on Nationality” that encouraged self-determination and independence for Russia’s minorities, Lenin and the People’s Commissar for Nationalities, Joseph Stalin, would mobilize 100,000 former Tsarist Armenian soldiers to attempt to bring the Caucuses under Soviet control. Finland’s newly established conservative government had declared independence in early December, much to the displeasure of the region’s Soviet-supporting social democrats, who preferred autonomy within the new Soviet system. A burgeoning civil war was beginning to turn to real violence by the time the talks in Brest-Litovsk started. And the Ukrainian People’s Republic had passed resolutions condemning the Bolshevik revolution, while the Central Powers had even extended offers for the Republic to have a seat at the peace negotiations, putting them on par with the other combatant nations.
Aiding the Bolshevik cause was the lack of anything approaching a sense of unity from their internal opponents. While many of the new republics that had been established in the wake of the revolution had called for independence, the movements supporting these calls were politically similar to the Soviets. Very few cases were like Finland, where the most royalist and conservative elements of society had banded together and won some element of popular support. For Russia’s upper and middle classes, royalists and members of the military, there was no rival organization or even philosophy to rally behind. Many of the most influential members of what would become known as the “White Army” that resisted the “Reds” had been generals stationed abroad or assigned to the fringes of the empire. The Whites’ eventual semi-formal leader, Admiral Alexander Kolchak, had been in Japan during the revolution and had returned to a country he barely recognized.
Nevertheless, the Bolshevik were keenly aware of how loose their grasp on power truly was. Despite the military consequences, the Soviets demobilized the entire Russian army at the end of January, assuming it was better to send every soldier home than allow them to remain together and potentially able to organize a resistance to the Bolshevik regime. The Soviets would prefer to make themselves completely dependent on the inexperienced Red Guards and their fellow Bolshevik-volunteers, than see the regular army continue to exist.
Trotsky believed that as long as the Soviets could turn their attention to internal matters, time would eventually favor them. A return to war, or a punitive peace treaty, might embolden whatever disorganized opposition that existed. The Soviet policy at Brest-Litovsk would change from peace at all costs to “neither peace nor war.”
Trotsky would replace Joffe at the negotiations, spurning the Central Powers repeatedly on matters large and small. Trotsky would harangue the delegates for hours and then refuse to eat meals with the Central Powers’ representatives. The Soviet’s Foreign Minister preferred to talk principles and philosophy to actual terms, increasingly frustrating Hoffmann and his compatriots. But at Brest-Litovsk, time was not on Trotsky’s side. With each new insult and frustrated debate, the Central Powers’ demands grew. Exasperated, Hoffmann presented terms to Trotsky with simple instructions – either sign or the armistice would end. Trotsky didn’t take the threat seriously, telling Lenin that the Soviets should continue to demobilize and declare peace on their own. The Central Powers would soon be engulfed in their own revolutions, keeping them from making war on Russia. Lenin agreed.
The Soviets had called what they assumed was Hoffmann’s bluff. What the Soviets hadn’t realized is that the Germans had transferred relatively few men to the West. Erich Ludendorff, Hindenberg’s former deputy, had pushed hard to keep as many men as possible in the East to press Germany’s advantage against a clearly weakened Russia. With even the Kaiser now supporting pressing German claims in Eastern Europe, Berlin was prepared to gain as much territory as they could grasp. The Soviet’s error in judgement would nearly cost them their rule.
On February 18th, 1918, the Central Powers struck the Russian lines. There were hardly any Russian troops to oppose them. The few who didn’t run in the face of the German advance surrendered without a fight, netting thousands of new prisoners.
That same night, the Soviet Central Committee narrowly supported Lenin’s motion to sign the peace treaty, despite the onerous terms. The German reply was that the prior terms had expired. Now the Russians had to abandon Finland and Ukraine completely. If the Russians delayed their acceptance, even worse terms were awaiting them. The Germans were literally advancing as fast their trains could run. Hoffmann noted in his diary that “we put a handful of infantrymen with machine guns and one gun onto a train and rush them off to the next station; they take it, make prisoners of the Bolsheviks, pick up few more troops, and so on.” The leader of Germany’s Eastern Front called the entire enterprise “the most comical war I have ever known.”
Within a week, German and Austro-Hungarian troops had gained an additional 150 miles of territory, putting them close to St. Petersburg/Petrograd. The Soviets began to panic, moving the capital to Moscow – a move that the Provisional Government had suggested the previous fall only to be derided by the very same Bolsheviks who now held power. Yet some in leadership continued to insist that Russia stay in the war. The Red Guard had just put down an uprising of Russian Polish cavalry who refused to demobilize, which meant to Soviet hardliners that the volunteer force could hold it’s own against more experienced professional soldiers – contrary to current events. Even Trotsky, who normally vacillated between Lenin and the so-called “Left Communists”, was pushing against signing any treaty, regardless of the cost.
Events on the ground forced Lenin’s hand. There was no evidence the Red Guard or the Russian military could possibly check the Central Powers’ advance. The terms of Russia’s surrender were already more than the Soviet could bare; waiting would only make it worse. Lenin declared to the Central Committee that they either sign what he called a “shameful peace” or accept his resignation. By a 7 to 6 vote, with Trotsky and three other “no’s” abstaining, the Bolsheviks agreed to make peace.
The final terms of Brest-Litovsk were humiliating for the Soviets. 18 provinces were formally lost, accounting for 30% of the territory of the former empire. Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Poland and Ukraine were gone – all under direct or indirect German patronage. Hundreds of thousands of Austro-Hungarian and German prisoners were returned and Germany now had a free-hand to turn their millions against the Allies while running a newfound empire in the East. The Soviets’ opponents – internally and abroad – had scored an overwhelming victory against the revolution.
A peace treaty did not equal actual peace. While conservative and nationalist forces in Russia began to solidify against the clearly weakened Bolsheviks, Germany’s appetite for land wouldn’t be sated with victory.
Erich Ludendorff insisted that Germany keep a more than one million man army in the East – “German prestige demands that we should hold a strong protecting hand” – keeping badly needed soldiers away from the Western Front. And Germany’s dreams of a vast eastern bread-basket was quickly proven to be false. Not only were Ukrainian and Polish farms not filled with bounty, but the locals were disinterested in starving themselves to fill German stomachs. Resistance groups quickly arose, further demanding German manpower.
The German solution would be to double-down on their victory – expanding Berlin’s reach well past the borders defined by Brest-Litovsk. The formal war in the East had ended. The informal war had begun.