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The Peace of Brest-Litovsk (3 March 1918)

By: Randall Lesaffer

With the start of 2018, the final centennial year of the First World War has commenced. Whereas the Great War has been the object of much public attention in many parts of the world, this has been particularly the case in West Flanders, the province where I live, and even more so in the region from which both my parents come—they both hail from Wervik, a small provincial town on the southernmost fringes of Flanders Fields. Inevitably, in West Flanders, the focus of all commemorative efforts has been on the trench warfare of the Western front, and on life in the territories on both sides. But also on a more global scale, it has been the political and military histories of the war in Western Europe that have generated most attention, with the war in the Eastern Mediterranean a distant second. The events in Eastern Europe and other places such as Central Africa have generally benefited from far less international exposure.

As the centenary of the Great War draws towards a close, the public spotlight will inevitably move to the work of peace. Here, predictably, the peace treaties that were negotiated at Paris in 1919–1920 between the Central Powers and the coalition of Allied and Associated Powers led by France, Great Britain, and the United States, with first and foremost the infamous Peace of Versailles of 28 June 1919 (225 CTS 188), will stand at the heart of the commemorative efforts. The complex and tumultuous journey towards peace on the Eastern European front, between Germany and its allies on one side and Bolshevik Russia on the other side, threatens to be cast into the shadow.

At the centre of peace process in Eastern Europe stood the Treaty of Peace of Brest-Litovsk, signed on 3 March 1918, between the four Central Powers—Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire—and the new Bolshevik government of Russia. The peace failed to end fighting in the east and in fact contributed to the eruption or continuation of a series of wars and violent conflicts between Russia and newly emerging states. Moreover, it was abrogated by the armistices which the Central Powers signed with the leading Western powers at the end of 1918 (eg, Article 15 of the Armistice of 11 November 1918, 224 CTS 286). Nevertheless, this formal annulment could not undo the major territorial effects of the Peace of Brest-Litovsk in Central and Eastern Europe. In marking Russia’s military and diplomatic defeat against Germany and its allies, the Peace of Brest-Litovsk redrew the map of the region by taking away over a quarter of the European territories of the old Tsarist empire and aiding the emergence or resurrection of different states, including Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland.

On 8 November 1917, one day after coming to power in Saint Petersburg, the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924) issued the Decree of Peace, in which he called out for an immediate armistice and the speedy commencement of peace negotiations with Germany and its allies. In line with the party’s communist ideology, the Decree ignored or rejected the vestiges of traditional diplomacy and international law in disregarding Russia’s treaty obligations to its allies and calling for a peace without annexations or indemnifications. The Decree also gave strong backing to the right of self-determination of smaller nations that had been oppressed by imperial powers. This obviously extended to Russian imperialism under the tsars, and under the ‘bourgeois’ government that had ruled Russia since February 1917.

Apart from ideology, it was dire need that drove Lenin and the new government to sue for peace while large parts of Russia’s European lands were held by the armies of the Central Powers. The Bolshevik party had canvassed support on the ticket of immediate peace and needed an end to hostilities to ward off counter-revolutionary forces. An armistice was signed at Brest-Litovsk—the current city of Brest in Belarus—between Russia and the four Central Powers on 15 December 1917 (223 CTS 15). Peace negotiations began a week later. After almost two months of talks, the German government broke off the negotiations and terminated the armistice on 16 February 1918, under the stipulations of its Article 1. The renewal of the German offensive left Lenin with little choice but to accept the harsh German peace offer of 22 February 1918, leading to the formal conclusion of the peace at Brest-Litovsk on 3 March 1918.

Contrary to what would be the case with the peace treaties that came out of the Paris peace conference in 1919 and 1920, the Peace of Brest-Litovsk (223 CTS 80, and Supplementary Treaty between Germany and Russia, 223 CTS 97) was a traditional peace treaty as it did not assign responsibility for the war and encompassed a general waiver for all claims for compensation for the costs and damages of the war (Article 9).  It also did not stipulate a lump sum indemnification for the loser, Russia, to pay to the winners as many peace treaties had since the Napoleonic era. But the territorial concessions Russia had to underwrite nonetheless made it into a very harsh peace for the losing side. Russia’s new Western border left Finland, the Baltic, most of the former Polish-Lithuanian kingdom, parts of Belo-Russia, and the larger portion of Ukraine outside of the new Russia (Articles 3 and 6, and Annex I). Russia also had to cede its conquests against the Turks in Eastern Anatolia (Article 4).

Article 3, which embodied the dismemberment of Russia’s European empire, applied a very thin layer of salve on the Bolsheviks’ wounds, at least for the sake of appearances. It stipulated that Russia was ceding the territories to the west of the new borderline and that the Russian government would not meddle with the internal affairs of these lands. It also stated that Germany and Austria-Hungary had ‘the intent to regulate the future of these lands in accordance with the population’. Whereas this could be read, with tremendous good will, as a promise to take into account the rights of the small nations there and a genuflexion to the right of self-determination, it effectively left Berlin and Vienna a free hand to deal with those territories as they saw fit—to the extent that the military situation on the Western front would allow. But rather than being dictated by the lofty principle of self-determination, Article 3 seemed to be inspired by the example of the Peace Treaty of Prague of 23 August 1866 between Prussia and Austria (133 CTS 71), whereby Austria had been forced to agree to any future territorial settlement which Prussia would make with regard to the states of the German Confederation (Article 6).

With the war on the verge of resumption, Germany had already moved before peace was made with Russia toward formalizing the future of the Western lands of the former Russian Empire. On 9 February 1918, the Central Powers had made peace with the newly independent Ukrainian Republic at Brest-Litovsk (223 CTS 43, and Supplementary Treaty, 223 CTS 49). On 7 March 1918, peace was also made at Berlin between Finland and Germany (223 CTS 109), and the Baltic region was settled in April 1918 when it was agreed that the German Emperor Wilhelm II (1859–1941) would become monarch of the Baltic region.

The collapse of the German front in the West and the armistices between the victorious Western powers and the Central Powers led to the formal abrogation of the peace treaties of Brest-Litovsk, and all other treaties which the Central Powers had made to the east. But on the ground, much of the work of Brest-Litovsk endured. Although the Bolshevik regime was able to regain Ukraine, it could not undo the independence of the Baltic countries, Finland, and Poland and had to accept the situation in new international treaties. In the end, it would take another World War before the Soviet Union could regain most of the lands – with the major exception of Finland and parts of Poland – which Lenin had conceded at Brest-Litovsk.

F.L. Carsten, Revolution in Central Europe 1918–1919 (Köln: Kiepenheuer & Witsch 1973).
George F. Kennan, Russia Leaves the War (Soviet-American Relations, 1917–1920, Vol. 1) (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1956).
Titus Komarnicki, Rebirth of the Polish Republic: A Study in the Diplomatic History of Europe, 1914–1920 (London: William Heinemann Ltd. 1957).
Randall Lesaffer and Mieke van der Linden, ‘Peace Treaties after World War I’, in Rüdiger Wolfrum (ed.), The Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2012) vol. 8, 118–28.
Lauri Mälksoo, ‘Which Continuity: The Tartu Peace Treaty of 2 February 1920, the Estonian-Russian Border Treaties of 18 May 2005, and the Legal Debate about Estonia’s Status in International Law’, Archiv des Völkerrechts, 43 (2005) 513–24.
Zara Steiner, The Lights that Failed. European International History 1919–1933  (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2005).