World War I was a terrible, deadly war, the outcome of which threw the world into a chaos that would culminate in a second world war nearly two decades later. The terms of the two major treaties ending the war, and in particular the effects of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, are greatly to blame for this.
The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed between the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire) and Russia on March 3, 1918. The treaty effectively ended the conflict between these nations and officially closed the Eastern Front of World War I.
At the time of the treaty Russia was in revolutionary turmoil. The Tsarist regime that ruled at the beginning of the war had been overthrown in the February Revolution of 1917 and replaced by a provisional government.
In the October Revolution of that same year, the Communist Bolshevik regime seized power upon the promise of ending Russia’s involvement in WWI. This was the impetus for the Russian Civil War that would last for another five years.
Leaving the war would come at great cost to the Russians. Huge amounts of territory that came with large populations and heavy industrial capacity were ceded per the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
The removal of the Eastern Front also allowed Germany to send troops to aid in a Spring 1918 offensive against the remaining Allied powers on the Western Front.
With the general armistice signed in November 1918 ending Word War I, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was voided. Even though the treat was only in effect for a brief period, it would have lasting impacts on the entire region.
Background of the Eastern Front in WWI
The breakout of World War I in 1914 saw the Central Powers clashing with the Triple Entente (Great Britain, France, and Russia) across Europe and their worldwide colonial possessions.
Immediately the war was divided into two fronts: the Western and Eastern Front. The failure of the German Schlieffen Plan resulted in a drawn-out war of attrition on the Western Front.
Here the Germans battled the British and French in trench warfare that took its toll on the soldiers and nations.
On the Eastern Front, trench-style warfare never got a chance to develop. The Eastern Front was much longer than the Western Front, stretching from the Baltic Sea and Petrograd (St. Petersburg) in the west/north, all the way to the Black Sea in the south.
The longer lines meant that traditional warfare could ensue with rapidly changing fronts based on the latest offensive and counter-offensives deployed.
At the outset of the war the Russians saw initial successes simultaneously battling and pushing back the Germans in the northwest and Austro-Hungarians in the southwest.
The tides of war quickly turned with the Germans and Austro-Hungarians pushing the Russians much further east and dealing massive casualties in 1915. The poorly-supplied and -equipped Russians were no match for the well-trained Central Powers, especially Germany.
By late 1916 the Eastern Front was looking grim for the Russians. Despite the success of the mid-1916 Brusilov Offensive, most other offensives ended in disaster and the Russians tired of war.
Civilian unrest became evident with anti-war and anti-Tsar protests occurring regularly. By early 1917 the protests intensified, with many factory workers (mainly women as the men had been drafted) striking to show their dissatisfaction.
In the resulting February Revolution, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated his throne and a Provisional government stepped in to lead the nation.
Why Was the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk Signed?
The Provisional government proved ill-suited to maintain political control of Russia. It was too fragmented, leaving it weak and unable to effectively organize Russian resistance. Russian leadership simply operated on shaky ground ever since their loss in the Russo-Japanese War.
The stance of the Provisional government was also to maintain their commitment to the Triple Entente and continue the war on the Eastern Front. With the war extremely unpopular and yet another failed military offensive in mid-1917, troop morale plummeted and civilian unrest continued.
Germany helped smuggle the exiled Vladimir Lenin and several other notable Marxist Communists (Bolsheviks) back into Russia in early 1918 with the hopes that they would sow further discord.
Germany was counting on Lenin’s anti-war stance to help accelerate the end of the war on the Eastern Front should he gain power. They would provide Lenin with aid to help meet this objective.
This all culminated in the virtually bloodless coup by the Bolsheviks now known as the October Revolution. By November 7, 1917, the Bolsheviks had seized power in Petrograd.
The Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, declared that there should be an end to the war along with the enactment of other Marxist principles such as the abolishment of private land ownership.1
True to their word, the Bolsheviks sought peace terms with Germany. A general ceasefire between Russia and the Central Powers went into effect on December 15, 1917. Negotiations on a peace treaty would begin a week later.
The Germans chose the city of Brest-Litovsk (modern city of Brest, Belarus) as the location for negotiations. The city is the source of the name for the subsequent Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
The Terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk
Russia ultimately paid a large price to exit the war under the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The treaty forced Russia to pay a large war indemnity and cede over 1.3 millions square miles of territory that hosted a large population and key resources.
After a week of negotiations the Russians sent Leon Trotsky to be their lead negotiator. Russia was negotiating from a very weak position. The army was deteriorating and the Bolsheviks themselves had a very tenuous grip on political power.
Despite the weakness of their position, the Russians attempted a unique tactic of stalling negotiations as long as possible.
Trotsky, Lenin, and other Bolshevik officials had been led to believe that populist uprisings were imminent in the capitalist societies of their enemies. Should they hold out on accepting peace terms, the uprisings could lead them to be in a much stronger position.
It was thus that Trotsky delayed as much as possible, debating at length on minor provisions and calling for week-long breaks so as to travel back to Petrograd to discuss tactics. Historians have named Trotsky’s stance as “neither peace nor war” as Russia was not willing to resume fighting, but they would not accept territorial cessations.
After two months of negotiations, the Central Powers were losing patience. After yet another round of stalling tactics the Germans called Trotsky’s bluff and suspended the ceasefire.
With the Russian army in tatters, the Germans marched eastward unopposed in some places, and met with little resistance in others. Lenin and Russian leaders immediately called for an end to the stalling and to agree with the German terms. They believed that should the Germans capture key Russian cities it could ruin their own Marxist Revolution.
As the Russians came back to the negotiating table, they found much harsher terms for the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In fact, the terms were downright humiliating to Russia. Trotsky refused to sign and ordered a subordinate to sign for Russia.
In the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Germany forced Russia to cede over 1.3 million square miles of key territory in Eastern Europe and Western Asia. The land held nearly one-third of Russia’s population and consisted of prime agricultural land as well as key agricultural and industrial centers. Russia also owed the Central Powers nearly 6 billion marks in war reparations.
Russian delegate Karl Radek prophetically proclaimed to the Germans, “It is your day now, but in the end the Allies will put a Brest-Litovsk treaty upon you.”2
The Effects of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on WWI
The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk had cascading effects on the remainder of World War I and the ensuing Russian Civil War. The closing of the eastern front allowed Germany to transport hundreds of thousands of troops to fight on the western front, though occupation of Russian territory tied up crucial numbers that could have turned the tide of the war in their favor.
While the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk humiliated the Russians, Lenin had other concerns. The Bolsheviks’ enemies largely held the territories ceded and Lenin needed to focus on consolidating power closer to home.
Russia could always regain the ceded territory at a later point. In fact, this is exactly what happened nearly two decades later as the Russians (then Soviet Union) would invade former territories such as Finland, Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic States.
The October Revolution and subsequent Treaty of Brest-Litovsk led to a larger conflict known as the Russian Civil War. In this the Bolsheviks (“the Reds”) fought their capitalist/monarchist enemies (“the Whites”) for political control of Russia.
Other nations became involved in the conflict, among them Russia’s former allies (Great Britain and France), as well as the United States. The capitalist nations all sided with the Whites as there was great fear of a Communist take-over and what the repercussions would be.3
Aside from the implications in the Russian Civil War, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk also had major impacts on the remainder of World War I.
The end of fighting on the Eastern Front allowed Germany to transport hundreds of thousands of troops to the Western Front for a Spring 1918 offensive. However, the terms of the treaty actually proved to be a thorn in the side of Germany.
The newly-ceded Russian territories required large amounts of German troops to garrison and occupy. Historians estimate that it required nearly one million troops to hold the newly-gained territories.
These were troops that could have turned the tide on the Western Front just as thousands of fresh American troops were joining the war daily.
The November 1918 armistice that ended fighting in World War I included a clause that voided the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In eventual negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles, Great Britain and France would not forget the harsh terms the Germans imposed on the Russians.
1) Wheeler-Bennett, John W. “The Meaning of Brest-Litovsk Today.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 17, no. 1, 1938, pp. 137–52. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/20028909.
2) Wheeler-Bennett, John W. “From Brest-Litovsk to Brest-Litovsk.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 18, no. 2, 1940, pp. 196–210. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/20028991.
3) Fenwick, Charles G. “The Russian Peace Treaties.” The American Political Science Review, vol. 12, no. 4, 1918, pp. 706–11. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1945844.