Brest-Litovsk Treaty

Lenin demobilized the Russian Army and announced that he planned to seek an armistice with Germany. In December, 1917, Leon Trotsky led the Russian delegation at Brest-Litovsk that was negotiating with representatives from Germany and Austria. Trotsky had the difficult task of trying to end Russian participation in the First World War without having to grant territory to the Central Powers. By employing delaying tactics Trotsky hoped that socialist revolutions would spread from Russia to Germany and Austria-Hungary before he had to sign the treaty. (1)

Trotsky commented: "The circumstances of history willed that the delegates of the most revolutionary regime ever known to humanity should sit at the same diplomatic table with the representatives of the most reactionary caste among all the ruling classes. How greatly our opponents feared the explosive power of their negotiations with the Bolsheviks was shown by their readiness to break off the negotiations rather than transfter them to a neutral country." (2)

Arthur Ransome reported in The Daily News. "I wonder whether the English people realize how great is the matter now at stake and how near we are to witnessing a separate peace between Russia and Germany, which would be a defeat for German democracy in its own country, besides ensuring the practical enslavement of all Russia. A separate peace will be a victory, not for Germany, but for the military caste in Germany. It may mean much more than the neutrality of Russia. If we make no move it seems possible that the Germans will ask the Russians to help them in enforcing the Russian peace terms on the Allies." (3)

Trotsky later wrote: "It was obvious that going on with the war was impossible. On this point there was not even a shadow of disagreement between Lenin and me. But there was another question. How had the February revolution, and, later on, the October revolution, affected the German army? How soon would any effect show itself? To these questions no answer could as yet be given. We had to try and find it in the course of the negotiations as long as we could. It was necessary to give the European workers time to absorb properly the very fact of the Soviet revolution." He hoped that Russia's socialist revolution would spread to Germany. This idea was reinforced when Trotsky heard the rumour on 21st January 1918, that a workers' soviet headed by Karl Liebknecht had been established in Berlin. This story was untrue as Liebknecht was still in a German prison. (4)

David Wilson, Delivering the Goods, The Bystander (January, 1918)
David Wilson, Delivering the Goods, The Bystander (January, 1918)

Leon Trotsky recalled in his autobiography: "On 21st February, we received new terms from Germany, framed, apparently, with the direct object of making the signing of peace impossible. By the time our delegation returned to Brest-Litovsk, these terms, as is well known, had been made even harsher. All of us, including Lenin, were of the impression that the Germans had come to an agreement with the Allies about crushing the Soviets, and that a peace on the western front was to be built on the bones of the Russian revolution."

Lenin continued to argue for a peace agreement, whereas his opponents, including Leon Trotsky, Nickolai Bukharin, Andrey Bubnov, Alexandra Kollontai, Yuri Piatakov, Karl Radek and Moisei Uritsky, were in favour of a "revolutionary war" against Germany. This belief had been encouraged by the German demands for the "annexations and dismemberment of Russia". In the ranks of the opposition was Lenin's close friend, Inessa Armand, who had surprisingly gone public with her demands for continuing the war with Germany. (5)

After nine weeks of discussions without agreement, the German Army was ordered to resume its advance into Russia. On 3rd March 1918, with German troops moving towards Petrograd, Lenin ordered Trotsky to accept the terms of the Central Powers. The Brest-Litovsk Treaty resulted in the Russians surrendering the Ukraine, Finland, the Baltic provinces, the Caucasus and Poland.

Trotsky later admitted that he was totally against signing the agreement as he thought that by continuing the war with the Central Powers it would help encourage socialist revolutions in Germany and Austria: "Had we really wanted to obtain the most favourable peace, we would have agreed to it as early as last November. But no one raised his voice to do it. We were all in favour of agitation, of revolutionizing the working classes of Germany, Austria-Hungary and all of Europe." (6)

Herbert Sulzbach recorded in his diary: "The final peace treaty has been signed with Russia. Our conditions are hard and severe, but our quite exceptional victories entitle us to demand these, since our troops are nearly in Petersburg, and further over on the southern front, Kiev has been occupied, while in the last week we have captured the following men and items of equipment: 6,800 officers, 54,000 men, 2,400 guns, 5,000 machine-guns, 8,000 railway trucks, 8,000 locomotives, 128,000 rifles and 2 million rounds of artillery ammunition. Yes, there is still some justice left, and the state which was first to start mass murder in 1914 has now, with all its missions, been finally overthrown." (7)

Primary Sources

(1) In November, 1917, Vladimir Lenin sent Leon Trotsky to negotiate with the Central Powers at Brest-Litovsk. Trotsky wrote about these negotiations in his autobiography, My Life.

It was obvious that going on with the war was impossible. On this point there was not even a shadow of disagreement between Lenin and me. But there was another question. How had the February revolution, and, later on, the October revolution, affected the German army? How soon would any effect show itself? To these questions no answer could as yet be given. We had to try and find it in the course of the negotiations as long as we could. It was necessary to give the European workers time to absorb properly the very fact of the Soviet revolution.

(2) In his autobiography Leon Trotsky explained why he signed the Brest-Litovsk Treaty.

On 21st February, we received new terms from Germany, framed, apparently, with the direct object of making the signing of peace impossible. By the time our delegation returned to Brest-Litovsk, these terms, as is well known, had been made even harsher. All of us, including Lenin, were of the impression that the Germans had come to an agreement with the Allies about crushing the Soviets, and that a peace on the western front was to be built on the bones of the Russian revolution.

On 3rd March our delegation signed the peace treaty without even reading it. Forestalling many of the ideas of Clemenceau, the Brest-Litovsk peace was like the hangman's noose. On 22nd March the treaty was ratified by the German Reichstag. The German Social Democrats gave their approval in advance to the future principles of Versailles.

(3) Herbert Sulzbach, diary entry (3rd March, 1918)

The final peace treaty has been signed with Russia. Our conditions are hard and severe, but our quite exceptional victories entitle us to demand these, since our troops are nearly in Petersburg, and further over on the southern front, Kiev has been occupied, while in the last week we have captured the following men and items of equipment: 6,800 officers, 54,000 men, 2,400 guns, 5,000 machine-guns, 8,000 railway trucks, 8,000 locomotives, 128,000 rifles and 2 million rounds of artillery ammunition. Yes, there is still some justice left, and the state which was first to start mass murder in 1914 has now, with all its missions, been finally overthrown. arms.

Student Activities

Russian Revolution Simmulation

Bloody Sunday (Answer Commentary)

1905 Russian Revolution (Answer Commentary)

Russia and the First World War (Answer Commentary)

The Life and Death of Rasputin (Answer Commentary)

The Coal Industry: 1600-1925 (Answer Commentary)

Women in the Coalmines (Answer Commentary)

Child Labour in the Collieries (Answer Commentary)

Child Labour Simulation (Teacher Notes)

The Chartists (Answer Commentary)

Women and the Chartist Movement (Answer Commentary)

Road Transport and the Industrial Revolution (Answer Commentary)

Canal Mania (Answer Commentary)

Early Development of the Railways (Answer Commentary)

Health Problems in Industrial Towns (Answer Commentary)

Public Health Reform in the 19th century (Answer Commentary)

Richard Arkwright and the Factory System (Answer Commentary)

Robert Owen and New Lanark (Answer Commentary)

James Watt and Steam Power (Answer Commentary)

The Domestic System (Answer Commentary)

The Luddites: 1775-1825 (Answer Commentary)

The Plight of the Handloom Weavers (Answer Commentary)

1832 Reform Act and the House of Lords (Answer Commentary)

Benjamin Disraeli and the 1867 Reform Act (Answer Commentary)

William Gladstone and the 1884 Reform Act (Answer Commentary)

References

(1) Lionel Kochan, Russia in Revolution (1970) page 280

(2) Leon Trotsky, My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography (1970) page 383

(3) Arthur Ransome, The Daily News (1st January, 1918)

(4) Adam B. Ulam, The Bolsheviks (1998) page 392

(5) Harrison E. Salisbury, Black Night, White Snow: Russia's Revolutions 1905-1917 (1977) page 556

(6) Leon Trotsky, My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography (1970) page 406

(7) Herbert Sulzbach, diary entry (3rd March, 1918)