Great War Wednesday: Goodbye, Russia


Traktat_brzeski_1918On 3 March 1918 in the small city of Brest-Litovsk near the border of modern Poland and modern Belarus, Russia the Soviet Union took their ball and went home from World War I. The new Soviet Union was in a bitter civil war and really couldn’t afford to keep fighting a war that essentially went against their Communist principles anyway. The treaty itself is interesting, but first, a tiny backstory.

Vladimir Lenin was in exile in Switzerland because the Tsar of Russia wanted to kill him. Lenin had been sent out of Russia for all sorts of speaking and writing against the oppressive tsarist regime. Now he was in Switzerland on the sidelines. Then, German General Erich von Ludendorff had a brilliant idea to destabilize Russia even further than the shaky government already was. He packed Lenin and 32 other staunch Communist agents into a sealed train and sent them into Russia. It was like injecting an already sick person with Ebola. The end of Russia came swiftly.

Lenin hated the war and all it stood for so he promptly started working to get the Soviets out. Essentially, they immediately stopped fighting any offensive action and most defensive action. Talks began with Germany and the rest of the Central Powers on how to bring peace to the Eastern Front. After two months of back and forth, the two sides signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

The treaty looked like a disaster for the Soviets. Under it, they agreed to give up massive amounts of land. They relinquished all claim to Poland, Finland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and a vast region of land in the southern Caucasus Mountains. The rest of the treaty wasn’t any better for the Soviets. They lost nearly a third of their best producing farmland and literally almost all of their coal mines in one stroke of the pen. Lenin, now titular head of the Soviet Union, recognized the detrimental effects of the treaty but famously ordered his representative to sign the document saying, “you must sign this shameful peace in order to save the world revolution.” Lenin still had hopes Communism would sweep over the world. How’d that ultimately go for you, Vlad?

The other Triple Entente members were devastated by the treaty. They lost their only bulwark on the Eastern Front. Essentially, the Eastern Front no longer existed. What’s more, Lenin and the Soviets had their hands on all the secret behind the scenes deals Russia had made with France and Great Britain. Most of those documents detailed exactly who was screwing whom out of what once the Allies won the war. The middle east especially found out how they had been lied to with predictable results among an infuriated populace.

In an even more practical sense, the treaty imperiled the entire war for the remaining Allies. With Russia gone they lost huge quantities of badly needed grain for bread and coal for ships at sea maintaining the blockade of Germany. Even worse, with the Eastern Front gone, German troops by the long trainloads began arriving near the Western Front. It had taken four years longer than von Moltke’s original plan for the War, but Russia was now knocked out and Germany could throw everything it had at the Western Front. The result would be immediate and became known as the Kaiserschlacht or the Spring Offensive. The war in the trenches of the West was about to get a lot more mobile very quickly.

Still the treaty did have one positive effect on the Allied powers. Peace rumblings had spread in France and Great Britain as the war slogged on and the public grew tired of lists of casualties, scarce resources, and the incessant drain on the treasuries. Brest-Litovsk shut all that up pretty nicely. The treaty showed the Allies what kind of treatment they could expect if they abandoned the fight and tried to hammer out a peace with Germany on mostly German terms. The idea was terrifying.

Even though the Brest-Litovsk Treaty was abrogated by the Treaty of Versailles, it still had a lasting effect on relationships and foreign policy in Europe that eventually led to the Cold War. Germany and the Soviet Union never trusted each other following the treaty and that situation would lead to the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty in 1939 which Nazi Germany used to buy two years to prepare for Operation Barbarossa, the massive invasion of the Soviet Union.

As for all the annexed and ceded land, the end of the war settled that quickly. Once Versailles replaced Brest-Litovsk, the Soviet Union was no longer bound by the terms of the land cessions so the Baltic States, most of Finland, Ukraine, and pretty much everything but Poland were invaded by Soviet troops and the area of the USSR which ruled for 70 years until the collapse of Communism in 1989 was set. Russia was gone and in her place was a much more intractable nation, as time would show.

Not many more Great War Wednesdays left as the war enters its final act 100 Years ago in 1918, but until then, love y’all and keep your feet clean.

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