Sunday, September 03, 2006

BOOK: John Wheeler-Bennett, "Brest-Litovsk" (cont.)

John W. Wheeler-Bennett: Brest-Litovsk: The Forgotten Peace, March 1918. London: Macmillan, 1938; 5th printing, 1963. xx + 478 pp.

[Continued from last week.]

Negotiations continued for a while longer but without much progress. The Central Powers concluded a peace treaty with representatives of the Ukrainian People's Republic (pp. 154–5, 166–8, 171–3, 211–14, 212–20), which despite its name was not really quite a Bolshevik state but aspired to normal bourgeous/democratic politics, and which the Russians therefore refused to recognize (pp. 203, 209–10). This Ukrainian state is commonly referred to as the Rada throughout the book, a term which apparently means ‘council’ but is here mostly used a synonym for the state itself, not e.g. its government or parliament (p. 154 mentions “the Government of the Ukrainian Rada”). Anyway, there were some amusing exchanges between the Ukrainians and the Russians: “the second Rada spokesman, Liubynski, retorted with an hour-long speech which for pure vitriolic opprobirum far exceeded anything that had been heard at this strangest of peace conferences. He reviled the Bolsheviks without restraint, recounting a catalogue of their sins only surpassed by Gibbon's famous list of charges preferred against Pope John XXIII, ‘the more serious of which had been suppressed’.” (P. 210. This is a slight misquotation from Gibbon's ch. 70.) Anyway, these discussions were by then largely academic, as most of the Ukrainian territory was no longer under the Rada's control by late January, having been taken over by the Bolsheviks (pp. 203, 219). The main content of the Ukrainian peace treaty was that the Central Powers recognized the Ukraine and guaranteed more rights for the Ukrainians and Ruthenians living in Austria-Hungary, in exchange for which the Ukraine promised to supply grain surpluses, ores, and various other materials to the Central Powers (p. 220).

In negotiations with the Central Powers, Trotsky said he “fully realized that the Central Powers were perfectly capable of annexing the Eastern Provinces” but that “Russia could bow to force but not to sophistry. He would never [. . .] admit German possession of the occupied territories under the cloak of self-determination, but let the Germans come out brazenly with their demands, [. . .] and he would yield.” (P. 217.) A cynical solution was found, whereby the treaty would simply state the territorial changes without saying whether they were annexations or a matter of self-determination. However, negotiations again reached a dead end after Trotsky refused to recognize the separate treaty between the Central Powers and the Ukraine (pp. 217–8).

Finally, on February 10, Trotsky announced his ‘no war — no peace’ policy to the amazed diplomats of the Central Powers. Russia was leaving the war, its army would begin demobilizing at once, but it wasn't signing a peace treaty (pp. 226–7). “The whole conference sat speechless, dumbfounded before the audacity of this coup de théâtre. The amazed silence was shattered by an ejaculation from Hoffmann: ‘Unerhört!’ (‘Unheard of!”), he exclaimed, scandalized.” (Pp. 227–8.) The diplomats were somewhat at a loss as to what exactly the formal consequences of such a step are supposed to be. “The situation appeared to be without parallel until the indefatigable Ministerial-Director Kriege, the German legal expert, after exhaustive researches, reported that a similar case of a unilateral declaration of peace had occurred several thousand years before, after a war between the Greeks and the Scythians.” (P. 228.)

Most of the German and Austrian diplomats were in favour of interpreting the situation as peace, but the German Supreme Command insisted that war must now be resumed, to round off their territorial gains in the east and also to gain control of the Ukraine, which the Rada had by then lost to the Bolsheviks and was thus unable to send any food surpluses to the Central Powers as the peace treaty had stipulated (pp. 229–30). Additionally, to the international public opinion, the Germans tried to present their efforts as a defense of civilization against bolshevism (p. 244).

Approximately a week after Trotsky walked out on the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk, Germany started a new offensive against Russia (p. 239) and was soon making excellent progress (p. 245). Lenin immediately sent a telegram accepting the terms put forth by the Germans before Trotsky had abandoned the negotiations, but the Germans were in no hurry to reply, seeing how well they were doing on the battlefield. When they finally did reply, their terms were much harsher than before (pp. 246, 255–6). It's amazing how stubborn many Bolsheviks were in the face of all that — it took Lenin a lot of effort to persuade them that they are in no position to defend themselves, and any delays in accepting the German demands would only make matters worse (pp. 247–50, 258–62, 275–81). Meanwhile, the German advances on the front threw Petrograd into disarray: “It was now accepted that the inexorable German advance would not be halted until it had taken Petrograd. The bourgeoisie were enchanted at the prospect and openly declared themselves for the Hohenzollerns. The Allied Embassies hastily prepared for a hurried evacuation.” (P. 250.)

Finally, on March 1 delegations from both sides met again at Brest-Litovsk. The Germans, of course, did not want to negotiate, but merely to get the Russians to accept their terms; but at the same time they wanted to make it seem like there was a normal process of negotiations. But this the Russians denied them; their chief representative, Sokolnikov, said that “[t]here was in effect nothing to discuss. The Central Powers had presented an ultimatum and Russia had accepted the terms which Germany had dictated. He was here to sign a treaty, not to discuss it.” To the Germans “this attitude of the Russians was highly distasteful. It made what they had to do appear even more barefaced than before.” (P. 266.) The treaty was signed on March 3 (p. 269).

Among other things, the treaty provided for the exchange of prisoners of war. This drew protests from the Junker landlords, who had become used to making good profits from employing these prisoners on their farms at very low wages. Some claimed that “without their assistance, German agriculture would suffer an inevitable catastrophe. Some writers suggested the postponement of exchange till September, when the harvesting should be over; others proposed that the entire male population of the occupied territories ceded by Russia should be transported to Germany in order to furnish cheap agricultural labour.” (P. 273.)

As a last step in trying to avoid having to ratify and implement the peace treaty, the Bolsheviks established contacts with the Entente, offering to refuse ratification in return for the Entente's support of Russia against German and Japanese imperialism. (The Japanese were at the time proposing to intervene in Siberia, excusing this partly as a measure against bolshevism and partly to prevent those areas from coming under German control in case that Germany should continue its advance into Russia; pp. 286–7, 292–5.) However, the Entente wasn't particularly supportive; pp. 284–5, 296, 298, 303), so the All-Russian Congress of Soviets eventually ratified the Brest-Litovsk treaty (p. 304). As for the congress itself, “There was an odd amalgam of independence and vanity and simplicity, which was exploited to the full, for the mass of the delegates was entirely without qualification to reason deeply, and its ignorance was grossly imposed upon by the leaders of all sections of opinion. ‘Never was there a congress’, wrote an eyewitness, ‘in which the many were so patently the tools of the few.’ It was a proletarian assembly at its best and worst.” (P. 300.)

On the German side, there was much less opposition to ratification (mostly by some socialists). “Yet, even in this moment of ephemeral tirumph, there could almost be heard the voice of Nemesis crying through the Chamber [of the Reichstag] the gibe that Radek had hurled into the indignant face of Hoffmann, ‘It is your day now, but in the end the Allies will put a Brest-Litovsk treaty upon you’.” (P. 308.) This is a fine anecdote — too bad that Bennett doesn't cite the source. Perhaps he heard it in some interview (apart from reading various memoirs and documentary collections, he also interviewed many of the participants in the Brest-Litovsk negotiations, as many of them were still alive at the time he was writing this book, 20 years after the events). It's a fairly prescient observation, although ultimately I don't think that the Versailles treaty was quite so harsh to Germany as Brest-Litovsk had been to Russia.

By the time of ratification, Germany, with the reluctant help of Austria-Hungary, managed to occupy most of the Ukraine and reinstall the Rada government in it (pp. 311–5); but in fact the leading person in the Ukraine was the German commander, marshal von Eichhorn. The Rada was able to exist only because of German support: “The separatist movement had no roots in the country, and the people as a whole were completely indifferent to national self-determination; this had been thrust upon them by a group of political dreamers derived from the presence of German bayonets.” (P. 316.) The Germans soon found that extracting grain from the Ukrainian peasants was proving more difficult and yielded less grain than had been anticipated (pp. 315–9). (“It was common gossip in Berlin at this time that, in order to camouflage the failure of the Ukrainian expedition, workmen in Poland were ordered to paint the word ‘Ukraine’ on every bag of Polish flour sent to Berlin.” P. 318.) This led to conflicts between the Rada and the Germans, who eventually dissolved it and installed a General Skoropadsky as the Hetman (and chief German puppet) (p. 321–2). Deliveries of goods to the Central Powers increased, there was a brief economic revival as “the Ukraine became for a short time a bourgeois Mecca, and thither flocked thousands of refugees from Soviet Russia, eager to join in the riot of speculation which was sweeping Kiev.” (P. 323.) The peasants, on the other hand, resented the new regime and its restoration of land to the large landowners (ibid.); the German policies were driving them straight into the hands of Bolshevism and of Russia (p. 324). “Rarely, save in the attempts of the French to separate the Rhineland fom the German Reich in 1923, has there been a more flagrant example of how not to woo a conquered people.” (Ibid. And yet, the Germans apparently learnt nothing from that, as they repeated the very same mistake in the Ukraine during the WW2.) In the late summer, the Germans started withdrawing soldiers from the Ukraine as they needed them for the Western Front, and the Skoropadsky regime collapsed a few months afterwards. (P. 325.)

During the last part of the war, Ludendorff's ambitions in the east reached truly megalomaniac proportions, foreshadowing in many ways the Nazi ambitions during the WW2. Ludendorff sent expeditionary forces to Finland, Baku, and the Crimean ports; “An army of occupation was maintained in Rumania; grand-ducal governments were in the process of creation in Courland, Lithuania, Livonia, and Estonia; and the German colonies in the Crimea were urged to appeal to the Kaiser for annexation. Ludendorff's conception of Deutschtum had become all-embracing (a conception later to be revived by Hitler). ‘German prestige demands that we should hold a strong protecting hand, not only over German citizens, but over all Germans’, he was writing at this moment. [. . .] Wilhelm II, in a message to the Hetman of the Don Cossacks, outlined plans for the ultimate partitioning of Russia into four independent states—the Ukraine, the Union of the South East, Central Russia, and Siberia—thereby eliminating the Russian state as a political threat to Germany.”

[To be continued in a few days.]


Anonymous luka said...

Very interesting... I really don't wanna be a smartass, but the (unfortunaly!) short-lived Ukrainian state is usually referred as Ukrainian National Republic: of course I don't know Ukrainian and it's more than possible that the adjective can mean both "National" and "People's" (as in Serbo-Croatian), but most historians prefer calling it "National Republic" in order to not confuse it with post-WWII "people's republics" of Eastern Europe. The "Rada" was actually a Ukrainian counterpart of the Russian "soviets", with the difference that in Ukraine they remained under Social-Democratic rather than Bolshevik control. The term "Rada" is probably used in the book to diferentiate this Social-Democratic regime from the later German puppet "Ukrainian State" and from the short-lived "Directorate" that re-established the Republic just before the Soviet-Polish war 1919-1921 in which Ukraine was dismembered between Poland and Soviet Russia.

Sunday, September 03, 2006 9:18:00 PM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

Well, this makes things a little clearer -- thanks for this informative comment. I agree that "People's Republic" makes it sound as if it were a communist state, which this one wasn't.

Sunday, September 03, 2006 10:10:00 PM  
Blogger Gawain said...

i-a, i am really enjoying this. thank you.

Monday, September 04, 2006 4:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On people's republic or national republic: "Narod" in Russian (and I presume in Ukrainian) can mean either "a people" or "a nation." In that sense, it is similar to the German Volk and has no exact equivalent in English.

Thursday, October 12, 2006 6:21:00 PM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

Thanks for the comment, anonymous. To be quite honest, I always found the distinction between "people" and "nation" a bit blurry myself, and I sometimes wonder how useful it really is to try maintaining two such separate terms :)

Thursday, October 12, 2006 9:01:00 PM  

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