Saturday, September 09, 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 part 1 and part 2.]

Some German military activities continued after the ratification of the treaty, not just in the Ukraine but also in Russia (p. 330). The Russians for their part tried to do as little towards implementing the treaty as possible. By the summer, relations deteriorated to the point where Germans were considering a swift advance upon Petrograd, to be followed by the capture of Moscow and “the overthrow of the Soviet régime and the re-establishment of the Russian monarchy” (p. 335). But by then, Germany was losing the war in the west and had to withdraw more and more soldiers from the eastern front to make up for its losses in the west (p. 336). “From the month of August there was a perceptible stiffening in the Bolshevik attitude and a corresponding tendency of the Germans to assume the defensive.” (P. 343.)

One of the consequences of the Brest-Litovsk treaty was the exchange of ambassadors. Joffe was sent to Germany as the Soviet ambassador; he and his staff took the fullest advantage of their diplomatic privileges to spread communist propaganda (pp. 349–50, 355), e.g. transporting propaganda materials in diplomatic mail, which the host country (in this case Germany) was not supposed to be allowed to inspect. (This led the Germans to consider some rather desperate ideas: “that an official burglary of the [Soviet] Embassy should be ‘arranged’ and the incriminating documents stolen; [or] that one of the Embassy mail-cases should be accidentaly ‘made to go to pieces’ on the station platform.” (P. 359.) “[E]ven at that early date the Bolshevik diplomats had established a reputation for the excellent quality of their champagne” (p. 358).

Communist ideas were also being introduced to Germany by German soldiers who were now returning home after having been prisoners of war in Russia (p. 351–2). Later people such as Ludendorff made use of this fact to bolster their ‘stab-in-the-back legend’, i.e. that Germany lost not because it was defeated on the battlefield but because of the loss of morale on the home front, chiefly caused by foreign propaganda.

The final collapse of the German army was sudden and came to many Germans as a surprise. The whole German nation, the military and the civilian population alike, was completely exhausted, both physically and psychologically, but the full toll of their exhaustion was not realized, even by themselves, until Ludendorff's defeat was made obvious to all. The nation was so certain that the promises of ultimate victory would be fulfilled, and the army so steeped in the traditions of its history, that it was only when the sudden realization of defeat was borne in upon them that their confidence wavered.” (P. 353.)

In November, the Germans finally expelled Joffe, the Soviet ambassador, for his propaganda activities (pp. 359–60). The Central Powers were in a sufficiently bad condition by then that the Soviets made use of this opportunity to repudiate the Brest-Litovsk treaty (pp. 361–2).

The Brest-Litovsk treaty also had consequences for Germany's relations with the Western powers; Wilson in particular, until that time, “preferred to distinguish between the German people and their rulers” (p. 363). But seeing “the barefaced brutality of the peace terms of Brest-Litovsk, their acceptance dictated at the bayonet's point and the whole affair condoned and ratified by the Reichstag almost without protest, Wilson awoke to the fact that for practical purposes there was but one Germany to be conquered, and this was the Germany of the High Command” (p. 365). “Unanimity between the United States and the nations of the Entente had at last been achieved” and their victory was then only a matter of months (p. 366).

Amazingly, even as late as mid-September 1918, the Germans were putting out peace feelers to the western powers and insisting that the terms of Brest-Litovsk are not to be modified (p. 367–8). But by then, the Entente was refusing “ ‘any kind of bargain or compromise with the Governments of the Central Powers’ ” (Wilson, quoted on p. 368), and its demands towards Germany had moved beyond the idealism of Wilson's fourteen points (p. 370). Ludendorff finally realized that the situation was hopeless: “In a wild frenzy of despair he demanded an instant request for an armistice on the basis of the Fourteen Points and the immediate democratization of the Constitution. No Paul on the road to any Damascus was more suddenly converted than was Ludendorff to the cause of peace and democracy. [. . .] ‘The parliamentarization of Germany was not fought for by the Reichstag; it was ordered by Ludendorff.’ ” (P. 369.) Both the armistice agreement that Germany signed on November 11 (p. 371), and the Versailles peace treaty it signed in the following year, contained a provision that annulled the treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

The book has several appendices, containing the text of the treaties, including the treaty with the Ukraine and the supplementary treaties signed in the summer of 1918, but most of that is fairly boring.

Some miscellaneous interesting passages:

Lenin spent much of the war in exile in Zürich, where he lived near a sausage factory and, to avoid the stench, spent most of his time in public libraries. “[T]he library authorities exacted a respectable appearance from their readers. Some of Lenin's fellow Bolsheviks had been refused admittance [. . .] but he still owned a decent coat and a pair of sound shoes”. (P. 15.)

When the revolution started in March 1917, he was eager to get to Russia as quickly as possible. Eventually an agreement was reached with the Germans: they would let him travel to Russia through Germany, hoping that once he gets there, he will help the revolution succeed and therefore Russia will soon step out of the war. “As a result, on April 4 a most remarkable ‘treaty’ was drawn up between the Empire of the Hohenzollerns and the editorial staff of a Swiss revolutionary paper. [. . .] [I]n addition, no one could leave the train during the journey, nor enter it, without Platten's permission. (From this last provision grew the legend of the ‘sealed train’.) [. . .] A further regulation, which proved of considerable irksomeness to the returning Bolsheviks, was that smoking in the compartments was forbidden. The German railway officials stricly enforced the rule” and the Russians therefore had to resort to smoking in the toilets :-) (Pp. 38–9.) Because of this agreement, some accused Lenin of being a German agent, but this is ridiculous: “No two parties ever entered into an agreement with more brutal cynicism than Ludendorff and Lenin. [. . .] If any pact existed between Ludendorff and Lenin it was one of mutual mistrust and deception.” (P. 40.)

On pp. 120–1, there is an interesting description of the influence of Hindenburg and Ludendorff in Germany. In 1916, Hindenburg was appointed to the position of Chief of the General Staff, and Ludendorff was his First Quartermaster-General. But their influence extended far beyond these military roles: “Gradually a complete dictatorship was built up on the interpretation of which Ludendorff put upon the word ‘responsibility’. For example, when any policy was mooted of which Ludendorff disapproved, [. . .] he declared that the Supreme Command could not assume ‘responsibility’ for such action, and asked leave to resign. By exercise of this method of ‘persuasion’, the First Quartermaster-General forced everyone to give way to him, from the Emperor downwards.” (P. 121.) As seen from this, Ludendorff was the more active part of this partnership, although Hindenburg was nominally the one in charge; Hindenburg wasn't interested in political matters and mostly just went along with Ludendorff's proposals.

On p. 9 he mentions the word ‘Germanophil’. I still find this spelling strange — why not ‘Germanophile’? This is the second book where I encountered the -phil version; the first was Sven Hedin's German Diary. Apparently then this version was not so rare as I might have thought.

A splendid phrase from p. 13: “spiritual pachydermy”. Bennett uses this to decribe the Tsar's attitude of great apathy in the last months of his reign. I can't entirely resist the visions of orange-robed elephants chanting ‘aum’... :-)

“Remarkable are the tragic fatalities which overhung many of the delegates assembled at Brest-Litovsk. [. . .] Hoesch and Bülow [a nephew of the former chancellor] died in their early middle age [. . .] Talaat Pasha was destined to die at the hand of an Armenian assassin, the avenger of countless massacred victims, and Radoslavov was to be led in chains through the streets of Sofia. [. . .] Trotsky [. . .] leads in his Mexican retreat a life of dynamic hatred and bitter vituperation. [. . .] Over 1500 Soviet citizens have been ‘liquidated’ as Trotskyists, among them the most prominent of the figures at Brest-Litovsk. [. . .] Joffe died by his own hand, Kamenev and Karakhan by the bullets of the executioner as ‘Fascist’ supporters of Trotsky. Sokolnikov exists in a Soviet prison [. . .] Admiral Altvater and General Samoilo perished in the Red Terror of 1918.” (Pp. 112–3.)

Pp. 175–182 tell the curious story of the dissolution of the constituent assembly. Preparations for the assembly, which was to debate a new constitution, started after the February revolution, but after the Bolsheviks assumed power they came to regard it as a nuissance, a rallying-ground for the opponents of their dictatorship. When the session finally opened, many members of the assembly, expecting “some drastic action by the Bolsheviks, [. . .] brought with them candles and sandwiches lest they should be called upon to withstand a siege. ‘Thus democracy entered upon its struggle with dictatorship heavily armed with sandwiches and candles’, commented Trotsky contemptuously.” (P. 179.) Eventually the Bolsheviks withdrew from the assembly and Lenin wrote a decree to dissolve it after the end of its current session, adding that nobody was to be permitted into the assembly hall from the next day on. The members, however, showed no interest in leaving the current session, until finally, at 4 AM, “[t]he commander of the guard, his patience at last at an end, gave the order to his sailors to turn out the lights. In the growing darkness disorder reigned, and, amid cheers and cat-calls from the galleries, the voice of Chernov could be heard pathetically proclaiming, “The Russian State is declared a Russian Democratic Federative Republic’.” (P. 182.) I always find this sort of events somewhat melancholy; it reminds me of the description of the end of the institutions of the Venetian republic in J. J. Norwich's History of Venice (ch. 45, pp. 627, 630–1).

An interesting observation from pp. 190–1: “The cardinal dilemma which all dictators have to face is to make their post-revolutionary policy square with their pre-revolutionary propaganda.” He discusses the example of Hitler and Mussolini in a footnote: “Mussolini is the outstanding exception to the rule. Having made no pre-revolution promises, he was never hampered by the impossibility of fulfilling them.” (P. 191.)

“He [i.e. Hoffmann] had been particularly annoyed by Radek's habit of leaning across the table with an impish grin and puffing tobacco smoke at him.” (Pp. 218–9.)

One thing that particularly impressed me about Lenin in this book is how, although we often think of him as some kind of dictator, he constantly made great efforts to persuade and argue and debate and get people to accept his views by persuasion rather than by force. “If the capacity to withstand criticism be the criterion of greatness, then upon this score alone Lenin's place among the great ones of the earth would have been assured. From the moment that the terms of the treaty became public, there was no more vilified man in Russia or in Europe.” (P. 275.) Lenin “showed himself great in the sense that, though intolerant of the stupidity and blindness of his opponents, he did not deny them the right to express his views.” (P. 281.) This is in marked contrast to Stalin, who after assuming power “replied to his critics with the executioner's bullet and the penal settlement.” (Ibid.) [Incidentally, this reminds me of the old joke where Brezhnev asks Bush: “Do you collect political jokes about yourself?” Bush: “Oh yes, I've got two books. And you?” Brezhnev: “I've got two prison camps.” :-). I wonder, though, where these two are supposed to have met. Brezhnev died in 1982, and Bush became Reagan's vice president only in 1981 — maybe they met at some point in 1981–2; before that, I don't think Bush's offices important enough that he would get to feature in a joke like this, even if he might have met Brezhnev in some of them, e.g. as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 1971–3.]


  • Books about the Nazi efforts to gain influence in the East: E. Elwyn Jones, Hitler's Drive to the East (1937); Gerhard Schacher, Germany Pushes South-East (1937); Henry C. Wolfe, The German Octopus (1938). Cited on p. xvii.
  • Maurice Paléologue: An Ambassador's Memoirs (1923–5). He was the French ambassador in Russia. Cited on p. 6.
  • George Buchanan: My Mission to Russia (1923). He was the British ambassador in Russia. Cited on p. 9.
  • Ottokar Czernin: In the World War (1919). He was the Austro-Hungarian foreign minister during much of the WW1. Cited on p. 80.
  • Bruce Lockhart: Memoirs of a British Agent (1932). The Entente had not yet recognized the Bolshevik state and therefore had no embassies there, but they did have ‘agents’, of which Lockhart was one. Cited on p. 251.
  • Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius: War Land on the Eastern Front: Culture, National Identity, and German Occupation in World War I. Cambridge University Press, 2005.


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