Was the Brest-Litovsk Peace Unreasonable?

Peace at Brest-Litovsk and Versailles

by Gwydion M. Williams

The two peace treaties of Brest-Litovsk and Versailles often get compared. One was imposed on the new Soviet Union by Germany in 1917. The other was imposed on Germany in 1919, after they’d agreed to an armistice in 1918. Both involved a big loss of territory to the loser. But if you ask ‘what was fair’, you get a different answer.

The Tsarist Empire was a collection of territories conquered by the Tsars and a state that was always Great-Russian at root. The February Revolution had made this state a Republic, but still at war with Germany, and still losing that war. The October Revolution was for peace, though of course the Bolsheviks wanted World Revolution in the longer run. But being functionally the heirs of the Tsarist Empire, they inherited most of its territories.

Germany in the Brest-Litovsk Treaty reduced the new Soviet Union to its Great-Russian core. Other nationalities including the Ukraine were to get their own states, on much the same lines as when the Soviet Union finally dissolved in 1991. In terms of ethnic self-determination, it wasn’t that unfair. Had the USA changed its mind in 1917 and said that the war could end if Germany went back to its existing borders in the west, a lot of suffering over the next few decades could have been avoided. A victorious Germany would have stabilised the countries to the east of it. They had already accepted in principle that Poland should be self-governing.

Versailles was different. Germany was stripped of territories that had an ethnic-German majority, notably Danzig, the Polish Corridor and the Sudetenland in the new state of Czechoslovakia. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was divided into ethnic blocks, but with unfair treatment for the Hungarians, who were classed as ‘bad people’ because they had been solidly part of the defeated alliance. Also Austria as an ethnic-German rump was forbidden to unify with Germany, even though it would have been a logical union.

Hitler’s rise was aided by the fact that he defied provisions laid down at Versailles that were blatantly unfair, and which no one felt shedding blood to defend when it came to the point. Or no one except the Poles who dreamt of recovering all once-Polish land, and actually did get this after World War Two, courtesy of Joe Stalin.

Neither peace could be called a ‘Carthaginian Peace’, in the sense of eliminating the national core in the way that Rome finally annihilated Carthage. It was open to the victors in 1918 to split Germany back into units that had only been united since the 1870s. Britain would have been wiser to have done this if they were not going to give Germany a fair peace, a peace based on ethnic lines. But British politicians misjudged the future and decided that their biggest worry was France dominating Continental Europe. It was a senseless act and a major blunder.

Woodrow Wilson is sometimes presented as a tragic hero of these events. He wasn’t. He had become famous for the 14 Points, not in fact his original program for joining the war, more something he spun out to get people agreeing to a war that many US citizens saw as a breach of their traditions. Had he chosen, he could have sent the US Navy to escort food-carrying ships to Germany, which in the event was starved for months after the war ended. Left so weak that they had no choice except to accept national humiliation at Versailles.

Versailles was an incoherent peace imposed by powers that saw each other as likely future foes and it should not be whitewashed.

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