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Brest-Litovsk peace talks showed the generals’ thirst for war

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Issue 2580
A German soldier poses for a photo with Russian soldiers
A German soldier poses for a photo with Russian soldiers

Ending the carnage of the First World War had been a central demand behind every uprising in the Russian Revolution.

And after the October insurrection, peace was a major priority for the new Bolshevik-led Soviet government.

They had allies on the other side of the front. Soldiers, sailors and workers in Russia’s rival states, the “Central Powers” of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, were equally sick of war.

Revolution might be brewing there too, but how long would it take?

In the meantime the Bolsheviks would have to negotiate with the bloodthirsty generals and ministers. This posed a dilemma—how to negotiate with warmongering rulers at the same time as reaching out to war-weary masses.

The Soviet Congress passed a Decree on Peace the day after the insurrection. It called on all the warring states to begin peace talks.


It expressed its readiness “to take immediately, without the least delay, all decisive steps pending the final confirmation of all the terms of such a peace”.

The new government also vowed to end secret diplomacy. Whatever was said in negotiations, the world would hear it.

This horrified the rulers of Europe even more than the demand for peace.

They would no longer get away with cynically cosying up to each other while condemning ordinary people to death.

It took two months for the Central Powers to agree to an armistice. Negotiations began in the then-Polish town of Brest-Litovsk.

The Russian delegation included both a general from the old Tsar’s army and a woman, Anastasia Bizenko, who had assassinated one of the Tsar’s ministers. The other side had differences of their own.

But they agreed that peace talks wouldn’t get in the way of carving up the Russian Empire.

Russia had been losing the war before the Revolution, and now the Soviet government had its hands full with the start of a counter-revolutionary Civil War.

The central powers demanded territory that included a quarter of the population of the empire, a quarter of its industry and 90 percent of its coal mines.

Should Russia sign? The question divided the Bolsheviks, partly over how quickly they expected a German Revolution to come.

Leading Bolsheviks Nikolai Bukharin and Karl Radek called for continuing the war, but now in the name of spreading revolution.

But this could have sent the message to German and Austro-Hungarian soldiers that Russia was still their enemy, and made it harder for them to turn on their own rulers.

Leon Trotsky, the Soviet foreign minister, thought the best bet was to play for time.


He called for demobilising the Russian war machine without signing the treaty. Bolshevik leader Lenin initially agreed with Trotsky’s “no war, no peace” position.

But on 16 February German general Max Hoffman informed them that Germany would resume the war in two days. Refusing to sign the treaty would mean more fighting—and an even worse defeat. The Bolshevik central committee voted only narrowly to accept the treaty, and that took a threat by Lenin to resign if they didn’t.

Despite its harsh terms, the treaty did free up the Russian Soviet government to fight the Civil War and survive.

But it didn’t help the rulers of the Central Powers, who faced revolutions in both Germany and Hungary before the year was out.

This is part of a series of weekly articles on the Russian Revolution

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