Today in WWI: The Armistice at Brest-Litovsk

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On the outskirts of the city of Brest (once called Brest-Litovsk), Belarus, between the river Bug and the river Mukhavets, stands an old fortress. Overlooking the nearby border with Poland, its red brick walls are pockmarked with countless bullet-holes and missing bricks, one by one loosened and lost over 2 centuries of existence. This is the Hero-Fortress of Brest, one of the Soviet strongholds who resisted the Nazi advance into the USSR during WW2’s Operation Barbarossa, in 1941. But before it was given the title of “крепость-герой” (Hero-fortress), before even its stand against the fascist forces, Brest Fortress was the setting of two other, equally momentous, events: The signings of both the Armistice and Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, in 1917 and 1918.

It was here in Brest, exactly 99 years ago, on the 2nd of December 1917, that Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian representatives met to discuss the terms of the armistice. The three nations had participated in World War One since its beginning in 1914, and were all eager to end hostilities on the Eastern Front. The armistice was the idea of the new Bolshevik government of Russia, as it was desperate to secure a breathing space for the country and, in turn, the Revolution it had just been created by. It therefore proposed peace negotiations to both the Allies, who responded with hostility, and the Central Powers, who responded favourably.

Doctor Jonathan Smele, Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at Queen Mary University of London, explains that this favourable response stemmed from the Central powers’ wish to end the “war on two fronts” they had been fighting, and therefore “facilitate the transfer of many divisions from the Eastern front to the Western Front for the forthcoming offensive”. It also “gave them control of the agricultural and mineral riches of Ukraine”. Since the negotiations only took three days, the armistice was signed on the 5th of December, and enacted on the 15th for a period of two months.

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The terms of the armistice were simple. Russia would signal its intention of leaving the war and therefore start negotiations for a lasting peace, displacement of large military units was forbidden on either side of the front, and both Russian and Central power units and troops would be allowed to contact the other side. This last point came from the Russian negotiators, as they hoped their soldiers would spread a form of revolutionary social contagion among other european nations’ troops. This would help in bringing about the Bolshevik government’s goal of disseminating their ideals of workers’ and farmers’ uprisings across Europe. However, the German representatives were aware of the true intentions of this clause, and limited contact to pre-determined points along the German-Russian front, therefore allowing them to monitor exchanges and conversations between soldiers of different nations more easily.

After the pre-determined period of two months, negotiations began anew, this time for a more lasting peace. These were not to be concluded as fast as the previous ones, however, as the secession of Ukraine from Russia and its recognition by the Central Powers chilled the latter’s relationship with the Bolshevik government. The Russian negotiators left Brest while the Red Army marched to retake Ukraine, forcing Germany and Austria-Hungary to intervene militarily in the Russian Civil War. It was only on the 3rd of March 1918, after the Central Powers sent an ultimatum to the Russian government, that the Bolsheviks conceded victory to Germany and Austria-Hungary and signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

This Treaty had far-reaching consequences in the following years. As a result of its terms, Russia lost 25% of its population and railways, 35% of its grain production and 70% of its industry. On top of that, it further tainted the Bolshevik government in the eyes of the Western Powers, since they were not only seen as usurpers after having overthrown the Tsar Nicholas II, but now also as “traitors”, dealing with “the enemy”.
According to Dr. Smele, the Treaty also “accelerated the collapse of Russia into warring factions”, deepening the crisis that was the Russian Civil War. Lastly, the combined effects of the treaty, the negative opinion of the Bolshevik Government in Western Europe and the chaos of the Civil War meant that there were no Russian delegates at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and they were therefore left out of any potential compensation for the three long years of war on the Eastern front.

Ninety-nine years on, it seems difficult to imagine how this Treaty still affects us. However, while the later history of the Soviet Union and the return of a democratic Russia offers clearer consequences, Dr. Smele does suggest that the Treaty has contributed to the “generic Russophobia of Western governments” today, adding “another layer”.

Brest Fortress still stands tall today, ringed by its star-shaped outer wall and its horse-shoe shaped inner fortification. Over the years, just as the relationship between Russia and the West evolved, so did the stronghold. Layer upon layer of casemates, ravelins and other defences were added onto it. In more recent years, however, it was buildings of another kind that appeared; memorials, obelisks, and statues. The fort, once a meeting place between two enemy factions in the bloodiest war the world had ever known, is now a site for grief, pride and remembrance.

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