With the Bolsheviks now in control it was time to get out of the war, and the cost would be great.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 128. This week we come to the end of our episode on the Russian Revolutions, and in general the state of Russia during 1917. This will also probably be our last episode focusing on the events in Russia during the war since one of the big topics for today is how Russia exited the war in early 1918. After the Bolshevik’s took control in Petrograd negotiations with the Germans began almost immediately for how the Russians could exit the war. Today we will look at how the new Bolshevik regime felt about the war, and what their plans were for the negotiations. We will then look at how the Germans and their allies felt about a possible armistice and peace treaty before digging into what the Russians would end up signing in the Treaty of Brest Litovsk which is, as we will discuss, an extremely one sided peace treaty. We will close out this episode by talking about some other areas of pre-war Russia in Ukraine and Finland where we can see two different ways that post-revolution Russia would go after the war. We will then close out by discussing what I am going to call the Grand Czech Adventure, for reasons that will become quite clear by the end. I hope everyone has enjoyed these episodes, and for the people who have asked me about the music for these episodes, we have slowly been shifting the intro and outro music for each episode based on who was in control at the time. It began with the Imperial Russian national anthem, God save the Tsar, before transitioning onto the Workers Marsallaise which was the anthem of the provisional government, then at the end of last episode and the beginning of this one we transitioned into the national anthem of the Soviet Union, which while not yet created, would be the eventual outcome of the Bolshevik seizure of power.
To understand the thinking within the Bolshevik government it is important to remember that at this point in time they believed that what they had done in Petrograd and in Russia in October 1917 would soon spread like a chain reaction to other countries. They believed that by launching their own socialist revolution other countries would experience a similar phenomenon. They believed that this would be assisted by a war that continued for a long time, putting more stress on all of the societies of Europe. This is what would drive many of their decisions over the course of late 1917, particularly around how they handled various regions in the Baltics. There were some problems though, due to the actions of 1917 from all the various groups who would at one time hold power in Russia, from the Tsar, to the Provisional Government and Kerensky, to the Bolsheviks and Lenin, the army had pretty much self-destructed. This would become abundantly clear both to the Bolsheviks and their enemies as negotiations for peace got underway, and the Russians would find that it robbed them of whatever power they might have had during peace talks.
The Germans and Austrians, as a whole, were really into the idea of peace in the East. For the Germans it would allow them to move the troops that they had in the East to the West, and for the Austrians it would both free up troops to move to Italy and also to just reduce the stress that the war was putting on their society, which by early 1918 was barely hanging together. That did not mean that they were prepared to go easy on the Russians in the negotiations to move them along quicker. Instead the Germany military’s position on negotiations was very hardline and they were hoping to figure out a way to give them a better position in any future wars, since everybody assumed that there would be another war in the future. A key piece of this equation was the creation of large Eastern European buffer zones, in the form of at least nominally independent countries. An independent Poland would be a critical piece of this buffer zone, since it would protect the region of Silesia however this extended also into the Baltics, with Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia slated to become German influenced territories. Austria had its own demands, with it taking position of more of Galicia and southern Poland. Both the Germans and Austrians knew that these demands would meet resistance from the Russians and so at the front they increased their efforts to disorganize and reduce the morale of the Russian troops. Intelligence officers who spoke Russian were posted into the front lines and through the use of officer permitted and organized ceasefires they fraternized with the Russian troops across from them. Through these contacts they would spread information that Germany wanted the Russian soldiers to hear. Ideas like the fact that Germany wanted, but certainly did not require peace, that the new Bolshevik government was actually controlled by the English, and they were trying to keep Russia in the war for their own benefit, and other bits of truths and half truths found eager ears in the Russian lines. What these soldiers were hearing from their own government had been confusing and sometimes obviously false for most of the year, and they certainly did not trust their own officers to have their best interests at heart. This made them easy marks for the Germans as they sought to make sure that if it came to it they would be able to offer no resistance to future German attacks.
When Lenin took control of the government in Petrograd he would wait just 2 weeks before sending a message to all of the troops. In this message he told the soldiers to elect representatives for armistice talks. When he sent the message he did it against the wishes of his military leaders, because they knew that it would destroy whatever fight the Russian army still had in it. The Germans, of course, intercepted the message and instead of suppressing it they rebroadcast it all along the front to make sure that as many people as possible heard what Lenin had to say. This would then lead to an armistice beginning on December 15th, with peace talks starting in the city of Brest-Litovsk a week later. Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire all sent representatives to meet with those from the Bolsheviks. The German military was firm on their demands for the territory in the East that they craved, even thought it was difficult to get the Austrians to agree to some of the specifics. There were several arguments between the German and Austrian representatives around topics such as the future of Poland, and some of these were done in public in front of the other representatives. There was also an attempt to get the Western Allies to participate in the peace talks as well, with a message sent to them with the offer of discussing peace with now annexations or indemnities. This was a call that had been made by the Russians and was at least somewhat supported among the German civilian government. However, when the British and French did not respond, negotiations began in earnest. When he learned of the terms that were being presented to him, Trotsky, the lead representative for Russia, stormed out of the conference after declaring that the new Russian policy was ‘no war, no peace’. This just gave the Germans an excuse to unleash the armies in the East for one last offensive.
After talks initially broke down the Germans did not immediately attack, instead there were several more days of discussions between the various parties. However, by the first week of February the Germans were losing their patience and on February 9th this caused two things to happen. First, the Germans made a separate peace with Ukraine, which was going to be an independent country under the German plan for peace. Then on the 9th they also issued an ultimatum which basically said that if the Russians did not sign the treaty as written, the armistice would be cancelled and fighting would resume. When the ultimatum was not answered, the attack would inevitable. It would begin on February 17th, and in just 5 days it had advanced 150 miles into Russian territory. There was essentially no resistance from the Russian troops and General Max Hoffmann would say about the campaign that “It is the most comical war I have ever known. We put a handful of infantrymen with machine guns and one gun on to a train and rush them off to the next station; they take it, make prisoners of the Bolsheviks, pick up a few more troops and so on. This proceeding has, at any rate, the charm of novelty.” It was only after this advance, which did not appear to be stopping anytime soon, that the Russians came back to the negotiating table. This would then result in the Russian signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk as written by the Germans and Austrians on March 3rd.
So what was this horrible treaty that the Russians had been forced to sign? Well, they were forced to renounce any claims to Poland, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, and Ukraine. They were also forced to give the south Caucuses region to the Ottoman Empire. This comes out to something like 2.5 million square kilometers of territory including 50 million inhabitants, 90 percent of Russia’s coal mines, a bit over 50 percent of its industry, and a third of its agricultural land most of all of those categories was in Poland and Ukraine. This, essentially, reduced the European area of Russia back to what it had been during the 17th century when it was still called Muscovy. The signing of the treaty was the final removal of Russia from the war, and their defeat had consequences outside of just the territorial concessions in the treaty. On the home front several minorities within Russia moved to create their own independent governments. Russia’s former allies resolved to send a military presence to Russia to try and keep the German forces of occupation busy dealing with some kind of military threat. Finally, it gave groups within Russia the best possible excuse to launch a counter-revolution, which would directly result in the civil war. There was really nothing they could do about it, at least in the minds of the Bolsheviks. Signing the treaty saved the revolution, but prevented it from spreading in the future. Afterwards the Bolsheviks would move the capital to Moscow, and moved on to dealing with all of the internal dissentions that were rising fast. Now it was time to shift focus from ending their participation in the First World War to dealing with the conflict that was brewing internally, and which would turn into the Russian Civil War.
Before we end today I want to talk about what happened in Ukraine and Finland during 1918. Both countries would involve themselves heavily with Germany, but they would be on the opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of the outcome of their further interactions with Russia. There had been an independence movement in Ukraine from before the war and with the disintegration of the government in Petrograd, twice, it looked like a great time to finally make this independence happen. This would start with support from the Germans, who were motivated by the possibilities of food being imported from the country. We have talked extensively about the issues Germany and Austria-Hungary were having feeding their people in 1917, and the Ukraine promised partial relief. Because of this the Germans deposed the provisional government of the new Ukrainian nation, and put in its place a man who promised to support them. He had the support of most of Ukraine’s landowners, which was seen as a big positive, and he promised massive amounts of food would begin shipping out immediately. Only, well, it didn’t. In total just over 110,000 tons of grain was sent out of Ukraine before the end of the war, which was a drop in the bucket for the two countries. It was not even because the Ukrainians were withholding the grain. German troops were sent into the country to make sure that the grain that was promised was shipped out, but when they arrived they realized that what was promised simply was not there. For the central powers this was unfortunate. For the people of Ukraine they were in for a very long decade. During the Civil War they would find themselves drawn in against the Reds, and when the Reds took power afterwards Ukraine felt the full brunt of many of their economic policies. The interwar years were a very bad time to be a Ukrainian.
We now turn our eyes north, about as far north as you can get in Europe, Finland. Finland is an excellent case study for how Lenin’s relations with what would become, at least for a time, independent countries could backfire. Lenin’s early policy was to let any non-Russian group secede from the Russian empire, and then give support to pro-Soviet revolutions inside those same countries. This would come into play in Finland, which at the time was pretty evenly split between their support for the left and the right. The right had been very supportive of the Germany during the war, even going so far as to create a volunteer unit, the 27th Jager Battalion, which had been fighting on the Russian front since 1916. Germany also supported the right wing parties in the country. This meant that when fighting broke out in January, and the right wing groups were pushed out of Helsinki, the Germans sent rifles, machine guns, and 12 artillery pieces to bolster their firepower. The right wing parties also found a new leader in the form of Gustav Mannerheim who had arrived, fresh from his service in the Russian Army. After the Germans had initially pressured the Russians into recognizing the independence of Finland, which was before all the fighting started, the Soviets offered their assistance to the Finnish socialist parties, something that Stalin was a big fan of doing. They provided this assistance while both sides prepared for the coming conflict during the January to February 1918 time frame. The Socialist army would have about 90,000 men which dwarfed Mannerheim’s 40,000. however, Mannerheim’s troops had far more experience, including veteran’s from the 27th Jagers. In early March the socialists advanced, but they did not get far. After Brest-Litovsk the Russian began pulling back their support for the Finnish Socialists and this let Mannerheim advance, and snuff out all resistance by May 2nd. The short war would leave 30,000 casualties in its wake, a high price for a country of just 3 million. However, it was lucky to get out of Russia before it descended into the chaos of the civil war, which would cost many more lives. The result of the conflict was that Finland became an independent country, it was however tied closely with Germany. Germany had free trade rights with Finland, but it did not work the other way around, giving the Germans an obvious advantage. Finland also could not make any foreign alliances without German consent. This was a sub-optimal agreement for the Fins, but it would only last for a few months anything, with the ending of the war and the treaty of Versailles giving the Finns their true freedom. They would have to defend that freedom against Russia in the 30s.
We now come to what I am calling the Grand Czech Adventure. I have learned many things while creating this show, and one of those things is that when situations get chaotic, especially on a large geographical scale, some pretty crazy and amazing things can happen. In these crazy things I include the story of the Czech Legion, a story which begin in Ukraine in 1918. Ukraine was full of prisoners of war from Germany and Austria-Hungary when the armistice was signed on the Eastern Front. For the German prisoners they were excited and patiently waiting to be liberated by German troops so that they could go home. However, many of the prisoners from Austria-Hungary were far less excited about development, none more than two contingents, the Poles and the Czechs. They were determined not to be sent back to the Empire, and so they took the matter into their own hands. The story of the Poles is a short and tragic story, they threw in their lot with the wrong group of Ukrainians and were killed. However, the Czechs chose a different path. They insisted that they be allowed to leave Russia for France, but instead of going West, they wanted to go East, on the long Trans-Siberian railway to Vladivostok. The Bolsheviks agreed to this and in May the Czechs began their journey, they hoped that at the end of it they could find ships that could take them on the long journey to Western Europe. In the middle of the month, somewhere in Western Siberia, an altercation occurred between the Czechs and some Hungarian prisoners, when Bolshevik forces tried to restore order the Czechs fought back. The Czechs then, numbering around 40,000 spread out their units all along the railway from the Volga to Vladivostok and took over the entire stretch. As they expanded their power along the rails it had effects far beyond just the taking of the territory. Seeing the ability of the Czechs to defy the Bolsheviks caused several other groups to also rise up against their rule, including the Don and Kuban Cossacks. There was also action from the Americans and the Japanese, with the two countries landing troops at Vladivostok to secure the port to allow the Czechs to evacuate. This situation continued until July 1918 when Lenin and Trotsky sought and were given assurances from both the Germans and the Finns that they would not attack Petrograd. This allowed them slightly more military freedom, including the ability to move military units against the Czechs. They did this with their most reliable and effective unit, the Latvian Rifles. The Latvians are probably worthy of half an episode just to themselves, but in summary they were a unit of Latvians that were the premiere unit in the early Red Army and they would play a role in the fighting all over Russia, including within Latvia itself. As the Red army grew in strength the Czechs, now joined by other groups of non-Russians, were pushed back towards the East. This fighting continued, with the Czechs supporting White troops all along the length of the Trans-Siberian railway until eventually what remained of the Czechs were evacuated from Vladivostok in 1920. Many of them would then find their way home and play a role in later fighting in the newly ormed Czechoslovakia.
After the treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the exit of Russia from the war the Bolsheviks would still have 3 years of conflict in front of them as they tried to gain control of the country, or what was left of it. This was an entire war that was subsidiary to the First World War, and one that I will not go into too deeply. The British, French, Americans, and Japanese would all play a role, with troops from all of those countries being sent to the country during 1918 to assist the White forces against the growing Red Army. Even many German units would find themselves entangled in the struggles for power in the Baltic states after the war. Unfortunately for all of the civilians in all of the land from Poland to the Pacific the Great War was just the beginning of what turned into almost a decade of struggle and death. On the other side of that struggle they had to look forward to the creation of the Soviet Union, and for some groups within Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Baltics, rule by the Soviets would be just as traumatic as all of those years of war.