Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk ended hostilities between Russia and Germany, giving Germany a break from a two-front war and the Soviet Communist regime in Russia a chance to organize.

Summary of Event

Since 1914, Germany had been conducting a two-front war. The eastern front was the war between Germany and Russia. By 1917, Czar Nicholas II was in personal command of the army, since all his officers had deserted him. There was growing unrest in Russia: Vladimir Ilich Lenin led the Bolsheviks in advocating overthrow of the Romanov Dynasty and the establishment of a Marxist government in Russia. (Lenin and his followers’ agitation originated outside Russia, because the leaders were in exile.) The soldiers and people of Russia were tired of war and the Bolsheviks promised that if they were in power, they would end the war immediately. Brest-Litovsk, Treaty of (1918)[Brest Litovsk, Treaty of]
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[kw]Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (Mar. 3, 1918)
[kw]Brest-Litovsk, Treaty of (Mar. 3, 1918)[Brest Litovsk, Treaty of (Mar. 3, 1918)]
[kw]Litovsk, Treaty of Brest- (Mar. 3, 1918)
Brest-Litovsk, Treaty of (1918)[Brest Litovsk, Treaty of]
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[g]Belarus;Mar. 3, 1918: Treaty of Brest-Litovsk[04500]
[g]Germany;Mar. 3, 1918: Treaty of Brest-Litovsk[04500]
[g]Russia;Mar. 3, 1918: Treaty of Brest-Litovsk[04500]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Mar. 3, 1918: Treaty of Brest-Litovsk[04500]
[c]World War I;Mar. 3, 1918: Treaty of Brest-Litovsk[04500]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar. 3, 1918: Treaty of Brest-Litovsk[04500]
Lenin, Vladimir Ilich
[p]Lenin, Vladimir Ilich;Treaty of Brest-Litovsk
Trotsky, Leon
Kühlmann, Richard von
Hoffmann, Max
Joffe, Adolf
Ludendorff, Erich
Hindenburg, Paul von
Nicholas II

Meanwhile, Germany was being overstretched in its attempts to defend both fronts. General Max Hoffmann had eighty divisions under his command, and while he was engaged in a great deal of political maneuvering, the Soviet troops piled their weapons and began to consort with the idle German soldiers. During the confusion that followed the Russian czar’s overthrow and the establishment of the provisional government, Germany did not attack the idle troops for two reasons. By treating the enemy gently, the Germans were likely to receive a bid for peace from Petrograd. This strategy would also allow them to conserve the German troops for the western front.

In an attempt to continue its war aims by signing a separate peace with one of the Entente powers and end a war on at least one front, Germany agreed to allow Lenin to return from exile in what became known as the infamous “sealed train,” which carried Lenin and his party from Switzerland to Finland via Germany. Germany agreed to allow Lenin through their country in the hope that he would soon gain power and fulfill his promise of ending the war. The Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd on November 6-7, 1917, and had gained control of much of European and Asiatic Russia by the following spring. Lenin published his “Decree on Peace” on November 8, proposing a three-month armistice and negotiations for a general settlement without annexations or indemnities.

On December 2, the Bolshevik Armistice Delegation passed through German lines to enter Brest-Litovsk. Heading the Russian delegation was Adolf Joffe. General Hoffmann led the German team. At the peace table, the difference in power was evident among the representatives of each government. Germany sent elegant diplomatic and grimly correct military staff officers to the table, while Russia sent unkempt, bearded peasants and workers of the soviets. In fact, the Russian delegation included only one military adviser. Lenin was trying to gain political clout by including representatives of each strata—except the aristocracy—at the talks, including a woman, Madame Anastasia Bizenko. On December 15, Russia signed a separate cease-fire with the Central Powers at Brest-Litovsk, where peace negotiations began a week later. The Russians presented a six-point plan for peace without annexations or indemnities, which the Central Powers accepted with reservations on Christmas Day on the condition that the Allies should do the same.

The Allied response to the negotiations in Brest-Litovsk was confused. The French were convinced that an “eastern barrier” of nations, declaring their independence from Imperial Russia, would counterbalance the power of Germany. The British, on the other hand, believed that drawing Austria into a separate peace with the Allies, with the assistance of the United States, would cause the downfall of the German coalition. For the most part, the Allies condemned the plan, with President Woodrow Wilson stating his Fourteen Points and Prime Minister David Lloyd George making a fiery speech to rouse the English nation.

From the German perspective, if the Allies could not be drawn into negotiations based on no annexations and the prewar status quo, a separate peace with Russia would allow the Germans to reach Paris and force the West to negotiate. The German leadership, however, was caught in a power struggle between the German high command, as represented by General Erich Ludendorff and Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg, and Richard von Kühlmann, the German emperor’s adviser on foreign policy. Ludendorff believed that the Russians could be overwhelmed by a display of force by the German troops, allowing Germany to annex more land, and forced to sign the treaty on German terms. Kühlmann, the civilian adviser in charge of foreign policy, wanted to sign the treaty in order to release the troops to the western front.

On January 5, 1918, after the Allied response, the Central Powers declared the plan null and void and imposed their own plan on Russia in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Leon Trotsky, one of the leaders of the Bolshevik regime, personally headed the Russian delegation when negotiations began again on January 9. When the Central Powers signed a separate peace treaty with representatives of the Rada parliament of Ukraine one month later, Trotsky walked out of the conference, declaring unilaterally that hostilities were ended, but refusing to accept Germany’s terms. This was Russia’s famous slogan of No War, No Peace. This brought the internal conflict between Kühlmann and the German high command to a head.

Kühlmann wished to accept the no war, no peace scenario and continue to fight against the Allies on the western front. He believed that continuing the assault into Russia would lead to the same results that Napoleon experienced and would stretch the German forces to the breaking point. Hindenburg and Ludendorff insisted on an imposed peace in the hope of uniting Germany and perhaps toppling the Bolshevik regime in Russia. Hindenburg and Ludendorff won the support of the emperor and proceeded to call Trotsky’s bluff by resuming the German advances into Russia on February 18, 1918.

German forces advanced almost at will. The Central Power’s new terms required Russia to yield sovereignty over territory west of the line from the Gulf of Riga to Brest-Litovsk, including Poland, Courland, and Lithuania. In the south, Russia would evacuate the districts of Kars, Ardahan, and Batum to Turkish overrule. Russia would also give up all rights to the Ukraine and Finland. On March 3, 1918, in order to save the Bolshevik regime, Lenin was forced to accept terms for Russia worse than those they had previously rejected in February. Russia’s loss in human life, territory, and prestige was horrendous. Russia lost more than 30 percent of its former lands and more than fifty-five million people by accepting these terms. Russia also lost nearly all of its iron ore and coal resources. Lenin’s justification was that this was breathing space until Russia could recover its strength. Although the “no war, no peace” cry was the beginning of Trostky’s downfall, Lenin emerged from this treaty in a stronger political position.


The immediate consequences of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk were the civil wars that broke out in Finland and Russia. These wars promoted Allied “intervention” into Russia and Finland in 1918 as part of an undeclared war between the Reds and the Whites (Bolshevik forces and Royalist-Provisional forces), with the Allies supporting the Whites.

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was an unqualified disaster for all parties, but the consequences of the negotiations lingered into the late twentieth century. Wilson’s Fourteen Points became the basis of the American commitment to European affairs and the basis for the establishment of the League of Nations, the forerunner to the United Nations. Wilson also stated that nationality should be a factor in determining a nation’s borders, with some references to the Balkans. These points became the basis of the armistice that was signed with Germany at the end of World War I. Brest-Litovsk, Treaty of (1918)[Brest Litovsk, Treaty of]
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Further Reading

  • Farrar, L. L. Divide and Conquer: German Efforts to Conclude a Separate Peace, 1914-1918. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978. Interesting German perspective detailing German efforts to shatter the entente by concluding a separate peace with one of its members.
  • Marshall, S. L. A. World War I. Boston: Mariner Books, 2001. Concise one-volume work that discusses the major events of World War I, with two excellent chapters on the consequences of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
  • Mayer, Arno J. Political Origins of the New Diplomacy, 1917-1918. New York: Howard Fertig, 1969. Investigates the war aims of the various nations involved based on military stalemate, the Russian Revolution, and the American intervention and the creation of the New Diplomacy in world politics.
  • Riasanovsky, Nicholas V., and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. 7th ed. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. A broad overview of Russian history from its beginnings through the end of the twentieth century. Includes maps, photographs, and index.
  • Service, Robert. Lenin: A Biography. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2000. Authoritative and well-rounded biography uses information recently available from Soviet archives to shed new light on Lenin. Includes illustrations, map, glossary of names, select bibliography, and index.
  • Stevenson, David. The First World War and International Politics. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1988. While probing the political dynamics of World War I, this work contains an excellent chapter on the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and its consequences.
  • Wheeler-Bennett, John W. Brest-Litovsk: The Forgotten Peace, March, 1918. London: Macmillan, 1963. Examines all aspects of the Brest-Litovsk negotiations and the long-term effects of the treaty.
  • Wilkinson, James, and H. Stuart Hughes. Contemporary Europe: A History. 9th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1997. An overview of European history from 1914 through the end of the twentieth century. Addresses the effects of the Russian Revolution on the rest of Europe. Good source of information on the political decisions made by European leaders in their dealings with the Russian governments. Includes excellent illustrations, maps, and index.

Formation of the Triple Entente

Outbreak of World War I

World War I

Ukrainian Nationalists Struggle for Independence

Lenin Leads the Russian Revolution

Bolsheviks Mount the October Revolution

Finland Gains Independence

Russian Civil War

Baltic States Gain Independence

Trotsky Is Sent into Exile