WWI Centennial: The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 303rd installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

MARCH 3, 1918: THE TREATY OF BREST-LITOVSK

After seizing power in November 1917, Bolshevik leaders including Lenin, Kamenev, and Zinoviev made it a top priority to end the war with the Central Powers, fulfilling one of the party’s key political promises (especially for millions of Russian soldiers, their most important constituency). But even these cynical apparatchiks, who claimed to harbor no illusionary nationalist sentiments, found that making peace was easier said than done.

Bolshevik negotiators first sat down with their opposite numbers at Brest-Litovsk during an armistice declared in December 1917, but were just as reluctant as the previous, short-lived republic to give up the huge chunks of territory demanded by Germany and its allies as the price of peace. Instead lead negotiator Trotsky, who opposed major territorial concessions, proclaimed his slogan “no war, no peace,” signaling his plan to use equivocation and delay to drag out negotiations until the Central Powers either agreed to compromise or, hopefully, succumbed to the worldwide communist revolution the Bolsheviks were sure was imminent.

However, German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff was in no position to dally, as he urgently needed to free up around a million troops for his planned spring offensive on the Western Front, aiming to defeat Britain and France before American troops began to arrive in substantial numbers. After signing separate peace treaties with Ukraine, the Baltic states, and Finland, in February 1918 the impatient Germans reopened the offensive against the dissolving Russian Army, brushing aside what few pockets of resistance remained and threatening to take even more territory than they had demanded in peace negotiations—and quite possibly toppling the Soviet regime while they were at it.

Realizing they now faced an existential threat, Lenin dismissed the objections of Bolshevik colleagues including Trotsky and Bukharin and their allies in the Left Socialist Revolutionaries (Left SR), arguing that their main goal had to be consolidating power in Russia, even if it meant giving up huge amounts of territory to the Central Powers. With Petrograd itself now under threat, in late February Lenin finally carried the day with a majority vote in the Bolshevik central committee (albeit by the thinnest of margins).

The result was the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed on March 3, 1918 in the city of the same name—one of the most punitive peace agreements in history, in which the Russians gave up Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, the latter divided into Courland and Livonia (top, the treaty translated into five different languages). Supposedly independent, all these new nations actually became German satellite states, as reflected in the fact that several “invited” Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II to assume the throne in a “personal union.”

Europe on March 1, 1918
Erik Sass

Brest-Litovsk also rewarded Germany’s allies, though more modestly: Austria-Hungary received part of Ukraine and a guarantee of Ukrainian food supplies, staving off starvation in the Dual Monarchy at least temporarily, while in the Caucasus the Ottoman Empire won back the lost province of Kars, Batum and Ardahan. The Turks also helped themselves to Azerbaijan, giving the Ottoman Empire access via the Caspian Sea to the Turkic homeland in Russia’s former Central Asian provinces, another step toward fulfilling Enver Pasha’s dream of “Pan-Turanism,” or reuniting the Turkic peoples under Ottoman leadership. The Turks immediately set about occupying the ceded areas and other territory as well, soon spelling the end of the short-lived Transcaucasian Federation, which had refused to recognize the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. However, the Turks and Germans couldn’t agree who would get Georgia (so it went to the stronger Germans, who took Crimea and sent troops to occupy Georgia via the Black Sea in May-June 1918).

The treaty was a body blow for Russia, as the Central Powers intended, marginalizing and isolating the vast eastern realm from the rest of Europe and forcing it back on its sparsely populated Siberian hinterland. Among other losses, the ceded territories included over a quarter of the Russian Empire’s prewar population, half of its industrial production, and almost 90 percent of its active coalmines, as well as vital rail hubs and the Ukrainian breadbasket, one of the most fertile agricultural areas on Earth. In fact, the economic clauses of the treaty allowed German business interests to take over much of the Russian economy’s private sector and exempted them from the Bolsheviks’ sweeping
“nationalization” of Russian industry and commerce.

Unsurprisingly, the humiliating treaty was deeply unpopular in Russia, as attested by the fact that none of the Bolshevik leadership wanted to accept responsibility for it—Trotsky gave up his position as foreign minister to avoid signing it—as well as the decision by the Bolsheviks’ Left SR allies to resign from the Sovnarkom, the Soviet governing body, in protest. However, the Russian Army had basically ceased to exist while Allied offers to help the Bolsheviks resurrect the Eastern Front, perhaps with the help of freed Czech POWs in the Czech Legion, were too little, too late, so there was no one to resist the steady advance of the Central Powers’ forces into the ceded areas.

The treaty, which made Russia into a German client state and freed the Germans to focus on the Western Front, marked the final rupture between the Allies and Lenin’s Bolsheviks, who had already alienated France and Britain by repudiating around $6.5 billion of foreign debt accumulated by the former Tsarist regime as well as the Provisional Government and the Republic. The Bolsheviks, who renamed themselves the Communist Party on March 8, deepened the rift with propaganda and financial support for revolutionary subversion around the world, inciting soldiers to mutiny and encouraging local communist movements to overthrow the governments of the Allies and Central Powers alike (the Germans were particularly incensed that Bolshevik agitation continued uninterrupted despite the peace treaty).

For their part the Bolsheviks still distrusted German intentions, fearing the erstwhile foe might yet decide to topple the Soviet regime, which was, after all, openly plotting revolution in Germany. Thus on March 9, 1918 the Bolsheviks relocated the Soviet capital from vulnerable Petrograd to more distant Moscow, the medieval seat of Russian power, symbolically undoing Peter the Great’s mission to make Russia part of Europe along the way.

Like the rest of Russia Moscow was in the grips of chaos, but the Bolsheviks, safe behind the massive stone walls of the Kremlin, didn’t seem to mind, according to Pitrim Sorokin, a moderate socialist politician who described conditions in the new (old) capital:

"Throngs of refugees pouring into the town, Bolshevist officials trying to force communist doctrines on people who abhor them, peasants illegally bringing in and selling food and bread, and thereby saving the population from starvation, wrangling politicians and intellectuals, all these, together with the excited masses, give the impression of a furiously boiling pot. Many houses have been burned, many more damaged, many walls marked with bullets and bombs … Something had to be done to stay the hand of destruction, and quickly, for the morale of the populace was beginning to break down. Crazed with hunger, peasants and workers had already begun to strike, riot, and plunder. The Bolsheviki did nothing to restore peace."

In March, Sorokin and his wife tried to leave Moscow for a quieter town on the Volga, but met a typical scene that has come to symbolize the chaos of the Russian Civil War:

"At the station nobody could tell us when the train would start, but a huge crowd was waiting to rush it as soon as it arrived. After seven hours it rolled into the station, and then ensued a spectacle quite indescribable. The whole enormous crowd rushed madly forward, jamming, pressing, fighting, shrieking, climbing one man on top of another, and finally seizing places, in the train, on top of the wagons, on the platforms between wagons, and even on the brake beams underneath. As for my wife and me, we got no places at all, but were obliged to go back to our lodgings."

Conditions elsewhere were little better and often much worse, as the Bolsheviks and their White foes together unleashed a reign of terror against enemies real and imagined across Russia. The Bolshevik regime’s campaign of mass murder was excused by emergency decrees originally issued during the renewed German offensive, ordering Red Guards and the new cheka secret police to execute suspected enemy agents on the spot without trial, let alone a right of appeal.

Although the Red Terror didn’t officially begin until September 1918, mass executions were already commonplace by the spring of that year; ultimately the communist regime would execute around 200,000 alleged traitors, former Tsarist officials, and “class enemies” before the terror ended in 1920. The female soldier Maria Bochkareva, better known as Yashka, who narrowly escaped execution in early 1918, described one killing field where the Bolsheviks had murdered scores of political opponents and other undesirables:

"We were led out from the car, all of us in our undergarments. A few hundred feet away was the field of slaughter. There were hundreds upon hundreds of human bodies heaped there … We were surrounded and taken toward a slight elevation of ground, and place in a line with our backs toward the hill. There were corpses behind us, in front of us, to our left, to our right, at our very feet. There were at least a thousand of them. The scene was a horror of horrors. We were suffocated by the poisonous stench. The executioners did not seem to mind so much. They were used to it."

On this occasion Bochkareva was saved by a mid-ranking communist official who pulled her out of the lineup at the last minute; she would later be executed by the Bolsheviks in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia on May 16, 1920.

The anti-Bolshevik Whites committed very similar atrocities in areas they controlled. Forcing prisoners to disrobe before they were shot seems to have been a favored tactic to humiliate and dehumanize them on both sides, although the executioners may also simply have wanted warm coats and boots for themselves. Eduard Dune, a Latvian volunteer in the Red Guard, remembered coming across a mass grave where White partisans had murdered scores of prisoners:

"They pointed to a little hillock in the distance, saying that it was the mass grave of our men. None of the wounded had been taken prisoner; there were only dead men … Somehow I couldn’t believe a man could kill an unarmed prisoner, still less one who was wounded … On one occasion the special train did stop between two stations after we noticed three corpses tied to a pillar with telephone wire. Their bodies were covered with blood, and they were dressed in their underpants and sailors’ striped undershirts."

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

15 Incredible Monuments That Honor American Soldiers

Getty
Getty

Memorial Day honors the brave men and women who have given their lives in the nation’s armed forces. One fitting way to recognize that sacrifice is to visit a monument dedicated to their service. Though many monuments honoring U.S. veterans are located in Washington, D.C. or Arlington, Virginia, there are memorial sites to visit around the world, each offering a beautiful and distinctive tribute.

1. Tomb of the Unknown Soldier // Arlington, Virginia

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington, Virginia
iStock/sharrocks

No one knows for sure which American soldier rests under the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. The unidentified soldier died in France while fighting a World War I battle, and his remains were interred at the site of the Washington, D.C. monument in 1921. The unidentified soldier was chosen to represent the many American soldiers who lost their lives during World War I. Engraved on the snow-white marble tomb are the words, “Here rests in honored glory, an American soldier known but to God.” Eventually, an unknown soldier from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War were also interred (though the Vietnam soldier was eventually identified and moved by his family to a cemetery in St. Louis).

2. The National World War II Memorial // Washington, D.C.

National World War II Memorial, Washington, D.C.
iStock/NoDeRog

The National World War II Memorial, which opened in 2004, honors the 16 million members of the U.S. armed forces who served during World War II, the more than 400,000 soldiers who died, and the civilians who worked at home to support the war effort. The entrance to the Washington, D.C. memorial features 24 bronze bas-relief panels illustrating how the war affected the lives of those who fought and those who waited for soldiers to return. A wall of more than 4000 gold stars pays tribute to the lives lost, and 56 granite columns noting U.S. states and territories, split into two-half circles, encompass a pool fitted with fountains.

3. The Korean War Veterans Memorial // Washington, D.C.

Korean War Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C.
iStock/Png-Studio

The Korean War Veterans Memorial is an outdoor monument located near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. It commemorates the sacrifices of the 5.8 million Americans who served in the U.S. armed forces during the three-year Korean War. During that period 54,246 Americans died and 103,284 were wounded. The memorial is distinctive because of the 19 larger-than-life stainless steel statues of poncho-clad soldiers that occupy a triangular field, as well as for the black granite memorial wall covered in etchings of National Archives photos.

4. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial // Washington, D.C.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C.
iStock/vmbfoto

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial pays tribute to those soldiers who were killed or went missing in action during the Vietnam War. The memorial consists of three parts: The Memorial Wall, the bronze Vietnam Women’s Memorial, and The Three Soldiers statue. The wall is actually two walls that stretch almost 300 feet and contain 58,000 names, according to the date of casualty. The Women’s Memorial honors the 265,000 women who served, many of whom were nurses. The Three Soldiers shows the camaraderie between soldiers from different backgrounds while serving their tours of duty.

5. The Marine Corps Memorial // Arlington, Virginia

Marine Corps Memorial Iwo Jima Statue, Arlington, Virginia
iStock/FrozenShutter

The Marine Corps Memorial, also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial, does not pay tribute to a specific war but rather the dedication of Marine Corps members. The bronze statue at this monument may be the most famous and easily recognizable of all U.S. war memorials. It is modeled on a photograph of six soldiers who raised an American flag at Iwo Jima in 1945, an action that symbolized the end of World War II. The memorial is dedicated to the Marines lost in all U.S. wars, as well as those who served with them. The base of the memorial lists every major battle that Marines have fought in.

6. The National Memorial Arch // King of Prussia, Pennsylvania

National Memorial Arch, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania
iStock/Delmas Lehman

The National Memorial Arch commemorates the difficult winter endured by General George Washington and his Revolutionary War forces when camped at Valley Forge. Paul Philippe Cret’s design for the 60-foot high arch was inspired by an arch built for the ancient Roman emperor Titus. Located in Valley Forge National Historical Park, the arch was dedicated in June 1917. Inscribed at the top is a quote from George Washington which refers to the winter his troops spent there: “Naked and starving as they are, we cannot enough admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of the soldiery.”

7. The Air Force Memorial // Arlington, Virginia

Air Force Memorial, Arlington, Virginia
iStock/hillwoman2

The Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Virginia honors the service not only of the men and women of the United States Air Force, but also the Aeronautical Division and Aviation Section of the U.S. Signal Corps and all other aeronautics and air corps services. The memorial’s design evokes images of flight, and the stainless steel spires glisten on sunny days and are illuminated by individual light sources at night. At the west entrance, statues of two soldiers stand guard, symbolizing patriotism and power.

8. African American Civil War Memorial // Washington, D.C.

African American Civil War Memorial, Arlington, Virginia
Gareth Milner, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

During the Civil War, more than 200,000 African-American soldiers served in the United States Colored Troops. The African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C. tells the story of these 19th-century heroes and commemorates their service with a bronze statue titled "The Spirit of Freedom." The memorial also includes a curved wall inscribed with the names of the men who fought in the war. The accompanying museum’s African American Civil War Memorial Registry documents the family trees of more than 2000 descendants of the people who served.

9. The Women in Military Service for America Memorial // Arlington, Virginia

Women in Military Service for America Memorial, Arlington, Virginia
Carol M. Highsmith, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Women In Military Service For America Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, honors the 3 million women who helped defend the nation during its almost 250-year history. The memorial honors their service with exhibits, film, and a Memorial Register, which preserves the stories of more than 258,000 women. The memorial features a neoclassical curved retaining wall, a reflecting pool, and an education center, where a roof of glass tablets is inscribed with quotes by and about the women who defended their country. The memorial was dedicated in 1997.

10. The American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial // Washington, D.C.

American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial
iStock/amedved

The American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial in Washington D.C. is the first national memorial dedicated solely to disabled veterans. Leaving the battlefield alive did not mean the battle was over for many American servicemen and women—more than 4 million veterans have been injured in the line of duty, and those injuries can profoundly affect their post-service lives. The memorial's 48 etched-glass panels display the stories of these soldiers. At the center of the memorial, which opened in 2014, is a star-shaped fountain and triangular infinity pool, which constantly recycles water. A ceremonial flame stands at the core of the memorial that is located just east of the U.S. Capitol Building and the Botanic Gardens.

11. The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument // Brooklyn, New York

Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, Brooklyn, New York
iStock/Alex Potemkin

The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument may not be one of the best known of the nation’s memorials, but it honors the 11,500 American prisoners of war who died aboard British war ships during the Revolutionary War. Some of the prisoners who died under the terrible shipboard conditions are buried underneath the monument. The monument’s granite Doric column was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, who designed both Manhattan's Central Park and Brooklyn's Prospect Park. The 100-foot column stands in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and was dedicated in 1908.

12. Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial // Colleville-sur-Mer, France

Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, France
iStock/Edward Haylan

Some impressive monuments to the service of America’s soldiers can also be found in other countries. France has a total of 11 cemeteries and monuments dedicated to the service of U.S. soldiers, and the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer is located on a bluff overlooking one of the Normandy beaches that U.S. troops landed on during the Normandy invasion. The 172.5-acre cemetery contains the graves of 9387 soldiers, many of whom lost their lives on D-Day. The memorial has a semicircular colonnade with a bronze statue in the center called the "Spirit of American Youth Rising From the Waves." A garden to the east features inscriptions of the names of 1557 soldiers who lost their lives during the Normandy campaign but could not be found or identified.

13. Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial // Margraten, Netherlands

The 65.5-acre Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial is located in Margraten on the route German troops used to retreat after U.S. forces liberated the Netherlands. The memorial features a tall tower facing a reflecting pool. At the base of the tower is a statue of a mourning woman that represents the losses suffered during war. Visitor buildings feature engraved military operations maps, a Court of Honor with a reflecting pool, and Tablets of the Missing, which has 1722 names. The burial area is the resting place for 8301 of the nation’s military members.

14. United Nations Memorial Park // Busan, South Korea

United Nations Memorial Park, Busan, South Korea
iStock/Im Yeongsik

The United Nations Memorial Park in the South Korean city of Busan was dedicated in 2013. The memorial park contains 2300 graves of service members from 11 countries. Altogether, 1.7 million U.S. military personnel served during the Korean War, and although 33,739 died in battle, most were reinterred in the United States. Only 36 graves of U.S. soldiers remain in Busan; the American monument on the site reads, “This monument is to the American men and women who gave their lives in defense of the freedom of the Republic of Korea 1950-1953.” The park’s main gate, dedicated in 1966, illustrates the concept of Earthly life growing toward heaven.

15. The Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial // Cambridge, UK

The Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial honors the service of U.S. soldiers in during World War II and was dedicated in 1956. Notable Americans buried or memorialized there include Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., the older brother of President John F. Kennedy, and musician Glenn Miller. The curved cemetery has 3809 headstones, and the wide mall of reflecting pools has a chapel. A new visitor’s center, which opened in 2014, offers information about air campaigns carried out during the war, including two large marble maps laying out military plans.

Remains of World War II Soldier From Texas Finally Identified Nearly 75 Years After His Death

Lexey Swall/Getty Images
Lexey Swall/Getty Images

More than 400,000 American service members died in World War II, and decades after the war's end in 1945, more than 72,000 of them remain unaccounted for. As the Associated Press reports, the remains of one World War II soldier who died in battle 74 years ago were recently identified in a Belgian American cemetery.

Private first class army member John W. Hayes, originally from Estelline, Texas, was fighting for the Allied Powers in Belgium in early 1945. According to witnesses, he was killed by an 88mm gun on a German tank on January 4. The military recorded no evidence of his remains being recovered.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, a government organization responsible for recovering missing soldiers, suspected that an unidentified body found near the site of Hayes's death and buried in 1948 might be Hayes. In 2018, the agency exhumed the body from a Belgian American military cemetery and analyzed the DNA. Tests confirmed that the grave had indeed been that of John W. Hayes. Now that Hayes has been identified, his body will be transported to Memphis, Texas, and reinterred there on June 19.

Thanks to advances in genetic technology, the government has successfully identified the dozens of World War II military members decades after their deaths. Recently, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency used DNA analysis to identify 186 of the sailors and marines who perished at Pearl Harbor.

[h/t MyHighPlains.com]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER