The Brest-Litovsk and Versailles peace treaties were two sides of the same coin for Germany. Germany imposed the Brest-Litovsk Treaty on the Soviets and then had onerous conditions imposed on them at Versailles. There are remarkable similarities in the two treaties. Both involved huge territorial losses and reparations. Germany extorted food reparations, which were desperately needed because of Britain’s naval blockade and reparations of six billion marks. Likewise the Allies extorted cash and territory at Versailles. Territorial demands were enforced but only Germany’s overseas losses were permanent. Neither treaty was successful. They failed because neither the Soviets or Germany were crushed and occupied. Brest-Litovsk illustrates the hypocrisy of Germany’s whining after Versailles.
The Soviets were a military basket case in 1918. Germany didn’t so much win as turn up and announce victory. The Germans imposed onerous conditions at Brest-Litovsk. Trotsky’s resistance was brushed aside and he signed in March 1918. The Soviets’ territorial losses (see map above) were so great that German aristocrats fantasised about new kingdoms.1 The newly independent Ukraine was forced to commit to providing a million tonnes of grain (but delivered only a 173,000 tonnes).2 Germany demanded six billion marks from Russia: an economic fantasy.3
Germany in March, 1918 wasn’t a military basket case. Brest-Litovsk released Germany’s eastern armies. Fifty divisions were transferred. March for the Spring Offensive, which was designed to achieve land a knock-out blow rectifying the mistakes of 1914.4 The advance petered out by late April, 1918 and failed during August (battle of Amiens). Defeat was due, in part, to the injection of two million enthusiastic Americans. Germany’s commanders drew the obvious conclusion. They calmly informed the Kaiser that Germany was defeated. After four years of horrific warfare they couldn’t expect mercy from the Allies.
The only participation the Germans had at Versailles was signing the treaty. The terms5 were fierce and they wanted to refuse like Trotsky 1918. France wanted revenge for 1914 and 1870. They were pleased when the Germans considered refusal taking that as an indicator that Versailles was sufficiently severe.
From the French point of view the USA were flaky. Woodrow Wilson was out of step with Britain and France so they side-stepped his idealistic aspirations. The French were intransigent at Versailles. Wilson agreed with confiscation of German overseas possessions, but wanted all Imperialism to cease (see above). Two clauses in the treaty irked Germany. Firstly war guilt and secondly reparations.
War guilt asserted Germany’s entire responsibility for the war, necessarily impling regime change. Consequently the Kaiser was exiled to Holland. For the French this was a soft option. They preferred hanging him as a war criminal. More important was the imposition of reparations.
After the hubristic Brest-Litovsk treaty, 1919 was Germany’s nadir. They suffered a natural disaster,6 the continuation of the British naval blockade,7 massive unemployment as soldiers were demobbed8 and the humiliation of the Versailles Treaty. Political unrest with the Spartacist Uprising, January 1919, adding to the catastrophe.9 And it seemed unfair. Germany hadn’t been invaded and, apparently, German armies were undefeated on the battlefield. Reparations impacted on every single German when Germany was prostrate. The sums were enormous10 but little effort was made to pay them.
Neither the Brest-Litovsk or Versailles peace treaties were fair. They were a punishment. They were a victors’ peace treaty. Germany were less embarrassed by Brest-Litovsk than the Allies were about Versailles. Indeed there was debate about the wisdom of Versailles whilst it was being concocted. Neither peace treaty achieved their objectives but they showed what not to do in 1945.
1 For example the Kaiser’s brother-in-law Friedrich Karl of Hesse wanted to be king of Finland and the Kaiser wanted a further kingdom in Courland. Further examples in Niall Ferguson The Pity of War p409
2 Adam Tooze The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of the Global Order p154
“In fact, ‘the remorseless, inescapable weight’ of reparations, Tooze decides, was ‘even more odious than the territorial provisions of the treaty. Unlike the loss of territory, which directly affected only the border regions, reparations touched every man, woman and child in Germany’ (pp. 280, 288–9).” Review article at https://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/1805
3 Niall Ferguson op cit p408 This was 4.5% of the amount (132 billion marks) the Allies demanded from Germany in 1919.
4 See http://olc.spsd.sk.ca/de/history20/unit1/sec1_04.html for a very quick summary. Bismarck devoted considerable effort at keeping France and Russia diplomatically apart so that Germany would never have to fight a two-front war.
5 See http://spartacus-educational.com/FWWversailles.htm for an interesting summary with a short discussion. See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Versailles for a longer treatment.
6 The Spanish Flu pandemic was especially bad in Germany. See https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4634693/ especially table 1. But as can be seen Germany wasn’t uniquely hit but nonetheless Germany felt that they were suffering an additional punishment.
7 The British naval blockade caused nearly half a million deaths by starvation and didn’t end until the end of 1919 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blockade_of_Germany
8 4.5 million German soldiers returned. This was also the number of wounded in the war alongside 1.75 million dead. http://spartacus-educational.com/FWWgermanA.htm
9 See http://weimarandnazigermany.co.uk/1919-spartacist-uprising/#.W37Q-fZFy70 In 1920 this was followed by the sinister Kapp Rebellion https://alphahistory.com/weimarrepublic/kapp-putsch/ They both failed but caused unease in the general population.
10 For a quick analysis see https://www.johndclare.net/EA7.htm