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The Sowing of Versailles

ISSUE:  Spring 1939

The Forgotten Peace. Brest-Litovsk, March, 1918. By John W. Wheeler-Bennett. New York: William Morrow and Company. $5.00.

That the Treaty of Versailles has been the worst of all treaties contracted seems to be a commonplace today. Undoubtedly, almost all the difficulties of these twenty years’ armistice can be traced back to its most unfortunate decisions. However, it is to Wheeler-Bennett’s credit that he reminds us of the forgotten peace of Brest-Litovsk, which in severity equals the Paris treaties and is second only to Versailles in its consequences for and repercussions in the post-War world.

Wheeler-Bennett presents for the first time a complete picture of the drama of Brest-Litovsk in “The Forgotten Peace.” His account is based on the official documents, on contemporary press reports, on the diaries, memoirs, and biographies of the leading actors, almost all of whom, in addition, the author interviewed during many years’ research. The result is an authentic and most dramatic story of the first peace negotiations of the World War. In fact, the book is much more than that. It grows into a precise and lively account of Russia’s war history and of Soviet-German relations up to their rupture of November, 1918, explaining the motives behind the diplomatic moves made by either side and establishing the very prominent place which the forgotten peace holds in world history.

There are unforgettable scenes in the book, such as “the spiritual wrestling matches” between the two leading figures, Baron von Kuhlmann and Trotsky, which infuriated the Austrian Count Czernin and the German General Hoffmann. The indefatigable Trotsky, master of dialectics, knew too well that “against the might of German militarism Russia had but one remaining weapon, the incalculable capacity of the Slav for interminable conversation.” And when General Hoffmann delivered a fiery speech to break the deadlock of the discursive bouts, Trotsky’s answer was “a lesson in elementary Marxism.” A sense of unreality pervaded the conference from the first resistance of the Bulgarians against the Soviet formula of “no-annexation” to the three-sided gladiatorial combat between the two Ukrainian delegations and the Russians. More important were the battles royal at the German General Headquarters in Bad Kreuz-nach, Homburg, and Berlin; the discussions at the Smolny Palace, the Bolshevik citadel in Petrograd, and above all, the crucial meeting of the Petrograd Soviets in February, 1918. Here the sober and realistic Lenin cut through the glitter of revolutionary belligerency—”Let us beware of becoming the slaves of our own phrases”—and finally won over the Central Committee to accept the “Tilsit Peace.”

But the importance of this book does not stop at its historical contribution. It is even more significant in showing the repercussions of these happenings leading up directly to the disturbing events of today. The negotiations of Brest-Litovsk, illustrating the impossibility of arriving at a “peace of understanding” with imperialistic Germany, were largely responsible for Wilson’s Fourteen Points. The peace in the Russian winter strengthened the Allied Powers’ “will to victory” and directly led to Versailles, as Radek prophesied.

Even more decisive was the effect of Brest-Litovsk on Bolshevist Russia, for which it meant a breathing spell. It was the psychology of Brest-Litovsk which, in ceding the Ukraine and the maritime provinces to the enemy, safeguarded the young revolution from external aggression. It was the first example of Lenin’s principle of strategic defeat which he again adopted in 1921 in declaring the New Economic Policy a “truce with capitalism.” Wheeler-Bennett interestingly suggests that the recent purges in Soviet Russia might find an explanation in such a return of old-guard Bolshevists to this very same psychology of Brest-Litovsk to safeguard the revolution against Stalin.

Another important feature of Soviet methods can be traced back to this early revolutionary time and especially to Brest-Litovsk: the “parallel diplomacy,” the convenient distinction between responsible government and irresponsible party. “For the behavior of the latter the Soviet government is not responsible.” It was this Bolshevist technique which Hitler’s Germany accepted many years later. Nazi Germany in many respects is not a child of Versailles, as a convenient legend usually puts it, but of Brest-Litovsk and its spirit. There is a close resemblance between Ludendorff’s ideas and those of Germany’s rulers today. In the days of Brest-Litovsk, Ludendorff wrote, “German prestige demands that we should hold a strong protecting hand, not only over German citizens, but all Germans.” This anticipated Hitler’s demands twenty years later to protect all German minorities. It meant at the same time a justification of “the drive toward the East” which we observe now. Most interesting in view of recent tendencies is the story of the Ukraine in the year 1918. It clearly showed that the separatist movement had no roots in the country and derived its power from the presence of German bayonets alone. General Pavlo Sko-ropadsky, installed as the hetman of the Ukraine in 1918, appears again as a candidate in the plans of a resurrected independent Ukraine today.

“The Forgotten Peace” adds to the already long shelf of publications by this historian of history in the making. Equipped with all the unique qualifications of Wheeler-Bennett’s earlier writings, such as his “Pipe Dream of Peace” and “Hindenburg,” it again shows his mastery of scientific techniques. It puts the historical events in the right perspective, thus giving a better understanding of political decisions today. Comprehensive and scholarly as an account, fascinating as a story, always well balanced and most suggestive in its interpretation, it is current history at its best.


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