Anyone studying the causes of World War II soon finds themselves going back to the aftermath of the First World War. Specifically, the Paris Peace Conference which negotiated among other things the Treaty of Versailles, which set the terms of peace between the Allies and Germany. The German reaction to this so called “unjust peace” is well known. Among other things, Germany was forced to pay reparations for war damages. Humiliatingly, they also were forced to accept responsibility for the outbreak of the war. The treaty was used as propaganda by Hitler and the Nazis to build support for a campaign to redress what they considered a grievous wound to German pride. It was one of the leading causes of Germany’s disastrous entry into the Second World War.
The Seed of Self-Destruction
Less well known, but just as important was another treaty that was negotiated not after, but during the First World War, this was the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. It was this treaty which led the Germans to their real doom in the Second World War. The treaty itself actually ended fighting on the Eastern Front, but it was actually just the beginning. The beginning of a much enlarged Germany that occupied all of Ukraine, the Baltic states and even part of Belorussia. This was in addition to Russian Poland, which the Germans already held. The German memory this resulting occupation lasted much longer than the occupation itself. Even though they were forced by the Allies to surrender these areas by the end of 1918, the German interest in expansionism to the East had been piqued. They would be back with a vengeance in less than twenty-five years.
When Hitler stated that the German people needed living space, he knew where they could acquire it, in the east, by taking it from the Slavs. This treaty and its results have often been overlooked by historians. It actually sowed the seeds of destruction for the Third Reich. It led them on an eastern adventure from which they would never recover. It all came rather easily in 1917 and once again in 1941. These gains though, were ephemeral, historical mirages.
Trading Land For Peace
On the other hand, the Bolsheviks who initially gave up so much were the real winners of the peace.
The treaty was negotiated by a Bolshevik government whose main aim was to get out of the war at almost any cost. Lenin believed they could afford to surrender whole swathes of territory at the time. In his mind, the losses would be made up later. The Bolsheviks needed to consolidate the revolution in Russia first and cement Soviet power. After all, Bolshevism was going to foment a worldwide revolution, Germany would come later, the Soviet Union had to come first.
Following the treaty, the Bolsheviks were able to turn their attention back toward home. Eventually – in a very close call – they emerged victorious in the Russian Civil War. As for all the land they given up, much of it was handed back to them by the Allies. Sure they lost Poland, but it was now a republic which stood between Russia and Germany. The Germans would have to go through it first before they could get to the Soviet Union.
The World’s Largest Graveyard
Well the Germans did go through Poland and most of western Russia in the first three years of World War II, but all that land turned out to be a deadly lure. The Soviet Union was easy to invade and hard to conquer. What was conquered had to be occupied. Following Brest-Litovsk it took hundreds of thousands of soldiers to occupy these eastern lands, draining the lifeblood from the German Army. It was not much different in World War II, only worse. Not only did the Germans have to occupy the land, they also had to fight off a partisan insurgency fomented by Nazi racial policies. All of that land, all of that living space the Germans had acquired not once, but twice, became the world’s largest graveyard. On it died not only millions of soldiers, but also the German Empire and the Third Reich.
The Treaty of Versailles may have grievously wounded German pride, but the often overlooked Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was just as important. It displayed the true character of German imperialism. The Germans believed they were superior to their eastern neighbors, that it was their right to rule over them. First by treaty and then by arms they brought an occupation about. Both times it ended in disaster.