Winning the Peace, Losing The War – The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk & German Empire In the East

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.

Russian delegates who negotiated the treaty arrive at Brest-Litovsk where they are greeted by German officers

Russian delegates who negotiated the treaty arrive at Brest-Litovsk where they are greeted by German officers

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.

By the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk the Germans gained areas of Eastern Europe that had formerly been part of the Russian Empire - these areas had approximately 55 million people, 90% of Russia coal mines and a quarter of its industry

By the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk the Germans gained areas of Eastern Europe that had formerly been part of the Russian Empire – these areas had approximately 55 million people, 90% of Russia coal mines and a quarter of its industry

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.

Without History or Memory – The Battle of Lake Naroch

To both western and eastern Europeans, the Battle of Lake Naroch does not exist. Knowledge at best is limited to a few obsessive World War I aficionados squirreled away in a campus basement of the Russian studies department. At best, they might mention the battle as one of many examples for the gross mismanagement of the war by the Russian Empire.

For those unfamiliar with the Battle of Lake Naroch, it occurred in late March of 1916. The Russian Empire had been asked by their allies, specifically the French, to relieve the massive pressure being placed upon it by the German attack on Verdun. The Russians were not exactly in the best shape to mount an offensive at this time.  They were suffering from an acute shell shortage while in the process of recovering from the defeat inflicted upon them in the Gorlice-Tarnow campaign the previous year. Nevertheless, they agreed to an operation which would draw German forces away from Verdun to the Eastern Front.

Lake Naroch

Lake Naroch

The Worst Time of the Year
Too say that early spring was not the best time of the year for the Russians to stage an offensive would be an understatement. Actually, it is hard to imagine a worse time in western Russia to mount an offensive than the late winter/early spring. This is when the annual thaw takes place. After long, bitter months of cold, the first hints of spring arrive in fits and starts. The frozen ground begins to slowly dissolve into a watery muck. Lake Naroch is located in what is today western Belarus, an area known for its swampy, marsh laden ground. The slush filled muck which materializes each spring brings impassable conditions. Add to this, the fact that Russian roads were notoriously awful, little more than vague tracks in many places. Even good metaled roads would disappear beneath an icy syrup of muddy water. Offensive operations in this environment were nearly impossible.

The Germans opposing the Russians on the Eastern Front understood this. The common Russian soldier who experienced this wasteland first hand must have realized this as well. Unfortunately, the Russian leadership did not. Tsar Nicholas II felt that it was important to support his allies no matter what the cost (this was part of the reason he would lose his throne). The Russian commanders at the front were neither resourceful nor logical. They treated the brave, peasant soldiery with contempt and felt no compassion for these men. This led to one of the worst disasters in a Russian war effort that was filled with them.

German World War 1 bunker on the shores of Lake Naroch

German World War 1 bunker on the shores of Lake Naroch

Five Times the Casualties
The strategy and tactics of the Battle of Lake Naroch need not detain us for long. A few telling details and anecdotes will suffice. Consider that Russian forces outnumbered their German counterparts by three and a half to one, but sustained five times the casualties. Five times! On the very first day of the battle, the Russians lost 4,000 men compared to 200 for the Germans. How did this happen? During the day, Russian soldiers assaulted German positions defended with heavy artillery and machine guns that were calibrated with deadly accuracy. The Russian soldiers did not so much assault as wade into battle. At times, they were up to their wastes in frigid water. Then at night, temperatures would plunge below freezing, cementing the troops to the ground. Companies froze in place and had to be cut out of the ice. They were riven with frostbite. The official figure of 100,000 wounded for the Russians is only a rough approximation. There was no accounting for those who due to hypothermia, frostbite or sickness were rendered useless.

Swallowed by Space and Time
The Battle of Lake Naroch was a disaster, but a relatively unknown one. It could be called “missing history,” as it falls into an abyss of space and time unique to Russia. It was swallowed in the vast spaces of the Eastern Front, where large battles with untold casualties took place. Much of this has been lost to history, as historical consciousness has never really grasped the sheer breadth and brutality of this front. Lost in that space as well, a vast sea of humanity that drowned or froze in the marshes, swamps and slate gray waters of Lake Naroch.

The battle was also lost in time, as it was swept away by the whirlwind of the Bolshevik Revolution. The valor and tragedy so indicative of the Russian soldiers experience in the First World War at battles such as Lake Naroch was eventually written out of the history books. According to the Bolsheviks, these imperialist forces were fighting for the wrong cause, not one worth dying for. Yet the Bolsheviks failed to mention that without the folly of this war, without those men wading into those icy waters, there would have been no revolution.

Missing History
Perhaps the Battle of Lake Naroch is most notable today for what it represents, as opposed to what actually occurred. It represents the folly of war, good men dying for a lost cause. The battle also represents a Russia today – the largest nation in the world – that can be searched across all eight of its times zones, but does not have one official monument to the eight million men who died fighting in the First World War. Now that is truly “missing history.” What a shame that the Battle of Lake Naroch is unknown to the west, what an even greater tragedy that it is unknown to Russia.