Brest-Litovsk: Eastern Europe’s Forgotten Father
by Adrian Bonenberger
One of the greatest ballet dancers of the 20th century—perhaps ever—Vaslav Nijinsky was born to Polish parents in what is now Ukraine, was at the time Imperial Russia (and for a brief six-month period, was a puppet-state of Imperial Germany). He is supposed to have thought of himself as Polish, for whatever that’s worth. He married a Hungarian woman and raised his children as Polish. He spoke Russian.
One of the elements I find so extraordinary about Brest-Litovsk, personally, is the assumptions that the Germans made about how populations and peoples worked, what identity meant at the dawn of the 20th century. Although Germany had expended great military, financial, and political capital in annexing or expanding its influence at Russia’s expense—a fact that they hoped would be to Germany’s financial and political benefit—to the people who lived within that territory, Germany’s sovereignty must have seemed like a distant abstraction, a matter of architecture and linguistic preference. As intellectually similar and similarly modern as even the most cosmopolitan people of that time were to people today, they were, nevertheless, different—there was a kind of existential freedom to choose one’s path, to pick an identity, rather than having it forced upon one.
Travelling in the ruins of Ukraine’s east today, the shuttered factories and empty industrial streets, it’s impossible to overstate how much ethnic nationalism has played a determinative role in shaping how people think about themselves, and how they think about others. There are countries, now, in places that there had not been before for many years—Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Finland, the Baltic States—Germany’s sundering of European Imperial Russia helped lay the groundwork for those countries, but also for how people think about themselves within those countries.
In this respect, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk is the moment the old world falls apart and creates space for the new to arise. Imperial Russia had resisted giving Ukraine its autonomy, but after Brest-Litovsk and a brutal war, Russia ended up making Ukraine and Belarus independent S.S.R.s in their own rights (it did the same before and then after World War II with the Baltic States.
There is a kind of story about individuals that gets written during the late 19th century and early 20th century that is recognizably modern in the sense that people have interior dialogues and make choices about their lives independent of their external circumstances; those characters, like Hardy’s Tess or Jude or Hemingway’s male protagonists, are nevertheless crushed by the systems that exist around them. The stories I love that come later in the 20th century—those by David Foster Wallace, Margaret Atwood, Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson—all include characters that are defined by their circumstances in ways that earlier characters are trapped. In a world where one can be born into a place that locks in something important about one’s identity, choice takes on a very different quality than it did in the Europe that predated WWI.
There’s an apocryphal story about Nijinsky as an old man. Having apparently lost the power to speak Russian during WWII, he encountered Russian soldiers in post-war Vienna dancing and playing folk instruments. He joined them, and astounded them with his dancing prowess, then settled down to drink with them and carouse, regaining his ability to speak. I like this story very much, because of what it says about what’s important to people, or, at least, what’s important to the type of person Nijinsky was (a cosmopolitan person with cosmopolitan values).
Where that world of possibility ended
The future of Eastern Europe was decided on March 3rd, 1918, in the town of Brest-Litovsk. Imperial German and Bolshevik Russian negotiators had met repeatedly in the preceding weeks, each seeking to improve their position. With German forces advancing and Russia’s Army on the verge of disintegration, Russia did the unthinkable, signing away a quarter of its population and a great deal of its industry. The Baltic States, Ukraine, and Belarus were all separated from Russia; liberated or annexed into the German Empire. It was seen as the best possible outcome for Germany, the worst for Russia, and, at the time, seemed like it might give Germany the power it needed to push through and end the War victorious.
Things didn’t work out that way. Germany was defeated less than six months later, and the Treaty almost immediately abandoned or revoked by all participants. With such a short practical lifespan, it might seem like the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk is just one of those oddball moments in history, a wistful could-have-been for Germany, and a nightmare averted for everyone else. This overlooks the profound impact the treaty had on defining the basic outline of modern Eastern Europe, presenting new opportunities for populations eager to exist outside Russian borders.
Negotiating from a position of weakness
Germany’s plan with the treaty was simple: it held all the trump cards—a unified country, a powerful military, and a clear set of priorities—and it intended on forcing a swift agreement before the Bolsheviks could collect themselves. Lenin’s fragile new coalition, on the other hand, was fighting a civil war, and, besides, a substantial portion of its appeal to the Russian Empire had been a swift halt to hostilities (as war was a tool of capitalist exploitation). Russia had very little room in which to breathe.
It should go without saying, but the thoughts and opinions of people native to and living in the countries in discussion were not consulted—or, at least, not in good faith. Ukraine and Belarus, both of which were to be liberated as countries independent from the Austro-Hungarian Empire or Germany, were not aware that this liberation would mean economic or military dependence on their Western neighbors, but that is precisely what Germany intended in its terms of peace.
What seemed like strength, however, ended up being the opposite, and vice versa. Germany insisted on and received its demands, and then found itself forced to garrison its new territories with nearly a million soldiers, overstretching its military and potentially robbing itself of the means by which to force a conclusion to the war before substantial numbers of Americans could arrive.
The garrisoning of soldiers did not come without its own risks—although the Bolsheviks had reluctantly agreed to terms that were widely viewed as humiliating, and were no longer in open conflict with Germany, that did not stop local Bolsheviks or their socialist allies from attempting to radicalize Germany’s soldiers. Furthermore, ethnic nationalists in Ukraine and Belarus felt that they had been mislead, and began small-scale insurgencies. What had seemed originally like a boon to the German war effort quickly turned into a cultural and logistical nightmare.
Long lasting effects
While these immediate effects of Brest-Litovsk were playing out—soon to be overcome by events when Germany lost the war—it’s the longer-term implications of the treaty that are most relevant today. Chiefly, the establishment of a clear legal precedent for an Eastern Europe to exist independent of Russia, in a basic form that endures to this day, along the model of countries to its West—but also, the basis for that precedent being rooted in the ethnic, historical, and linguistic identity of the people inhabiting those places. Although “Ukrainian” and “Belarusian” culture were recognized as such long before Brest-Litovsk, those things had not been viewed as sufficient for self-sustaining cultures, then—on the contrary, those identities made Ukrainians, Belarusians, Estonians, Lithuanians, Latvians and (most of all, because of their powerful literary tradition) Poles exceptionally dangerous to Germany and to Russia. Germany facilitated the breaking of that longstanding tradition of subjugating Eastern European peoples, subsuming them into larger nations.
The most immediate consequence, sadly for the Central Powers after their defeat, is that the same principles were applied to Germany and Austria-Hungary, and both countries were partitioned to create smaller nations (Germany much less so than Austria-Hungary, which was utterly destroyed). What had seemed like a good idea when applied to others was catastrophic when applied to them. And the scope of the Treaty of Versailles would likely not have been as sweeping or severe had not the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk been hovering over the proceedings.
So when you look at a map of Eastern Europe today, you’re looking at something fairly similar to the map drawn up by negotiators sitting around tables about 100 years ago, dreaming of a German empire, or of a worker-led socialist revolution. Funny how things work out.
And the circumstances explain a lot
A final point that’s worth making about Brest-Litovsk, Eastern Europe, and how it came about: the shape of those countries liberated or annexed by Germany were not put into their final form until 1946, for the most part, with pieces of Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland (to say nothing of Russia and Germany) shifting and changing repeatedly. In the case of Ukraine, if Russian occupation holds, one may be able to say that the shape of its country changed last in 2014.
But most of those changes were imposed externally; created by treaties or agreements by those larger powers. Few countries in Eastern Europe achieved independence or identity through war, or on their own terms, for better or for worse. Tim Snyder makes a compelling case in his book Reconstruction of Nations that the closest “positive” national movement occurred in Poland’s handling of the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the end of the U.S.S.R.—by taking the initiative, unprompted, to relinquish outstanding potential claims on Ukrainian territory—that their action was itself a kind of positive national determination, that helped set the stage for further positive relationships between Eastern European countries. This was during a time when other areas, notably the former Yugoslavia, fell into extreme violence. There was no reason to believe or expect that would not be the case in Eastern Europe, especially given the two wars fought between Poland and Ukraine between 1918-19 and then 1943-46.
The Western European attitude toward Eastern Europe as a place on which to impose one’s will and one’s destiny—a place to colonize, rather than a place of intentionality and agency—is longstanding, and may even go back to Roman times. The quasi-racist perception of Eastern Europeans by British, Italians, and Germans has driven past imperialist projects and also exists today, driving populist, nationalist, xenophobic sentiment. Why does this matter? If one imagines a Prussian Junker signing a paper on a beautiful oaken-wood table, assuming the notion that an action like the establishment of a subordinate and subordinated Ukraine are in the past, well, there’s an argument to be made that this moment is much closer to the present time than many might realize.
Eastern and Central Europe in popular and personal imagination
Eastern and Central Europe, the two places affected by Brest-Litovsk and Versailles, respectively, both experienced life within an empire, followed by the destruction of that authoritative social order. It shouldn’t be surprising that the type of stories and storytellers that emerge from Eastern and Central Europe from that late 19th / early 20th century period are similar, depending on surrealism that sometimes wanders into fantasy, as in the works of Kundera, Bulgakov, Kafka, and even Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, (an ostensibly journalistic account of the siege of Stalingrad).
Those stories shape our memory of how and what was happening in that period at that time, as per Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which accurately reflects how a certain part of us remembers the lives and lifestyles of people in what could easily be Budapest, Brasov, Odesa, Warsaw, or Vienna. The disorder and disorganization of the 1920s and 1990s encourage populists and pastoralists alike—walking through the ruins of Soviet-era sanatoriums in Eastern Ukraine, or through Romanian villages where decayed 13th century fortified German churches sit side-by-side with cheap, laundry-bedecked communist-era housing, I was surrounded by the ghosts of those periods of our shared past—a collective past, an imperial past, and the past that gave rise to the relative independence and individuality of a post-modern world, as well as the literature that arises naturally from it.
Adrian Bonenberger is a writer, journalist, and U.S. Army veteran. He co-edits the Wrath-Bearing Tree, an intellectual publication that focuses on issues related to violence. His memoirs, Afghan Post, are available through the Head and the Hand Press. Together with Brian Castner, he co-edited the fiction anthology, The Road Ahead: Fiction from the Forever War.