Leon Trotsky

At Brest-Litovsk

(May 1918)

Delivered: May 1918
First Printing: 1920; by Louis Fraina
Source: TIA version based on What Is A Peace Programme?, pp.32-38, Lanka Samasamaja Publications, Colombo, Ceylon, June 1956. No copyright.
Originally reproduced from pp.348-354 of Louis C. Fraina’s The Proletarian Revolution in Russia.
Translation: Unkown.
Transcription/Mark-up for TIA: A. Lehrer/David Walters.

TIA Editor’s Note:

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was negotiated with the Central Powers by Bolshevik War Commissar Leon Trotsky. The Treaty, which saw Russia withdraw from the war, was concluded on terms that were very unfavorable to the Bolshevik government which agreed to cede what are now Poland, the Baltic states and Belarus to Germany and Austria-Hungary and certain southern territories to the Ottoman Empire. Russia also agreed to recognize the independence of Finland and Ukraine. In this speech, Trotsky explains the need for Russia to withdraw from the war, the negotiations that led to the treaty and Bolshevik perspectives following its implementation.

The Soviet Government of Russia must now not only build anew, but it must also close up the old accounts and up to a certain and rather high degree, pay the old debts: first, those of the war which has lasted three and a half years. This war furnished the touchstone of the economic strength of the warring countries. The fate of Russia, a poor and backward country, was, in a war of long duration, a foregone conclusion. In the mighty collisions of war apparatus the decision lay, in the last analysis, in the capacity of the country to adapt its industries to the needs of war, to transform the same in the shortest possible time and replace, in ever growing volume, engines of destruction that were used up with such rapidity in the course of this general butchery. Every country or almost every country, even the most backward, could at beginning of the war be in possession of the mightiest engines of destruction – or could import them. That was the case with all backward countries; even so in Russia. But war eats up quickly its dead capital and requires constant renewal. The war capacity of each and every country drawn into this world massacre could in truth be measured by its capacity to create anew and during the war cannons, projectiles and other war material.

Had the war solved the problem of the relative relation of forces in a very short time, then it would have been possible, theoretically at least, for Russia to maintain behind the trenches the position that might have meant victory. But the war dragged on too long. And that was not due to accident. The fact that international diplomacy had for the last fifty years worked in the direction of creating a so-called European ‘balance of power’, that is to say, a condition wherein the opposing forces were to be about evenly balanced, that fact alone – considered in the light of the power and wealth possessed by the modern bourgeois nations – would give the war a long-drawn-out character. And that, on the other hand, meant the exhaustion of such countries as were weaker, and, in an economic sense, less developed.

The strongest, in a military sense, proved to be Germany, due to the power of its industries and due also to the modest rational character of these industries side by side with a time-worn, anachronistic political system. It was shown that France, largely because of its petty bourgeois economy, had fallen behind Germany, and even so powerful a colonial empire as England, because of the more conservative and routine character of its industries, proved to be weaker in comparison with Germany. When history placed the Russian Revolution face to face with the question of negotiating peace we were not in doubt that we would have to settle the bill for the three and a half years of war – unless the power of the international revolutionary proletariat should decisively upset all calculations. We did not doubt that in German Imperialism we had to deal with an opponent thoroughly saturated with the consciousness of his colonial power, a power which in the course of this war, has come so plainly to the fore.

All those arguments of bourgeois cliques, to the effect that we would have been much stronger had we concluded the negotiations together with our allies for an indefinite time we should, above all things, have been able to continue the war in conjunction with them; but, as our country was weakened and exhausted, it was the continuation, not the termination of the war, that would have further weakened and exhausted it. And thus we would have been forced to quit sooner or later under conditions still more unfavourable to us. If, therefore, we stand today a weakened country, face to face with world imperialism, we surely have not been weakened because we have torn ourselves out of the fiery ring of war and out of the embrace of international war obligations – no, we have been weakened by the policies of Czarism and of the bourgeois classes, those policies which we have fought as a revolutionary party – before the war and during the war.

Do you remember, comrades, under what circumstances our delegation went direct from a session of the Third All-Russian Soviet Congress to Brest-Litovsk? At that time we rendered to you a report as to the state of negotiations and the demands of the enemy. These demands, as you will recollect, ran along the line of masked, or rather half-masked annexationist desires, an annexation of Lithuania, Courland, a part of Livonia, the islands of the Moon Sound, as well as a half-veiled contribution which, at that time, we estimated at from 6 to 8 and even 10 billion rubles. During a pause in the negotiations, which lasted about ten days, there developed in Austria a tremendous ferment and labour strikes broke forth. These strikes signified the first recognition of our method of conducting the peace negotiations, the first recognition we received from the proletariat of the central powers about the annexationist demands of German militarism. As against that, how silly appear the claims of the bourgeois press that we had required two months to negotiate with Kuhlmann in order to find out that German Imperialism was imposing robber conditions. No, we knew that from the very start. By means of the “pourparlers” with the representatives of German Imperialism, we endeavoured to find a means to strengthen those forces that oppose German Imperialism. We did not promise to perform miracles but we claimed that the road we were following was the only road left to a revolutionary democracy to secure for itself the possibility of future development.

Complaint might be made that the proletariat of other countries, more especially that of the Central Powers, moved too slowly along the road of the revolutionary struggle – true enough. The tempo of its development must be considered altogether too slow – but, nevertheless, in Austria-Hungary a movement began that spread over the entire country and which was a different echo of the Brest-Litovsk negotiations.

When I left here, we were saying that we had no reason to suppose that this strike wave would wash away the militarism of Austria and Germany. Had we been so convinced we would, of course, gladly have made the promise that certain persons expected we should make, namely, that under no circumstances would we make a separate peace with Germany. I said then that we could not make such a promise. That would have meant to assume the task of overcoming German militarism. We do not possess the secret of accomplishing such a victory. And since we could not obligate ourselves to change in a short time the relative position of international forces, we declared, openly and honestly, that a revolutionary government may under certain conditions be compelled to accept the annexationist peace. The decline of such a government would have to begin at the moment it would try to hide before its own people the predatory character of such a peace – not because it might be compelled, in the course of such a struggle, to accept such a peace.

At the same time, we pointed out that we were going to Brest-Litovsk for the continuance of the peace negotiations under conditions which were becoming better for ourselves but worse for our enemies. We observed the movement in Austria-Hungary and there was much to indicate – for that is what the Social Democratic deputies in the Reichstag had reference to – that Germany too was on the eve of such events. Filled with this hope, we departed. And even during the first days of our nest stay at Brest, a radiogram via Vilna brought us the first news that in Berlin a tremendous strike movement had broken out, which, just as that of Austria-Hungary, was directly connected with the conduct of the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk. But, as is often the case in accordance with the dialectics of the class struggle, the very dimensions of this proletarian movement – never seen in Germany before – compelled a closing of the ranks of the propertied classes and forced them to ever greater implacability. The German ruling class is saturated with a sufficiently strong instinct of self-preservation to realize clearly that any concessions made under the conditions it found itself in and pressed by the masses of its own people – that any, even partial, concessions would spell capitulation to the spirit of the revolution. And it was for this reason that Kuhlmann, during the first period of uncertainty, purposely delayed negotiations, either by not holding any sessions at all or by wasting time, when they were held, with purely secondary and formal questions. But as soon as the strike was liquidated, when he knew that his masters were no longer in danger of their lives, he again assumed the tone of complete self-possession and redoubled aggressiveness.

Our negotiations were complicated by the participation of the Kiev Rada. [1] We did not report this last time. The delegation of the Kiev Rada appeared at the moment when the Rada did not have in the Ukraine a fairly strong organization and when the outcome of the struggle could not yet be foretold. At this very movement we made to the Rada an official proposition to enter with us into an agreement and, as the foremost condition of such an agreement, we stipulated: that this Rada declare Kaledin and Kornilov counter-revolutionists and that it should not hinder us in fighting both. The delegation of the Kiev Rada arrived at Brest at a time when we hoped to attain our agreement with them and with the enemy. We declared to them that, so long as they were recognized by the people of the Ukraine, we regarded it as possible to admit them as independent participants in the negotiations. But the more events developed in Russia and the Ukraine, the more the antagonism between the people of the Ukraine and the Rada became manifest, all the greater issues became the willingness of the Rada to close with the Governments of the Central Powers the first Brest treaty of peace, and if need be, to enlist the services of German militarism for purposes of intervention to the internal affairs of the Russian Republic in order to sustain the Rada against the Russian Revolution.

On February 9, we learned that the negotiations carried on behind our backs between the Rada and the Central Powers had led to the signing of a peace treaty. February 9 is the birthday of King Leopold of Bavaria and, as is customary in monarchial countries, the consummation of the solemn, historic act – whether with the consent of the Kiev Rada, I do not know – had been set for that day. General Hoffmann fired the salute in honour of Leopold of Bavaria – after he had asked the consent of the Kiev delegation, because, after the signing of the Peace Treaty, Brest-Litovsk passed over to the Ukraine. Events, however, took such a course that when General Hoffmann asked the Kiev Rada’s permission to fire the salute, the Rada, granting them Brest-Litovsk, did not have much more of a territory left. Upon the strength of dispatches received from Petrograd, we informed the delegations of the Central Powers, officially, that the Kiev Rada no longer existed – a circumstance not without serious bearing upon the further course of peace negotiations.

We proposed to Count Czernin that he send representatives to the Ukraine, accompanied by our officers, so as to convince himself whether the “party of the second part” – the Kiev Rada – did or did not exist. It looked as though Czernin was willing to acquiesce: but when we submitted to him the question: does this mean that the treaty with the Kiev delegation will not be signed until your representatives return? – he was overcome by doubt and offered to inquire of Kuhlmann. After such inquiry he transmitted to us a negative answer. That was on February 8 – on February 9 they had to have a signed treaty: that permitted no delay. Not only because of the birthday of King Leopold of Bavaria but for a much weightier reason which Kuhlmann had doubtlessly made clear to Czernin: “If we now send our representatives to the Ukraine, they may find, indeed, that the Rada no longer exists, in which case we would have to deal with an All-Russian delegation and that would make worse our chances in the negotiations.” The Austrian delegation told us: “Abandon the position of pure principle, put the question on a practicable basis and then the German delegation will be reasonable ... It is not possible for Germany to continue the war for the sake of the Moon Sound Islands if you present your demand in concrete form.

We answered: “Very well, we are willing to test the conciliatoriness of your colleagues of the German delegation. Thus far we have negotiated about the right of self-determination of the Lithuanians, Poles, Livonians, Letts, Estonians and others, and we ascertained that with all these there was no room for self-determination. Now we want to see what is your attitude towards the self-determination of still another people, that of Russia, and what are your intentions and plans of military-strategic character hidden behind your occupation of the Moon Sound Islands. For the Moon Sound Islands, as part of the independent Estonian republic or as the property of the federated Russian Republic, have a defensive importance. In the hands of Germany, however, they assume an offensive value and will menace the very life centre of our country and, more especially, of Petrograd.” But General Hoffmann was unwilling to make the slightest concession.

Then came the hour of decision. We could not declare war. We were too weak. The army had lost internal cohesion. For the salvation of our country and in order to overcome the process of disintegration, we were forced to re-establish the inner connection of the working-masses. This psychological bond can be created by way of common productive effort in the fields, in the factories, and in the workshops. We must bring the working masses, so long subjected to the terrible sufferings and catastrophe trials of the war, back to their acres and factories where they can again find themselves in their labour and enable us to build up internal discipline. This is the only way out for a country that must now do penance for the sins of Czarism and of the bourgeoisie. We are forced to give up this war and to lead the army out of this slaughter. But we do declare at the same time and in the face of German militarism: the peace you have forced upon us is a peace of force and robbery. We shall not permit that you, diplomatic gentlemen, can say to the German workers: “You have called our demands conquests and annexations, but see: we bring to you, under these same demands, the signature of the Russian Revolution!” – Yes, we are weak; we can not now conduct a war, but we possess sufficient revolutionary force to prove that we shall not, voluntarily, place our signatures under a treaty that you write with your sword upon the bodies of living people. We refused our signatures! – I believe, comrades, that we acted rightly.

Comrades! I shall not claim that an attack upon us by Germany is impossible – such an assertion would be too risky if we visualize the power of the imperialist party in Germany. I believe, however, that the position we have taken in this question has made attack more difficult for German militarism. But if Germany does attack nevertheless? As regards that, all we can say is this: If in our country, exhausted and in desperate condition that we are, it is possible to spur the courage of the revolutionary and vital elements, if with us the struggle for the protection of our Revolution and of the arena of the Revolution is possible – then it is so only because of the situation that has now been created, possible as the result of our exit form the war and our refusal to sign the treaty of peace.



1. Ukrainian Parliament, then held by the bourgeoisie. – Ed.

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