The Negotiations at Brest-Litovsk: New York Times Coverage from January 1st to 12th, 1918

By Melissa S. McHugh
2011, Vol. 3 No. 03 | pg. 1/1

The New York Times coverage of negotiations at Brest-Litovsk between January 1 and January 12, 1918, reflected the newspaper's preoccupation with Germany during wartime and her ulterior motives. It also evinced skepticism about the Bolsheviks' sincerity in their claims about not wanting a separate peace. The Times published articles that spoke to the German desire for annexations on the Eastern Front, particularly in Poland, as well as articles that insinuated Germany's attempt to negotiate with the Bolsheviks was designed to split the Entente. In addition, these articles expressed doubt about the Bolsheviks' overall honesty during negotiations, as if their delegates were always going to obtain a separate peace, despite claims to refuse any terms that conflicted with their peace without annexations or indemnities formula.

To place this paper and its analysis in a proper context, a few details must be understood. The Great War, now known as World War I, had been raging in Europe and parts of the Middle East since August of 1914, when Germany declared war on first Russia, then France and Belgium.1. The fact that Germany declared war first is crucial to grasp, as it lays the foundation for The New York Times and its coverage of negotiations at Brest-Litovsk. As Elmer Davis wrote, "The chief public services of The Times in the war was that from the very beginning it understood where the rights and wrongs of the conflict lay…[and] it never ceased to maintain that position with all the vigor which its editors were able to command."2

Russia entered the war as Imperial Russia and left as a broken country, torn apart by the Bolsheviks and their opponents. Czar Nicholas II had abdicated in March of 1917, as a result of the February Revolution, but the Provisional Government put in place afterwards was never able to secure the country and was easy prey for the Bolsheviks, a situation that will be explained in more detail at a later point in the paper. One of the first actions the Bolsheviks took was to open the door to peace negotiations in order to get Russia out of the war, leading to meetings with the Central Powers at Brest-Litovsk, Poland. These conferences were followed by the rest of the word, most notably The New York Times and its various correspondents.

It became obvious that The New York Times was hostile to Germany from the outset of the war. The Times was not particularly a fan of the Bolsheviks either, but Russia was still a part of the Allied Powers at the time and received slightly less negative coverage. In the ten articles examined for the purposes of this paper, Germany and her people were referred to as Teutons no less than ten times, and at least once in each article. This term, though historically rooted in the area, does not appear to be used in a kind manner. The Times did not show its hostility to Germany just by using this term, but in their overall coverage of the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk.

In the early part of the month, The Times focused on the Allied reaction to the negotiations and their opinion that the negotiations taking place were not serious because Russia was not the same country as it had been at the beginning of the war, and therefore should not negotiate without the Allies. However, the concept of peace was so important that an "offer will be considered not only on the merits of the proposed basis for peace, but also and more particularly with the view of applying the 'acid test' to the sincerity of the Berlin Government."3

Due to their suspicion of the Berlin government, the notion that these negotiations were designed to split the Entente came across quite clearly. "Germany is believed to be prepared to offer almost any conceivable bait to an individual enemy in order to drive a wedge into the Entente and cause its disruption, and having succeeded measurably with Russia, is trying to get that nation to influence her late allies."4 This theme of trying to split the Entente recurs over the next week of coverage. On January 2, it was reported "Germany will ask the Russians to help them in forcing Russian peace terms on the Entente Allies."5

Arthur Ransome's cable to The Times on January 9, 1918 revealed that Leon Trotsky distrusted Allies, believing they wanted a separate peace because it would make Germany settle in the west faster. 6 This article continues with an assertion that the Bolsheviks will continue to fight the war unless, as one of the headlines proclaims, "Terms Desired Are Accepted By Teutons." Arthur Ransome might be the only man alive who truly believed that. The concept that the Bolsheviks would continue to fight the war was examined in greater detail at a later point, but it's worth taking a closer look at Arthur Ransome and his place in revolutionary Russia to place his article in a better context.

Arthur Ransome had been in Russia since before the revolution and as a result, he was "so much at home with Russians that he could see the Revolution through their eyes [and this] gave [his] articles special authenticity."7 He lacked any serious knowledge about the workings of politics and saw this as an advantage because it meant he had no party loyalty. 8 His second wife, Evgenia Shelpina worked as Trotsky's secretary 9 and British intelligence in later decades would reveal that she had been smuggling diamonds to support Comintern, an organization founded in Moscow to promote the speed of spreading communism in the world. Though the British government seemed satisfied with Ransome's loyalty10, it's difficult to take his objectivity for granted and therefore, this particular article and its assertion that it is the Allies that want separate peace is suspect, and it is the only article in this group that even suggests such a thought.

The prospects of a separate peace made many nervous, especially with the possibility that Russia would cede territory to Germany and liberate some nations. The Times refers to an article written in The Daily Chronicle, saying that "…the establishment of Finland as anti-Russian State which cannot stand alone",11 insinuating that Finland will fall under German control. In effect, the Baltic Sea, with its rim nations of Denmark, Germany, Finland, Sweden and Russia, would fall under German control as she would be the only strong and stable nation left.

Whether this would have happened no longer matters, but to someone reading the paper at the time, it might have encouraged panic at the idea of a separate peace. No one wanted Germany to become any stronger, which led to The Times and their assertion that peace would be bad for democracy because any concessions made by Russia would make Germany stronger, giving more weight to her eventual victory. It would be "ensuring the virtual enslavement of Russia, as it would be a victory for the military caste in Germany." 12

Even Russian soldiers seemed to be on the Allies’ side, their cry from the trenches said to "be firm. Don't make a dishonorable peace!" 13 The plea was received by a dispatch, which also claimed that Russians would persist in attempts to move the conference to Stockholm, Sweden "in order to gain more publicity." This plea by the soldiers about an honorable peace seems to ring false, as the war was a major factor in first, the February Revolution and then, the eventual rise of the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution.

John M. Thompson writes that "the war accelerated the disorientation of Russian society [which] the processes of modernization, industrialization, and urbanization [had] launched"14 in the last few decades of Imperial rule. His simplest answer to the cause of the February Revolution is "Russia's disastrous involvement in World War I."15 As to the October Revolution, the Bolshevik rise to power was directly related to the way people in Petrograd felt about the Provisional Government, one of the major factors being the "demoralization of the army"16, according to Thompson. The army was refusing to fight due to inadequate supplies on the front and when a general recommended immediately beginning peace negotiations, Kerensky put him on a leave of absence. Thompson concluded that along resolving the issue of land ownership with peasants, "a unilateral declaration of peace"17 might have staved off this second revolution, but the Provisional Government felt "patriotism and a sense of obligation to the Allies prevented"18 any peace. The Bolsheviks, however, were not beholden to any such obligation, which became clear with the commencement of peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk. It appears that peace was important to, at the very least, Russian soldiers, which makes this plea for an honorable peace all the more suspect after the army's failure to support the Provisional Government.

This same article on January 10, 1918 includes a small section at the bottom regarding Kaiser Wilhelm's remarks to the Polish Regency Council, with a headline, "Kaiser Poses As Humanity's Champion". This use of the word pose is intentional, suggesting that he is clearly the opposite[M1]. This is another blatant show of hostility to Germany, as if saying "How dare the Kaiser pretend he is a 'champion of the principles, making for the welfare of humanity and peaceable cooperation of peoples…'19?"

The request to move the conference from Brest-Litovsk to Stockholm mentioned above referred to another recurrent theme in the coverage of this time. Leon Trotsky and the Russian delegation requested a move from the war-torn Poland to neutral ground in Sweden at the end of the previous year, 20 but this request was later denied, because the Germans felt that the delay "would give the Entente an opportunity to interfere and endeavor to prevent a separate peace." 21 This might have been true, but by the time Germany declined to move the conference, the Allies seemed resigned that any treaty that emerged from these negotiations, because they were beginning to champion the Ukraine's role in the negotiation. The headline "Ukraine Adopts Independent Role"22 demonstrates this position, and clearly, the Ukraine will not stand for any dishonorable terms, like the Bolsheviks. The Times reports the Ukrainian delegates as "striving for a general world peace on democratic lines insuring even the smallest nation unlimited self-determination, with proper guarantees for rendering possible a real expression of the people's will."23

At the beginning of this coverage, in early January, the notion that Germany's "acceptance of the Russian formulae 'No annexations and no indemnities' and 'the self-determination of peoples' is significant as indicative of a new temper."24 Germany's intention regarding any annexations is the major theme of all the coverage between January 1 and January 12, and a major indication of The Times' preoccupation with Germany during the negotiations.

The negotiations seemed as if they were going to crumble when Germany refused to evacuate the occupied territories of Poland, Lithuania, Courland, and portions of Estonia and Livernia. This was revealed in Article 2 of the Austro-German terms delivered on December 12, which was "in direct conflict with the principles of self-determination of nations." 25 One of their excuses was that Russia was now made up of warring parties, and any treaty negotiated by the Bolsheviks might not be recognized and the other factions might be able to continue fighting with the help of the Allies. "Their only concern," columnist Harold Williams wrote, "was whether peace would guarantee the neutrality of the whole Russian army." 26

The January 3, 1918 article by Harold Williams that the above quote references, is the first article in which this fear first surfaced, and is also the first to discuss the disunity of Russia in any specific detail. Williams remarked on the citizens marching for peace and the reaction of the Germans in Petrograd as they watched it:

"It was a big demonstration and in point of numbers it was an effective parade of the Bolshevist forces [and] if they [Germans in Petrograd] could read the mottoes against the Cadets, the Constituent Assembly, and the Moderate Socialist parties they must have realized that Russia is now torn into an infinity of warring factions [and it would be] difficult to make peace with such an incoherent medley as Russia now represents."

Harold Williams is an interesting figure in the overall scope of the Russian Revolution. He was very much in favor of the February Revolution, and lobbied for acceptance of the new government with Britain. 27 He married Adriadna Tyrkova, a Russian feminist and member of the Kadet party. Williams found it difficult to write as events in Russia worsened, especially with the disbanding of the Constituent Assembly and the murders of Andrei Shingarev and Fedor Kokoshkin. 28 Philip Knightley described him as the "worst of war correspondents [and]so personally involved with the anti-Bolshevist forces that he should have never been given the assignment." Williams left Russia in March 1918, shortly after the treaty was certified. 29

It's apparent with this article, as with his remarks on January 7, 1918, that it was "difficult to talk sober sense about the peace negotiations…it is useless to think about constitutional law, or international law, or democratic principles, or any other form of jurisprudence in connection with this amazing state of affairs",30 that Harold Williams was not a Bolshevist sympathizer, as one might accuse his colleague, Arthur Ransome, of being. The January 7 article is particularly interesting as there is very little news to be reported, only rumors. It reads as an editorial, brimming with Williams' own personal disdain for Germans and Bolsheviks while maintaining very faint hope for Russia, though that is quickly fading. Williams refers to the Constituent Assembly that is about to convene, but will hold no threat to the Bolsheviks and will cease to exist at the first sign of disagreement. 31

It is no coincidence that articles written by Harold Williams hold the only illustrations of any disunity in Russia. While it would be wrong to take his articles completely at face value, it is also true that Williams was more invested in producing a view of Russia that was not as united as his colleague, Arthur Ransome, had reported. Ransome, who had been described as Bolshevik sympathizer, might not have wanted people outside Russia to know just how little authority the Bolsheviks held. Williams had given his loyalty to the Provisional Government and the people who thought along the lines of democracy. There was no incentive for him to hide the disunity in Russia, but no other correspondent picked up on this thread and as such, no real attention was paid to the situation.

According to The Times, Trotsky remained firm on his refusal of any peace that did not provide for the "free disposal of the Polish and Lettish nations."32 He released an appeal to the citizens of the Central Powers not to let their government get away with evasion regarding the policy of no annexations:

"All the people of Europe look to you, exhausted and bled by such a war as there never was before, that you will not permit the Austro-German Imperialists to make war against revolutionary Russia for the subjection of Poland, Lithuania, Courland and Armenia."33

This appeal is very strong and seems full of fire and determination, and is the one article that does not appear to overtly doubt Trotsky's sincerity in negotiating a fair and equitable peace that does not leave Germany in a better position than before. This deviation from the theme can easily be explained when the article is examined more clearly. The first part, in which Leon Trotsky speaks about his hopes for peace and send the appeal to the enemy, is an Associated Press article, which does not necessarily reflect the overall view of The New York Times. This becomes very clear when the Associated Press part ends and it becomes a small piece, "special to The New York Times"34, in which it is reported that State Department doubted the "reported difficulties" during peace negotiations because the Bolsheviks have "made peace the cornerstone of their edifice."35 This article clearly demonstrates that the doubt in the Bolsheviks came from The New York Times and its staff, rather than being a theme in all coverage of these negotiations.

A military expert wrote a review of the negotiations and other matters of the war not necessarily related to the Russians, on January 6, 1918, and remarked that Germany has accepted Russia's demand for "no annexations and no indemnities" particularly because "Russia is just as unable to pay as Germany is [but Germany has] very great interest in annexation [and] holds practically all of commercial Russia."36 This military expert, who remains unnamed with no indication as to identity, continues with a conclusion that Russia is now useless to the Entente and that their mistake was to disband the army before beginning peace negotiations, putting them in a place of weakness. Negotiations, the expert says, "will end, as they can only end, by Russians making a separate peace—a peace which will last as long as the Bolsheviki retain power."37

This review resembled an editorial rather than a straight report, as if making the author a military expert rather than a member of the editorial staff gives the opinions an air of credibility and authority they would not otherwise possess. The article itself says nothing more than what regular news articles have stated, but the tone is much more sarcastic. The Bolsheviks are idiot children without the capability to understand what the evil Germans are doing to them. Only the Entente can serve as the white knight to their damsel in distress, but it will be up to Russia to ask for the help.

By January 12, 1918, it appears that The Times was correct in Germany's desire to annex territory. They report that the Central Powers "have withdrawn their offer to conclude a general peace without forcible annexations and indemnities…"38 In no article examined between January 1 and January 12, 1918, is there any real discussion why Russia might finally give in to such negotiations. There is no real coverage of domestic events in Russia, no consideration given to the massive problems referred to by Thompson earlier in the paper.

Rather than attempting to expand their limited coverage in Petrograd, The Times again turned their attention to Germany and the reactions to the Brest-Litovsk conferences in Berlin. During a conference in the German capitol, leaders from the Reichstag, Socialists Philipp Scheidemann and Freidrich Ebert and Independent Socialist Hugo Haase were credited with telling Foreign Secretary von Kühlmann that "his attitude in the Russian negotiations was prejudicial to peace" 39 and that vacillating between not wanting territory and then the next day wanting it "justified Entente statesmen in declining to place confidence in the word of Germany's leaders."

Remarks made by Baron von dem Bussche-Haddenhausen, the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs, to the committee in the Reichstag reflected that negotiations were difficult "as they had to be conducted between the coalition [Russia] on one hand and a single power [Germany] on the other hand. 40 Additionally, these negotiations had been basically held in public, making things more difficult.

These two articles cannot be taken at face value as neither one of them came directly from Berlin. The January 4, 1918 article has a dateline of London, while the January 5 claims to be from Berlin, but it was via Amsterdam. It's difficult to ascertain how accurate any of the remarks might have been at the time, or if they were merely summaries of the meetings shown as direct quotations. In fact, out of ten articles examined, only the January 5, 1918 article referenced above even mentioned Berlin as a dateline.

While The Times spent a great deal of space on the intention of Germany to split the Entente and annex territories in the East, they also cast doubt on Russia's sincerity in the negotiations. Any belief of the Bolsheviks that Germany would evacuate the occupied territories was pretense on their part, according to the so-called military expert. 41 On January 12, 1918, The Times published a comment by von Kühlmann, doubting the Russian sincerity to reach "speedy peace with the powers of the Quadruple Alliance,"42 so now the skepticism comes from all sides.

The separate peace reached by Russia and the Central Powers in March 1918 was every bit as bad as the Allies feared, and there is some indication that ensuing Treaty of Versailles was so harsh toward Germany in retaliation for the draconian terms of Brest-Litovsk. 43 Due to the treaty, Russia lost one-third of its population, including Finland, the Baltic provinces, Poland, the Ukraine and territory in the Caucasus. Trotsky had refused to sign initially, but the idea of peace was so crucial to Vladimir Lenin, that he insisted on signing it. 44 The terms of the treaty were later cancelled by the Treaty of Versailles, though Russia was not given a place at the final peace table in Paris.

The New York Times, with its heavy-handed coverage of Germany's ulterior motives, was vindicated in the end. While the separate peace did not split the Entente and did not ensure the victory of Germany, The Times was correct in its supposition that Germany was not committed to peace without annexations or indemnities, writing:

"Germany intends really to annex all the territories she now holds. Her excuse that the populations of these territories have declared their willingness to be severed from Russia is untrue. Individuals may have done so, but they have always been irresponsible, acting on some German suggestion."45

The Times continually cast Germany in the role of the villain, a role that the evidence supports. Details of the negotiations, according to The Times, made "it clear that Germany assumed a domineering attitude, while Austria, Bulgaria and Turkey were very conciliatory and disagreed with the German position [while] Germany posed constantly as a conqueror, while her three allies showed eagerness for peace and a disposition to compromise."46

The outcome of the final treaty and Germany's role during the next three decades could not be known to the editors at The Times, naturally. Yet, the self-righteous nature of their coverage seemed to indicate that they had all the answers and could serve as the authority on the subject. Their position from the outset of the war—that Germany was the evil scoundrel—never changed. Indeed, as Elmer Davis wrote, "…from the very beginning, it [The Times] understood where the rights and wrongs on the conflict lay…"47 In other words, from the moment Germany declared war, The Times decided that she alone was to blame for the catastrophic set of events that unfolded between 1914-1918 and reported accordingly.

This decision resulted in the ham-fisted coverage of the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk, during which the focus was on what Germany wanted, what Germany would do, and what Germany was capable of, rather than what Russia wanted, what Russia would do and what Russia was capable of. The Times was in position to report on the actual reasons Russia was so desperate for peace, but rather chose to blame the situation on the manipulations of Germany than to give the Bolsheviks any credit for dealing with a situation that was out of their hands and impossible to control.


Primary Sources

"Allies May Reply to Peace Proffer of Teuton Powers." The New York Times. January 1, 1918, 1.

"Frank Statement of Entente Aims Is Expected; Wilson May Make It." The New York Times. January 2, 1918, 1.

Williams, Harold. "Reports Germans Would Quit West." The New York Times. January 3, 1918, 1.

"Bolsheviki Appeal to Enemy Peoples." The New York Times. January 4, 1918, 1.

"Germany Refuse to Quit Territory of Shift Peace Parley to Stockholm." The New York Times. January 5, 1918, 1.

Military Expert, "Military Critic's Review." The New York Times. January 6, 1918, 51.

Williams, Harold. "Shock to the Teutons." The New York Times. January 7, 1918, 1.

Ransome, Arthur. "Trotsky Distrusts Allies." The New York Times. January 9, 1918, 1.

"Plea By Russian Soldiers." The New York Times. January 10, 1918, 1.

"Teutons Drop General Peace Terms." The New York Times. January 12 1918, 1.

Secondary Sources

Alston, Charlotte. Russia's Greatest Enemy? Harold Williams and the Russian Revolutions. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.

Brogan, Hugh. The Life of Arthur Ransome. London: J. Cape, 1984.

Chambers, Roland. The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome. London: Faber & Faber, 2009.

Davis, Elmer. History of The New York Times. New York: The New York Times, 1921.

Goldstein, Erik. Wars and Peace Treaties 1816-1991. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Howard, Michael. The First World War: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2007.

Shepard, Richard F. The Paper's Papers: A Reporter's Journey Through the Archives of the New York Times. New York: Random House, 1996.

Thompson, John M. Russia, Bolshevism, and the Versailles Peace. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967.

Thompson, John M. Revolutionary Russia, 1917. Long Grove: Waveland Press, 1997.

Wade, Rex A. The Russian Search For Peace, February-October 1917. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1984.

1.) Erik Goldstein, Wars and Peace Treaties 1816-1991, (New York: Routledge, 1992), 42.

2.) Elmer Davis, History of the New York Times, 1851-1921, (New York: The New York Times, 1921) 335.

3.) "Allies May Reply to Peace Proffer of Teuton Powers", The New York Times (January 1, 1918): 1.

4.) Ibid.

5.) "Frank Statement of Entente Aims Is Expected; Wilson May Make It", The New York Times (January 2, 1918): 1.

6.) Arthur Ransome, "Trotsky Distrusts Allies", The New York Times (January 9, 1918): 1.

7.) Hugh Brognan, The Life of Arthur Ransome, (London: J. Cape, 1984), 120.

8.) Ibid.

9.) Ibid, 153.

10.) Roland Chambers, The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome (London: Faber & Faber, 2009), 150.

11.) Frank Statement…", The New York Times (January 2, 1918): 1.

12.) Frank Statement…", The New York Times (January 2, 1918): 1.

13.) "Plea By Russian Soldiers", The New York Times (January 10, 1918): 1.

14.) John M. Thompson, Revolutionary Russia, 1917, (Long Grove: Waveland Press, Inc., 1997), 9.

15.) Ibid.

16.) Ibid, 123.

17.) Thompson, Revolutionary Russia, 1917, 124.

18.) Ibid, 125.

19.) "Plea By Russian Soldiers", The New York Times (January 10, 1918): 1.

20.) "Bolsheviki Appeal to Enemy Peoples", The New York Times (January 4, 1918): 1.

21.) "Teutons Drop General Peace Terms", The New York Times (January 12, 1918): 1.

22.) "Teutons Drop General Peace Terms", The New York Times (January 12, 1918): 1.

23.) Ibid.

24.) "Frank Statement", The New York Times (January 1, 1918): 1.

25.) "Bolsheviki Appeal", The New York Times (January 4, 1918): 1.

26.) Harold Williams, "Reports Germans Would Quit West", The New York Times (January 3, 1918): 1.

27.) Charlotte Alston, Russia's Greatest Enemy? Harold Williams and the Russian Revolutions, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), 2.

28.) Ibid, 1, 128.

29.) Ibid, 4, 129.

30.) Harold Williams, "Shock To The Teutons", The New York Times (January 7, 1918): 1.

31.) Ibid, 2.

32.) "Bolsheviki Appeal", The New York Times (January 4, 1918): 1.

33.) "Bolsheviki Appeal", The New York Times (January 4, 1918): 2.

34.) Ibid.

35.) Ibid.

36.) Military Expert, "Military Critic's Review", The New York Times (January 6, 1918): 51.

37.) Military Expert, "Military Critic's Review", The New York Times (January 6, 1918): 51..

38.) "Teutons Drop General Peace Terms", The New York Times (January 12, 1918): 1.

39.) "Bolsheviki Appeal", The New York Times (January 5, 1918): 1.

40.) "Germany Refuses to Quit Territory or Shift Peace Parley to Stockholm", The New York Times (January 5, 1918): 1.

41.) Military Expert, "Military Critic's Report", The New York Times (January 6, 1918): 51.

42.) "Teutons Drop General Peace Terms", The New York Times (January 12, 1918): 1.

43.) Goldstein, 50.

44.) Ibid, 47.

45.) "Bolsheviki Appeal", The New York Times (January 4, 1918): 1.

46.) "Germany Refuses To Quit Territory", The New York Times (January 5, 1918): 1.

47.) Davis, 335.

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