The Germans and Russians are conducting peace-talks at Brest-Litovsk. The Germans are eager to conclude a settlement as quickly as possible so that they can redeploy their Eastern Front armies to the West. The Russian delegates are in less of a hurry. Because of the imbalance between the two powers, they know that any final peace terms will be harsh and are seeking to put off the day of reckoning. They also hope that if they play for time then revolution will spread across Europe, bringing the war to an end and ushering in an era of socialist peace.
While the German delegation is comprised of career diplomats and military officials, the Russians are a much more motley crew. Led by Bolsheviks catapulted to prominence by their seizure of power, the delegation also includes representatives of a cross-section of Russian society: soldiers, sailors, women, and industrial workers. The Bolsheviks had initially forgotten to include a peasant in their party, but on their way to the talks they picked one up from the streets of Petrograd. The rustic manners of this Roman Stashkov have charmed his German counterparts, who are particularly amused when he is asked at a formal dinner whether he wants red or white wine and replies “which is stronger?”.
Trotsky has taken over as head of the Russian delegation, his rhetorical flights of fancy ideally suited to the task of preventing the talks reaching any definite conclusion. Kühlmann, the German foreign minister, seems only too happy to oblige. The two men spend their time discussing Marxist philosophy and abstract points of principle, much to the chagrin of Ludendorff and Hindenburg, who want the talks concluded as quickly as possible.
Trotsky cannot however keep the talks in the lofty realm of abstraction indefinitely. When discussion turns to the post-war borders between Russia and Germany, he is on much shakier ground. The Bolsheviks have called for a peace without annexations or indemnities, but the Germans are determined to hang onto their gains in the east. Talks now break down on this point. But again, to the German high command this looks like another of Trotsky’s delaying tactics.
Bolshevik leaders being greeted by German officers, as depicted in the Illustrated London News (The Illustrated First World War: Russian Armistice signed)
Trotsky greeted by German officers (Wikipedia: Treaty of Brest-Litovsk)
Note: Roman Stashkov’s bizarre adventure is worth reading about in detail. The first edition of Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy covers it on pages 540 to 541. If you do not have that to hand, a useful summary is included here. Stashkov was originally brought along to the negotiations that led to an armistice on the Eastern Front and may have been sent home by the time the full negotiations on a peace treaty were taking place.