We can’t know for sure what terms the German Empire might have imposed on its enemies in the West, had it emerged from the Great War in the position to dictate them. But speculation on the matter is often colored by the one peace treaty the Germans did sign, as victors: the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
As in the East, so in the West?
This peace treaty was a brutal, annihilating peace forced upon Russia after their final assaults ultimately failed and were pushed back by the victorious German and Austro-Hungarian forces. The constant warfare for over 3 years also took its toll, and Russia had been forced to put down several serious rebellions in the 20th century before the First World War. A full-blown civil war was raging, and it was the Bolsheviks who accepted the harsh treaty. The Bolsheviks were forced to surrender the Baltic States to Germany, and they were forced to accept the liberation of Ukraine and pay a hefty sum to the Central Powers. The historian Spencer Tucker said that “the German General Staff had formulated extraordinarily harsh terms that shocked even the German negotiator.” – World War One, p. 225
This statement, along with the treaty itself, has lead people to believe that the Germans planned a similar fate for the Western powers, but is the truth that simple? If the Germans had managed to punch through in Belgium, and reach Paris (as they nearly did in 1914), they could find themselves in a position to demand whatever they wanted. It is known that the German lines were close to breaking in 1918, but so were the lines of France and the BEF, not to mention the Italians were reeling in the Veneto frontlines. The thinking seems to go that Germany imposed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on Russia simply because they were able to, and that they would likewise do the same on France if they could.
But let us look at this from the beginning, what the powers sought to gain in the East. The Central Powers had not originally planned to impose anything similar to Brest-Litovsk on Russia, so let us start there, and examine why the peace was so incredibly harsh.
Austrian and Russian War Goals
The only explicit war aims of any of the powers then were Austria’s wish to crush Serbia and Russia’s designs on Turkey. In contrast, neither these two powers nor Germany had any defined goals in East Central Europe. There, any conquests had an operational function rather than the character of genuine motives for war. Russia’s main aims were weakening Germany, eliminating Austria as a rival in the Balkans and gaining control of Constantinople, Thrace and the Straits. From Austria, Russia sought to annex Galicia and Carpatho-Ukraine as a “greater Russian” area in order to eliminate the perceived danger of a Ukrainian national “Piedmont” (according to Viktor Aleksandrovič and his book “Russian policy towards the eastern territories of Central Europe, 1912-1921”).
Austria-Hungary’s primary war aim was survival as a great power by destroying Serbia’s potential to undermine the multi-national Habsburg Empire. War with Russia was anticipated as highly likely in the case of war against Serbia given Russia’s self-proclaimed identification of its interests with those of the Balkan Slavs. Thus, weakening Russia became a logical further aim. As the war dragged on, in addition to defending their borders, the Austrians considered annexing territory in Serbia, Romania or Italy, and later in Poland and Ukraine, as buffer zones.
German War Goals
Germany’s pre-war policies had aimed at political and economic penetration of the Ottoman Empire and of certain overseas areas but not at conquering any new territory. Since German industry was deeply integrated in the global economy the Reich sought a leading position within this system rather than at its expense. The German military successes of August 1914 in the west prompted a number of political and industrial interest groups to make unsolicited calls for annexations in Luxemburg, Belgium and France. Similar claims were made with regard to the western borderlands of Russia. Such annexationist schemes were voiced already in the summer of 1914 by representatives of the right-wing “national opposition,” such as the Pan-German League (Alldeutscher Verband). Its president Heinrich Claß (1868 – 1953) in September 1914 circulated a “private memorandum” that envisaged the creation of a Polish buffer state and German territorial expansion into the Baltic lands, Belarus and Northern Ukraine.
So here we seem to have something, that Germany planned a Brest-Litovsk already in 1914, but let us dig deeper. These demands from right-wing nationalists forced Reich Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg (1856-1921) to release a statement, which he did in October 1914. In this memorandum, he defined Germany’s principal aim as the creation of economic hegemony in Central Europe (Mitteleuropa) centred on a customs union with Austria-Hungary, Belgium, the Netherlands, France and a number of other countries. This was to be a self-sufficient economic zone which would enable Germany to sustain the Allied blockade as well as future boycott measures. Only the French iron ore mines at Longwy and Briey were considered for direct annexation.
Planting Trees in East Prussia
The Russian Army for the entire First World War had considerably outnumbered its German and Austrian opposites in combination. For example, by the summer of 1916 the Russian Army stood at nearly one-hundred and forty divisions to a combined total of one-hundred and five for Austria and Germany. Russia was absolutely the single most dangerous opponent of the Central Powers.
This was not just because Russia’s armies were so numerous, it was also because Germany in particular was extremely exposed in the east (Austria not so much, though), and because Russia’s continued participation dispersed Austro-German strength between widely separated theatres beyond mutual assistance.
These factors were all the more exacerbated by the fact that it was impossible to knock Russia out with any rapid coups or occupation of territory. Unlike the French, the Russians could lose men and ground forever. There could be no quick knockout blow on Russia like Schlieffen had intended for France.
What we need to keep in mind above all given what has been said, is that Germany and Austria in no way overthrew Russian power nor decisively weakened Russia through war. Despite their impressive victories the Central Powers had occupied proportionately very little of the Russian Empire and had barely dented its manpower reserves. Russia had plenty more where that came from, but was prevented from continuing, not by German power, but by domestic instability and the political turmoil as a result of economic dislocation which shook the already fragile foundation of Czarist power.
The Germans were acutely aware of this: if we view at the perceptions of the time without presentism, what we’ll find is that the international community had a nigh-universal opinion as Russia being on the path of unstoppable hegemony over Eurasia. Like the United States and Japan, Russia was viewed as a dangerous flanking power to established European powers. Britain feared Russian designs on the Dardanelles, Austria feared pan-Slavism, and as the German proverb went, there’s no point planting trees in East Prussia, the implication being that eventually the Russians would claim it.
Though Russia indeed conceded defeat, mostly because Lenin wished to concentrate on establishing the Bolsheviks in power, because he had promised to end the war, and because he didn’t think the peace would last long anyway, it would be a mistake to imagine that Russia were broken and crushed.
Prospective Treaty Aftermath
When the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed the Russian Army was still intact. Russia had lost but a fraction of her territory to enemy occupation, and had equipment for an army of nearly ten million men. The fact that the Bolsheviks were able to create a juggernaut called the Red Army right after the removal of Russia from the war proves one very important fact; Russia was not anything like finished.
Germany was well aware of the Pandora’s Box whose lid she had thrown off of in the east. The Bolsheviks were no allies and nothing could be expected from them. Their promises were worthless. If Germany battered down France in the west what was there to stop ten million victorious Soviet soldiers from crashing into Germany after they had consolidated power? How would Germany deflect this threat?
Well it would be exceedingly difficult to do once the red tide came rolling her way. So efforts had to be made to take measures to defend herself against such an untrustworthy and chaotic neighbour as the Soviet Union. These measures were stripping Russia of the majority of her industrial resources, including most of her coal and iron together with the agricultural wealth of the Ukraine.
Some see this as Germany’s shameless theft of Russian land in her endless “Drang nach Osten.” It would be more accurate to say that Germany was rather more concerned to keep these resources out of the hands of such an unpredictable and unscrupulous group of men as the Bolshevik Party. Men who signed Brest-Litovsk without hesitation even while they made plans to march on Berlin. Men whose Machiavellian character Germany was quite right to take precautions against.
In the long term the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk would have severely weakened the Russian state. Without the majority of its operational coal and oil sources and the vast agricultural produce of the Ukraine, the Russian state would be forced to import these materials which would both weaken its finances and limit what it could sustain in the field. Since Germany could deny Russia access to the world’s oceans, it would also mean that once engaged in war the Russians could not obtain resources from anywhere except in the case of regaining the territory they had lost.
While it is true that the Bolsheviks found themselves in possession of the Czarist arsenals which could equip an army of ten million, without their recently lost resources and no means to import, these would be impossible to replace. Russian mass production would be no more. Without these crucial resources the Russians could not fight Germany. They could still summon up human resources to create armies to outnumber Germany’s armies, but they could not keep them armed. And so Russia would become something like another China. Plenty of men, but no industrial base to translate manpower into military power.
Brest-Litovsk in the West?
So was Brest-Litovsk harsh? I would say not, given the circumstances. The Bolsheviks still had enough strength to crush the Whites and seize control of Russia, which was their immediate goal. They had enormous human resources at their fingertips and they could have at any time turned these against Germany, who had no means of defending against them except to strip them of their resources while erecting a buffer against them.
Given these considerations I would not conclude that an equally savage treaty would be imposed upon France, as France presents a complete contrast to Russia.
Unlike Russia the French did not have enormous manpower reserves that they could form into armies and unleash upon Germany whenever they felt like doing so. The French were making a supreme effort, and their numbers were insufficient despite conscripting over seventy percent of their male population ages seventeen through forty. The French Army in the field in 1918 was the only army the French nation could muster, if that were defeated there could be no other.
Additionally, France was already deficient in coal, iron, and oil, all of which had to be imported. Because of France’s extensive coastline and close alliance with Britain it would be able to import all of these resources regardless of how much territory Germany took, so seizing coal and iron deposits would be pointless. Germany could take all of France’s coalfields and France could just import cheap coal from Britain which would not slow her production down in the slightest. Therefore taking large stretches of territory would achieve nothing.
France’s leaders were not revolutionaries like the Bolsheviks. Though the French would hardly be likely to be thrilled over German victory, whatever stipulations they agreed to the Germans could be more or less certain they would observe. As we’ve seen, this was absolutely not the case with the Bolsheviks, who regarded treaties as just another tool to bring about the world revolution, whose clauses they had no intention of honouring except insofar as these assisted in their policies.
To put it simply, the Germans appear to have anticipated the probability of fighting the Russians again in the near future, while their victory over France would be more permanent. And the best way to perpetuate peace with France would be lenience. For, unlike Russia, France could import any resource she needed no matter what territory Germany stripped from her, and therefore Germany could not prevent the French from rebuilding and sustaining their armies once their population recovered.
Thus, to say “if Brest-Litovsk is any indication” is to completely ignore or intentionally simplify the reasons for Germany’s imposition of the terms contained within that document. The only thing that Brest-Litovsk is an indication of is Germany’s continued fear and uncertainty of Russian power. It is not a convincing model for hypothetical peace terms offered to France, who was both a much more reliable and much less threatening adversary than Soviet Russia.