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  • Twilight of Empire: The Brest-Litovsk Conference and the Remaking of East-Central Europe, 1917–1918 by Borislav Chernev
  • John Fahey (bio)
Borislav Chernev. Twilight of Empire: The Brest-Litovsk Conference and the Remaking of East-Central Europe, 1917–1918. xviii + 301 pp. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017. ISBN 978-1-4875-0149-5.

The World War I centennial has inspired a flood of new scholarship on the causes and course of the war. The best work, like Christopher Clark's Sleepwalkers and Alexander Watson's Ring of Steel, effectively incorporates the wide variety of perspectives beyond the Western Front. Borislav Chernev's Twilight of Empire is a solid addition to this new World War I historiography, bringing an impressive variety of languages, archives, and sources to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, covering neglected topics ranging from Bulgaria's role at the peace conference to the shifting power dynamics in Ukraine during the negotiations. Several of Chernev's points are revisionist, notably his assertion that though the treaty was harsh to the Russian Empire, it was not necessarily evidence of the Central Powers' vindictiveness. Soviet representatives utterly failed to negotiate in good faith, preferring theatrics to working for a more acceptable peace. Perhaps Chernev's greatest contribution, however, is in tying domestic problems in Russia, Germany, Ukraine, Austria, and elsewhere to the course of peace negotiations.

Chernev argues that any analysis of Brest-Litovsk must first account for the vastly different world views of the negotiators. While this is a very established point, Chernev explores how the Central Powers exploited Soviet demands for national self-determination to break off parts of the former Russian Empire. Within this world, frequent German efforts to delay negotiations make sense as they and their allies jockeyed for position in the disputed lands.

Another major contribution is Chernev's complication of the narrative of Brest-Litovsk. Often portrayed as a Lenin versus Ludendorf struggle for supremacy over East Central Europe, in reality the Austrians, Ottomans, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, and many others held important roles at the table, and Poles and other peoples held some sway over the treaty as well. The shifting governments of Ukraine in particular made this process especially complicated.

Most of the Brest-Litovsk treaty negotiations took place in the context of the January riots in Austria-Hungary. These riots, sparked by long-term food shortages and reduction of rations in Vienna's industrial district, spread across the empire and threatened Austria's ability to continue the war. They also had an immediate impact on Austria's position at Brest-Litovsk, as Foreign Minister Czernin had to negotiate with the threat of imperial collapse at home. These riots likewise prompted Soviet optimism that world revolution was at the door. [End Page 143]

The Lenin-Trotsky dynamic is one of the more contentious elements of historiography around Brest-Litovsk. Trotsky's somewhat unrealistic "no war, no peace" formula has been criticized in Soviet historiography, with Lenin's acceptance of a tactical retreat generally praised. Chernev complicates this dynamic by adding Nikolai Bukharin's insistence on a revolutionary war. Trotsky's proposal thus gave Lenin and Trotsky a bridge that could preserve party unity.

Brest-Litovsk contains many elements of high drama and memorable scenes which are well told in Twilight of Empire. The Soviet delegation contributed many of these, including drunken representatives and overblown theatrics. Perhaps the best known is Trotsky's declaration that "we are going out of the war but we find ourselves compelled to refuse to sign the peace" on 10 February 1918. Trotsky's speech was met with cries of "unheard of" by General Hoffman and others, which delighted the Soviets. They were less delighted by the resumption of Germany's offensive later that month and the resultant harsh peace treaty signed in March.

Chernev's account, though brief, effectively summarizes the results of the treaty by pointing to the massive remaking of East-Central Europe it began, as well as the ensuing ideological battles that would consume the remainder of the 20th century. These are first expressed at Brest-Litovsk as the Soviet Union entered the world stage. National self-determination as a source of legitimacy...


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pp. 143-144
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