- Twilight of Empire: The Brest-Litovsk Conference and the Remaking of East-Central Europe, 1917–1918 by Borislav Chernev
Closely linked to the centennial commemorations of the Great War (1914–18), its significance in modern history has been rediscovered as a source of historical interest in the English language historiography. But, compared to the plethora of new research available on the origins, outbreak, and ending of the war, investigations into the importance of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (1918) has received limited attention. Borislav Chernev's Twilight of Empire: The Brest-Litovsk Conference and the Remaking of East-Central Europe, 1917–1918 [End Page 200] makes a significant contribution to this centennial as well as to the history of East-Central Europe and international relations in this very turbulent era. The importance of the Brest-Litovsk Conference is twofold. First, it marked the international debut of the Bolshevik dual foreign policy of ideological warfare and formal diplomatic negotiations, which played a significant role in the development of international relations over the course of the twentieth century as the Bolsheviks sought to use negotiations as a platform from which to spread proletarian revolution. Second, it reflects the first concerted attempt (in this case, that of the Central Powers) to deal with the emergence of this particular type of social revolution on the international theatre, which, in 1917–18, meant ending the war in the East and providing the war-weary population of Germany and Austria-Hungary the hope of general peace.
Chernev engages in a broad discussion of the diplomatic and international history of the Brest-Litovsk Conference (1917–18) but goes far beyond the limitations usually found in standard diplomatic studies by careful demonstrating links between international developments and dynamics within the Central Power alliance as well as including domestic social discontent in the analysis, particularly in relation to the crumbling Habsburg monarchy. From a theoretical point of view, the book uses the peace conference and its role in forming East Central European history to explain the complex history of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with a particular emphasis on the interdependence of diplomatic negotiations and domestic developments. As such, it stands in sharp contrast to other works that attempted to view the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy and imperial Russia inside the purview of military history. In this process, Chernev has achieved a genuine equality between the international and domestic dimensions of the history of the Eastern Front in 1917–18 and been more attentive to the political ramifications of military policy than most other authors.
A unique feature of the book is a discussion of the advent of the concept of self-determination in international politics. Debates between the German and Russian delegations at Brest-Litovsk about the meaning of this novel concept led to its first application in a major peace settlement. The author has accurately acknowledged that, for the most part, negotiators only paid lip service to this concept, but he claims that its real significance lies in engaging British and American statesmen (Prime Minister Lloyd George and President Wood-row Wilson), who, in turn, felt compelled to draft their own interpretations of its meaning. Thus, Chernev convincingly argues that the concept was firmly ensconced in twentieth-century international relations before the Versailles Conference endorsed it in 1919.
A blind spot in Chernev's work is the absence of Hungarian sources relating to Austria-Hungary's participation in the Brest-Litovsk negotiations. Chernev accurately demonstrates the issues relating to Austria-Hungary; thus, this critical observation points instead to the broader issue of the absence of accurate historical knowledge relating to the Hungarian side of the Habsburg monarchy. While a plethora of research has already emerged [End Page 201] about Hungary's role in the Great War in the Hungarian language, mostly due to language barriers, international and Hungarian academic communities are yet to find adequate links for knowledge sharing. Despite this minor constraint, the work is meticulously researched, drawing abundantly from Austrian and...