Posts Tagged ‘World War I’

Veterans’ Day at the Movies

Posted in General, On This Day on November 11th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 4 Comments

November 11, 1918:  Western Civilization gave itself a slight respite from self-destruction.

Poppy Projector FinishedThe Armistice lasted 20 years, allowing sufficient time for the toddlers of 1918 to grow into their boots and helmets. (And during that respite, corporals and sergeants promoted themselves to Fuhrers and Duces.)

We Americans did actually win the First World War simply because we still had a breathing generation of draft age men and we showed up in France at the right moment. Had the Chinese sent one million men to France in 1918, they could have won the war, too. Timing is everything.

America was barely involved in World War I. We entered the War in 1917, missing all the excitement of Gallipoli, the Somme and Verdun. More doughboys died from influenza than Krupp munitions. Our chief casualties may have been Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, who were constantly escaping “a fate worse than death” from the Hunnish clutches (or whatever the pertinent organ) of Erich von Stroheim in Hollywood’s depictions of the War. (It should be noted that in her long film career Miss Gish was also nearly raped during the French Revolution and the American Civil War.) Given our limited participation in the Great War, we commemorate November 11 as a catch-all day for all of our Veterans.

However if you really want to honor the veterans of the most futile war in history, you can do so any day on Turner Classic Movies. Just turn on a film from the Golden Age of Hollywood and look at the British actors. To a man, they served in a far more harrowing theater than all the terrors of working with Bette Davis. Many of them were left scarred. Herbert Marshall had the unique distinction of being a leading man with a wooden leg. Claude Raines was blind in one eye. When you see Ronald Colman’s fencing in “The Prisoner of Zenda” you wouldn’t know that he had a kneecap shot off. Lieutenant Nigel Bruce was machine-gunned in the buttocks; that is not the kind of wound that gets the Victoria Cross. If Leslie Howard seemed introspective and other-worldly, shellshock can do that. In fact, to save time, let me recite the British actors who somehow avoided being maimed in France. Well, Leo G. Carroll was wounded in the Middle East; at least, he had that originality.

The most veteran of the British veterans was Donald Crisp, the kindly father figure in so many films of the Thirties and Forties. (He did have an incestuous interest in Lillian Gish in “Broken Blossoms”; but you know, I am starting to have my suspicions about Miss Gish. Did the woman gargle pheromones?) Crisp fought in the Boer War and then served again in the Great War.

If you want to see a microcosm of British history, watch the 1940 production of “Pride and Prejudice.” The middle-aged actors–Edmund Gwenn and Melville Cooper– had served in the Great War. The younger members of the cast–Laurence Olivier and Bruce Lester–were to have their turn. The Armistice was about to end.

And Erich von Stroheim would threaten a new generation of actresses.

Perhaps the Most Incompetent Man of All Time

Posted in General, On This Day on August 4th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Judging from his name, Helmuth von Moltke was not the type of person whom you would want to manage a hospice or be a party planner (especially bar mitzvahs). Surprisingly, you would not want him to manage your World War. You would expect a Junker to have unjustified arrogance but not unwarranted caution, yet Helmuth did. And as the Chief of the German General Staff in 1914, he inadvertently saved France.

The Franco-Prussian War had been a leisurely affair, six months of continually humiliating the French. But that was in 1870-71, when the Germans were engaged in an one-front war and were led by a genius. (Otto von Bismarck may have been the model for Lex Luthor.) In 1914, Germany had a two-front war and was led by a blustering dolt. (Wilhelm II may have been the model for George Bush, except Wilhelm spoke excellent English.)

France and Russia made an odd couple, the equivalent alliance of Wallace Shawn and King Kong, but they shared a hatred of Germany. Anticipating a two-front war, the German General Staff planned a strategy to defeat France before the lumbering Russian army could even reach the border. Named for its architect, the von Schlieffen Plan was a timetable of conquest. France now had to fall in six weeks; and to accomplish that, Germany had to outflank the French by attacking through Belgium. Von Schlieffen wanted every possible resource to be in the German force striking through Belgium: any available soldier, any ambulatory male, boy scouts, the heaviest sopranos from Bayreuth. “Strengthen the Right Wing” was Schlieffen’s dogma and probably his politics.

Von Schlieffen had been the chief of staff of the German Army until his retirement in 1906. His position and plan were left to von Moltke, who began fretting over a possible flaw in the strategy. While the German army was attacking from the North, what if the French charged to the east–overwhelming Alsace and reaching the Rhine. Yes, it was a distinct possibility that the French could take Muhlhouse, while the Germans took Paris. It would seem that the Germans would still be ahead in that trade, but Moltke did not want to take any chance. So he reassigned forces from the Northern strike force to the apparently imperiled Rhineland.

On this day in 1914, Germany invaded Belgium. Britain, honoring a treaty with the attacked country–and appreciating an excuse to fight–then declared war on Germany. The British navy was the greatest in world, but its dreadnoughts could not navigate the streams that led to Berlin or Munich. (Coastal Hamburg, however, could have been leveled.) As for the British army–less than a tenth the size of Germany’s, it was literally a joke. Otto von Bismarck once was asked how he would respond if the British army landed in Germany; he replied “I would have a policeman arrest it.”

Von Moltke shared that contempt for the British army. When asked if he should order the German fleet to the English Channel to block the British transport of its army to France, von Moltke dismissed the idea as if it were an insult to the German army. “Let the English come. The German army will defeat them, too.” So, the German navy did nothing, and the unimpeded British fleet transported 140.000 men to France. However, von Moltke had forgotten the strict nature of the von Schlieffen timetable; 140.000 British troops really had not been factored into the Teutonically-precise schedule. Worse, the Russians were not cooperating either. Their lumbering horde was two weeks ahead of German predictions. So von Moltke now was transferring army corps to the Russian Front. (The troops were sent from Belgium; von Moltke left untouched the well-rested forces in Alsace.) He really was entitled to the Croix de Guerre. Paris was saved, the Western Front held, and von Moltke finally noticed a problem. At least, he had the good manners to have a breakdown.

Von Moltke’s ineptitude cost Germany the war, at least a quick victory. But we shouldn’t be grateful to him. We might have been much better off if the von Schlieffen Plan had succeeded, and the world had been spared the ensuing horrors. The Hapsburg Empire actually was rather endearing, and wouldn’t we be happier if the Turks were still occupying Syria, Lebanon and Iraq? As for the Second Reich, just remember the alternative–and the German voters’ taste in chancellors.

Von Moltke ruined it for everyone.vonmoltke sketch a

Second Thoughts on the Second Reich

Posted in General on January 11th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

“Germany is ‘not alone to blame’ for the outbreak of the First World War quote from Die Welt


Yes, for too long we have ignored Belgium’s aggression.

Germany did not have a monopoly on belligerence, myopia and stupidity; but it probably was the majority stockholder.

And the blame largely rests on one particular German.

Kaiser Wilhelm II could have been worse. (Consider the German voters’ subsequent taste in chancellors.) Nevertheless, the Kaiser was a bellicose, bellowing moron.  It takes an uniquely repellent person to inspire a military alliance between Tsarist Russia and Republican France. Britain and Prussia had enjoyed two centuries of excellent relations; then Kaiser Bill opened his mouth, supporting the Boers, announcing his intention to have the World’s powerful navy, and just being his dangerously insufferable self.   Two centuries of amity–and one century of anti-Russian policy ended–and reversed.

Dramatists can be great historians–providing an eloquence that the actual historical figures usually lacked. The British production “The Fall of Eagles” depicts the last days of Imperial Germany; as his Empire collapses, the Kaiser is complaining that he never wanted this war. Hearing of the Imperial tantrum, Hindenburg agrees. “It is true. The Kaiser never wanted a war. He only wanted a victory.”

Brilliant Plans, 1916

Posted in General, On This Day on February 21st, 2011 by Eugene Finerman – 4 Comments

February 21st

The Romans consider March the appropriate beginning of the year; it was the first month when the weather was suitable for a war.  In 1916, Erich von Falkenhayn couldn’t wait a week.  The Chief of Staff of the German Army had a strategy with all the subtlety you’d expect from a Prussian.  With a larger population than France, Germany could win a war of attrition.  So von Falkenhayn would force France into a battle that would be–as the Germans termed it–a meat grinder.  The German attack, beginning this day in 1916, was against the French fortifications near the city of Verdun.

Von Falkenhayn should have been aware that the French had allies.  Perhaps he dismissed the Russians as an ill-supplied horde led by imbeciles.  But the British had proved tenacious, and Vicks armaments were nearly as good as Krupps.  Indeed, the British would mount an offensive to relieve Verdun, and that effort was the Somme.  It turned out that the British were a well-supplied horde led by imbeciles.  (The junior officers, however, proved fine poets–even if the acclaim was usually posthumous.)

But Von Falkenhayn also overlooked the calibre of his ally.  The Austrians were an adequately-supplied, polyglot mob more likely to defect than fight; and their commanders were more conspicuous for their charm than ability.  (The last decade of the Hapsburg Empire was described by a British diplomat as “situation critical but not serious.”)  True, the Austrians were only facing the Russians but what if….

And that IF actually happened.  In June, four Russian armies attacked the Austrian lines in the Ukraine and Southern Poland.  The campaign, named for its commander Alexei Brusilov, lasted until September when the Russians finally ran out of supplies; but in that time, the Austrians lost 15,000 square miles, 1.5 million men– including 400,000 prisoners, and any claim to having an army.  The Brusilov Offensive was actually the greatest victory of the War; if it had happened on the Western Front, the War would have ended.  But the incompetent Tsarist government and the disintegrating Russian society couldn’t support this unparalleled victory.  Russia no longer could afford to win a battle, let alone fight it.

However, Russia’s victory was France’s salvation.  To keep Austria-Hungary from collapsing, 15 German divisions were rushed from France to the Eastern Front.  So the French held on to Verdun, losing 160,000 men but not their will to fight (at least until 1940).  Having lost 140,000 men themselves, the Germans abandoned the campaign.  Von Falkenhayn could claim his attrition strategy had succeeded, but Kaiser and the German General Staff didn’t seem to agree.

The general was replaced.  He eventually would be reassigned as the military advisor to the Ottoman Empire.  There, no one expected him to win.


The Best Laid Plans….

Posted in General, On This Day on February 19th, 2010 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

It is February 19, 1915 and you are invited on an all expense paid cruise of the Mediterranean. Tour the charming shores of the Dardanelles on our way to Constantinople! (Itinerary subject to change.)

Quite a change! How should I describe Gallipoli? Imagine if Gettysburg had lasted 11 months and every day was a disaster. Of the 500,000 men in the Allied expedition, half of them were killed or wounded. The casualty rates among the Australians and New Zealanders were nearly one hundred percent; entire ANZAC battalions were wiped out in the campaign. To this day, Gallipoli–the heroism, the horrors and the futility– is seared in the history and consciousness of Australia and New Zealand. They remember Gallipoli, and the British incompetence that caused it.

Ironically, the strategy behind the campaign was brilliant. With its complete mastery of the sea, the British navy would force its way up the Dardanelle Straits, seize Constantinople, knock Turkey out of the war, open the Black Sea and supply the beleaguered Russians on the Eastern Front. Yes, the idea was brilliant, but reality was not accommodating.

When the combined British and French fleets first undertook their expedition–on this day in 1915— they found the channel had been mined and the Turkish batteries were more accurate than expected. Faced with unanticipated losses and unnerved by further uncertainties, the fleets retreated. In fact, they had already encountered the worst and would have had a comparatively mild cruise to Constantinople. The Allies did not know that, however, and the Turks did not bother to correct them.

The Allies had an alternative plan. They would land an expeditionary force on the coast along the Dardanelles, and brushing aside the surprised and sparse Turkish forces, march to Constantinople. Of course, the aborted naval expedition had made the Turks and their German advisers aware of the Allies’ intentions; and so they prepared for a second attack. The Dardanelles were no longer lightly defended.

Furthermore, there was an obvious place for the Allies to begin such an invasion: a peninsula jutting from the straits. It was called Gallipoli. Six weeks after the failed naval attack, the Allied troops began landing on Gallipoli.
But nothing seemed to go right. The troops were not transported to the right locations. Instead of disembarking on wide, gently sloping beaches, the soldiers found themselves trying to scale cliffs. As for the light, sparse Turkish resistance, there were six divisions and they fought ferociously.

The Allies did establish their beachheads but in eleven months, they never got much further than where they had originally landed. Their brilliant strategy had resulted in a irretrievable military disaster. The Allies had no hope of success and no choice but to evacuate.

It was a Turkish victory and one general, who had been distinguished for his leadership, would in a few years become the founder and first president of the Turkish Republic. Mustafa Kemal remains a hero of Turkey.

It was a British catastrophe and the Lord Admiral of the Navy, who had conceived the brilliant strategy, resigned in disgrace. He was given the rank of colonel on the Western Front and he half-hoped to be killed in action. But he survived, a heavy-drinking eccentric, an entertaining but dismissed backbencher in Parliament.

He had skill as a writer and lecturer and was able to make a living with his theatrical talents. As he aged, he became increasingly outspoken and belligerent, an imperial anachronism in a mundane, accommodating world.   But he thought of himself, not as a has-been or a relic, but as a thundering Jeremiah who foretold the gathering storm.

And he made himself heard with an eloquence that defined history. The scapegoat of 1915 would become the Prime Minister of 1940.

Dulce et Decorum Est

Posted in General on November 4th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 3 Comments

November 4, 1918:  Wilfred Owen Completes His Epic


A Story of Three Poets

Rupert Brooke found life too perfect.  He was acclaimed as a poet, adored for his looks, born into a time of prosperity and peace, an Englishman “under an English heaven.”  Even bisexuality can be a bore when you are object of everyone’s lust.  Lord Byron would have sympathized.   But on his 27th birthday, Brooke received a present that alleviated his malaise:  a World War.  It would have been unpatriotic to write a thank you to Kaiser Wilhelm, but Brooke did thank another War Lord. 

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour, 
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping, 

With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power, 

To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping, 

Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary, 

Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move, 

And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary, 

And all the little emptiness of love!

Brooke was not being sardonic.  He welcomed the glorious adventure.  Perhaps his idea of war was a David painting:  noble poses in epaulets.  The only intentional irony was the poem’s title:  “Peace.”  Naval Lieutenant Rupert Brooke would be dead within a year, succumbing to an infection from a mosquito bite.


Siegfried Sassoon may have had an innate appreciation of absurdity.  He was born in England, but his father was an Iraqi Jew and he was named for a German opera.  The Sassoons were rich; they had been court financiers and merchant kings when the Rothschilds were still pawnbrokers.    So Siegfried had the privileges of an English gentleman–without being fully-accepted as one.  He had no interest in the Sassoon business enterprises; he wanted to be a poet and the family allowance kept him from starving.  The War gave the 28- year-old his first real job;  a second-lieutenant’s commission was the least that the army could offer a Cambridge man. 

Lieutenant Sassoon would distinguish himself for heroism; his almost reckless feats earned him a Military Cross and the nickname of Mad Jack.  Yet, ever the outsider, in 1917 Sassoon breached the officer club decorum by writing public protests against the horrors and futility of the war.  He might have been court-martialed but the Army did not want to give him any further publicity; it simply announced that Sassoon had a nervous breakdown and confined him to a military hospital in a conveniently isolated part of Scotland.  To earn his release and return to active duty, Sassoon agreed to refrain from further political protests.  The army, however, did not have the foresight to censor his poetry.

Does it matter?-losing your legs?

For people will always be kind,

And you need not show that you mind

When others come in after hunting

To gobble their muffins and eggs.


Does it matter?-losing you sight?

There’s such splendid work for the blind;

And people will always be kind,

As you sit on the terrace remembering

And turning your face to the light.


Do they matter-those dreams in the pit?

You can drink and forget and be glad,

And people won’t say that you’re mad;

For they know that you’ve fought for your country,

And no one will worry a bit.

Whether it was luck, irony or both, Siegfried Sassoon survived the Great War and died an octogenarian in 1967.


Wilfred Owen was not rich or celebrated.  He did not even go to Cambridge or Oxford.  The University of Reading?  Now really!   In fact, he would not have been an officer but for the fact that so many of the proper types were already dead by 1916.  But the War made him an officer and a poet.  “My subject is War, and the pity of War.  The poetry is in the pity.”


What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells,

Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

   “Anthem for Doomed Youth”

On November 4, 1918 Lieutenant Wilfred Owen, recipient of the Military Cross, was killed in action.  He was 25.   World War I ended a week later.

What’s In a Name: On This Day in 1917

Posted in On This Day on July 17th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 3 Comments

After three ghastly years of war with cousin Willy, the royal family of Britain felt pressured to change its name. Saxe-Coburg-Gotha sounded unpatriotic. Indeed, the British royal family was quite German. Although born in London, Queen Mary was Teck-nically German. The mother of King George was (mercifully) Danish, but his paternal ancestry was almost completely Deutsch. (There had been a Scottish/Danish great- great- etc. grandmother almost three hundred years earlier.) The family decided to rename itself the impeccably anglophile guise of Windsor.

I have done a calculation of the British ancestry of the Royal family. You may need a microscope.

George V was 3/32768 English. By comparison, he was much more Scottish: 3/4096. The rest of his ancestors were German or Danish. However, George VI actually married a nice British girl. But then his daughter had to marry ein Battenberg (even if the family tactfully translated it to Mountbatten).

It is ironic but British law does not require the monarch to be British. The sole requirement is that he or she be Protestant.  At the penalty of disinheritance, a member of the Royal Family is prohibited from marrying a Catholic.

However, the prohibition does not apply to other religions. So, in theory, Prince Charles could have married Nigella Lawson (Levinson actually) or Rachel Weisz.

On This Day in 1915

Posted in General, On This Day on May 7th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

May 7th

LusitaniaOn May 7, 1915, U-boat Kommandant Walther Schwieger had to make a difficult choice.  Would he want 4,200,000 rifle bullets  to reach his English enemies or would he prefer 100,000,000  Americans to join the war against Germany.  Deciding that the bullets were a more immediate danger, Schwieger sank the ocean liner transporting the bullets–along with 1900 passengers and crew.  The ship was the Lusitania.

One torpedo was sufficient to sink the British ship.  Even Schwieger admitted that it was a lucky shot.   The Lusitania sank in only 18 minutes.  It took even less time for 1198 people to drown.  The victims included 128 Americans.  Schwieger also succeeded in sinking any neutrality in American public opinion.

Up until that time the Americans dismissed the Great War as just as another elaborate, convoluted European opera except that the main characters really were trying to kill each other.  The public consensus had no preferences.  Yes, Kaiser Wilhelm did seem repellent but so did the British Empire.  Just ask the large number of Irish-Americans.  Among the growing Jewish population in America, Tsar Nicholas II was not fondly remembered; pogroms rarely are.   Furthermore, many Americans were of German descent and felt a certain nostalgia for the Vaterland; they had no wish to see their new country fight their old one.

The sinking of the Lusitania ended America’s indifference.  Popular sympathy was now with the Allies, and many were ready to act on that sentiment: fight the Hun!  Responding to America’s outrage, the Germans attempted to justify the sinking of Lusitania by offering desiccated legalese.  The German government had publicly announced its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare against any enemy shipping; it had placed ads in American newspapers!  Obviously, the passengers of the Lusitania should have known better.  The Teutonic jurisprudence did not satisfy the public outrage.  Indeed, within a few months the German government decided to refrain from sinking passenger ships.  (In the meantime, Lieutenant Schwieger sank the R.M.S. Hesperian–a hospital ship; the Second Reich did have some standards and apologized for that.)

America was ready for war, but President Wilson was not.  He had two reservations.  The first was political:  he wanted to be reelected in 1916 and he couldn’t be sure how all those Irish-American Democrats would feel about a military alliance with Britain.  (The American Jews would be placated and gratified by the appointment of Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court, and the German-Americans tended to vote Republican anyway.)  His second reservation was philosophical, and our only Ph.D. President took his philosophy very seriously.  If America was to go to war, there had to be a nobler reason than revenge for the Lusitania or a visceral dislike of the Kaiser and German brutality.  America needed an aspiration to justify war.  If this were a war between democracy and autocracy, then Wilson would have committed our nation to the fight.  But the Allies included Tsarist Russia–a tyranny far more repressive than Germany.  While the Tsar reigned, President Wilson would maintain America’s neutrality.

But the Tsar fell in March, 1917 and Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany the next month.  The American victims on the Lusitania at last would be avenged.

As for Lieutenant Schwieger, in 1917 he finally had the misfortune to confront an armed ship.  Attempting to flee, he piloted his U-boat into a minefield.  In his last moments, he knew what it was like to be on the Lusitania.

Douglas Haig’s Stroll in the Country

Posted in General on July 1st, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – 3 Comments

The plan of Field Marshall Douglas Haig had an undeniable logic. A week-long bombardment–1,500,000 shells of heavy artillery–along a 20-mile front in northern France would obliterate any German defenses. Then, 150,000 British soldiers would simply occupy the valley, leaving the exposed remnants of the German lines prey to three divisions of cavalry. And tally-ho Berlin! The British soldiers were told to take along their full kits–70 pounds of equipment and supplies–because this operation was really more of a relocation than an attack. Battalions were even ordered to move in formation: eight lines of troops, five yards apart. It would be good practice for so many raw recruits. That splendid procession occurred on this day–July 1–1916.

However, the procession was not quite as splendid as expected. While the British artillery had rained 1,500,000 shells on the German defenses, some logistical misunderstanding resulted in the use of shrapnel instead of high explosives. That would have been fatal to any number of German sunbathers who chose to ignore the bombardment, but it had negligible effect on the trenchworks. Furthermore, the British underestimated the quality of German engineering. They assumed that the German trenchworks were just as shoddy as the British. (On the contrary, if you like the engineering of German cars, you would really love their trenches.) So, in fact, the German fortifications were still largely extant and bristling with the finest quality machine guns. The British bombardment had only succeeded in eliminating the element of surprise.

So began the first day on the Somme.

General Haig expected 150,000 men–in three waves–to advance up to three miles, overrunning two lines of German fortifications. However, only 100,000 men participated in the attack. In some sectors, the second and third waves could not move past the dead and wounded of the first wave. Some regiments had casualties of ninety percent; in effect, they ceased to exist. Despite the odds and obstacles, moving under fire with the weight of a full kit, British troops succeeded in taking some sectors of the Germans’ first line of trenches. Some British soldiers even reached the second line of trenches; the lucky ones were captured.

General Haig expected the attack to continue the next day. The division commanders told him that it was impossible; the generals did not even know how many men they had left. It took three days to get an accurate account of the losses. Of the 100,000 men who made the attack on July 1, 20,000 were dead and 40,000 wounded. This proved to be the worst day in the history of the British army. By contrast, the German losses seemed almost frivolous: 8,000 dead and wounded, 2,000 captured.

And this was just the first day on the Somme. The slaughter would continue through November. At the cost of 620,000 casualties the Allies would gain five miles, and they never achieved the breakthrough that would end the war. But if this was a Pyrrhic victory, the Germans still had little reason to celebrate. Their casualties amounted to 450,000.

Douglas Haig was not courtmartialed, demoted or transferred as military attache to Brazil. He remained the Field Marshall of the British forces, After the war, he was made an earl and received an award of 100,000 sterling. (He did not need the money; the Haig family had a very successful distillery.) History’s judgment, however, has been less generous: “the butcher of the Somme”.

Trick or Treaty

Posted in General, On This Day on December 14th, 2007 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Do two wrongs make a right wing? Your standard high school history text will say that the Treaty of Versailles was an injustice to the German people. If you don’t dwell on the barbarian invasions, the Thirty Years War, Frederick the Great, Otto von Bismarck, and certain events of 1914, the Germans never showed a predilection for war. So the punitive and exploitive nature of the Treaty of Versailles was unjustified and unprecedented.

Except, if you are so petty to bring up the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. That was the punitive and exploitive treaty imposed by Imperial Germany on Russia in March, 1918. Germany, with a bit of help but mostly wishful thinking from Austria-Hungary, had won the Great War on the Eastern Front. It is a tribute to Russia’s stamina that her ill-led, untrained, occasionally armed troops withstood three years of slaughter by the very uncharitable Germans. By 1917, however, the Russians had adopted a decisive defensive tactic: killing their officers and deserting. Of course, this left the German army with no opposition to keep them out of Poland, the Ukraine and the Baltic States.

Furthermore, those sly Germans had subsidized the Bolshevik coup that had seized power in November, 1917. The Bolsheviks had pledged to withdraw Russia from the war and Imperial Germany certainly found that a worthwhile goal. The only problem was the details of the Treaty. In return for Lenin’s train fare from Switzerland, Germany demanded that Russia cede Poland, the Baltic States, the Ukraine, Belarus, and Finland. When confronted with those terms, Leon Trotsky walked out of the negotations. So the German army continued to walk into Poland, the Baltic States and the Ukraine. Trotsky walked back and signed away three centuries of Russian acquisitions in Europe. In the lands ceded by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Russia had lost half of her industries, nine-tenths of her coal mines and one third of her population.

Of course, that one third of the population did not mind losing Mother Russia but they were not exactly liberated either. While less tyrannical than Tsarist or Soviet Russia, Imperial Germany was no champion of liberal democracy. In the German scheme of things, Finland would be a monarchy; the Kaiser’s brother-in-law was available for that throne. Latvia and Estonia would be merged into a colony of Germany known as the United Baltic Duchy; of course, the Duke would be another German prince. Wilhelm of Wurtemberg was designated to be the King of Lithuania; in a gesture of ethnic sensitivity, however, Wilhelm offered to change his name to Mindaugas. As for Poland, don’t you mean East Prussia? The Ukraine and Belarus would be allowed nominal independence; but you can imagine that Krupp and Siemens would be operating the coal mines. Think of it as Heilaburton.

For all practical purposes, the Baltic Sea would have been a tributary of the Rhine. But the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk only lasted as long as the Imperial Army did. It collapsed before the onslaught of two million Doughboys and a medley of George Cohan songs. (In the wake of the German defeat, the Soviets regained the Ukraine and Belarus. The Finns and the Poles successfully defended themselves. The British guaranteed the independence of the Baltic States, moving in as the Germans left; the Soviets were fighting so many wars that they decided to forgo one over Estonia.)

Now, the peace terms were dictated to Germany. It had to admit responsiblity for the war and pay reparations. Germany found that outrageous; after all, it had only attacked Belgium in self-defense. Yet, as much as Germany protested, the Treaty of Versailles was not as onerous as the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Otherwise, Bavaria would have been ceded to Italy in reparations for the Visigoths’ sack of Rome, and Bayreuth would have been restricted to performing Gilbert & Sullivan. (Yes, that actually would have been an improvement.)

So, the next time you hear the historical bromides about “the follies of Versailles”, mention Brest-Litovsk and venture what terms the Germans would have imposed on the West. Ireland, Algeria and India would have become independent earlier. After all, the Kaiser had several sons.