The Negotiations at Brest-Litovsk: New York Times Coverage from January 1st to 12th, 1918
The New York Times coverage of negotiations at Brest-Litovsk between January 1 and January 12, 1918, reflected the newspaper's preoccupation with Germany during wartime and her ulterior motives. It also evinced skepticism about the Bolsheviks' sincerity in their claims about not wanting a separate peace. The Times published articles that spoke to the German desire for annexations on the Eastern Front, particularly in Poland, as well as articles that insinuated Germany's attempt to negotiate with the Bolsheviks was designed to split the Entente. In addition, these articles expressed doubt about the Bolsheviks' overall honesty during negotiations, as if their delegates were always going to obtain a separate peace, despite claims to refuse any terms that conflicted with their peace without annexations or indemnities formula.
To place this paper and its analysis in a proper context, a few details must be understood. The Great War, now known as World War I, had been raging in Europe and parts of the Middle East since August of 1914, when Germany declared war on first Russia, then France and Belgium.1. The fact that Germany declared war first is crucial to grasp, as it lays the foundation for The New York Times and its coverage of negotiations at Brest-Litovsk. As Elmer Davis wrote, "The chief public services of The Times in the war was that from the very beginning it understood where the rights and wrongs of the conflict lay…[and] it never ceased to maintain that position with all the vigor which its editors were able to command."2
Russia entered the war as Imperial Russia and left as a broken country, torn apart by the Bolsheviks and their opponents. Czar Nicholas II had abdicated in March of 1917, as a result of the February Revolution, but the Provisional Government put in place afterwards was never able to secure the country and was easy prey for the Bolsheviks, a situation that will be explained in more detail at a later point in the paper. One of the first actions the Bolsheviks took was to open the door to peace negotiations in order to get Russia out of the war, leading to meetings with the Central Powers at Brest-Litovsk, Poland. These conferences were followed by the rest of the word, most notably The New York Times and its various correspondents.
It became obvious that The New York Times was hostile to Germany from the outset of the war. The Times was not particularly a fan of the Bolsheviks either, but Russia was still a part of the Allied Powers at the time and received slightly less negative coverage. In the ten articles examined for the purposes of this paper, Germany and her people were referred to as Teutons no less than ten times, and at least once in each article. This term, though historically rooted in the area, does not appear to be used in a kind manner. The Times did not show its hostility to Germany just by using this term, but in their overall coverage of the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk.
In the early part of the month, The Times focused on the Allied reaction to the negotiations and their opinion that the negotiations taking place were not serious because Russia was not the same country as it had been at the beginning of the war, and therefore should not negotiate without the Allies. However, the concept of peace was so important that an "offer will be considered not only on the merits of the proposed basis for peace, but also and more particularly with the view of applying the 'acid test' to the sincerity of the Berlin Government."3
Due to their suspicion of the Berlin government, the notion that these negotiations were designed to split the Entente came across quite clearly. "Germany is believed to be prepared to offer almost any conceivable bait to an individual enemy in order to drive a wedge into the Entente and cause its disruption, and having succeeded measurably with Russia, is trying to get that nation to influence her late allies."4 This theme of trying to split the Entente recurs over the next week of coverage. On January 2, it was reported "Germany will ask the Russians to help them in forcing Russian peace terms on the Entente Allies."5
Arthur Ransome's cable to The Times on January 9, 1918 revealed that Leon Trotsky distrusted Allies, believing they wanted a separate peace because it would make Germany settle in the west faster. 6 This article continues with an assertion that the Bolsheviks will continue to fight the war unless, as one of the headlines proclaims, "Terms Desired Are Accepted By Teutons." Arthur Ransome might be the only man alive who truly believed that. The concept that the Bolsheviks would continue to fight the war was examined in greater detail at a later point, but it's worth taking a closer look at Arthur Ransome and his place in revolutionary Russia to place his article in a better context.
Arthur Ransome had been in Russia since before the revolution and as a result, he was "so much at home with Russians that he could see the Revolution through their eyes [and this] gave [his] articles special authenticity."7 He lacked any serious knowledge about the workings of politics and saw this as an advantage because it meant he had no party loyalty. 8 His second wife, Evgenia Shelpina worked as Trotsky's secretary 9 and British intelligence in later decades would reveal that she had been smuggling diamonds to support Comintern, an organization founded in Moscow to promote the speed of spreading communism in the world. Though the British government seemed satisfied with Ransome's loyalty10, it's difficult to take his objectivity for granted and therefore, this particular article and its assertion that it is the Allies that want separate peace is suspect, and it is the only article in this group that even suggests such a thought.
The prospects of a separate peace made many nervous, especially with the possibility that Russia would cede territory to Germany and liberate some nations. The Times refers to an article written in The Daily Chronicle, saying that "…the establishment of Finland as anti-Russian State which cannot stand alone",11 insinuating that Finland will fall under German control. In effect, the Baltic Sea, with its rim nations of Denmark, Germany, Finland, Sweden and Russia, would fall under German control as she would be the only strong and stable nation left.
Whether this would have happened no longer matters, but to someone reading the paper at the time, it might have encouraged panic at the idea of a separate peace. No one wanted Germany to become any stronger, which led to The Times and their assertion that peace would be bad for democracy because any concessions made by Russia would make Germany stronger, giving more weight to her eventual victory. It would be "ensuring the virtual enslavement of Russia, as it would be a victory for the military caste in Germany." 12Continued on Next Page »
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