Brest-Litovsk at 100: Re-evaluating a Misunderstood Peace
The treaty concluded between the Central Powers and the Bolsheviks at Brest-Litovsk in March
1918 is ripe for a re-evaluation. It was denounced at the time by the western Allies (and the
Bolsheviks) as an act of imperial German aggression, proof that the war had been launched by
Germany to bring the continent under its control. In the 1930s the British historian John
Wheeler-Bennett gave scholarly credibility to this claim by elaborating on it and fortifying it in
his book Brest-Litovsk: The Forgotten Peace, March 1918. The horrors inflicted on the region by
the Nazis only reinforced the view that Brest-Litovsk had been an eruption of a pathological
German drive to dominate its neighbors. This helps explain the enduring influence of Wheeler-
Bennet’s book, which remains, to this day, the single most influential work on the treaty. General
histories of the war, as well as accounts focused more narrowly on Germany, tend to dismiss
Brest-Litovsk (if it is mentioned at all) as both an expression of a German bid for world power
and as a foreshadowing of Nazi conquest. Other historiographical traditions provide different
views, however, views that have not yet affected the broader conversation about how to make
sense of the treaty. In Ukrainian, Polish, and Baltic history, for example, the treaty marks the
welcome end of Russian rule over these nations and therefore a significant moment in the
development of their respective independence movements. Further afield, forthcoming work by
the historian Timothy Nunan on how the treaty was perceived in Persia illustrates that Great
Britain’s denunciations of German ‘imperialism’ rang hollow in some parts of the world, while
Germany was perceived as a much more credible champion of the rights of weaker nations.
In sum, this suggests it is high time to ask new questions about Brest-Litovsk and its meaning.
Toward this end, my paper at this conference will advance three key arguments: first, that the
Germans and Austrians were reacting in an improvised way to highly contingent events in central
Europe, rather than imposing some sort of pre-formulated plan for imperial rule on it; second,
that the treaty is best understood as an attempt to control, and possibly arrest, the disintegration
of empire in western Russia (a process that arguably continues to this day, with profoundly
destabilizing consequences); and, third, that when the Central Powers announced that the final
settlement of the region would be determined “in agreement with . . . [its] population,” this was
meant at least somewhat sincerely, as German and Austrian occupation policies during the war
The Politics of Recognition at the Paris Peace Conference
Leonard V. Smith
In its simplest form, recognition in international relations refers typically to a
bilateral act, in which an existing state announces that it accepts the existence of another
state as sovereign. The two states then exchange ambassadors, and commence regular
diplomacy. As the Great War begin to come to an end in the fall of 1918, recognition and
non-recognition became much more collective. Bilateral recognition could have the effect
of nudging other Allied and Associated Powers toward a collective decision. As the Paris
Peace Conference established itself and proceeded to build a new international system
with itself at the center, recognition became a central, and ultimately the only, form of
power it held over vast swaths of Europe and beyond in which it had little or no material
force. This paper will examine the complex politics of recognition from the fall of 1918
to the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.
International law scholars follow two broad paths toward explaining what
recognition actually does. According to the constitutive theory of recognition, the
international system creates new states by recognizing them as members of the system.
According to the declarative theory of recognition, in contrast, recognition simply
recognizes state sovereignty that already exists. States, in other words, create their own
sovereignty. States participating in multilateral recognition would stress the constitutive
theory, new ethno-national states the declarative theory. The two theories would thus
operate in competition with one another in peacemaking after the Great War.
The paper will explore the various registers in which recognition operated at the
Paris Peace Conference. The allies recognized “Czechoslovakia” as a sovereign liberal
democracy and as a co-belligerent at a time when neither its national committee nor its
military forces occupied any national territory. Yet Czechoslovakia became the model for
recognition elsewhere, and an increasingly problematic one. Minority treaties sought to
“create” new states through compelling them to agree to protect certain specified groups
as the price of recognition. The conference used recognition as a weapon against Soviet
Hungary. By the end of 1919, recognition proved the only weapon the conference had left
at its disposal against Romania in it struggle for unrestrained national sovereignty. The
Conference of Lausanne of 1922-23, strictly speaking, was not part of the Paris Peace
Conference. But it proved a giant stage for recognition in the postwar international
system. At Lausanne, post-Ottoman Turkey consolidated its victory in Anatolia in 1922m
while Bolshevik Russia began its long transition from outcast to restored Great Power.
Elusive Equality: Japan’s Leadership and the Postwar Issue of Race
Japan’s quest for diplomatic equality as a sovereign nation began as soon as it was forced to sign the so-called unequal treaties with the Western Powers in the late 1850s. Japan’s tactic was to patiently negotiate as it modernized every aspect of its young nation. Assisted by shift in international politics, Japan was able to jettison the humiliating policy of extraterritoriality by the 1890s. However, Japan still needed to become a power in its own right to achieve completely equal footing. The catalyst for this was Japan’s stunning victory in the Russo-Japanese which enable Japan to attain the status of a major player in East Asia. But a rapidly emerging Japan had the unintended consequence exacerbating American racial fears of Japanese as a non-White power which could pose a threat to the US. This manifested itself in the 1906 San Francisco School Board incident which marked the beginning of the US-Japan row over the immigration problem which was very much grounded in racial prejudice. Although tensions were temporarily alleviated by the 1908 Gentlemen’s agreement, under the tenure of President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921), two crucial anti-Japanese legislations were enacted in California which severely injured Japan’s racial pride. Furthermore, Japan’s bid to include a racial equality clause in the League of Nations Covenant during the 1919 Peace Conference was frustrated due to obstruction by President Wilson. The apogee of the race issue was the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act by the 68th Congress, which effectively closed America’s door to Japanese immigration. The Japanese would never forget this “Day of Humiliation” and it political and military leaders became deeply disillusioned by a nation that was espousing the values of freedom and democracy.
As “equality” had been a crucial quest in Japan’s modernity, such rejection would leave a lasting scar and would eventually send it on a reverse trajectory of “leaving the West and returning to Asia (Datsuou nyu a).” Thus the racial component was a key factor in Japan move toward Pan Asianism and it attempt to alter the status quo and establish a “New order in East Asia (Toa shintschujo) during the 1930s.
With this as a backdrop, this paper will attempt to show how sensitive Japan’s political and military leaders were to the concept of racial equality throughout the interwar period. Race was a particularly sticky issue to deal with since it could not be simply overcome through military or economic prowess. To be sure, Japan did not treat its Asian neighbors as equals, but as a nation that had successfully modernized, Japan’s leaders felt that it had earned the right to be treated on equal footing as the other major powers. Moreover, Japanese racial sensitivity was further heightened by the scepter of its humiliating past of having to endure the unequal treaties as well as it its enlarged sense of national pride/prestige as the sole non-White nation among the Big Five powers. Although removed from the traditional realist paradigm of power and national interest, this paper will argue that the issue of race is a critical and understudied aspect which shaped prewar Japanese diplomacy. Finally, the paper will also examine the ultimate irony of Japanese foreign policy of the 1930s. How did a nation so sensitive to race end up entering into alliance with one the world’s most racist regimes: Hitler’s Nazi Germany.