File No. 763.72119/1228½

The Chargé in Switzerland ( Wilson) to the Secretary of State


2540. Department’s 1406, January 28.1 Czernin said:2

It is my duty to give a faithful picture of the peace negotiations, discuss the various phases of the results reached to date, and draw those conclusions which are true, logical and justified. It seems to me above all that those who seem to find the course of the negotiations too slow are not able to have even a slight idea of the difficulties which are naturally met in them everywhere. In what follows I shall describe these difficulties, but would like to point out in advance the cardinal difference between the peace negotiations at Brest Litovsk and all those which ever took place in history.

Never, so far as I know, have peace negotiations taken place in [public] view. It is quite impossible that negotiations which approach the present ones in extent and depth can take their course smoothly and without obstacles from the very beginning. Our task is to build a new world, and rebuild all which this most trying of wars has destroyed and trampled to the ground. The various phases of all peace negotiations which we know have developed more or less behind closed doors, and their results have been told to the world only after the negotiations were completed. All histories teach, and it is easily understood, that the troublesome road of such peace negotiations always leads up and down, that prospects are more favorable some days, less favorable others. But when these various phases, these details of each day are telegraphed to the world, it is quite easily understood they act like electric shocks in the present condition of nervousness which rules in the world, and that they excite public opinion. We were completely aware of the disadvantage of this procedure. Still we immediately gave way to the desire of the Russian Government for publicity, because we wished to show ourselves friendly, and because we have nothing to hide, and also because it might have made a false impression had we insisted on a method of provisional secrecy. But the consequent other [fact] of this complete publicity of negotiations is that the great public, that the country behind the front, and that, above all, the leaders [must] keep their nerves steady. The game must be finished in cold blood and it will come to a good end if the peoples of the Monarchy support its responsible representatives at the peace conference.

In advance let it be said that the basis on which Austria-Hungary treats with the various newly created Russian governments is: No compensations nor annexations. That is the program which I stated briefly to those who wanted [me to] speak about peace after my nomination as Minister, which I have repeated to the Russian people [Page 55] m power on their first offer of peace, and from which I will not deviate. Those who believe I can be crowded off the road which I purpose to go are bad psychologists. I have never let the public be in doubt as to the road which I go, and I have never allowed myself to be crowded from this road a hair’s breadth either to right or left. Since then I have become the undisputed darling of the Pan-Germans and those in the Monarchy who imitate the Pan-Germans. At the same time I am calumniated as an inciter to war by those who want peace at any price, of which innumerable letters are proof. Neither has ever troubled me. On the contrary, these double insults are my only amusement in these hard times. I declare once more I demand not a square [foot] nor a penny from Russia, and if Russia, as it seems to do, puts itself on that point of view also, peace will be made. Those who want peace at any price might have doubts as to my nonannexationist purposes towards Russia if I did not tell them with the same inconsiderate openness that I shall never allow myself to make a peace which transcends the form I have just sketched. Should our Russian fellow peacemakers demand the cession of territory from us, or indemnity, I should continue the war despite the desire for peace which I have as well as you, or would resign if I could not make my view prevail.

Having said this in advance, and I emphasize it once more, that there is no reason for the pessimistic view that peace will fail, since the negotiating committees have agreed on the basis of no annexations nor contributions—and only new instructions [from the] various Russian governments or their disappearance, could change this basis—I now proceed to [the two] greatest difficulties which contain reasons why the negotiations are not progressing as rapidly as we all should like.

The first difficulty is that we are not treating with one Russian peacemaker, but with various newly created Russian governments, which have not clearly defined among themselves their spheres of competency. The governments in question are, [firstly, that] part of Russia which is led by St. Petersburg; secondly, our own new neighboring state, great Ukrainia; thirdly, Finland; and fourthly, the Caucasus. With the first two states we treat directly, with the two others now only more or less indirectly, because they have to date sent no negotiators to Brest Litovsk. These four Russian fellow peacemakers are met by us four Powers, and the case of the Caucasus, in which we naturally have no difficulties to remove, but which is in conflict with Turkey, shows the extent of the subjects of discussion.

What interests us especially and chiefly is the newly created great state which will be our neighbor in future, Ukrainia. We have gotten very far in our negotiations with this delegation. We have agreed on the above-mentioned basis of no annexations nor compensations, and have agreed that and how commercial relations with the newly created republic are to be reestablished. But this very example of Ukrainia shows one of the ruling difficulties. While the Ukrainian Republic holds the view that it has the right to treat with us quite autonomously and independently, the Russian delegation stands on the basis that the boundaries of its country and those of Ukrainia have not been definitely fixed, and St. Petersburg consequently [Page 56] has a right to participate in our negotiations with Ukrainia, a view which the gentlemen of the Ukrainian delegation do not care to agree with. But this troubled situation of domestic conditions in Russia was the cause of enormous delay. We had overcome these difficulties also and I believed that negotiations which were to be taken up in a few days would find the road clear here.

We want nothing at all of Poland, the boundaries of which have not been definitely settled. Poland’s people shall choose their own destiny, free and uninfluenced. I consider the form of popular decision of this question not especially important; the surer it reflects the general will of the people, the more I shall be pleased. For I desire only voluntary union on the part of Poland, and only in the desire of Poland in this matter do I see a guarantee of lasting harmony. I hold irrevocably to the point of view that the Polish question must not delay the conclusion of peace by a single day. Should Poland seek close relationship with us after the conclusion of peace, we shall not refuse; but the Polish question shall and will not endanger peace. I should have liked to see the Polish Government take part in the negotiations, for according to my opinion Poland is an independent state. The Petersburg Government, however, thinks the present Polish Government is not entitled to speak in the name of the country and failed to recognize it as a competent exponent of the country. Therefore we desisted from our intention in order not to create possible conflict. The question is certainly important, but more important for us is the removal of all obstacles which delay the conclusion of peace.

The second difficulty which we encounter and which found the greatest echo in the press is the difference of opinion between [our] German ally and the St. Petersburg Government in the matter of interpretation of the right of the Russian nations to determine their own destinies—that is, those territories occupied by German troops. Germany holds the point of view that it does not intend to make forcible territorial acquisitions from Russia, but, to express it in a few words, the difference of opinion is a double one. First, Germany holds justified the point of view that the numerous expressions of desire for independence by legislative bodies, communal bodies, etc., in the occupied provinces should be considered as a provisional basis for popular opinion which would be tested later by a plebiscite on a broad basis. The Russian Government is now opposed to this point of view, since it cannot recognize the right of existing organizations in Courland and Lithuania to speak in the name of these provinces [any more than the] Polish ones. The second difficulty is that Russia demands that the plebiscite should take place after all German troops and administrative organs have vacated the occupied provinces; while Germany contends that by such an evacuation, [carried] through to its extreme consequence, a vacuum would have been created, which undoubtedly would bring about the outbreak of complete anarchy and greatest misery. Here it must be explained that everything which today allows political life in occupied provinces is German property. The railways, posts, telegraphs, all industries and administrative parts of police and justice are in German hands. The sudden withdrawal of these parts would indeed create a condition which does not seem practically tenable. In both questions [Page 57] we must find compromises. The difference between these two points of view is, in my opinion, not big enough to justify the failure of negotiations. But such negotiations cannot be completed over night. They take time.

Once we have reached peace with Russia a general peace cannot long be prevented, [in my] opinion, despite all efforts of Entente statesmen. We have held it was not understood [in some] places why I declared in my first speech after the resumption of negotiations that it was now not a question of general peace but of a separate peace with Russia in Brest Litovsk. That was a necessary statement of clear fact which Trotsky has inevitably recognized and was necessary because we were treating on a different basis, that is, in more limited scope, when the question was one of separate peace with Russia rather than general peace. Although I have no illusions that the effort for general peace will mature over night, I am still convinced that it is maturing and that it is only a question of our holding through whether we are to have a general honorable peace or not.

I have been strengthened in this view by the peace offer which the President of the United States of America has made. To the whole world this is a peace offer, for in his fourteen points Mr. Wilson develops the basis on which he attempts to bring about general peace. It is evident that no such offer can be an elaboration acceptable in all details. Should this be the case, negotiations would be unnecessary, for then peace might be made by simple acceptance—by a simple yes and amen. That, of course, is not the case. But I do not hesitate to say I find in the last proposals of President Wilson a considerable approach to the Austro-Hungarian point of view, and among his proposals are some to which we can agree with great pleasure.

If I shall now be allowed to discuss these proposals in greater detail I must say two things in advance: As far as these proposals relate to our allies—and in them there is mention of the German holding of Belgium, of the Turkish Empire—I declare that, faithful to the duties of the alliance which I have accepted, I am determined to go to the very extreme in defense of our allies. The state of the property of our allies before the war we shall defend as our own. This is the point of view of the Allies in complete reciprocity. Secondly, I should say I must refuse politely but definitely any advice as to how we must govern our interior. We have a Parliament in Austria elected by common, equal, direct and secret suffrage. There is no more democratic parliament on earth, and this Parliament, in conjunction with other constitutionally authorized factors, alone has the right to decide the internal affairs of Austria. I speak only of Austria because I am speaking in the Austrian Delegation and not about the internal affairs of the Hungarian state. I should not consider that constitutional. We do not interfere in American affairs, and we wish as little foreign guardianship by any other state.

Having said this in advance, I allow myself to answer the remaining points as follows. I have nothing to say on the point which discusses abolishing secret diplomacy and complete publicity of negotiations. As for the question of publicity of negotiations, [Page 58] nothing can be said against this method from my point of view, as far as it is based on complete reciprocity, although I have serious doubts whether it is always the most practical and the quickest way to reach results. Diplomatic treaties are nothing but business affairs. I can easily think of cases, for instance, when commercial treaties are being made between states, without its being desirable that incomplete results should be told to the whole world beforehand. In such negotiations both sides naturally begin by making as large as possible demands and by using one desire after another as compensation until that balance of interest is present which must be reached to make the conclusion of a treaty possible. Should such negotiations be conducted before the great public, it could not be avoided that the public should passionately take sides for every single one of the desires; whereupon the renouncing of such a desire, even if made only for tactical reasons, would be considered a defeat. Should the public take sides especially strongly for one desideratum, then the conclusion of the treaty might become impossible, or the treaty, should it be concluded, might be felt as a defeat perhaps on both sides. This would not further peaceful relations but [would increase the] points of friction between states. [But what is valid for commercial treaties] would be as valid for political ones which treat of political business. If abolishing secret diplomacy means there are to be no secret treaties, that treaties shall not be made without the knowledge of the public, I have nothing to say against the realization of this principle. How the realization of this principle and its safeguard is to be considered I know not. When the governments of two states agree, they will always be able to make secret treaties without anyone discovering it. But those are minor points. I do not stick to formulas and will never be responsible for the failure of a reasonable arrangement because of more less [meaningless?] formalities. We can therefore discuss point 1.

Point 2 relates to freedom of the seas. In this postulate, the President has spoken from the heart of all, and I subscribe to this desire of America’s completely, especially because the President adds the clause, “outside territorial waters,” that is, freedom of the open sea; but I cannot subscribe to the violation of the sovereign rights [of our] faithful Turkish ally. Its point of view on this question will be ours.

Point 3, definitely against future economic war, is so just and so reasonable and has been so often demanded by us that I have nothing to add to it.

Point 4, demanding general disarmament, explains in especially good and clear style the necessity of forcing free competition in armaments after the war to the point which the domestic safety of states demands. Wilson explains this clearly. I permitted myself to develop the same a few months ago in a Budapest speech. It is a part of my political creed, and every voice which speaks in the same sense I gratefully greet.

As far as the Russian reference is concerned we are proving with deeds that we are ready to create a friendly, neighborly relationship.

As far as Italy, Serbia, Roumania, Montenegro are concerned, I can only repeat the point of view which I have expressed already in the Hungarian Delegation. I refuse to figure as surety for enemy [Page 59] war adventures. I refuse to make one-sided concessions to our enemies who remain stubbornly on the point of view of battle to final victory—concessions which would lastingly prejudice the Monarchy and give immeasurable advantage to our enemies and drag the war out to an infinite period. I trust Mr. Wilson will use the great influence he doubtless has oh all his allies to the end that they may explain the conditions under which they are willing to negotiate; and he will have gained the immeasurable merit of having called the general peace conference to life. Just as openly, freely, as I am here replying to President Wilson, I will also speak to all those who desire to speak for themselves; but it is quite comprehensible that time and the continuation of the war cannot remain without influence on relations in this connection. I said this once before, and may refer to Italy as an example. Italy had the opportunity before the war to attain great territorial acquisitions without a shot. This it refused, entered the war, lost hundreds of thousands of dead, billions in war costs and destroyed values, brought upon its population misery and need, and all this only for advantages which it could have had once but which are now lost forever.

Regarding point 13, it is an open secret that we are supporters of the idea that there must be an “independent Polish state which should include the terrritories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations.” Regarding this I am also of the opinion that we could soon reach an agreement with Mr. Wilson.

Nor will the President find anywhere in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy any opposition to his proposal regarding the idea of a league of nations.

As may be seen from this comparison of my views with those of Mr. Wilson, we agree not only on the great principles in general, according to which the world is to be newly regulated after the end of this war, but our views also approach each other on several concrete peace questions. The remaining differences do not seem to me so great that discussion of this point should not bring clearness and rapprochement. This situation, which probably arises from the fact that Austria-Hungary and the United States of America are the two great Powers among the two groups of enemy states whose interests least conflict, suggests the thought that an exchange of ideas between these two Powers might be the starting point for conciliatory discussions between all states which have not entered into peace conversations. So much for Wilson’s propositions.

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  1. Not printed; instructing the Chargé to transmit Czernin’s speech of Jan. 24, 1918.
  2. For readability the necessary articles and connectives have been inserted in the telegraphic text.