If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

World War I Eastern front

Created by Sal Khan.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

In early August 1914, we know that Germany declares war on Russia, just as Russia's mobilizing troops to get into a war with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Because the Austro-Hungarians have declared war on Serbia. And the Russians apparently, or ostensibly, or used protection of Serbia as a pretext for getting into war with the Austrians. The Germans have an alliance with the Austrians. So they feel the need to fight the Russians. And then, because the Russians have an alliance with the French, to fight the French as well. The first actual combat on the Eastern Front actually happens with Russia on the offensive. And you actually have two Russian armies. The Russian First Army and the Russian Second Army attacking the Germans up here in Eastern Prussia. And they were going against one German army, the German Eighth Army. And in theory, it should have been a route of the German Eighth Army. They had them outnumbered. You had two Russian armies coming from different directions. But because of really bad coordination and, one could even argue, bad leadership and other tactical problems, it was actually a route the other way. So the war, World War I, on the Eastern Front, starts very badly for the Russians. You actually have a huge route of them at the Battle of Tannenberg. And Tannenberg's interesting because it actually did not even happen in Tannenberg. Tannenberg is right around here. It wasn't far from the point of the battle. But there was other cities that would have been more, the battle could have been named for. But since the Germans won the battle, they named it Tannenberg because there was an ancient battle in medieval times in the 1400s where the Slavic, some Slavic peoples were able to route German Teutonic knights. We're talking about medieval battles with knights. And in order to redeem that, they labeled this other war where it was Germans against Slavic people. They said, oh, this is our second battle for Tannenberg. So it helped bring out more German patriotism. But this was a major, major, major route for the Russians. The Second Army, in particular, got completely decimated. The Second Army, the Russian Second Army went into the battle-- I've seen estimates of 150,000 to 180,000 troops. Roughly half were killed. And only about 10,000 escaped the Battle of Tannenberg. And it was such a humiliating defeat for the Russian Second Army. But that the general of the Russian Second Army, General Samsonov-- and I'm sure once again, I'm mispronouncing everything-- General Samsonov actually shot himself. He committed suicide. He was so humiliated and so embarrassed by that defeat. So the war did not begin well for the Russians. But by the end of 1914, they were able to get back into gear. And they stayed on the offensive. And they did have some victories up here in Galicia which, at the time, was part of northeastern Hungary. And so they were actually able to capture a good bit of territory right over here. Now, as we enter into 1915, and we've already covered this on the videos on the Western Front. We know that the Western Front was entering into a stalemate. The Schlieffen Plan did not happen as quickly as possible. But the defenders had a huge advantage. So that gave the Germans an opportunity to bring some troops back to the Eastern Front, to bring troops back to the Eastern Front. They also got better at coordinating with the Austro-Hungarians. And so you have 1915, you have the Central Powers go back on the offensive. And they're essentially able to drive the Russians out of Russian Poland roughly to this border that I have drawn right over here, roughly to this border, give or take, right over here. When we talk about Russian Poland, the modern state of Poland, I'm making this video now in 2013. The modern state of Poland was essentially split between what you see on this map between the Russian Empire and the German Empire. The modern state of Poland is roughly this region right over here. And so you see, it's almost completely split, almost like a yin and yang symbol between these two empires. But by, but through 1915, the Russians were pushed out of Russian Poland roughly to this border. And essentially, to a large degree, it was because Russia, even though they had this huge army, this huge manpower, they had bad communication lines. And actually had bad technical supplies. Russian industry wasn't able to keep up with the demand of the war and wasn't able to supply the munitions in proper quantities and the arms in proper quantities to their troops. As you enter into 1916, the Russians, once again, were able to get their footing back. As you can see, it's starting to become a little bit of a back and forth. So Russian industry, I guess you could say, picks back up in 1916. And it essentially puts the Russians more on the offensive. They were driven out of Russian Poland. But now by 1916, they're able to keep the Central Powers a little bit more on the defensive. But the boundaries of the front roughly stay in line with this line right over here. And by the end of 1916, you actually have the Romanians joining on the side of the Triple Entente, on the sides of the Russians, in order to fight the Central Powers as well. Now, this might look like it's starting to look better for the Russians. The Russians, their industry is finally picking up. They're starting to put the Central Powers a little bit more on the defensive. But the entire time that we're talking about this battle, the economic situation in the Russian Empire is deteriorating dramatically. By the time you get into 1917, the Russian economy is really falling apart. You have food shortages. You have riots. Food shortages. You have riots. And in February of 1917, you have the February Revolution. You essentially, the overthrow of the Romanov Dynasty. It's been in power for 300 years. But you have Tsar Nicholas II. So this is in February. And then in early March, you have Tsar Nicholas II abdicates the throne. And this is the gentleman right here. And we'll do more detailed videos about the entire Russian Revolution and what happens to his family and all of the rest. And you have an interim government that takes place. And this is actually a little, this is an interesting fact of history. This interim government all of a sudden becomes a democracy. This is February 1917. Remember, the United States has not entered the war at this point. But you might also remember that in April, the United States uses the idea of fighting on the side of democracy as a justification for entering the war. Which is very nice, because by April, all of the major powers on the side of the, I guess you would say, the Triple Entente, they were all democracies. You're talking about, now, the interim government for the Russians. You have the French. And you have the British Empire. Obviously, it's a democracy only for those who are voting. And actually the United States was the first country to recognize the interim government after the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II. But we're not just done with 1917. 1917 is one of those huge years in the history of the world and especially in the history of Russia. The situation continues to deteriorate. And it starts to deteriorate, as well, for the army. The morale and the troops breakdown. You start having, the Bolsheviks start to create unrest. By the end of 1917, now we're talking about September 1917. So that's maybe right around here. You have the Central Powers. Germany's able to capture Riga, which is a major city right over here on the Baltic. Which brings the Central Powers very, very close to the Russian capital. It contributes to the ongoing unrest that's going on. And so in November 7, you have coup d'etat of that ostensibly democratic interim government, provisional government. And you have the communists take power. You have the Bolsheviks take power under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin right over here. So November 7, 1917, very famous date in history. You have the Bolsheviks. So this is Lenin leading the Bolsheviks into power. Now, they were in no interest to continue fighting this battle with Germany. They had their own civil war to worry about. They were trying to consolidate power in Russia. So in December, they essentially get into, start to negotiate an armistice with the Central Powers. And they did not have a lot of leverage in this negotiation because they weren't, they really did not want to be in this war. And so by March of 1918, you have the treaty-- this between Russia and the Central Powers-- the Treaty of Brest-- and I'm sure I'm mispronouncing everything-- Brest-Litovsk. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, in which the Russians, because they were so desperate, the Bolsheviks were so desperate in order to get, to focus on the internal civil war that had emerged in Russia, in order to consolidate power, they gave over a huge amount of territory to the Central Powers. And essentially a large part of European Russia that is not predominantly-- of Russian ethnicity went over to the Central Powers. Now this treaty is important because it essentially was the end of World War I for the Russians. It essentially was the end of the Eastern Front. And it allowed the Germans to then refocus on the Western Front, which allowed the Germans to start bringing troops back over to the Western Front. And they were actually able to do quite an aggressive Spring Offensive on the Western Front. And if it wasn't for the US at the time, now being able to reinforce the Western Front-- remember, they declared war in mid-1917-- it's not clear that the German offensive might not have been successful in the spring of 1918. So the importance of Brest-Litovsk is it was the end of the Eastern Front. It allowed the Germans to do an offensive on the Western Front. And it was a very strong offensive. But with the help of the Americans, it was not a successful one. But the actual territorial gains for the Central Power of Brest-Litovsk-- I'm sure I'm mispronouncing it-- were not that significant. Because in November 1918-- and here I'm probably falling off my timeline a little bit. But right over here in November 1918, this is maybe 19-- this is 1919 right over here. You have the Central Powers essentially saying, oh my God, we're not going to be able to win this war. And you have the, essentially, what was for a long time known as Armistice Day. The 11th the day of the 11th month-- or the 11th hour of the 11th month-- or the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, you have an armistice. And you have the end of World War I with the Allies winning. And so the Allies got to say what happened to this territory right over here.