On this day in 1918, the rulers of Germany and Austria-Hungary, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Emperor Karl I, meet to sign an agreement pledging their mutual allegiance and determining to share the economic benefits from their relationship with the newly independent state of Ukraine, one of the most fertile and prosperous regions of the former Russian Empire.
One of pre-war Russia’s most prosperous areas, the vast, flat Ukraine (the name can be translated as at the border or borderland) was one of the major wheat-producing regions of Europe and was also rich with mineral resources, including vast deposits of iron and coal. The majority of Ukraine was incorporated into the Russian empire after the second partition of Poland in 1793, while the remaining section—the principality of Galicia—remained part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and was a key battleground during World War I. With Bolshevik Russia having sued for peace with the Central Powers by the end of 1917, the Ukraine took the opportunity to declare its independence in January 1918.
On February 9, 1918, the leaders of Ukraine’s newly formed Rada government signed a peace treaty with the Central Powers, in which Germany and Austria-Hungary pledged to recognize the Ukrainian National Republic and to provide protection and military assistance against the Bolshevik forces of Russia that were occupying Ukrainian territory. In exchange, the Ukrainian National Republic would provide 100 million tons of food rations to Germany. In practice, the treaty amounted to a virtual annexation of the region by the Central Powers, who forced the Russian troops occupying the country to leave under the terms of the treaty at Brest-Litovsk, signed in March 1918, bringing in their own troops to preserve order and preside over the export of the promised wheat and other food resources to their home countries.
The meeting of the two emperors, Wilhelm and Karl, on May 12 was intended not only to divide the much-needed spoils of the Ukraine treaty but also to strengthen the steadily unraveling alliance between the Central Powers as World War I stretched into its fourth exhausting year. On the Austro-Hungarian side, complete failure on the battlefield against the Russians in Galicia had only been averted by Germany’s help and Russia’s own revolution; indeed, Germany seemed the only hope to preserve the dying empire. For its part, Germany was in his last desperate gasp on the battlefields of the west, throwing everything it had into a major spring offensive that had met with early success but was now confronting a hardening Allied defense, including an influx of fresh troops from the United States. Less than a month later, the Allies would launch their own offensive on the Western Front.
Time was running out for the Central Powers. On the home front, rampant hunger led to strikes and a general atmosphere of discontent and frustration with the war, both at home and on the battlefield. Barely a week after the May 12 meeting, the first in a series of mutinies occurred in the Austro-Hungarian army, led by a group of Slovenian nationalists. Similar rebellions were subsequently launched by Serbs, Rusyns (Ruthenians) and Czechs within the empire’s troops. By the autumn, Germany was confronting mutinies within its own troops and an Allied breakthrough on the previously invincible Hindenburg Line; on November 11, 1918, the war was over.