Why the First World War failed to end

Learning from

  • Robert Gerwarth, The vanquished: why the First World War failed to end, 1917–1923 (2016),

I’m glad to find that more informed reviewers (e.g. James Sheehan, Margaret MacMillan, Alex Burkhardt, A. Dirk Moses) also find it a most revealing perspective.

As with World War Two, the inherited British historical bias is so very limiting. Wars don’t end with peace and harmony, as Keith Lowe shows in Savage continent for the aftermath of World War Two. We (by which I mean I) tend to view all the major conflagrations as separate and defined within a narrow time-frame, whereas a work like this reveals the long-term global picture. The flashpoints of recent times go back to the cycles of violence that erupted amidst dying empires and rising states. Irredentism and revisionism are major themes of the whole period.

Gerwarth opens his Introduction with two quotes:

Both sides, victors and vanquished, were ruined. All the Emperors or their successors were slain or deposed … All were defeated, all were stricken, everything they had given was in vain. Nothing was gained by any … Those that survived, the veterans of countless battle-days, returned, whether with the laurels of victory or tidings of disasters, to homes engulfed already in catastrophe.    —Winston Churchill

This war is not the end but the beginning of violence. It is the forge in which the world will be hammered into new borders and new communities. New molds want to be filled with blood, and power will be wielded with a hard fist.   —Ernst Jünger

He goes on to evoke the appalling story of ethnic cleansing in Smyrna in 1922.

So the term “interwar years” is misleading.

For those living in Riga, Kiev, Smyrna, and many other places in eastern, central, and southeastern Europe in 1919, there was no peace, only continuous violence.

The “Red Terror” of the Kun regime, Hungary 1919.

In the early chapters Gerwarth unpacks the 1917 Russian revolution, the catalyst for movements far afield, as soldiers returned, radicalized, to their devastated homelands, with refugees dispersed around the fragmented lands of the former Austro-Hungarian empire and the Ottoman domains, now aspiring to independence as new nation states.

Bulgaria features prominently in the complex tale of the Balkan wars; Hungary and Romania were highly unstable too. And extreme violence continued unabated in the unruly “bloodlands” of the Baltic states and Ukraine (see Life behind the Iron curtain), before they were engulfed by the forces of Hitler and Stalin; by now the victims were routinely civilians as much as regular troops.

Confronting the “contagion” of Bolshevism, endless cycles of retribution, revolution and counter-revolution, recurred. Anti-Jewish pogroms, too, were widespread:

Allegedly representing everything the Far Right despised, the Jews could simultaneously (and paradoxically) be portrayed as the embodiment of a pan-Slavic revolutionary menace from “the East” that threatened the traditional order of Christian central Europe, as “red agents” of Moscow, and as representatives of an obscure capitalist “Golden International” and force of Western democratisation. What these accusations had in common was the assumption that Jews had a “natural” internationalist hatred for the nation state and their “host peoples”.

Gerwarth notes the founding of the League of Nations, and pacifist movements; but the apparent triumph of democracy soon gave way to radicalisation, with many segments of society feeling betrayed. He notes both political machinations and their appalling consequences on the ground.

And the antagonistic ideologies of central, eastern, and southeastern Europe spread to countries further west—Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Britain, Ireland, the USA. Anti-colonialist independence movements grew throughout the world.

Returning to the “bloodlands”, Gerwirth details the sufferings of Poland and Ukraine.

In the final chapter Gerwarth returns to Smyrna and the atrocious repercussions of the fall of the Ottoman empire. The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, though arising from the Turkish–Greek conflict,

effectively established the legal right of state governments to expel large parts of their citizens on the grounds of “otherness”. It fatally undermined cultural, ethnic, and religious plurality as an ideal to which to aspire and a reality with which—for all their contestations—most people in the European land empires had dealt with fairly well for centuries. […]

If, in 1919, ethic coexistence had still been seen as something worth protecting, the future now seemed to belong to ethnic homogeneity as a kind of precondition for nation states to live in peace. Although the Lausanne Convention had been drawn up to prevent mass violence between different religious groups, the application of this logic to eastern Europe would prove to be catastrophic: for in the multi-ethnic territories of the vanquished central European land empires, the utopia of a mono-ethnic or mono-religious community could only be achieved through extreme violence.

Though his main focus is 1917 to 1923, in the Epilogue Gerwarth surveys the traumas of the ensuing period. If 1918 had not brought peace, nor did 1923. As the Soviet-controlled lands were sinking into further turmoil, western Europe may have had a brief period of relative political and economic stability, but from 1929 the Great Depression triggered further crises for democracy. Authoritarian regimes became the norm. The new “logic of violence” culminated in the war on the Eastern Front from 1941:

The purpose […] was no longer to militarily defeat an opposing army and to impose harsh conditions of peace upon a defeated Soviet Union, but rather to destroy a regime and annihilate significant proportions of the civilian population in the process. Entire countries in central and eastern Europe were to be purged of those deemed racially or politically undesirable. […] The distinctions between civilians and combatants, already blurred during the First World War, completely vanished in this type of conflict. […]

The violent actors of 1917–23 were often identical with those who would unleash a new cycle of violence in the 1930s and early 1940s. […]

In the collective memories of the peoples of Europe this period featured prominently either as one of revolutionary turmoil, national triumph, or perceived national humiliation to be redeemed through yet another war.

Gerwarth leads us towards the conflicts in the Far East, and ends by noting the legacy for the Middle East in the wake of imperial dissolution:

Here violence has erupted with great regularity for nearly a century. It is not without grim historical irony that the centenary of the Great War was accompanied by civil war in Syria and Iraq, revolution in Egypt, and violent clashes between Jews and Arabs over the Palestinian question, as if to offer proof that some of the issues raised but not solved by the Great War and its immediate aftermath are still with us today.

It may be a truism, but all the faultlines of later years—not just in World War Two and its immediate aftermath, but all around the world since then—had troubled histories. And now our faith in the triumph of democracy is being challenged yet again.

So all this must qualify our rejoicing in the diverse creativity of European culture. And it’s always a challenge to return to Steven Pinker’s well-argued yet startling thesis (n.2 here) that violence has declined constantly through history, with the world wars of the 20th century mere spikes in a declining curve.

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