Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End
Reviewed by Bryan Alexander


The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End

by Robert Gerwarth
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016

On 11 November 1918, at precisely 11:00 a.m., all of the guns on the Western Front fell silent. For the first time in four years of horrific war, every cannon, rifle, machine gun ceased, according to the provisions of a just-signed armistice. Apparently, soldiers experienced the sudden silence as something like the onset of divine mercy. Men wept openly, overcome by the quiet and shattering arrival of peace.

Paris, 11 November 1918: Not the End

Many people take this astonishing moment as the end of World War I, with some good reason. Hostilities did end in France. Soon after a semblance of liberal democracy began to spread, abetted by American president Wilson's idealism. Yet Robert Gerwath's The Vanquished shows that the war did not end on that date. In fact, several wars continued, and several others sprang into terrible life, wrecking havoc largely among the many peoples whose nations lost in the war. World War I did not so much end as fall apart, stagger along, and mutate. For those living in Riga, Kiev, Smyrna, or many other places in eastern, central, and southeastern Europe in 1919, there was no peace, only continuous violence (4).

More than 4 million people died of violence right after WWI, in revolts, civil wars, invasions, and coups (7). So much for "peace".

This isn't a question of pedantic detail. Instead, paying attention to what happened alongside and right after the Armistice of Compiègne honors the enormous struggles that also occurred, while shedding light on subsequent events, including the rise of fascism and WWII.

This is rich and complex history, so I'll summarize all too quickly.

In eastern Europe, the Russian revolutions of 1917 (the fall of the Tsar, the Bolshevik revolt, the construction of a Soviet state) gave way to a spectacular civil war, which included a war with Poland, an attempted invasion of Germany, and invasion by multiple other nations (including the United States, Britain, France, and Japan), only ending in 1922. Newly independent Baltic states experienced revolts and invasions, like the Latvian War for Independence (1918–1920). Newly independent Finland fought an intense civil war in 1918, killing 1 percent of its population (as a visitor to that country, I can testify that that war's impact is still a living thing in the 21st century). Bulgarians revolted against their state, which led to a reign of terror against its putative supporters. Hungary had a Soviet-style state in 1918, which was overwhelmed by its neighbors in still more fighting.

Soldiers from the defeated German empire formed independent groups (Freikorps) to fight in these wars, and also at home, since Germany itself went through at least one revolution, plus a series of revolts and attempted coups. For instance, left-wingers created a Bavarian Soviet Republic in 1918, which lasted until demolished by Freikorps and others in 1919.

Farther east, European powers dismantled the Ottoman Empire, which led to a bitter war primarily between Greece and newly formed Turkey, along with newly formed Armenia and victorious France

Western Europe fared better than the aforementioned central and eastern Europe, but still endured further strife. Spain underwent "three Bolshevik years" of revolts and instability, culminating in a dictatorship. Ireland fought for independence from Britain, then lunged into civil war. Across the Atlantic the United States spasmed into a Red Scare, with multiple civil liberty violations and acts of violence.

Another victor, Italy, experienced postwar unrest which grew into "what seemed increasingly like an open civil war...About 3,000 people were killed in Italy between 1919 and 1922" (161). What ended that was Mussolini's March on Rome and the birth of the first fascist state in 1922.

In fact, Gerwarth argues, WWI only ended in 1923, giving way to a far too brief period of peace broken up once more in 1939 (16, 248).

What drove all of this horror and chaos? To begin with, nationalism continued to chew up European borders, as relatively recent nationalist feelings ran up against older delineations of empire. WWI's victors, while containing national republics of various sorts, were also intercontinental empires, and fought to balance these contradictions. Moreover, the successful Soviet revolution of 1917 inspired workers' uprisings around the world, along with anticommunist movements; this is, after all, the start of the longest struggle of the 20th century, the Cold War.

Furthermore, the victors were a mess. The Vanquished shreds the reputation of the Treaty of Versailles or, more to the point, the character of its signatories, who managed the epic hypocrisy of mouthing slogans of national self-determination while engaging in historical land grabs and meting out harsh, eventually self-defeating terms to the defeated Central Powers. That much is well known. Gerwarth goes further, showing that the Versailles leaders added incompetence to hypocrisy, gradually losing control of the European area situation. Violence and sharp politics on the ground undid the victors' achievements and plans repeatedly. Wilson's dream of spreading democracy actually backfired, with dictatorships on the rise, not retreat, by the mid-1920s (245).

Versailles, 28 June 1919: Not the End

Along the way terrible precedents were set, and old ones renewed. WWI began with strong efforts to avoid killing civilians (Entente/Allied propaganda would overstate German atrocities), but the post-1918 conflicts blurred the civilian-soldier boundary thoroughly. Irregular forces of many kinds would take to the streets, setting up a matrix for fascism's rise. And ethnic cleansing became a serious policy tool, especially with the Greek-Turkish population exchange of 2 million people across the Aegean.

There are many good things to approve of in this book. Gerwarth writes clearly and at times with passion, nicely organizing a great deal of complexity into clarity. He relies on a rich range of sources. At a smaller level, I was pleased to see Gerwarth accurately refer to the Sykes-Picot agreement as Sykes-Picot-Sazonov (57).

There are some weaknesses, however. The biggest is neglecting the Spanish influenza, which ravaged the world at precisely this time, and killed a mind-boggling 50 million or so people. On the political side, I wanted to learn more about colonial lands as they took up nationalism against victorious empires, from India to Vietnam. And, with Richard Fulton, I also wanted more on the post-Ottoman Middle East.

These, I confess, are complaints of greed based on a book that does so much so well. Strongly recommended.

Bryan Alexander

12 comments:

  1. This book--and this excellent review--are exactly what a lot of people need, including me. For so long I had thought the Great War ended with Versailles but fortunately as time went on I learned otherwise. Thank you, Bryan, for increasing my knowledge!

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  2. I enjoyed the book but was disappointed by it's often cursory treatment of many areas. Understandable considering the scope of the area and time it tried to cover. I hope to perhaps find another book that perhaps covers some of the less well know conflicts of that period in a bit more detail.

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    1. Which unaddressed issues loomed largest for you, Richard?

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  3. Peter Hopkirk has three excellent books the covers the war and post war battles in Central Asia.

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    1. I see _Setting the East Ablaze: Lenin's Dream of an Empire in Asia_ (1984) for the Soviet period and _On Secret Service East of Constantinople: The Great Game and the Great War_ (1994). What's the third? Is it the end of _The Great Game_?

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  4. Great review of an excellent book. Thank you.

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  5. There was also a series of incursions by the U.S. besides Russia; into Nicaragua in 1912, Haiti in 1915 and Dominican Republic in 1916. So the Monroe Doctrine of policing Latin America was in full effect then. And it was so sadly true that "only the dead had seen the end of war" through the 20th Century...

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    1. Quite true. All too often we separate imperial or colonial campaigns from WWI.

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