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

Friday, August 2, 2019

Nationalism After the Armistice

Greek and Armenian Refugees Fleeing Smyrna, September 1919

By Robert Gerwarth and Erez Manelo

The abrupt break-up of Europe’s land empires and the inability of the successor states to agree on borders with their neighbors certainly played a prominent role in triggering postwar violence. All national movements in the former land empires took inspiration from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s promise, manifested most famously in the “Fourteen Points” of January 1918, that the nations of East-Central Europe should have an opportunity for “autonomous development” as well as from the Bolsheviks’ insistent advocacy of the principle of “national self-determination.”  

But while the slogan of “self-determination” provided a powerful rallying cry for the mobilization of anti-imperial emotions and people both within and outside Europe, the nascent national movements of Eastern Europe quickly encountered opposition from various camps. In Estonia and Latvia, where national movements seized the opportunity of the Bolshevik coup to declare their independence, the legitimacy of the new national assemblies was swiftly called into question.  The situation became more confusing in the spring when a German offensive led to the occupation of all of Latvia, Estonia, Belorussia, and Ukraine, only to be reversed when the German war effort collapsed in November that year, and was followed by a Red Army advance toward Minsk and Vilnius.  In Poland, too, the attempt to restore a powerful nation-state in the heart of Europe encountered severe problems—by the spring of 1919, Jozef Piłsudski’s reorganized Polish armed forces were engaged on four fronts: in Upper Silesia against strong German volunteer forces, in Teschen/Teshyn against the Czechs, in Galicia against Ukrainian forces, and against the Soviets threatening to invade from the West.

Funeral for a Polish Officer During the 1919 Fighting

The fate of territorial dismemberment also affected another defeated state, the Ottoman Empire, which lost all of its Arab possessions and was threatened in Western Anatolia by an initially successful Greek advance into Asia Minor shortly after the Ottoman defeat in October 1918 as well as an Armenian insurgency and a Kurdish independence movement in the east.  What the Young Turks and nationalist historians in Turkey to this day refer to as the “War of Liberation” (İstiklal Harbi, 1919–1923) was in essence a form of violent nation-state formation that combined mass killing, expulsion, and suppression and represented a continuation of wartime ethnic unmixing and exclusion of Ottoman Greeks and Armenians from Anatolia—a process that began long before the proclamation of a Turkish nation-state on 29 October 1923.

Here, as elsewhere, the nation-building process came at a high price, paid in particular by the minorities of the country. When Smyrna (Izmir) was re-conquered by Turkish troops in 1922, some 30,000 Greek residents were massacred and many more expelled in what became the largest population transfer in European history before the Second World War. All in all, some 70,000 people died violent deaths in Turkey during the decade after the war’s end, while approximately 900,000 Ottoman Christians and 400,000 Greek Muslims were forcibly resettled in a “homeland” most of them had never visited before. 

In imperial domains beyond Europe, postwar violence, while not nearly as massive as it was on the continent, was nevertheless widespread; even where there was little violence, the imperial edifice was often knocked off balance. Indeed, by the time of the Paris Peace Conference, the relationship between the white dominions and the British Empire had fundamentally changed. The dominions claimed a place at the conference in their own right and fought for their own interests. Australian Prime Minister “Billy” Hughes was a particularly disruptive force, driving U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (who referred to Hughes as a “pestiferous varmint”) to exasperation, antagonizing the Japanese delegation with his fierce opposition to the inclusion of a “racial equality clause” in the League of Nations covenant, and irritating everyone with his incessant demands that Australia be granted mandated territorial control over the former German New Guinea.  

Fighting Billy Hughes with Aussie Troops on Armistice Day

Nonetheless, the form of postwar nationalism in the settler dominions varied. For Canada and South Africa the pressing problem of appeasing large, disgruntled non-British ethnic communities, further embittered by the war, drove the mobilization of nationalist sentiment as the ideological glue to keep these fragile polities together in the immediate postwar years. In both these dominions, nationalism was articulated around moving away from the empire— more republican, self-sufficient, and grounded in a sense of cultural difference from the British.  In Australia and New Zealand, however, postwar nationalism was equally strong but in contrast oriented around the twin themes of national maturity and empire loyalty. Far from nationalism being the antithesis of empire, as in other settler dominions, in Australia and New Zealand nation and empire were inextricably linked. The bloodshed of Anzac troops at Gallipoli, in particular, maintains its central position in Australian and New Zealand collective memory as the violent passage to nationhood but also as proof of the bond between “Anglo-Saxon” settlers and the imperial motherland.

Source:  "The Great War as a Global War: Imperial Conflict and the Reconfiguration of World Order, 1911–1923," Imperial Conflict and the Reconfiguration of World Order,  Robert Gerwarth and Erez Manelo

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