The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923, by Robert Gerwarth

A. W. Purdue on the suffering of populations of multi-ethnic empires in the years after the Great War

September 29, 2016
First World War (WW1) memorial crosses and poppies

When did the First World War end? The pat answer, of course, is 11am on 11 November 1918, when the guns along the Western Front went silent. Robert Gerwarth argues, however, that this is victors’ history, and that for the populations of the vanquished powers, a different and even worse sort of conflict had already begun with the Russian revolutions. For years after the Armistice, East and Central Europe and much of Central Asia and the Middle East were to experience a disastrous aftermath.

The Great War, with its enormous death toll, has often been seen as a “total war”, but it was a war between states in which governments maintained their monopoly on the use of force and, although civilians suffered and the conventions of warfare were broken, the fighting was done by armed forces. That war, Gerwarth argues, gave way to “existential conflicts fought to annihilate the enemy, be they ethnic or class enemies – a genocidal logic that would subsequently become dominant in much of Europe between 1939 and 1945”.

It was the populations of the multi-ethnic empires, for whom the war ended with “defeat, imperial collapse and revolutionary turmoil”, that suffered the most. Russia’s future was to be determined by prolonged internal struggles, but the dictates of Western powers set the scenario for the future of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. In defiance of the code by which powers recognised the sovereignty of defeated states, the desire of the victors to punish the defeated became entwined with a naive belief in ethnic self-determination, and the result was the dismantling of the empires and the creation of new states.

To Gerwarth, this was to take the lid off Pandora’s box and release the internecine hatreds within and between “rickety” and mutually hostile states that had previously been contained by imperial authority. Among the ghastly episodes were the Turkish-Greek conflict, culminating in the massacre of the Greek and Armenian populations of Smyrna, in a terrible revenge for previous Greek atrocities upon Turks; the political strife in the great cities of Vienna, Berlin, Munich and Budapest; the chaotic warfare in the Baltic States; the vicious political and ethnic wars in Russia; and the struggle for survival of the new Poland. These conflicts were characterised by the desire to eradicate ethnic and class enemies, with wars fought not just by regular armies, but by paramilitary forces and embittered and vengeful civilians; they involved revolutions and counter-revolutions, massacres, pogroms, and the expulsion of populations, which foreshadowed and led to the real “total war” that began in 1939.

This fine and timely study makes a compelling case for the argument that the bloody aftermath of the war did more to destroy European civilisation than the declarations of war in 1914, and Gerwarth is surely right in his view that historians have been too kind to the Paris Peace Settlement. But did the war end in 1923, or should we think in terms of a Thirty Years War of the 20th century, lasting until 1945? Or perhaps, at a time when Vladimir Putin seems intent on regaining Tsarist Russia’s frontiers, and the map of the Middle East drawn by the victorious powers becomes ever more blurred, we might well ask whether the First World War has ended yet.

A. W. Purdue is visiting professor of history, Northumbria University.

The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923
By Robert Gerwarth
Allen Lane, 464pp, £25.00
ISBN 9781846148118
Published 25 August 2016

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