The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923
by Robert Gerwarth
Published August, 2016
The title of Robert Gerwarth’s timely study, The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923, is taken from Winston Churchill’s observation that the war ruined both ‘victors and vanquished’. Churchill’s postulation of symmetry was suggestive but misleading. If the European winners (the Allies or Entente) were also ruined financially, the losers (the Central powers) disappeared or were partitioned, and revolutionary movements emerged there to shape the rest of the century. To research these transformations between 1917 to 1923 is to uncover the origins of many of today’s conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
This focus is unfashionable in one respect. Three years ago, bookshop tables groaned under the weight of tomes published to cash in on the hundredth anniversary of Great War’s outbreak. Invariably, they covered the period between 1914 and 1918. That is how the war is imagined in popular consciousness and taught to schoolchildren: the western front as the global conflict’s epicentre, where Germans confronted Entente forces of French and British troops, their imperial conscripts and allies – with the Indian and African troops usually excluded from the story.
A different picture emerges if one zooms out to Europe’s so-called peripheries. Conventional warfare and paramilitary conflict raged sporadically for five more years in the lands of the Central powers and former Russian Empire, as well as in Ireland. Between 1917 and 1920 alone, Europe experienced 27 violent transfers of power in overlapping and interlocking social revolutions, national counter-revolutions, and civil wars, often accompanied by border conflict. In total, four million people – more than the war casualties of Britain, France, and the United States combined – died in these conflicts. These were driven by a new political logic: a genocidal intent to exterminate ethnic or class enemies, as civilians rather than soldiers become legitimate targets. These parts of Europe were the most dangerous on the planet until the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.
In this regard, The Vanquished follows a more promising although, until recently, less prominent line of inquiry, namely to focus on the large swathe of territory that runs between the Baltic and Black Seas. Known variously as the ‘shatterzone’, ‘bloodlands’ and ‘rimlands’, this is the borderland of four Eurasian empires: the German and Russian empires in the north (Poland and the Baltic states), the Austro-Hungarian Empire with these neighbours in the middle (Poland, Ukraine, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary), and to the south the Ottoman empire abutting the small Balkans states like Greece and Bulgaria that had torn themselves from Istanbul’s grasp before the first world war, and the Russian Caucasus to the east. These empires, which comprised many peoples with contending nationalist factions, collapsed at the end of the war. The resulting bids for state power were predictably chaotic in retrospect, although contemporaries could not foresee the extent and intensity of the carnage.
Books of this scale and ambition do not fall out of the sky. As a Berliner who lectures at an Irish university, Gerwarth understands the war from many perspectives, and thus that the historical canvas has to be longer and wider than the western front miniature to depict the convulsions that seized the continent in the first half of the twentieth century. He has been building up to The Vanquished with books on Weimar Germany and ‘Hitler’s hangman’, Reinhard Heydrich, and five anthologies: on interwar Europe, paramilitary violence after World War One, political violence in twentieth-century Europe (disclaimer: I co-wrote a chapter in this book), empires at war between 1911 and 1923, and the many European recruits of the Waffen-SS. A major European Research Council grant in 2009 enabled him to assemble a team of postdoctoral researchers to study the upheavals across Europe after the first world war. The Vanquished, intended for a broad audience, is the culmination of this project. The measured prose belies the scale of the synthesis: the massive intellectual labour of drawing together so many seemingly disparate cases into a coherent framework. Although panoramic in its continental sweep, the book’s focus on six years also allows for the level of granular exposition necessary to plausibly link events in, say, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Finland. The devil is less in the detail than in the artfully struck balance between argument and evidence that Gerwarth makes look so easy.
This study bears on current pre-occupations. The recent victory of nationalist parties in Hungary and Poland, with their anti-immigrant rhetoric, has emboldened the likeminded in their western neighbours; they eagerly await coming elections while entreating Australia’s hardline refugee policy. They have already set the agenda with Brexit and in the United States, where rightwing populism prevails. Liberal and leftist pundits are plundering European history for analogies to understand these developments, invoking the German template in particular. Is Trump a fascist, indeed a Nazi? Or, if not, at least some (or many) of his supporters? Reading The Vanquished suggests that excessive attention is paid to Hitler and the 1930s, the politics of which were over-determined by the Great Depression. To understand the fragility of parliamentary regimes and the authoritarian appeal, we need to return to the origin of the interwar conflicts in the years covered by this book.
Gerwarth argues that the conventional ‘brutalization thesis’, in which the front experience – think of Ernst Jünger’s Storms of Steel – led to postwar radicalism among millions of demobilized soldiers, was not the cause of postwar instability. Rather, it was the circumstances of Central powers’ defeat, imperial collapse, and ensuing revolutionary chaos. To present the necessary background, he effectively advances a ‘long first world war’ case, tracing the destabilization of Europe and origins of ethnic warfare in the two Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, indeed even to the Italian attack on Ottoman Libya in 1911. Certainly, for the peoples of these regions and the Ottoman Empire, the decade or so after 1911 was experienced as a continuous period of famine, violence, and dislocation. Again: to fixate on the 1914-1918 bracket of time is a particular perspective.
Gerwarth also questions the inevitability of these empires’ demise. Were it not for the war, they might well have rumbled on, reforming to survive as before. Contrary to conventional thinking, they were not the ‘prison house of nations’, but enjoyed sufficient popular legitimacy to mobilize vast multinational armies for warfare on many fronts over four years while subject to an Entente blockade that starved of hundreds of thousands of their civilians. Where reformism was halted, as in the Ottoman Empire in 1912, external attack tipped the balance in favour of hardliners. In the author’s trenchant assessment, the fact that Europe was safer, more stable, and in some senses more liberal in 1914 than in 1918 undermines the Entente – including Australian – war propaganda about making the world safe for democracy.
Paradoxically, the first vanquished belligerent was a member of the victorious Entente: Russia. Gerwarth commences his story here because Russia’s two revolutions in 1917 inaugurated the catastrophic chains of events that engulfed much of Europe. The circumstances of the monarchy’s collapse in February set the pattern for other belligerents: horrendous military losses and casualties demoralized the ranks, while increasingly acute food shortages on the home-front provoked strikes and demonstrations, often led by women. Ordinary Russians, whether in uniform, in the factory or the countryside, questioned their betters’ fitness to govern, and began to demand democracy and land reform. The game is up for any regime when the police and urban garrisons refuse to shoot protestors. After governing for 300 years, the Romanov dynasty shuffled off history’s stage in the face of popular revulsion.
Heraclitus’s saying that ‘war is the father of all things’ was never so true than in the miscalculation of the liberal provisional government to continue the war and delay reform. Mutiny spread throughout the army and sympathy increased for the Bolsheviks, whose dominant personality, Vladimir Lenin, the Germans had sent back from exile to destabilize the enemy. Reading the popular mood, the Bolsheviks promised to end the war immediately, democratize the army, redistribute land, institute worker control of factories, and grant self-determination for all nationalities. Their coup in Petrograd in October was relatively bloodless compared with the civil war to come.
Victorious states were not magnanimous in this period. Instead of binding former enemies into systems of great power balance and reciprocity, as they had after defeating Napoleon a century before, thereby inaugurating a century of general European stability, they imagined their security in Darwinist and quasi-autarkic terms: stripping prostrate neighbours of their assets and ensuring their permanent subservience. True to their promise, the Bolsheviks sued for peace with Germany but had to sign a punitive treaty at Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. Russia lost all western, non-Russian territories, amounting to a third of the empire’s population along with vital natural resources. The country’s elites have not forgotten the humiliation, nor that the new states formed in their erstwhile lands – like Poland, Finland, and the Baltic states – oriented themselves to the West rather than to Moscow. Indeed, Germany supported the new rhetoric of self-determination and these new states in order to dominate this region as the new hegemon.
However painful its terms, ending the war meant the Bolsheviks could deal with internal enemies and try to hasten revolution abroad by returning hundreds of thousands of Entente prisoners of war who had picked up the Bolshevik message in Russian captivity. These hopes were not misplaced. Berlin and Vienna were wracked by strikes in January 1918, although German and Austro-Hungarian military leaders felt the war was all but won because they could move their victorious divisions from east to west. But the last-ditch offensive petered out in April, and Entente forces successfully counter-attacked against a demoralized German army. Bulgaria was the first of the Central powers to capitulate – in September. A month later, the Young Turk regime that had ruled the Ottoman Empire with an iron fist since 1912, taken it into the war on Germany’s side, and committed genocide against its Christian citizens, also threw in the towel and escaped the scene on a German naval vessel.
Now the Bolsheviks’ dream was coming true. The German homefront, also beset by food shortages and labour discontent, imploded during the course of the year. By November, workers’ and sailors-soldiers’ councils had mutinied and overthrown local military authorities. Following the Russian script, the Kaiser abdicated along with the 22 royal houses that had governed Germany since 1871 and German lands for centuries. A provisional republic was proclaimed. Now, on the far left, a new revolutionary party – the Spartacists, named after the leader of a Roman slave revolt – sought to radicalize the revolution by launching an uprising in Berlin in January 1919, while independent socialists imposed a red republic in Bavaria in May.
In between, Béla Kun – a former Habsburg soldier who had returned from Russian captivity possessed by Bolshevist messianism – led a communist coup in Budapest that instituted revolutionary terror while trying to claw back the 50 per cent of the country occupied by secessionist movements. Alienating virtually all sections of the population, the regime provoked bitter anti-communist resistance dominated by former Habsburg officers obsessed with the disproportionate number of Jews among the communists. Eradicating ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’ became a mission of world-historical significance in such circles. These White (i.e, anti-Red) forces, which took control after Romanian invasion toppled Kun, instituted a counter-revolutionary reckoning: some 5000 suspected leftists were murdered, another 75,000 imprisoned, and 100,000 went into exile. A few months earlier, the German Social Democrats sought to avoid the fate of Russia’s February revolution, and called upon the army and even paramilitary Freikorps units, which had been fighting Bolsheviks in the Baltics, to put down the Spartacist uprising and Bavarian socialist republic. Here, too, thousands of leftists were killed during and after the street fighting.
Gerwarth rightly draws attention to the Baltic theatre to illustrate how the collapse of Russian and then German authority created a space for rival utopias, ruthless new actors, military lawlessness, and multidirectional violence. In the first place, the Red Army invaded the Baltics in November 1918 with help of local communists to reconquer territory lost at Brest-Litovsk. The replacement of newly independent Baltic states by socialist republics shocked the Western allies, which asked Germany to keep its remaining troops in the region. These forces were supplemented by volunteers from across Germany who rushed to the call of the Latvian independence movement to defend Europe against Red Terror. They styled themselves as Freikorps (free regiments) after the paramilitaries that mobilized to defeat Napoleon in 1815. To add to the anti-Bolshevik orientation, their commander was Rüdiger von der Goltz who had just finished assisting the Finns in their civil war against leftists during 1918.
Gerwarth thinks that the modality of this conflict presaged the worst of the second world war. Guerilla-style warfare ensued as Bolshevik forces were aided by ethnic Russians and pro-Moscow Latvians and demobilized German irregulars. Distinguishing between civilians and combatants was difficult in the circumstances. Indeed, civilians suspected of aiding the enemy were routinely executed in their hundreds, especially Jews, whom the Freikorps branded as Soviet proxies. Such violence became known as White Terror. But the common anti-Bolshevik cause between free Baltic states and the Freikorps broke down over Latvian sovereignty, which the Germans never respected. The German paramilitaries overthrew the Latvian government when asked to withdraw, and were only driven out by combined Latvian and Estonian forces in mid-1919. Some of them returned to Germany, others joined the White Russian Army confronting the Bolsheviks. In their anti-Bolshevik paranoia, pre-emptive mass murder of civilians, contempt for local nationalism, and group targeting of Jews, the Freikorps indeed anticipated the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe. Not for nothing did participants like Rudolf Höss, who later commanded Auschwitz, report the fighting as the most brutal he had witnessed.
Violence was even more multidirectional in the Russian civil war. In addition to Red and White forces (the latter itself deeply divided), fighting was conducted by national independence movements in Russia’s western borderlands that rejected both sides, and by peasant insurgencies provoked by the Bolshevik coercive requisition of grain. Some 250,000 people perished in the latter ‘bread wars’, often in ritualized deaths, such as publicly disemboweling captured Bolshevik commissars and stuffing them with grain to brand them as food thieves. As the Syrian civil war today shows, conventional military forces usually prevail over armed civilians. Eventually, the peasants lost along with White forces, abandoned by the Western countries that had supported the anti-communist cause.
Only rival state-founding projects successfully resisted the Red Army. Polish forces had taken on the Germans in 1919 to establish an independent Poland for the first time since the late eighteenth century, and then pushed east and south into Belarusian and Ukrainian lands, where they vanquished a newly proclaimed West Ukrainian People’s Republic. The Red Army eventually drove them back to Warsaw itself, only to be repulsed. A treaty in 1921 won Poland parts of Belarus and Ukraine, adding four million Ukrainian speakers and a million Belarussians to its two-million Jewish- and 750,000-strong ethnic German minorities. Eastern Ukraine ended up on the Soviet side of the border.
Postwar violence was not confined to the east. In Italy, social revolution threatened according to the familiar pattern: unfulfilled promises of land reform – made to entice landless labourers to join the army during the first world war – exacerbated pre-war class conflict in the countryside. The Socialist Party sided with Moscow and won a third of the votes in the November 1919 general election, constituting the largest party and leading a new government. Direct action ensued as farm workers went on strike, attacked police stations, occupied farms, and confiscated food, while in the cities factory workers likewise downed tools, took over factories, and established councils to run towns and cities.
By then, Benito Mussolini, a former leftist who favoured Italian participation in the war, had already founded the Fasci die Combattimento, but it was only in 1920 with open class conflict that its membership exploded. Like the Freikorps, men who had been too young to fight in the war were particularly drawn to this counter-revolutionary movement: male fantasies of violent nationalism certainly animated these people. With the tacit consent of land- and factory owners and police, they waged virtual civil war against the left by attacking trade unionists, socialist councils and newspaper, even firing on leftist crowds. Some 3000 people were killed between 1919 and 1922. The state stood by, fearing that repressing the fascists would further embolden the socialist revolution.
The parliamentary regime faltered for the same reason as Germany’s between 1929 and 1933: the republican parties could not form stable majorities, while the far right – in this case, Mussolini’s Partito Nazionale Fascista – gained popularity and respectability. Ironically, much of the population looked to the far right to restore the law and order that it was in part responsible for destroying. When Mussolini was appointed prime minister after his famous March on Rome in October 1922, he was the second militia leader after Lenin to win the keys of state power by violent actionism and middle-class support.
These Italians were vexed not only by Bolshevism. They also decried the ‘mutilated victory’ of the Paris Peace conference at which Allies’ wartime promise of large swathes of Austrian territory was not honoured. As Gerwarth explains, these commitments were made before U.S. President Woodrow Wilson appeared on the scene with his talk of self-determination and opposition to secret treaties. The Bolsheviks spouted similar rhetoric, and in 1917 had exposed the secret Sykes-Picot agreement (1916) by which Britain and France carved up Ottoman territory into spheres of influence after eventual victory. Although there was nothing secret about the British Balfour Declaration in 1917 that handed over Palestine to World Jewry to construct a ‘national home’, it was a common example of wartime diplomatic opportunism: as the British Foreign Office believed Russian Jews controlled the government, it thought promising Palestine to Jews would keep Russia in the war.
Now that an independent Yugoslavia (the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes) was envisaged, it was impossible to hand over Trieste to Italy even if many ethnic Italians lived there. Such Italians were called irridenta – the unredeemed – shards of the national body stranded in others’ territory. Expanding national borders to encompass them – and to realize fantasies of reviving larger, ancient polities – was the strategic logic new states between the wars. Indeed, as Tara Zahra notes in The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, these states often expended great effort to encourage their nationals who had left for the U.S.A. to return, while pressing minorities, especially Jews, to leave. The current Israeli ‘right of return’ ironically continues this ethnocratic conception of citizenship and historical revival.
The victors’ reluctance to compromise their sometimes grandiose territorial ambitions at the Paris Peace Conference was a consequence of domestic as much as geopolitical calculation. Like the vanquished, they had promised their populations that the enormous sacrifices made during four years of fighting – in the Italian case, over 600,000 dead! – would be compensated by post-war gains, whether of land or reparations, or both. Wartime propaganda demonized the other side, compounding the difficulty of making a sensible peace settlement. Australia ensured that Japan would not get a racial equality clause, contributing to its alienation from the West and ultimately to the imperial ambitions that would threaten Australia. With France, Australia also insisted on extracting maximum reparations from Germany. Just when new and relatively stable governments had come to power in the vanquished states, they were subject to a punitive treaty – especially Hungary, which lost two thirds of its land and 73 per cent of its population – that predisposed them to ‘revisionism’: seeking to revise the unjust Paris settlement. When the Nazis began to re-order Europe a generation later, they found willing collaborators who saw the revisionist opportunity for which they had been waiting.
A common complaint against these treaties was the inconsistent application of self-determination. It was all very well to grant it to ethnic Romanians and Slovaks in Hungarian territory by consigning it to neighbouring states, but what about the over three million Hungarians who now lived in them as minorities? The same applied to Germans in Poland and Czechoslovakia? What was the point of the new state of Austria, the German-speaking rump of the once glorious empire? Self-determination demanded its union with Germany, but the Allies forbade this proposition. Gerwarth is no proponent of the concept: ‘in 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’, a utopia that led to the expulsion of 12 million Germans from eastern and central Europe after the second world war.
The infamous precedent for population expulsion caps the book: the notorious population exchange between Turkey and Greece in 1922 and 1923, made official by the Treaty of Lausanne: over a million Orthodox Christians were turned out of Turkey while some 300,000 Muslims were forced out of Greece. It overturned the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) that partitioned the Ottoman Empire between Armenian and Kurdish states and a Turkish rump. As might be expected, Turks opposed this neo-colonial treatment. A national resistance movement was already mobilized by an Allied-sanctioned Greek invasion of Anatolia in 1919 that ended with Turkish victory and the notorious destruction of the largely Christian city of Smyrna (Izmir) in 1922.
Gerwarth begins and ends the book with this terrible episode of mass murder of 30,000 Greeks and Armenians because, I think, the misconceived Greek adventure to construct a greater Greece that encompassed all Orthodox Christians (the Megali idea) exemplified the prevalent political folly in this period. Not only did the war lead to military struggle between armies and warlords, all sides – including Armenian forces in the east – massacred civilians according to a brutal ethnic calculus of revenge and vicarious group responsibility. The entire episode also reveals the bankruptcy of great power meddling in the delicate ethnic balance and comingling that evolves over centuries of common life in decentered imperial zones, as recently elaborated by Nicholas Doumanis in Before the Nation: Muslim-Christian Coexistence and its Destruction in Late-Ottoman Anatolia. Finally, the Greek–Allied condominium underscores the dangers of seizing upon power vacuums as ‘historical opportunities’ to politically and demographically transform entire regions. Attempting to revive an ancient polity is one such form of utopian hubris that can only end in tears.
It is striking how today’s most explosive Eurasian conflicts were formed in the shatterzone between 1917 and 1923: Russia’s attempt to restores its imperial borders by annexing Crimea, effectively partitioning Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, and striking fear into the Baltic states, while international society continues to be vexed by the Kurdish question in the lands of Sykes-Picot and Lausanne, and the unresolved question of Israel/Palestine. Gerwarth claims too little for his immense book, whose richness and detail I have conveyed imperfectly in this discussion. In the main, he points to the violent logics that were taken to their extreme conclusions in the 1930s and then in the second world war, but his matter-of-fact tone conceals the subversive goodbye-to-all-that conclusion about the dangers of patriotism married to impossible projects of historical renewal and/or human engineering. There are lessons here for us today.
Given its implicit case for the maintenance of these empires or at least softer treatment of their successors, the question presents itself of how the rest the century might have looked if this first decolonization had not taken place. Was the nation-state – the norm after 1945 – so inevitable after all? No doubt, self-determination was a powerful rhetoric judging by the rapturous welcome that subject peoples accorded to Wilson and Lenin during and after the first world war. Even so, most states remained imperial entities constituted by complex layers of sovereignty. During and after the second world war, many commentators and politicians devoted considerable effort to conceiving of new political arrangements that transcended both the homogeneous nation-state, which was considered to have failed in central Europe, and the old empires with their racist hierarchies. Federations and commonwealths were particularly popular notions. Many Arab and African elites in Francophone Africa were drawn less to national liberation rhetoric than to an imperial reformism that would accord their people full equality in, say, the French empire, or that envisaged a federation of African states affiliated with Paris, as Frederick Cooper has recently shown. Of course, empires were congeries of imperial exploitation, but they were becoming less racist in different ways – or they could, it was hoped. These options failed ultimately, but it is worth pondering whether decolonization would have played out differently had self-determination been tempered by principles of co-existence (in addition to the interwar minority protection treaties, which still envisaged assimilation) and understood less as a vehicle for ethnic absolutism. Revisionism was the bane of the 1920s and 1930s.
Fascism today? I don’t see the particular conjuncture that produced fascism in Donald Trump’s presidential victory, notwithstanding the palpable racism of many of his supporters and advisers. Indulging them and determining to renegotiate trade deals to better serve local interests raises sufficient questions without having to affix labels from the interwar years. There is no faltering parliamentary system to elicit calls for a strongman, no revolutionary left to scare the middle class, no rival movements on the extremes dominating the streets, no paramilitary violence of comparable scale. It is Turkey where journalists and academics are fired and/or locked up, and Kurdish citizens are terrorized. Even Trump’s executive order to ban “foreign nationals” from Syria is an extension of his predecessor’s policies and the long-standing US “war on terror” that already targeted those hailing from some Muslim majority countries. The sources of his policies can also be found close to home: in nativist and populist traditions of white-Christian supremacy. Some Australian politicians might find them attractive as well. Trump’s advisor Steve Bannon is apparently also a disciple of Edmund Burke. In many ways, the Trump administration will continue the US’s partisanship for Israel.
Our challenges are worrying in other ways, although reminiscent of the dystopia that Robert Gerwarth has so masterfully reconstructed: a downward spiral of violence as zones of action –Iraq/Syria, Western states, and Ukraine – are interlocked by Western and Russian meddling in the name of grand historical opportunities, giving rise to power vacuums, ruthless new actors, rival utopias, military lawlessness, and multidirectional violence. Daesh/ISIS, which claims to restore the Muslim Caliphate, undo the Sykes-Picot borders, and expel Western influence from the region, attracts some children of Muslim migrants to Western countries, who are alienated by anti-Muslim sentiment and attracted to Daesh’s false promises. At the same time, their sporadic terrorism in the West exacerbates the anti-Muslim and anti-migration reactions that is Daesh’s main recruitment tool. This is a global conjuncture that requires a new vocabulary rather than unhelpful historical analogies.