Robert Gerwarth, The Vanquished:
Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923
On November 11th this autumn, the yearly celebrations and remembrances associated with Veteran’s Day (sometimes called Armistice Day) will carry particular weight – that day will mark 100 years to the day when war-weary German generals signed the ceasefire agreement in a French railroad car that ended the four-year conflict still sometimes termed the “Great War.” There will be many ceremonies and much speechifying about valor, sacrifice, and the high cost of preserving peace. But if Robert Gerwarth, a German-born professor of modern history at University College, Dublin, were to speak at any such ceremony, he might be considered a party crasher. He would likely ask his listeners not to think of that November day in 1918 as a moment when the killing and carnage stopped across Europe.
Gerwarth could explain, as he does in The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923, how the November 1918 armistice did not bring peace to much of Europe. Although the Western Allies, Great Britain and France, found relative peace and stability in the aftermath of the armistice (Britain still had to cope with an unruly Ireland), that was anything but the case in central and eastern Europe. There, ethnic strife and political violence continued well past November 1918, to the point where, Gerwarth contends, we should think of the post-war period, up to 1923, as one of an “extended European civil war” (p.8; Gerwarth’s book might thus be considered a counterpart to Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, reviewed here in July 2013, recounting the ethnic violence and fighting that continued well after the official end to World War II hostilities in 1945). Not since the Thirty Years War of the seventeenth century had a “series of interconnected wars and civil wars in Europe been as inchoate and deadly as in the years after 1917-18” (p.7).
As his title indicates, Gerwarth’s focus is on World War I’s losers, the “vanquished,” better known as the Central Powers, whose defeat on the battlefield deprived them of justification for their immense sacrifices during the war. In addition to Germany, the vanquished included the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Turkey and Bulgaria, all of whom had signed ceasefire agreements with the Allies prior to Germany’s capitulation on November 11, 1918. But the first vanquished power for Gerwarth is Russia. The most populous of all combatant states, Russia “became the first to descend into the chaos of revolution and military defeat” (p.15). It sued Germany for peace in late 1917, the same year Romanov Tsar Nicholas II had abdicated, and only shortly after Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik party had seized power.
Gerwarth’s starting point is thus an extensive treatment of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the so-called “Russian Civil War” that followed (his initial chapter is entitled “A Train Journey in Spring,” reminiscent of Catherine Merridale’s Lenin on the Train, reviewed here in December 2017). He then moves to central and eastern Europe after the November 1918 Armistice, a period when both left and right-wing violence plagued the territories once controlled by the Central Powers. Gerwarth delves into the specific situations in Germany and just about every other country in central and eastern Europe, including many that came into existence after the war, among them Czechoslovakia, Poland and Yugoslavia. His survey also includes Italy, which switched sides during the war and saw Europe’s first fascist government come to power in 1922 under Benito Mussolini.
But Gerwarth uses this extensive country-specific detail to create a broader picture. Europe’s post-war upheaval, he argues, has hitherto been looked at almost exclusively from the perspective of individual countries, e.g., what was going on in Russia and Germany, “as if the revolutionary events that shook Europe between 1917 and the early 1920s were completely unconnected” (p.14). There is no study in any language, he asserts, that “investigates the experiences of all the vanquished states within the confines of one book” (p.14). Gerwarth seeks to fill this void.
To this end, The Vanquished emphasizes how the extended post-World War I civil war coincided with the dismantlement of the highly-diverse Hapsburg and Ottoman land empires of central and eastern Europe, replaced by fledgling nation states (Germany too under the Kaiser was considered a European land empire; Romanov Russia, Europe’s other great land empire, ended with the Tsar’s 1917 abdication, the Bolshevik Revolution and Russian capitulation to Germany). Dismantlement of Europe’s land empires was not an initial war aim of the Western Allies, and only became so within the last year of the war. By late 1923, when Europe’s extended civil war had largely ended, Fascist and Bolshevik governments were entrenched in key European states, and the idea that a true nation state required ethnic and religious homogeneity had gained an ominous toehold.
Gerwarth connects the dots for his macro-portrait in large measure through the peace treaties that purported to settle the conflicts of the World War I era and restructure Europe’s geo-political order. The treaties were not the only cause of the extended political turmoil of the post-war years, but they plainly exacerbated that turmoil. The first, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, between Russia and Germany, was signed eight months prior to the November armistice, on March 3, 1918. In the middle chronologically – and in the middle of Gerwarth’s narrative – are the accords that arose out of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference: the Versailles peace treaty, which prescribed terms for Germany; the Treaty of San-Germaine-en-Laye for Austria; Trianon for Hungary; Sèvres for Ottoman Turkey; and Neuilly for Bulgaria. The end point is the July 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which resolved the extended post-war conflict between Greece and a young, post-Ottoman Turkish Republic. Between Brest-Litovsk and Lausanne, Gerwarth ranges widely yet probes deeply, methodically presenting account after account of the inter-state and civil wars, political revolutions and counter-revolutionary reaction, that ravaged central and eastern Europe in the half-decade following the November 1918 armistice.
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The March 1918 Treaty of Brest- Litovsk between Russia and Germany stripped the former Romanov Empire of almost all the western, non-Russian portions of its territory, approximately 1.6 million square kilometers, containing almost one-third of its pre-war population and much of its natural resources. The treaty was a “moment of extraordinary triumph” (p.39) for Germany, bringing it closer to its initial war aim of becoming the dominant power in Central and Eastern Europe. The territorial concessions exacted from Russia as the price for peace, Gerwarth contends, made those imposed upon Germany in the Versailles treaty the following year “seem benign by comparison” (p.39).
The Russian Civil War that followed n the aftermath of Brest-Litovsk involved counter-revolutionary opponents, peasant insurgencies and the attempts by several regions on the western border of the former Russian Empire to break away from Bolshevik rule. Allied intervention, initially intended to prevent the Central Powers from taking control of strategic resources, “soon included military aid for the loose confederation of anti-communist forces known as the ‘Whites’ in their struggle against the ‘Red’ Bolsheviks” (p.77). The eventual Red triumph came at a “staggeringly high price for the country. After two revolutions and seven uninterrupted years of armed conflict, Russia in 1921 lay in ruins” (p.93).
Two days after the November 1918 armistice, the Russian Red Army sought to recapture western territories lost as a result of Brest-Litovsk. By early 1919, Bolshevism appeared to be on the march westward, with Germany a cauldron of left and right wing fervor. Left wing radicals, led by revolutionaries Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg, challenged the post-war government in Berlin in the “Spartacus Uprising.” Bavaria sought to become an independent socialist republic. Former German soldiers, friekorps, set themselves up as a bulwark against the spread of Bolshevism, aided by a huge contingent of émigrés from the Russian civil war. Liebknecht and Luxembourg were assassinated in January 1919. Friekorps paramilitary forces were on the front line in the 1920 “Kapp putsch,” an unsuccessful right-wing attack on the German government in 1920. Bavaria witnessed another unsuccessful right-wing putsch in 1923, this one led by a World War I veteran from Austria and members of his infant National Socialist party.
With Vienna and Budapest experiencing similar upheaval, the Paris Peace Conference convened in mid-January 1919 to decide the future of the vanquished powers. The vanquished themselves were excluded from the negotiations, to be summoned only when the peace treaties had been finalized. Russia, immersed in civil war, was similarly missing from the negotiations. The treaties were thus a product of compromise, “not between the victors and the vanquished, but between the key actors among the victorious Allies” (p.174; the deliberations and machinations of the Paris Peace Conference are captured brilliantly in Margaret MacMillan’s 2003 work, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World).
The Treaty of Versailles, signed on June 28, 1919, is best known for its Article 231, ascribing sole responsibility for the war to Germany, and its unrealistic war reparation requirements. Germany was also forced into substantial territorial concessions, with its overseas colonies redistributed among the victorious states. In Germany, the terms of the treaty, considered a diktat, were greeted with disbelief, uniting an otherwise seriously polarized country in a shared sense of “fundamental betrayal and resentment” (p.203).
Yet Germany “actually fared better in Paris than all of the other Central Powers” (p.204), Gerwarth contends. The treaty of St. Germaine-en-Laye, signed in September 1919, allotted huge swaths of the former Hapsburg Empire to Italy, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the future state of Yugoslavia, reducing Austria to a “tiny and impoverished Republic in the Alps” (p.5). The treaty imposed heavy reparations upon both Austria and Hungary and stipulated that the two countries would have to carry most of the old empire’s war debt. It further proscribed Anschluss, the voluntary union of Austria with the German Reich, an aspiration strongly supported by the political left in both Austria and Germany which seemed consistent with American President Woodrow Wilson’s lofty principle of “national self determination.” The newly independent state of Hungary was similarly forced to cede large segments of Hungarian-speaking territory and did not sign the Treaty of Trianon until June 1920, and then under protest.
Bulgaria’s territorial loses in the Treaty of Neuilly were less extensive than those of Austria and Hungary but, proportionate to its size and GDP, it faced the highest reparations bill of all the Central Powers. The Treaty of Sèvres, the last of the Paris Peace Conference, signed in August 1920, forced Ottoman Turkey to cede huge amounts of territory to Greeks, Armenians and Kurds, while allowing onerous foreign spheres of influence and domination in much of the remainder. The treaty also imposed substantial reparations. “No other defeated Central Power had to subject itself to such a compromise of its sovereignty,” Gerwarth writes. For Turkish nationalists, the treaty’s draconian terms continued “in an even more extreme form the humiliating European interference in Ottoman affairs [that occurred] during the nineteenth century” (p.236).
But the focus on Versailles’ war guilt clause and the issue of war reparations for all of the Central Powers obscures what Gerwarth considers the most significant outcome of the Paris Peace accords: the “transformation of an entire continent previously dominated by land empires into one composed of ‘nation states’” (p.174). Neither Great Britain nor France had gone to war in 1914 with the aim of creating a “Europe of nations,” and it was “only from early 1918 onwards that the destruction of the land empires became an explicit war aim” (p.173). The Paris accords also led to a series of “Minority treaties,” agreements signed by the new nation states, particularly Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, as a precondition for their international recognition, in which the new states guaranteed rights to ethnic and religious minorities living within their boundaries.
In his post-Paris Peace Conference section, Gerwarth dedicates a full chapter to Italy and its quest for control over the Adriatic port of Fiume, a city also claimed by the emerging state of Yugoslavia. Fiume was at the top of the list of territories Italy thought it had been promised when it came over to the Allied side in 1915 in the Great War, but failed to gain in Paris, giving rise to the notion of a “mutilated” Italian victory. For a while, the flamboyant poet Gabriel D’Annunzio occupied Fiume before being driven out by the Italian central government in Rome.
Fiume became one of the causes that propelled Benito Mussolini to power in 1922 as Europe’s first overtly fascist leader. Gerwarth observes how Mussolini utilized lessons he drew from Lenin, notably that “parliamentary majorities were far less important than the ability and determination to instill fear in opponents and to act ruthlessly when an opportunity presented itself” (p.163). Mussolini’s appointment as Italian Prime Minister in 1922 was an instance much like Lenin’s coup d’état in 1917 where power was “handed over to the head of a militia party which had imposed its authority by means of violence” (p.163).
Gerwarth finishes with the 1919-1922 war between Greece and Turkey. Greece had joined the Allied side in the war in 1915 out of ambition for territory in the Ottoman Empire. Encouraged by Britain, in May 1919 it launched an invasion at the Aegean city of Smyrna (now Izmir), and for a short time controlled substantial portions of the Turkish mainland, Anatolia. But Turkish nationalists, led by Mustafa Kemel, soon to be known as Attäturk, checked Greece forces, recaptured Smyrma and drove the Greeks from Anatolia. The Turkish nationalists negotiated a new treaty at Lausanne which completely overturned the Treaty of Sèvres. The Treaty of Lausanne recognized the independence of the Republic of Turkey and its sovereignty over what was sometimes termed Asia Minor, modern Turkey, along with its largest city, Constantinople (now Istanbul), and Eastern Thrace, now the Turkish portion of the European continent bordering Bulgaria. By virtue of Lausanne, Greece became the “last of the vanquished states of the ‘post-war’ period” (p.246).
But the Lausanne Treaty had ominous implications for Europe as a whole. Drawn up to prevent mass violence between different religious groups, the treaty sanctioned the forced exchange of 1.2 million Orthodox Christians, living in Anatolia, who were sent to Greece, and nearly 400,000 Muslims resettled the other way. Lausanne:
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 . . . [T]he future now seemed to belong to ethnic homogeneity as a pre-condition for nation states to live in peace (p.246).
Lausanne thus all but reversed the commitment of the Paris Peace Conference’s Minority treaties to the defense of vulnerable ethnic minorities. It confirmed what was then becoming an “increasingly popular idea” that a “‘true’ nation state could only be founded on the principle of ethnic or religious homogeneity, and that this had to be achieved at almost any human price” (p.243-44).
Yet, central and eastern Europe entered into a relatively stable period after Lausanne. Gerwarth sees a “new spirit of rapprochement” (p.248) from late 1923 onward that lasted throughout the remainder of the 1920s, embodied in such instruments as the Dawes plan, which strove to make German reparations payments more manageable; the Locarno Treaty of 1925, by which Germany acknowledged its post-Versailles western borders; and the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, whose high-minded purpose was to ban war as an instrument of foreign policy, except for self-defense. But the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression reversed much of the progress toward a lasting peace made in the latter portion of the 1920s. As the decade ended, Fascism and Bolshevism (now referred to more frequently as “Communism”) remained entrenched in Italy and the former Romanov state. As to Germany, while the fringe National Socialist party was attracting attention for its rabble-rousing attacks on the Versailles treaty, few Germans gave the party any serious chance of achieving power.
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It is an open question whether Gerwarth offers new detail of Europe’s turbulent period 1917-1923. The book’s extensive country-specific accounts of these years, especially those pertaining to Russia and Germany, have been the subject matter of numerous other works. But the virtue of Gerwarth’s work lies in its use of the country-specific histories of Russia, Germany and just about every other European country from Italy eastward to create a comprehensive, thought-provoking portrait of a half-continent awash in ethnic strife and political violence in the aftermath of the November 1918 armistice. Gerwarth’s work also seems likely to be at odds with what you might read or hear this coming November 11th.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
June 22, 2018