Monday 22 January 2018

Blood and chaos: legacy of the Great War

History: The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923, Robert Gerwarth, Penguin Books, hdbk, 446 pages, €30

Crowds cheering round a large Turkish flag which was made to celebrate the victory of Smyrna (modern Izmir). Given to Greece after WW I by the Treaty of Sevres it was reclaimed and seized by the Turks in 1922.
Crowds cheering round a large Turkish flag which was made to celebrate the victory of Smyrna (modern Izmir). Given to Greece after WW I by the Treaty of Sevres it was reclaimed and seized by the Turks in 1922.

Frank MacGabhann

A fascinating new book explores the cataclysmic power vacuums caused by World War I and the 27 violent revolutions that it sparked.

When this reviewer was living in Paris in the 1970s, there was a university-organised trip to Rouen for students from all over Europe. During the afternoon, someone tried to engage a postgraduate student from Hungary about his country's regime when the Hungarian cut him off by saying: "I don't know how much you know about the history of central Europe, but central Europe is a very dangerous place."

No one demurred, perhaps for politeness' sake. He did not specifically include the post-war period following World War I, but this book makes it clear that central (and eastern) Europe was, indeed, a very dangerous place during that period. The killings, tortures, skinnings alive and rapes referred to in this book make his remark an understatement. Even in France, the sequelae of the Great War was still evident - one of the first expressions that I learned there was les casse-gueules - World War I veterans with broken mouths, and by extension, mutilated faces from the mustard gas used.

The author, Robert Gerwarth, is professor of Modern History at University College Dublin and director of its Centre for War Studies. In this book he shines a light on what is, from a western European point of view, a somewhat obscure and relatively short period of time.

Gerwarth argues that the traditional understanding of the Paris Peace Conference and the post-war treaties have focused too much on the questions of war guilt and reparations. The greatest issue at stake was "the transformation of an entire continent previously dominated by land empires into one composed of nation states". He could have added, "in record time". This had tragic (and fatal) implications for millions. In addition to that, the final versions of the various treaties were compromises, "not between the victors and the vanquished, but between the key actors of the victorious Allies". The result was that all over central Europe, the new states had large minorities of other nationalities within their borders - minorities that were fearful and hostile. The author makes the point that within three empires - the Ottoman, Russian and Austro-Hungarian - there had been relative harmony among the diverse nationalities and religious sects living there. It is probably fair to add that a lid was being kept on the forces of latent nationalism, preventing the pot from bubbling over.

When the senseless nature of the war became apparent to the now demoralised and angry veterans, and simultaneously a political vacuum was being created by the break-up of these empires, the pressure cooker could take no more. The author states that between 1917 and 1920 there were 27 violent changes of government, the most cataclysmic occurring, of course, in Russia.

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

Churchill was at his imperialist and racist worst when he called these wars, "wars of pygmies", presumably because Anglo-Saxons and French were not involved. However, more than four million people died, more than the combined deaths of France, Britain and the United States in the war.

The author begins and ends the book with the orgy of violence in the historic and then mostly Christian city of Smyrna, now Izmir in Turkey, in 1922. The Greeks had been encouraged by the British to invade Anatolia (Asia Minor) following the break-up of the Ottoman Empire. Unfortunately for them, their generals were no match for Mustafa Kemal and his. Smyrna, among many other cities, paid the price - more than 30,000 slaughtered and raped over two weeks while British warships looked on from the bay. Hemingway, foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star, witnessed it and wrote about it.

The author believes that the post-war chaos and incipient ethnic cleansing in the post-war period encouraged Hitler to embark on his campaign of death. The author doesn't include it, but Hitler at one stage said: "Who remembers the Armenians now?" The author examines, in turn, the consequences of the war on the four empires, the fourth being the Hohenzollern Empire, which was the smallest of the four as Germany joined the colonial banquet table relatively late.

The wholesale slaughter, tortures, rapes and other atrocities committed in the name of the new nations in formation made many pine for the ancien régime. To illustrate this, the author cites a number of novels and books by people, particularly Jews, who were forced to flee in the chaos of that six-year period. These literary asides give the book a human dimension that set it apart from many other books written about the period.

Author Joseph Roth in the novel Radetzky March, published in 1932, has a character muse: "As soon as the emperor says goodnight, we'll break up into a hundred pieces... All the peoples will set up their own dirty statelets... Nationalism is the new religion."

Gerwarth's epilogue neatly ties in the post-war period with the prelude to World War II. Austria in 1938 got the Anschluss it had wanted (and needed) in 1918, not through self-determination, but through Hitler's dictat. The author uses an unfortunate turn of phrase when, referring the Spanish Civil War, he criticises "meddling" by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.

Apart from the inappropriate use of the word, the Spanish Republic fell precisely because Britain and France refused to "meddle", thus ensuring that the intervention by Germany and Italy would prove decisive in Franco's victory.

One quibble is that the map of the intended break-up of the Ottoman Empire bears the names of Turkish cities in the modern form (Istanbul, Izmir, Canakkale, etc) but in the text, the former names are used (Constantinople, Smyrna, Chanak, etc), which leads to confusion for lay readers.

Anatolia (Asia Minor) should probably have been delineated on the map as it is mentioned often in the text.

From the scholar's point of view, the endnotes and bibliography run to 150 pages and provide many a door into further reading.

From the layman's vantage point, it is so well written that it reads like a novel. Tragically, for the people killed, wounded and forced to flee from their homes, it is not. This book is well worth the read.

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