The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-23 
by Robert Gerwarth.
Allen Lane, 446 pp., £10.99, June 2017, 978 0 14 197637 2
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The First World War​ was decided on the Western Front where, after the failure of Ludendorff’s spring offensive in 1918, the German army’s ability to fight finally collapsed under the combined weight of Britain, France and the United States. But while the war was won (it might be more accurate to say, lost) in the west, its immediate origins and most lasting consequences were in the east, where the echoes of this great calamity can still be heard. We need only compare Europe’s geopolitical landscape in 1914 with the present: the map of western and northern Europe has not substantially changed (the exception is the creation of the Republic of Ireland), whereas east of the Rhine a new set of states has emerged, many of them created in the aftermath of the war. This was the political order made by and for the war’s losers, the vanquished who are the subject of Robert Gerwarth’s fine book.

‘The very situations that bring about a modern war are destroyed in its wake,’ Raymond Aron wrote. ‘It is the battle in and for itself, and not the origin of the conflict or the peace treaty that constitutes the major fact and produces the most far-reaching consequences.’ In the First World War, the battle itself was dramatically different in the east and the west. In the west, violence was concentrated along a band of fortified positions extending 440 miles from the Swiss border to the Channel. This was the lethally claustrophobic world of the trenches that still dominates public memory of the war in Britain, France and Germany. In the east, the opposing armies were in constant motion across a vast battleground: during 1915, Russia lost territory the size of France to advancing German troops. On both fronts men under fire dug trenches, but in the east they were, as Basil Liddell Hart wrote, ‘no more than a hard crust covering a liquid expanse’, unable to contain the eruption of violence that spread over the landscape. When there was stalemate in the east, it came from exhaustion rather than being a result of the strength of either side’s fortified positions.

The Western Front was closed in one direction but open in another: as long as Britain could retain mastery of the sea, the Allies had access to manpower and materials from throughout the world. In the course of the war, British shipping moved 23.7 million people, 2.24 million animals and 46.5 million tons of military supplies. The Central Powers, victorious in the east, were finally defeated in the west because they lost the battle of the Atlantic. This was also the case in the Second World War, which is the reason that, as Churchill later remarked, German U-Boats were the only thing that truly frightened him.

Cut off from international trade, the combatant countries in the East had to depend on their own overburdened economies for sustenance. There were some shortages and higher food prices in the west, but no starvation: rationing was not introduced in London until February 1918. In the east, food swiftly became a major issue. In the Ottoman provinces of Lebanon and Syria, the British blockade, the social upheavals created by the war and a plague of locusts cut agricultural production and inhibited the movement of supplies. The result was a famine in which as many as one in seven Syrians died – a disaster largely forgotten by most of the world. In Vienna, there were serious food shortages by 1915. People eventually had to get by on 800 calories or so a day; according to one estimate, 90 per cent of the city’s children were undernourished by the end of the war. Throughout Eastern Europe, hunger began to undermine government legitimacy. In Russia, the insurrection that ended the Romanov dynasty’s 300-year reign began with a protest about the price of food in Petrograd.

Even when they avoided starvation, civilians in the east suffered far more than those in the west. Except for some six thousand Belgians summarily executed during the first weeks of the war and the many victims of air raids and long-range artillery fire, most of the dying in the west was done by men in uniform. In the east, many more civilians died, when their villages were plundered, their fields laid waste, and their livelihoods destroyed. In Russia between 1915 and 1917 seven million people were driven from their homes by the enemy or by their own government. Millions more would die or be displaced after Russia left the war. Trench warfare in the west wasn’t just spiritually and emotionally disruptive in itself but because it was such a sharp contrast with the orderly domesticity of the home front, often just a few hours’ journey from the battlefield. There was no such divide between the wartime experience of soldiers and civilians in most of Eastern Europe.

After a brief period of apparent consensus in most countries in the summer of 1914, the war caused civil unrest in all of the belligerent nations. In the west, there were strikes, demonstrations and a few riots, but relatively few deaths (except in Ireland). In the east, both popular protests and government repression were bloodier and more politically decisive. Germany was somewhere between the two: it experienced more social and political conflict than the west, significantly less than the east.

Although the war had the general effect of increasing divisions in society – between city dwellers and farmers, workers and employers, producers and consumers – it’s striking how often ethnic animosities were a factor in wartime conflicts. From Ireland to the Urals, nationality became a source of collective action and communal violence. In part this was due to the efforts made by all the belligerents to weaken their opponents by sowing dissent among ethnic minorities, as the British did among the Ottomans’ Arab subjects and the Germans tried but failed to do with Roger Casement’s ill-fated mission to Ireland. But governments also acted against their own populations. By far the most destructive example of this was the genocidal campaign carried out by the Ottoman regime against the empire’s Armenian subjects and other Christian minorities. And then there was the widespread hostility to Jews. Everywhere in Europe, from riots in London’s East End to murderous pogroms in Russia, the war allowed antisemitism to take on new and more virulent forms. In the east, in the years immediately after the war ended, national rivalries and alignments became the most important source of violence both between and within states.

‘War made states,’ Charles Tilly wrote, ‘and vice versa.’ This admirably concise comment on the relationship between warfare and state-making might be true, but it’s important to keep in mind that different kinds of war – and once again, ‘the battle itself’ – make different kinds of state, and vice versa. Battle in the west tested and then transformed the British and French states, both of which emerged better able to regulate society and mobilise resources. In the east, the belligerents buckled under the increasingly intolerable burdens of the war. It is remarkable that the eastern empires lasted as long as they did; their resilience should make us sceptical of claims that these regimes were about to dissolve before the war began. Nevertheless, beginning with Russia in 1917, followed by the Ottomans, Austria and finally (and decisively) Germany, imperial governments collapsed, setting off violent conflicts over what would take their place.

Combat in the west ended by ceasefire at 11 a.m. on 11 November 1918. The armistice signed by the Western Powers and representatives of the German government was significant not only because it ended the fighting on the Western Front, but also because it seemed to acknowledge that Germany would continue to exist as a nation-state. Unlike the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires, Germany survived; the Hohenzollern monarchy was finished, but most of the country’s social and political structure was intact, though battered. One might argue that with the collapse of Austria-Hungary, the upheavals in Russia, and the cost of victory for Britain and France, Germany emerged from the war relatively stronger than before. This shift in the balance of power would have significant implications for Europe’s future.

The signing of the armistice had little impact in the east. One phase of the war had ended on the Russian front in December 1917, but, like a smouldering fire, battles continued to break out, with varying degrees of intensity, for another four years. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the extraordinarily punitive peace settlement the Central Powers imposed on the Bolsheviks in March 1918, was swiftly annulled by events. Since the Allies were unwilling – and usually unable – to impose order, most of the postwar settlement in the east was determined on the battlefield, not around the negotiating table. Poland survived as an independent state because its forces defeated the Bolsheviks; by contrast, Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia became part of the Soviet Union because their armies did not prevail. The Republic of Turkey emerged from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire when its reconstituted armed forces routed the Greek invaders and compelled the Allies to revise the peace treaty they had imposed on the sultan in 1919. As Mustafa Kemal told the Turkish National Assembly in 1921: ‘Neither sovereignty nor the right to govern can be transferred by one person to anybody else by an academic debate. Sovereignty is acquired by force, by power and by violence.’

During the turbulent interregnum between the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the stabilisation of the postwar order in 1923 with the Treaty of Lausanne, governments east of the Rhine lost what Max Weber defined as the core of sovereign power, the monopoly on legitimate violence. As a result, a new kind of leader emerged: the warlord. Some warlords – Józef Piłsudski in Poland, Kemal in Turkey – used their military success to create new states. Others, like Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg, were in the end destroyed by the violent forces they helped unleash. A former Russian cavalry commander, in 1917 Ungern-Sternberg mobilised a multi-ethnic army to fight the Bolsheviks, and acquired a reputation for murder and mayhem. Recklessly brave in combat, subject to unpredictable fits of violent rage, driven by an obsessive hatred of Jews and Slavs, the baron might have stepped from the pages of an adventure novel. He was captured and executed by the Red Army in 1921, but not before his attempt to restore the Mongolian khanate.

A number of warlords competed with Ungern-Sternberg to control the patchwork of territories that Russia’s rulers had assembled over more than two centuries of imperial expansion. Beginning with General Lavr Kornilov’s unsuccessful putsch in the summer of 1917, a series of Russian officers attempted to defeat the revolution. None survived. Without sustained assistance from abroad, and damaged by their unwillingness to co-operate with one another and their lack of popular support, the counter-revolutionary warlords succumbed to the Bolsheviks, who created an effective army by mixing elements of the old regime with ideological fervour and repressive terror. Lenin’s rise to power, like those of Mussolini and Hitler, couldn’t have happened without the war.

The Vanquished begins with Lenin’s train journey from his Swiss exile to Petrograd’s Finland Station on Easter Sunday, 1917, a return made possible by the German High Command in what is surely the single most consequential attempt by one state to influence the domestic affairs of another. Russia plays a central part in Gerwarth’s story, but he gives equal weight to all the war’s losers, including those, such as Bulgaria, that are often ignored by scholars whose attention is fixed on Western Europe.

Gerwarth directly addresses the difficult question of the war’s influence on the catastrophic course of European history in the first half of the 20th century, a question of particular significance for historians of Russia and of Germany. He argues convincingly that the collapse of the old order was by no means inevitable in 1914: ‘The ruling dynasties of the prewar world seemed firmly entrenched and confidently in control of the vast swathes of territory that belonged to their empires.’ But he doesn’t think that the experience of war produced a brutalisation of European public life. The war, rather, is best understood as the ‘unintentional enabler’ of all the violence that came afterwards. What mattered was that the war ended in military defeat, social revolution and territorial reorganisation. The way these forces reinforced one another created ‘a new logic of violence that permeated domestic and international conflicts, and culminated … on the Eastern Front during the Second World War.’ Defeat, revolution and territorial reorganisation were, of course, all direct results of the war, of Aron’s ‘battle in and for itself’.

Not so long ago, we would have read Gerwarth’s book with a sense of detachment and relief, confident that the violent world it describes belonged to a closed chapter in European history. Some of this confidence has now been shaken. Europeans are restless, dissatisfied with their governments, uneasy about dangers both real and imagined. The geopolitical faultlines in Eastern Europe rumble again: democratic institutions are at risk in countries like Hungary, there has been ethnic conflict in Ukraine and the Caucasus, even the potential for the confrontation of great powers seems to have returned to the borders between Russia and its neighbours. Nevertheless, Gerwarth’s compelling account of war and revolution should make us appreciate – and fight to maintain – the vast distance between our own difficulties and the 20th century’s darkest days.

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