Book Review: The Vanquished

The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End by Robert Gerwarth, Copyright 2016, Farrar, Straus, Giroux. 464 Pages.

The great conflagration of World War I lasted from July 28, 1914 until the armistice of November 11, 1918, when hostilities ended to both grieving and fanfare. Last year, as the centennial of the end to the War to End All Wars, many in France, Britain, Germany, the United States, Canada, Australia New Zealand, and all over Europe reflected on this great and solemn occasion. It was a chance to both remember the human tragedy of The Great War and to celebrate our forebears who fought bravely in places like Flanders, Gallipoli, Verdun, and the Somme.

For many in the west, the story of the twentieth centuries baptism of fire ends on November 11, 1918. Or, at least, that is the conventional wisdom. Following the armistice, it was merely a matter of hammering out the details before the Treaty of Versailles was signed less than a year later on June 28, 1919. Those a little more savvy might recall that not every belligerent had the same government or borders following the war as they had going in, and that Treaty of Versailles left unhappy some figures who would become important later on. What many in the west are unaware of, though, is that the years from 1918 until 1923 were just as brutal and deadly as the years between 1914 and 1918.

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These lesser known events are what Robert Gerwarth’s remarkable book “The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End” covers. Gerwarth chronicles the turbulent events that occurred in the parts of Central and Eastern Europe between 1917 and 1923. This history focuses on the Empires that met their doom on the bloody battlefields of The Great War – Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Russia – and the successor states that limped into the deceptively christened interwar years. Bulgaria, which fought alongside the central powers, also saw a turbulent descent into conflict following their defeat. Greece and Italy, which fought on the side of the victorious entente, did not get away unscathed, either – Greece became embroiled in the Greco-Turkish war, which ended in ignominy for Greece, and Italy had what they deemed a mutilated victory, which became a slogan for Mussolini and his fascists.

Gerwarth starts his narrative off with a look near the end of his period of interest, when the Turkish forces, led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, advanced on the town of Smyrna, resulting in numerous atrocities against the Greek and Christian populations and the burning of the city. But this was only to illustrate the types of atrocities that were commonplace in Eastern Europe following the ostensible armistice. Gerwarth says “Between 1917 and 1920 alone Europe experienced no fewer than twenty-seven violent transfers of political power, many of them accompanied by latent or open civil wars” and that “[u]nlike World War I, which was fought with the purpose of forcing the enemy to accept certain conditions of peace (however severe), the violence after 1917-1918 was infinitely more ungovernable. These were 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.”

The events that occurred from 1917 to 1923 are extremely complex and do not easily lend themselves to a purely chronological narrative. Gerwarth conveys the story somewhat chronologically, with Part I “Defeat” focusing on the events right at the end of the Great War, Part II “Revolution and Counter-Revolution” focusing on the immediate aftermath, and Part III “Imperial Collapse” focusing loosely on the various outcomes.

The Narrative, however, jumps around in time a lot as it focuses on the different nations, grouping their narratives conceptually. These concepts focus on Gerwarth’s thesis for why the First World War failed to end on the November 11th armistice. The theses are laid out most explicitly in Part II. Chapter 6 goes into the German Freikorps, which were bands of primarily right-wing German soldiers who were humiliated by defeat and brutalized by war, joined by younger boys who were angry about having not gotten the chance to prove their mettle in battle. Gerwarth says of them “some [Freikorps volunteers] were attracted by the collapse of law and order in the Baltics. Growing long beards and living off the land, the likened themselves to early modern freebooters or pirates, and thrived on the culture of lawlessness that pervaded the region. Others craved the continuation of their soldierly existence, especially in a fight against Bolshevism, and believed that the campaign in Latvia could provide a base for a final effort to avenge the defeat and the humiliation of the post-war settlement.”

Chapter 7 chronicles the fight between the new Bolshevik government and their various enemies. The Russian Civil War, which saw some three million deaths, was as bloody as it was complicated. This chapter doesn’t go into as much of the conceptual causes for the continuation of war throughout the vanquished states, but it is both and enlightening and succinct telling of this complex conflict.

Gerwarth does not deviate from the conventional narrative that the reason for the Bolshevik victory was due to the communist’s radical enthusiasm and surprising ability to organize under Trotsky, along with their adversary’s disunity in strategic and ideological aims. The adversary to the newly christened Red Army under Lenin and Trotsky is often called the Whites. This designation is inaccurate, as the Whites were made up of several geographically separated armies with inter- and intra-army ideological differences, including monarhcists (loyal to the deposed Romanov regime), nationalists, other left-leaning groups like the Mensheviks, and external actors like the Americans, British, and Japanese. Along with numerous national movements in places like Ukraine and in the Caucuses, there were also the Greens, made up mostly of peasant farmers who resented the Bolsheviks confiscating their harvests.

Unfortunately, although understandably, Gerwarth doesn’t go into large detail about the interesting, and highly complex aspects of the conflicts in the Caucuses, the Ukrainian anarchists under Nestor Makhno, or Josef Stalin’s actions in the Polish-Soviet War and the Battle of Tsaritsyn. He does illustrate the horrific atrocities perpetrated throughout the Russian Civil War with gruesome accounts of the Green peasants crucifying Chekists coming to requisition grain and the accounts of one White general, named Roman von Ungern-Sternberg, allowing his men to torture Jews to death and rape women with impunity.

Chapters 8, 9 and 10 go into how the victors imposed democracy on the successor states as a condition for peace and how the people in many of these successor states rejected democracy for more radical forms of government. Because the First World War had taken on the high-minded goal of “making the world safe for democracy,” the central powers were forced to jettison their monarchs, and then cobble together democratic governments in an attempt to receive favorable peace treaties. Gerwarth points out, though, that many people in these successor states didn’t like the idea of democracy.

As an example, in Hungary, the newly formed republic became a Soviet Republic in March of 1919. The communist rump state, however, was shortly overturned four months later after wars with Czechoslovakia, Romania, and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, ending with Romanian occupation. Within that four months was a Red Terror under the Jewish communist Béla Kun’s regime. The right-wing soldiers that overthrough the Soviet regime, under Miklós Horthy, perpetrated a counter-revolutionary White Terror between 1919 and 1920 that targeted communists and Jews, the latter of which would always be associated with Bolshevism, leading in part to Horthy’s later alliance with Hitler against the Soviet Union in the Second World War.

Part III goes into more detail about the issues with the peace treaties negotiated in Paris. One glaring issue was that none of the defeated peoples were present for the negotiations, as had been the case in the Congress of Vienna after the Napoleonic Wars, for instance. The western powers – France, Britain, and the U.S. primarily, with Japan and Italy leaving before the process was completed for various reasons – tasked themselves with drawing the borders of new nations. This included breaking up the centuries-old polyglot Austro-Hungarian Empire on national lines, remaking the country of Poland, navigating a number of mutually exclusive promises made concerning the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire, and ensuring that Germany was sufficiently punished to appease the Entente country’s angry citizens. Gerwarth’s thesis here is that there was no way to do this that was both fair and to everyone’s satisfaction. In the end, the treaties of Versailles, Saint-Germain, Neuilly, Trianon, and Sèvres were unfair and to nobody’s satisfaction. Because of this another world war became inevitable.

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“The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End” is a well-researched and compellingly written account of Europe from 1917 to 1923. This is a period that is little understood in the west, but vitally important to understanding everything that comes afterward, including the rise of Fascism and communism and their unprecedented clash in the Second World War. Robert Gerwarth provides breathtaking insight into this historically essential and endlessly interesting pivotal moment in world history. As the centennial of what the western powers consider to be the end of The Great War approaches, I highly recommend reading Gerwarth’s book.

Radicalization of both the left and the right in Europe, catalyzed by the cataclysm of the First World War, prevented the war from ending for the vanquished. The left was invigorated by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. The right was eager to throw off the humiliation of their defeat, as well as fears of the spreading revolution from the east. While the left sought to emulate Lenin’s success in Russia, Gerwarth said of the right that “…there was no consensus among the radical Right in central Europe about what the future should look like. What they could agree on was what they were against.” As our own world, one hundred years hence, faces its own political polarization, Gerwarth’s book is a dire warning that even if, as Mark Twain said, history doesn’t repeat itself, it does sometimes rhyme. The period following The Great War is one cadence worth breaking.

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