By Vikas Datta
Title: The Vanquished – Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923; Author: Robert Gerwarth; Publisher: Penguin Random House UK; Pages: 416; Price: Rs 699
Not all wars end when the fighting does is a lesson that we still have to learn. The First World War was supposed, despite all the upheaval it caused and immense destruction it left across three continents, to be the “war to end all wars” and “make the world safe for democracy”. It didn’t — as subsequent history shows.
It was however not only the rise of extremist ideologies like communism or fascism, and the Second World War, whose origins can be traced to the consequences of World War I. For its shadows extend longer — the Cold War, decades of (continuing) violent instability in the Middle East, ethnic strife, and much of the 20th century’s subsequent course — all these owe to the happenings in its immediate aftermath.
And though some of happenings are known, a much greater part remain obscure. They also have never been treated in a collective and systematic matter, as well as what lessons they have for us — even a century later, and this is what historian Robert Gerwarth deals with here.
Beginning from the port city of Smyrna in September 1922, as Turkish troops retook it from the Greeks and exacted a bloody toll while British and French naval forces just stood there (as young Ernest Hemingway and others reported), his disturbing narrative chronicles war, revolutions and other violence across Europe and Asia, including those that began even before the war ended, to show how toxic legacies are born.
To say that World War I was followed by a period of peace, save the occasional aberration, as held by many including the likes of Winston Churchill, would only be true for the victors — and not even all of them, says Gerwarth, a Professor of Modern History at the University College Dublin.
But for others, especially the defeated powers and the varied people in their territory, it was far worse, he contends. German soldier and writer Ernst Junger, whom he cites at the beginning, put it best: “This war is not the end but the beginning of violence. It is the forge in which the world will be hammered into new borders and new communities. New molds want to be filled with blood…”
Between 1917 and 1920 — half of the period he covers, Gerwarth says that Europe “experienced no fewer than twenty-seven violent transfers of political power, many of them accompanied by latent or open civil war”. And, as he shows, a lot of the violence included pogroms, mass expulsions and other attacks against ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities as large, multicultural land empires disintegrated messily in defeat — and by the victors’ designs.
Dealing with Europe’s violent transition from world war to chaotic “peace”, he wanted to move “beyond the more familiar histories” of the Western Front to focus on people living in those countries that were on the losing side — the Habsburg, Romanov, Hohenzollern and Ottoman empires (and their successor states), as well as Bulgaria.
But “any history of the vanquished also has to include Greece and Italy”, for both nations, though on the winning side at the war’s end, didn’t get what they wanted. In particular, this includes a most perceptive account of the rise of Benito Mussolini — the Italian socialist-turns-fascist leader’s approach will seem eerily familiar even now.
While also dealing with the other areas — free Finland, messily reborn Poland, Spain — Gerwarth however does not only seek to to merely narrate the turmoil, in all its horrors, in areas other than Russia, and its revolutions and destructive civil war, or Germany, where communism’s spectre led to much brutality in a most well-ordered country.
The real lessons he brings out are the victors’ (chiefly Britain, France, and even the US) short-sighted, punitive policies towards their enemies, even when they had new democratic regimes, but especially their hypocrisy in dealing with Europeans and Asians differently (especially allies Japan).
Above all, he warns of a trend to create and reward differences rather than united co-existence — with rights for all sections, and that mere military victory, or war termination, is meaningless without skillful peace-making. Those are the lessons that resonate even now.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at email@example.com)