Book review: The Vanquished, by Robert Gerwarth

Centennial commemorations of the First World War continues to drive interest in the first wholly modern global conflict whose impact continues to be felt in international affairs.  Robert Gerwarth’s The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End is a detailed, compelling examination of how the armistice of November 11, 1918, failed to create peace or even stop hostilities across Europe.  The third of Gerwarth’s books about modern Europe is the product of more than 10 years of research and a chilling look at the ethno-nationalistic violence, political strife, and genocidal atrocities defining the silence after the chaos of the Western Front.

Older accounts of early interwar Europe often focused on the relative peace created by the Allied Powers at the expense of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and other states of the Central Powers.  The Vanquished demonstrates how this does not stand up to even the cursory survey by looking at the upheaval created in Central and Eastern Europe.  The collapse of both the German and Austro-Hungarian empires created a vacuum many forces were eager to fill.  New, untested political authorities in Berlin, Budapest, and Vienna turned to popular mobilization and only partially demobilized military forces to try and secure some order following military defeat.  German veterans left behind in Poland and along the Baltic formed hyper-nationalistic and violent Freikorps to protect centuries-old Germanic communities in emerging independent states, as did Austrian and Hungarian veterans in Central Europe.  Many of these leaders led intensely violent campaigns against new governments in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and the Serbian states before ultimately being expelled back to their native states and adding to domestic calls of violence and nationalism.

Radicalization was not a force experienced only by the former Central Powers.  Gerwarth spends much time exploring how it was in many ways a mirror experienced by the Allies.  The end of tsarist Russia led to a civil war all too eager to spill over into neighboring nations and seizing back Russian imperial territories forcibly ceded a year earlier in 1917.  The combination of civil violence and the Bolshevik ideology encouraged adventurism from Moscow and systemic efforts to seize independence throughout Eastern Europe.  The Baltic states, Poland, and Ukraine fought both communist and proto-fascist militias and political dissidents in a desperate fight for independence.  The remaining Allied states – Britain, France, the United States, Italy, and Japan – struggled to create a new order from the remnants of the older multiethnic empires and too frequently chose a course of expediency, imperial ambition, or both in deciding what other nations to recognize and what political forces to support.  The often vaunted 1919 Treaty of Versailles quickly gave way to a patchwork of other treaties seeking to end the nearly-decade long period of violence.

While the combatants of the Western Front withdrew in late 1918, conflict continued to rise throughout the continent.  The Russian Civil War continued until 1922, and the end of armed conflict quickly gave way to a period of internal violence and political radicalism only matched by similar strife in Germany, Italy, and later Spain.  The violent mosaic of post-war conflict only finally ended in 1923 when the Lausanne Treaty ended the Greco-Turkish war following Britain and France withdrawing support for the Greek military in Eastern Anatolia.  In the following years, some efforts were made to reduce the debt levied on the defeated Central Powers through war reparations, formalize new international borders, and even abolish offensive war in the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928.  But peace, and even economic prosperity, proved elusive as Germany, Italy, and Japan challenged the Versailles international order.  By 1931, some level of conflict would again return to Europe, East Asia, and Africa.

Gerwarth’s book is a valuable introduction to the First World War’s end and the both aspirational and terrifying interwar period.  His reputation for thorough research and carefully constructed prose was established in his earlier book, Hitler’s Hangman: The Life of Heydrich, and readers of it may consider The Vanquished a must.  Those interested in the Paris Peace Conference and the interwar period may also enjoy Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillian and The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s by Piers Brendon.


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