Book review: The Vanquished exposes the bloody aftershocks of the First World War

Thought that the First World War ended on Armistice Day? As Robert Gerwarth proves in his vivid history, Europe found violence, not respite, after 1918.

Greek soldiers engage Turkish troops in 1921. Violence between the two brought misery and death to the Turkish people and military defeat for the Greeks. Topical Press Agency / Hulton Archive / Getty Images.
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The guns on the Western Front famously fell silent on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, but the First World War, as it is conventionally understood, did not really cease in 1918. This is the argument put forth by Robert Gerwarth in his provocative new book, The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923.

The Armistice settled very little. In 1919, an Austrian newspaper ran an editorial on the condition of Europe that ran under the title “War in Peace”. It was no exaggeration. From Finland to Turkey, civil wars, revolution, and ethnic strife raged, killing millions.

An impressive historian, Gerwarth has synthesized an enormous range of primary and secondary sources in half a dozen languages. Combining a big-picture overview with close-up detail – we hear the voices of soldiers, politicians, civilians – Gerwarth has written a vivid if disturbing account of a crucial period in 20th century history.

“Violence was ubiquitous as armed forces of different sizes and political purposes continued to clash across eastern and central Europe, and new governments came and went amid much bloodshed,” Gerwarth writes. “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.”

Even before the war ended, Russia had disintegrated with the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty in 1917. The Russian Revolution unleashed a series of overlapping conflicts, as the Bolsheviks declared war on any number of enemies – peasants, intellectuals, moderate socialists and others deemed hostile to the Soviet state. The Red Army battled against a fractious array of Tsarist forces, which in turn fought among themselves in a war within a civil war. On top of this, the Red Army fought a disastrous war against Poland.

Gerwarth is especially good on the fates of smaller eastern European states like Bulgaria. (Winston Churchill derisively dubbed the conflicts that wracked eastern Europe after 1918 “the wars of the pygmies”.) A former province of the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria entered the war in 1915 on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Though its armies were undefeated before 1918, Bulgaria ended the war bankrupt and beaten. Including the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, Bulgarian armies had been fighting for six years, and suffered up to 157,00 fatalities.

The complex territorial rearrangements that played out across the Ottoman borderlands propelled up to 100,000 ethnic Bulgarians , who lived in contested territory outside of Bulgaria proper, into a country ill-equipped to deal with such a large-scale refugee crisis.

A powerful revisionary current runs through Gerwarth’s account. For example, the author puts the allegedly harsh terms the Treaty of Versailles meted out to Germany into startling context. The reparations demanded by the Allies became a charged issue that helped Hitler ascend to power.

But Gerwarth asks us to consider the case of Hungary, which was treated with far worse severity. (So was Bulgaria, which “proportionate to its size and GDP…. faced the highest reparations bill of all the Central Powers”.) The former, once at the centre of a great land empire, lost two-thirds of its pre-war territory and up to 73 percent of its population. In addition, Hungary endured revolution, counter-revolution, and invasion by Romania in 1919.

This was no just peace: it was extortion compounded by humiliation. Gerwarth further suggests that all the talk from the Allies about “democracy” and “self-determination” was little more than hollow cant. The emergence of aggressive new states from the wreckage of the Ottoman, Habsburg and Russian empires created enormous problems for minorities. Gerwarth notes that these empires, vilified as inflexibly autocratic, actually appear more benign than their bad historical reputations.

Gerwarth’s chapters on the bloody birth of modern Turkey are a study in the brutal ways of nation states, and show just how far the war extended into the 1920s. With the approval of Britain and the United States, Greece moved on Smyrna (now Izmir) in order to reunite Greek Orthodox Christians – and former Ottoman citizens – with mainland Greece. The annexation set off a spiral of violent clashes between Christians and Muslims.

The events would see the rise of Mustafa Kemal, “Atatürk”. Kemal rallied the remnants of the Ottoman Turkish army as it pushed back Armenia, and emboldened Turkish nationalists to reject the severe terms of Allied peace proposals.

In 1921, Kemal took aim at the Greek armies in western Turkey. With further British encouragement, the Greek forces pushed to Ankara. Furious fighting cost Kemal’s armies most of their officer corps, but the Greeks were checked and a stalemate set in. Greek soldiers took out their frustrations on Muslims “in increasingly systematic acts of ethnic cleansing”. Turks undertook revenge killings against Greeks living in centuries-old communities on the Black Sea, killing up to 11,000 people. Reprisal followed reprisal.

Kemal, with the aid of Soviet weapons, went on the offensive in 1922 and pushed the Greeks westward. Their retreat brought misery and death to the Turkish civilian population. The campaign was a disaster for Greece.

The Greek army suffered 23,000 dead and 50,000 injured in what was Greece’s worst modern military defeat. But it was the fate of Smyrna, where up to 30,000 Greeks and Armenians would be killed, that has remained etched in historical memory.

The Greco-Turkish war was the apotheosis of the dynamic that Gerwarth has trenchantly described on these pages. The aftermath saw the expulsion of Muslims from Greece and of Christians from Turkey. Forcible removal of populations deemed “other” had received international legal sanction.

Such conventions “fatally undermined cultural, ethnic and religious plurality as an ideal to which to aspire and reality with which – for all their contestations – most people in the European land empires had dealt with fairly well for centuries”.

Matthew Price is a regular contributor to The National.