The Vanquished by Robert Gerwarth


At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, the guns fell silent, ending more than four years of terrible war in Europe. First as Armistice Day and later as Remembrance Day, European (and Commonwealth) countries even now commemorate the end of the First World War nearly a century after the event. Except the armistice in Western Europe is at best half the story. As Robert Gerwarth details in The Vanquished, war, civil war, and revolution continued in Central and Eastern Europe for years after fighting in the west had ceased. His subtitle is Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917–1923, and even that does not encompass the full extent of the fighting and suffering. Gerwarth makes a good case for linking the First and Second Balkan Wars (1912–13) to the First World War. From that perspective, the Balkans saw fighting from 1912 through 1919, and dislocation even later as population exchanges after the end of the Greek-Turkish War forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.

Drawing on original sources across the whole of Central and Eastern Europe (including Anatolia and the Caucasus), Gerwarth argues that the continuation of the First World War should be examined across the whole region, and not in national isolation. Europe’s land empires collapsed, leaving behind them revolutions and new states, many with competing claims to the same lands and peoples.

The revolutions that occurred between 1917 and 1923 could be socio-political in nature, pursuing a redistribution of power, land, and wealth, as was the case in Russia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Germany; or they could be ‘national’ revolutions, as was the case in the shatter-zones of the defeated Habsburg, Romanov, Hohenzollern and Ottoman empires, where new and re-emerging states, inspired by the ideas of national self-determination, sought to establish themselves. The simultaneous occurrence and frequent overlap of these two currents of revolution was one of the peculiarities of the years between 1917 and 1923. (p. 10)

While writing for a general audience, Gerwarth places his work within scholarly debate as well, taking issue with the “brutalization thesis” that claimed the experience of trench warfare had “establish[ed] new and unprecedented levels of acceptable violence.” (p. 12) He points out that the war experience did not lead to brutality in all former warring societies, and that far more demobilized soldiers returned to peaceful civilian lives than did not.

Instead, Gerwarth writes, “in its final stages, from 1917 onwards, the Great War changed in nature, as the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 led to Russia’s withdrawal from the war while the Western Allies, strengthened by America’s entry into the conflict, increasingly endorsed the dismantling of the European land empires as a war aim.” (pp. 12–13) Events cascaded from the Russian revolution. The fall of the Romanovs led the Central Powers to expect victory in 1918, while simultaneously giving an impetus to revolution in societies strained by four years of fighting to uphold dynastic influence.

Gerwarth argues that the conflicts that followed the Great War were “an interconnected series of conflicts whose logic and purpose was much more dangerous. … These were existential conflicts fought to annihilate the enemy, be they ethnic or class enemies.” (p. 13) He further contends that the crux of the difference is not the war experience but “the way in which the war ended for the vanquished states of the Great War: in defeat, imperial collapse and revolutionary turmoil.” (p. 13)

The 250 pages that follow sustain his arguments and examine conflicts that raged across Europe’s eastern half. Engaging with the full range makes it easier to see the interplay among the social forces of revolution, the power of nationalism emerging from the fallen multi-national empires, and lingering ambitions of the victorious powers to shape other parts of the continent. Gerwarth begins with Russia and spends the largest share of his attention on Russia and Germany. I can’t really fault him for this, as the one kicks off revolutionary turmoil while the other is where socialist revolution was most expected and would perhaps provide the tipping point for all of Europe. He does a terrific job of making complex events understandable, and keeps his presentation tied to his larger thesis. The drawback is that no other area gets treated in the same depth, which sells short the wars that led to the formation of the Turkish Republic, conflicts that echo into the present even more than the Russian and German revolutions.

I also think that more examination of Poland would have been profitable. On the one hand, it demonstrates his thesis about the importance of considering the end of the war with a regional perspective. The old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had been divided among three of the empires that fell in World War One, and reconstructing a Polish state was never going to be simple. Not only that, but Soviet Russia and the emerging Poland fought a war even before the Russian Civil War (or wars, as Gerwarth writes) was concluded. A purely national focus on Poland will miss quite a bit. On the other hand, Gerwarth writes, “The Polish case more generally proves the point that the abrupt break-up of Europe’s land empires, and the inability of the successor states to peacefully settle territorial disputes with their neighbours, played a major role in triggering violence after the First World War.” (p. 190) One might contrariwise argue that the repression of Polish statehood showed the violence inherent in the old imperial systems, and that the removal of the dynasties laid bare conflicts that already existed. Poland, as usual, sits awkwardly within grand schemes; a longer treatment of events there might have made Gerwarth’s views more convincing.

On the whole, though, the briskness with which Gerwarth writes and makes his arguments is admirable. It is certainly a lot of territory to cover in fewer than 300 pages (not counting the notes on sources), and he integrates many details into his overarching thesis. If my biggest complaint about a history book is that there should have been more, it has clearly reached its goal.

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