Review: The Vanquished; Why the First World War Failed to End 1917-1923 by Robert Gerwarth ( 2017) Assessment 7 out of 10

A sweeping account of how the First World War ended not cleanly, but in chaos

The Central Powers expected victory after their successes in 1917, defeating Russia and with the near collapse of Italy. This lead to the perception of “being stabbed in the back” when, in November 1918, the war on the Western Front ended with signature of the Armistice.

Peace terms weren’t negotiated but dictated by the victors, first in 1917 by the Central Powers over the defeated Allies, Russia and Rumania, then by the victorious Allies over the defeated Central Powers, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria. Under the Treaty of Trianon, Hungary lost two-thirds of its former territory and 73% of its population.

There was disease, disruption and malnutrition. There was revolution and counterrevolution. There were Civil Wars, in Russia and Finland.
All this contributed to increased violence and reduced respect for non-combatants and just-enemies, viewed as criminalised and dehumanised, undeserving of mercy.

Four continental Empires, all to varying extents multi-ethnic, were brought to an end, in Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey. US President Woodrow Wilson, sought to replace them with “self –determined” successor states. However such self-determination was applied unequally. Military forces from successor states, Rumania, Czechoslovakia and Poland, expanded the areas they occupied before imposition of new borders.

Greece and Italy expected to annex territory in satisfaction of promises made to them for joining the Allies and in recognition of the casualties they had suffered. Such expectations were thwarted, in particular with the resurgence of post-Ottoman Turkey.

The Allies just didn’t understand the complexities of areas like Macedonia, where there were intermingled ethnic groups.

The result was variously ethnic cleansing and enforced population exchanges and creation of successor states, which were themselves multi-ethnic and, to that extent, unstable.

Thus the chaos of the period 1917 to 1923,with which WWI ended, sowed the seeds of WWII.

One criticism I share with another reviewer is that Gerwarth refers briefly to the partition of Ireland and Irish Civil War during the period studied, without exploring how far this parallels what happened in Central and Eastern Europe.

The product of prolonged study this book is recommended as a readable, but chilling, interpretation of Europe’s last century and its sources of further conflict.

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