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The Troubling Legacy of World War I

A century after the U.S. entered the conflict, its destabilizing effects are still apparent.

A hundred years ago this month, on April 6, 1917, the United States declared war against Wilhelmine Germany. Two pivotal events, dire in their execution and pernicious in their consequences, bracketed U.S. entry into the First World War: the Russian Revolution of March 8, 1917, resulting in the abdication of Czar Nicholas II; and later that year, Vladimir Lenin’s nearly bloodless coup d’état against the newly formed Provisional Government, an event ever since immortalized as the October Revolution. The ruinous burdens of fighting an unwinnable war, increasingly crippling social unrest, the despoiling of the norms of civic order, and disintegration of the Czarist conscript military compelled Lenin to accept the Armistice of Brest-Litovsk on December 15, 1917, effectively ending Russia’s role in World War I.

Robert Gerwarth succinctly describes how these three events precipitated in no small part the end of the First World War. The armistice of November 11, 1918 (based significantly on President Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points”) led to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference—described elsewhere by Lord Bryce as “where negotiations might have done so much good, and have done so much evil”—and the signing the same year of a peace treaty with Germany. The effects of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, and follow-on draconian peace settlements with the other defeated belligerents, continue to linger still with less than salubrious consequences.

In The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, Gerwarth gives us a smart, rational, intellectually rigorous, and penetrating work that illuminates today’s formidable challenges in the Middle East and the Ukraine. The First World War and its aftermath unleashed what theretofore had been but latent or marginal forces and ignited them into actions and attitudes of terrifying proportions. From the Baltic Sea to the Arabian Peninsula, from Ireland to Japan, post-Armistice events proved foreboding and calamitous: belligerent nationalism, vicious anti-Semitism, inwardly focused obsession with ethnicity, civil wars, and variegated racism resulting from the implosive, cataclysmic collapse of four empires—-three of them centuries old, and markedly multi-ethnic. Elsewhere, too, empires crumbled: Mongolia (1924), and Spain (1931). King Farouk lost the Egyptian throne in 1952. Gerwarth persuasively argues that what emerged almost spontaneously in the aftermath of the First World War prefigured a course locked into a daunting inevitability by the Great Depression of 1929.

The Vanquished impels the reader to seriously consider what has been, and is being, wrought. The oscillating reverberations of these events haunt us still. Gerwarth concludes his superb endeavor on the note that

The most durable of these post-imperial conflicts proved to be those that haunted Arab lands once ruled by the Ottomans. Here violence has erupted with great regularity for nearly a century. It is not without grim historical irony that the centenary of the Great War was accompanied by civil war in Syria and Iraq, revolution in Egypt, and violent clashes between Jews and Arabs over the Palestinian question, as to offer proof that at least some of the issues raised but not solved by the Great War and its immediate aftermath are still with us today.

Can it not be fairly said that the seeds of the current Ukrainian imbroglio were sown during the Russian Revolution? There’s a palpable immediacy to The Vanquished.

The utopian platitude “the war to end war”—genuinely accepted if not firmly believed by a considerable number of individuals—was, and is, specious. The violent upheavals and virulent slaughter, principally in central Europe before the 1918 Armistice and following the Treaty of Versailles roughly through 1923, question the plausibility of the utopian future hoped for by many. World War I’s conclusion segued into “existential conflicts fought to annihilate the enemy, be they ethnic or class enemies—a general logic that would subsequently become dominant in much of Europe between 1939 and 1945.” Winston Churchill’s condescending characterization of “interwar” conflicts and convolutions as “wars of pygmies” was terribly off the mark—four million people were killed. “Violence was ubiquitous as armed forces of different sizes and political purpose continued to clash across eastern and central Europe, and new governments came and went amid much bloodshed,” Gerwarth writes.

Gerwarth is uniquely suited to give us a history of the little understood, and certainly less than appreciated, watershed from whence so many contemporary political and conflictive forces flow. A professor of modern history at University College Dublin, Gerwarth has written equally nuanced works on Otto von Bismarck and Reinhard Heydrich, among other penetrating interpretations of modern European history. Synthesized foreign-language primary and secondary sources add depth and breadth to his erudition. Witness testimony lends credence—and ghastly insight. His writing is clear, concise, and unfailingly engaging, with cogent conclusions drawn through finely honed logic.


That violence begets violence is but a canard to those content or complacent—purblind, perhaps—with comfortable lives entailing little or no sacrifice, and tending toward eschewing personal responsibility and accountability. But major social upheaval and violence are not mere phantasms. The unquestioning and unconstrained acceptance of the latter is done at great peril. Throughout human history, the line that separates propriety from primitive barbarousness is ever so fine. Once crossed, the spiraling descent into abject inhumanity is swift. It is thus worth noting that Gerwarth provides little discussion of British actions and policies during the Second Boer War (1899-1902), nor of the more brutal methods supplemented in 1903 in German South-West Africa (today’s Namibia). Government sanctioned, those policies give a prescient glimpse into the horrors to occur a mere 14 years later. The Balkan Wars of 1912-13 were prophetic of the post-World War I paroxysms. Gerwarth assuredly covers the latter two conflicts, foretelling the horridness that was to occur after 1917. Are not the 1990 depredations in the former Yugoslavia anything less than a recent manifestation of the Great War’s legacy? Today the Balkan kettle stews on low simmer.

Gerwarth—“at the risk of simplification”—identifies “at least three distinct, but mutually reinforcing and often overlapping types of conflicts” in what he calls the “ensuing European civil war.” First, wars of the European post-war period “between regular or emerging national armies in inter-state” conflicts; the “massive proliferation of civil wars”; and, lastly, social and national revolution generating the “political violence that dominated the years 1917-1923.”

The ubiquity of violence during the Russian civil war, ostensively between “Reds” and “Whites,” entailed the reality of a series of coinciding bloody conflicts. The Bolsheviks singled out a plethora of enemies—peasants, intellectuals, socialists of various stripes, and those determined, often randomly, to be hostile to the new Soviet state. As Gerwarth points out, “In the former territories of the Romanov Empire, the difference between inter-state wars [for example, between Russia and Poland, 1919-1921] and civil wars was not always easy to decipher, as all kinds of interconnected conflicts fueled each other.”

The nascent states of the Baltic, where the Freikorps played a prominent role, were but chessboards of back-and-forth armed conflict, in which indiscriminate killing, raping, and wanton destruction effected under the pretext of extreme German nationalism, in an adrenaline-fueled miasma of fighting. Finland, “an autonomous duchy within the Russian Empire”—a non-belligerent during the Great War—suffered “one of the proportionally bloodiest civil wars of the twentieth century” in 1918, wherein one percent of the population died in just over three months.

The Turkish effort to exterminate the Armenians during the war was but a harbinger of genocidal actions perpetrated by both sides during the 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish War. Turkey affected, under Mustafa Kemal—Atatürk—a diplomatic coup with the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in late 1923, which assured the country a degree of autonomy and sovereign recognition. Moreover, with the Armenian massacre the word genocide entered the modern lexicon.

The resulting remnants of the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were equally convulsed and traumatized by elements arguably from all three of Gerwarth’s post-war conflict categorizations. What had been foreshadowed in pre-World War I conflicts, namely a fading away of an adherence to distinguishing between combatants and noncombatants—laboriously developed in the 18th and 19th centuries—broke down completely in the post-World War I maelstrom. Nor were the victors immune from national umbrage and violence in the wake of the proceedings and results of the Paris Peace Conference. Japan, “the one Asian member of the Supreme War Council,” took grave exception to the Allies’ refusal to include a “racial equality” clause in the Covenant of the League of Nations.

Territorial promises—for example, in the secret Treaty of London—made to Italy in exchange for its 1915 declaration of war against the Central Powers were “no longer taken seriously.” A strong sense of being short-changed arose in “a country that lost more men in the war than Britain.” That a man of Benito Mussolini’s character emerged, convincingly and effectively projecting schemes of grandeur, of spazio vitale in northern Africa and the Mediterranean, is of little surprise. Nor is a functional comparison between Mussolini’s aspirations and Adolf Hitler’s ambitions for Lebensraum in east-central Europe unapt. The treatment of the “vanquished,” coupled with the unmet grievances of the victors, impinged on the concept of sovereignty generally constant in the western world since the Peace of Westphalia.

The Allied powers came to the Paris Peace Conference unduly leadened with deep-seated grievances and the righteous’ sense of retribution due. Though peace was the ostensible goal of the conference, that result was strongly undercut by the victors’ corrosive desire for punishment, if not outright humiliation. That “so much evil,” resulted, to again use Lord Bryce’s words, is not surprising. The gloating of the victors was further compounded by disproportionate naivety. The altruistic-sounding term of “self-determination” ignored reality, as it often does today. Ethnic homogeneity was the exception rather than the rule in the states created through the Paris Peace Conference. Further, “the minority question in the 1920s and 1930s was quantitatively far more significant in the victorious successor states.” The 1921-1925 Irish Civil War is but an example.


With the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, Europe seemingly entered a period of “political and economic stability.” The Dawes Plan of 1924, and the Locarno Treaty of 1925, added further confidence that some semblance of normalcy was in the offing. The signing of the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, “which effectively banned war as an instrument of foreign policy, except in self-defense,” added impetus to hopes for a better future.

But the October 1929 stock-market crash ended the brief respite. Democracy as a viable form of governance, too, tittered in the minds of many as Fascism and Communism deceptively appeared to hold the keys to the future. These ideologies engendered what appeared to be ordered societies in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, and Imperial Japan. That such societies thrived on deviation from truth and moral rectitude, and that their mendacity was blithely accepted was conveniently overlooked. Germany gave the world Schiller, Goethe, and Beethoven, yet, in an historical wink, conjured up the grotesqueries of Auschwitz, Sobibor, and Treblinka.

The Vanquished suggests that a major contributing factor to the mayhem and extreme violence following World War I was the absence of state control of the means of violence. Ironically, what became glaringly evident after the First World War, and particularly after the 1929 crash, is that state-controlled and state-sanctioned violence is ever more efficacious in controlling societies and in carrying out mass murder.

On the centenary of U.S. entry into the First World War, a war that in so many ways defined the twentieth century—and whose aftermath reaches out still into the twenty-first century—it behooves the United States and its allies to embrace the causes and consequences wrought by those long-ago decisions. They live amongst us all. Robert Gerwarth has given us a superlative work, eminently readable, with which to do so. As noted, the Middle East continues to perplex, confound, and baffle all but a few. And is not the Ukraine, a region indelibly scarred by post-World War I tumult—and greater still by Hitler—but a part of the bilious flotsam and jetsam regurgitated by the Great War and its tragic aftermath? Given the American role at the Paris Peace Conference and the dismantlement of the Ottoman Empire, peripheral though the initial U.S. role was in the latter, subsequent events recommend a formulation of policy predicated on a ready grasp on the last hundred years of tumultuous history.

Col. John C. McKay, USMC (Ret.), a twice-wounded combat veteran, is an adjunct professor at California State University, Sacramento.