Why the First World War Failed to End
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2016, 464 pages
Book Review published on: August 11, 2017
A century removed allows us to reflect on the claim made by Allied leaders that the First World War would be the “war to end all wars.” We now know the claim was a romantic pipe dream. Indeed, in his book The Vanquished, historian Robert Gerwarth demonstrates that hope of ending all war was rendered hopeless in the first years, even months, after the armistice marked the end of the “Great War.” Certainly, the war had unleashed a “dance of the furies” that made a tidy peace unlikely, but Gerwarth argues that it was the way the war ended for each of the belligerents that would ensure bloodshed would continue into the “postwar” period.
Gerwarth believes the period 1918 to 1923 did as much to shape modern history as the war years themselves. He points out in his opening chapter, for example, that from 1917 to 1923 there were some twenty-one violent transfers of power across Europe and the former Ottoman Empire. Some three to four million people died in the collapse of empires, the revolutions, the civil wars, and ethnic cleansing that followed in the five years after the Great War. In fact, he argues that postwar Europe remained the most violent region of the world. What is more, the conflicts that raged from Finland to Fiume made far less distinction between combatant and noncombatant. There was no Hague convention for Red Guards slaughtering peasants in the Ukraine or Ataturk’s forces herding Greek families into the sea at Smyrna; atrocity begat counter-atrocity. Beyond that, World War I was hardly the triumph of a new democratic order. By the mid-1930s, authoritarian regimes and dictatorships had become the norm, and by the beginning of World War II, there were fewer democratic governments in Europe than there had been in 1914.
The Vanquished is a compelling work of research and analysis. Gerwarth uses an impressive array of sources in variety of languages, including German, Greek, Bulgarian, Magyar, and Italian. In doing so, he makes a solid case for the pivotal nature of the events of 1918 to 1923. If one can complain about any aspect of his narrative, it might be that the vast sweep of topic sometimes makes for a broad brush approach to the complex world he describes. Thus, on occasion, the book reads like a college survey text but that is rare. Gerwarth writes well and has a keen eye for the kind of first-person vignettes and the contemporary accounts that bring a story alive.
One recommends this as a book that both casual readers and scholars alike can enjoy.
Book Review written by: Scott Stephenson, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas