I thought I would observe the centenary of the end of World War I and Veterans’ Day with a book recommendation: The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End. This is a powerful, deeply important book. Today we are observing the century since the armistice that ended the First World War. But this anniversary obscures a reality this book explores with great depth and hideous illumination. In the West, mainly for England, France, and Belgium, the war took a catastrophic toll. But it was conducted largely within accepted distinctions between combatants and civilians. Just as importantly it ended with a rapid and full transition from war to peace, hostilities to demobilization. The history is dramatically different the further we look to the east.
The German Imperial state collapsed with the signing of the armistice and unwound into months of paramilitary violence and revolution from which a moderate socialist parliamentary government, which we know as the Weimar Republic, eventually consolidated power only with the assistance of rightist paramilitaries which would provide the seedbed for the growth of Nazism over the following decade. Italy, a nominal victor state, entered a comparable if less bloody period of trial from which emerged the “fascist” dictatorship of Benito Mussolini in 1922.
But it was in the east, in the regions we now know as Poland, Ukraine, Austria, Hungary, Belarus, Russia. the Baltics and the Balkans where the fighting really never ended. Here the formal war of 1914 and 1918 was conducted in a more total fashion than it had been in the West. Armistice brought state collapse and a period of state building and regeneration through violence, population transfers and mass killing.
In this sense the war that nominally ended in late 1918 didn’t really end until the early 1920s. From a longer perspective this end of hostilities in the early 1920s was itself more of an interruption or lull from which hostilities picked up again in the late 1920s and continued, with continuing cycles of brutalizing violence and innovations in organized killing by ‘racial’ categories, which continued right through the middle 1940s.
It is only today that we see the beginnings of comparable breakdowns in state relations, the rise of aggressive nationalisms and racialist movements that were the great story of that period.