Among the Brutalized and the Murderers

I wanted to take a moment to recommend a book. But before I do that. I want to start with a quotation.

“Nazi Germany and its overtly exterminationist imperial project of the later 1930s and and early 1940s owed much to the logic of ethnic conflict and irredentism created by the Great War and the redrawing of borders in 1918-19.”

The quote is from The Vanquished published late last year by Robert Gerwarth, a professor at University College Dublin. The book is about what came after the end of World War I in Central Europe and Eastern Europe. Or to put it more specifically, as Gerwath argues, in the East, in the defeated states, the war actually didn’t end with the Armistice in November 1918 at all. In Russia, the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the various successor states they devolved or disintegrated into, the kind of total war which the World War had witnessed continued and by some definitions even intensified.

This is not new information, at least in its particulars. But it is an important refocusing and reconceptualization of what happened, why and how it connected with the even greater cataclysm 20 years later.

Why did this happen? In the broadest sense we can identify three causes.

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First, each of the major Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire) underwent state collapse through the process of defeat. Russia did as well. So even though it was notionally on what turned out to be the winning side, its experience was more comparable to these other landed empires. It was another multi-national, landed empire.

Second, each empire was succeeded by new national states based on language and ethnicity. The problem was that Poles didn’t all live in one contiguous area or in many places where there weren’t also substantial numbers of non-Poles. The same applied to Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, South Slavs, Ukrainians, Russians and virtually every other nationality. This set up a zero sum struggle to dominate, expel or murder population groups which lived in places where they became minorities in new states defined by ethnicity.

The third factor is perhaps the most elusive but perhaps most significant. It’s one Gerwarth captures at work not only in Germany, where we’re most familiar with it but in almost every other country in the east, as well as Italy. Cataclysmic and sustained violence is brutalizing and traumatizing to whole societies as much as it is to individuals. The victorious states at least had victory to justify what had happened. The defeated states not only lacked ‘victory’; the end of the conflict saw something approaching complete societal collapse. There was the collapse of states, recurrent revolutions, often followed by reaction and new rounds of violence. More than anything else there was a search to find some way to justify or create some value to justify the scale of loss. After a brief window of time where leaders tried to create democracies out of the collapsed states and thus become ‘victors’ against destroyed autocracies, the two most obvious channels were to build up cults of revenge or to strive to create new, ethnically pure states. In many cases, the two drives were combined.

One persistent theme of this story was that each ‘ethnicity’ had a state somewhere or was trying to create one that would vindicate and protect it and brutalize those communities which stood in the way of creating ethnically homogenous states. So Magyars were the brutalizers in one place and the brutalized in another – the same could be said for virtually every national group, albeit with the groups with new states generally having the whip hand. This story is most discussed in the arc of German history but Gerwarth places it in a broader, pan-European (at least all-East and Central European) context.

This dynamic applied to virtually every group with one exception: the Jews, who for historical reasons were a high percentage of the population in this zone which fell between the German heartlands to the west and Russian heartlands to the east. The Jews were the one group without a state anywhere.

Reading through Gerwarth’s narrative you find this recurring pattern of one group brutalizing another where it was in the stronger position. But in virtually every case where it’s Pole vs Ukrainians or Magyar vs Romanian or German v Czech, in almost every case, the dominating group is also killing the Jews it found in the way too. Jews similarly became the central objects of cults of revenge in most regions, most consequentially in the German hyper-nationalist right.

Zionism has its roots in the late 19th century. The great migration of Jews out of this swathe of territories (mainly to Western Europe and North America, but to a much lesser degree to Ottoman Palestine) predated the outbreak of World War I. But you cannot understand the history and eventual success of Zionism without this backdrop of the existential vulnerability of statelessness and normalization of mass murder that was the outgrowth of the War, especially in the East and in the vanquished states. Of course, the eventual success of Zionism in anything like we understand its history today is almost impossible to imagine without the collapse of the Ottoman Empire which placed the British in charge of the region for a critical three decades and set the stage for a different and as yet unfinished drama of war and statehood. This was another direct result of the aftermath of the War.

This period of hyper-violence continued for roughly five years, until 1923, when state stabilization, a round of new treaties or compacts and economic revival brought something like peace. But that only lasted about half a dozen years before the onset of the Great Depression pitched the continent back into conflict, spurring both renewed violence and an era of dictators which were both a response to pervasive disorder and a congealed form of revenge cult and hyper-violence.

My only criticism of this book was that there wasn’t enough of it. I found myself wanting it to be bigger, in quantitative terms if nothing else. This is likely the ‘best’ criticism a book can get. But I want to circle back to that first quote I noted at the beginning of this post. Let me reprint it.

“Nazi Germany and its overtly exterminationist imperial project of the later 1930s and and early 1940s owed much to the logic of ethnic conflict and irredentism created by the Great War and the redrawing of borders in 1918-19.”

This passage is not set apart in any particular way in the book. It is something of an aside on page 215. But when I read it I felt it was the fulcrum of the entire book. It centers principally on the fate of Europe’s Jews, which may be tied to the personal prismI see through. But it brought to two thoughts to mind.

The first is that while there are many roots of Nazism – ideological, historical, national – it was in many ways the fruition of the aftermath of World War I. Ad hoc and impulsive meldings of revanchist ideologies and mass murder, often haphazard in nature, were refined, systemized and after a period of gestation organized into what we might call the total quality genocide of the Final Solution.

The second thought ties to this post I wrote in July. The generally peaceful world we have all grown up in is not normal or pre-ordained. It was built by design, a great deal of work and sacrifice and on the experience of and in response to almost unimaginable destruction. It’s not natural. It can easily be very different. The wave of rightist, populist politics which is now making a bid for power in Europe and which is represented in the United States by President Trump and his key advisors is expressly based on the rightist, hyper-nationalist politics of this period.

If there was any part of you that still needed to be given pause, this should give you pause.

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