WWI was the war without end

Vick Mickunas of Yellow Springs interviews authors every Saturday at 7 a.m. and on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. on WYSO-FM (91.3). For more information, visit www.wyso.org/programs/book-nook. Contact him at vick@vickmickunas.

“The Vanquished — Why the First World War Failed to End” by Robert Gerwarth (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 446 pages, $28).

On Nov. 11, 1918, Germany agreed to an armistice. It was meant to end hostilities between the countries involved in the First World War. The war did not officially end until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

The first Armistice Day honoring WWI vets took place on Nov. 11, 1919, a date which was observed in Great Britain and the other Allied Nations. In 1938 the date became an official holiday in the U.S. In 1954 the name of our U.S. holiday was changed to Veterans Day.

Before Congress declared our entry into the war in April 1917, the conflict had reached a virtual stalemate. The combatant nations were bogged down in horrific trench warfare. Following our entry, Germany and its allies were finally defeated.

Much has been written about the victors: Great Britain, France and the United States. The British historian Robert Gerwarth has published a history of those nations who lost the war. In “The Vanquished — Why the First World War Failed to End,” we learn about the chaos that quickly engulfed regions. Power vacuums were filled by violent men. Some were mercenaries. There were warlords, fascists and madmen jousting for power.

Formerly mighty empires had collapsed. The German Empire lay in ruins. Austria-Hungary had been broken into pieces. The Ottoman Empire was shattered. In the aftermath of the Great War, vast areas lapsed into lawlessness for years as would-be rulers jockeyed for control.

Ethnic and religious tensions erupted. By 1922 the once peaceful Ottoman city of Smyrna had descended into horrors. The author describes how during a two week period “30, 000 Greeks and Armenians were slaughtered.”

The author notes that “the story of Europe in the years between 1917 and 1923 is crucial for understanding the cycles of violence that characterized the continent’s 20th century.”

He identifies the initial outburst in this cycle. It took place in 1917 in Russia as the Bolshevik Revolution swept the last Russian monarch from power. Russia had been allied with Great Britain and France. The Russian Army melted away as Russia descended into civil wars.

In 1918 Winston Churchill, the British Minister of Munitions, warned against the rising threat of Russian Bolshevism: “civilization is being completely extinguished over gigantic areas, while Bolsheviks hop and caper like troops of ferocious baboons…”

This book shows how the warfare didn’t really end in 1918: “Poland remained in a constant state of open or undeclared war between 1918 and 1921, fighting against Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians to the east, Lithuanians to the north, Germans to the west, Czechs to the south, and Jews (as internal enemies) on territory it already controlled.”

Tumultuous times forged opportunities for the fascist Benito Mussolini to gain power in Italy and a charismatic WWI veteran named Adolph Hitler to rise up in Germany. In “The Vanquished” we travel from one scene of disorder to the next as we observe the seeds of future carnage being sown amid the ruins of empires. Some of this crucial history has been overlooked until now.

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