Tuesday, February 06, 2018

When wars don't end

I used to think that, if I had had more self-confidence as an unformed girl graduate student in a highbrow history program way back at the end of the '60s, I would have dared study the question that seemed most significant to me in those days: how did an apparently well functioning European civilization come to destroy itself in the barbaric Great War that we date from the assassination of an Austrian archduke in 1914? I suspected such interests were beyond me.

As I have become acquainted with modern popular scholarship on World War I, I have realized that I'm glad I never went that way: my linguistic weakness (I could barely read French and German) as well as scholarly timidity would have meant that I would have merely reinforced prevailing historiographic perspectives which are being usefully revised.

For decades, English speakers, including people in the United States, who thought about the Great War at all, thought about vast armies mired in muddy trenches in France where the Allies (that's us: Brits, French and U.S. doughboys) duked it out against the soldiers of the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary). Russia was in it somehow too, but then there was a Revolution and then Russia was out of it. And there was all sorts of peripheral action, in the Ottoman Empire, in African colonies, and across the deserts of Arabia with (with camels and T.E. Lawrence). Millions, soldiers and civilians, died. Finally in November 1918 an armistice silenced the guns on the Western front and afterward the Versailles treaty set the contours of Europe that held up until they didn't when Hitler broke Europe's peace again by invading Poland in 1939.

Historians have been hard at work deconstructing this Northern European/English-centered perspective in more recent times. There was an awful lot we didn't feel the need to absorb and remember. The stories of those "peripheral" conflicts have been told, and elaborated, and served the interests of various subsequent contenders for local power. And what the Great War meant in Central Europe, to the peoples of what had been the Austrian Hapsburg empire, the Wilhelmine (German) empire, Balkan kingdoms, the Ottoman empire and the Romanov (Russian) empire continues to demand more understanding as the struggles of the early 20th century continue to have resonance in the 21st.

These are historian Robert Gerwarth's subject in The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End. He argues that outside of Britain, France and the United States, the Great War had no winners. For the wars' losers, he documents that the armistice brought upheaval, wreck, murder and privation that exceeded the war itself.

... the eventful years between 1917 and 1923 are still very much present in the collective memory of people from eastern, central and southern Europe, as well as those from the Middle East and Ireland. For them the memory of the Great War is often overshadowed, if not fully eclipsed, by foundational stories of independence struggles, national liberation, and revolutionary change in and around 1918 ...

... It was in this period that a particularly deadly but ultimately conventional conflict between states -- the First World War -- gave way to an interconnected series of conflicts whose logic and purpose was much more dangerous. Unlike World War I, which was fought with the purpose of forcing certain conditions of peace (however severe), the violence after 1917-18 was infinitely more ungovernable. These were existential conflicts fought to annihilate the enemy, be they ethnic or class enemies -- a genocidal logic that would subsequently become dominant in much of Europe between 1939 and 1945,

What was also noteworthy about the conflicts that erupted after 1917-18 was that they occurred after a century in which European states had more or less successfully managed to assert their monopoly on legitimate violence, in which national armies had become the norm, and in which the fundamentally important distinction between combatants and non-combatants had been codified (even if frequently breached in practice.) The post-war conflicts reversed that trend. In the absence of functioning states, in the former imperial lands of Europe, militias of various political persuasions assumed the role of the national army for themselves, while the lines between friends and foes, combatants and civilians, became terrifyingly unclear.

Gerwarth provides a narrative of horrors that followed: in the civil war between Bolsheviks and Whites in Russia, in new states (like Turkey) and states with old names but diminished territory (like Hungary and Romania), as ideologies, nationalisms, and power-seeking men with guns vied for hegemony. This history is about massacre, murder, torture, and, always lurking, mass starvation. People don't move beyond this kind of radical insecurity unscathed. It seems appropriate to wonder, has eastern Europe ever recovered?

The history I was raised on elided all this struggle and pain. I'm incredibly grateful to brave and linguistically capable historians, like Gerwarth, who have tried to bring narratives of this time and these places into a less-than-welcoming western consciousness. There is nothing easy about reading this story, but my picture of reality is larger for having been exposed to this history.

Two other accessible volumes which provide this sort of a necessary historiographic cold bath are Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands and Tony Judt's Postwar.


Michael Strickland said...

I sort of love all my roads not taken, and regret very few of those decisions, academic being one of them.

janinsanfran said...

No regrets, but I still want to understand much the same topics.

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