When did the first World War end? The standard, encyclopaedia answer is that the War began in August 1914, and it ended in November 1918 with the Armistice. Is that right?
Robert Gerwarth’s recent book argues that November 1918 only looks like the end of the first World War if you’re looking at a very narrow slice of the world map — mainly, the Western Front in Europe. If you’re looking at the Balkans, or Eastern Europe, or the Middle East, or if you’re looking inside of the new nation-states created at the supposed end of the war, the picture looks very different. Here’s an excerpt from Richard Fulton’s review
Of the six great European empires in 1914, four were continental, counting the Ottomans as a European empire. The two empires (three counting the United States) who managed the disastrous peace process from Versailles to Lausanne had very little imperial skin in the game where it counted: in central and eastern Europe, and around Turkey. Did that make a difference in how borders were redrawn and reparations were managed? Undoubtedly, as Gerwarth makes clear in The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, because the “end of the war” in November of 1918 was not really the end of the war. Gerwarth illustrates that “as civil wars overlapped with revolutions, counter-revolutions and border conflicts between emerging states without clearly defined frontiers or internationally recognized governments, ‘post-war’ Europe between the official end of the Great War in 1918 and the Treaty of Lausanne in July 1923 was the most violent place on the planet” (p. 7).
Gerwarth opens his study of the stretch of time beginning with the 1917 Russian Revolution and ending with the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) with a summary description of Smyrna’s descent into hell and chaos in September of 1922. The chaos in the vanquished lands was made more deadly by the presence of large numbers of armed, trained, technically defeated soldiers itching to find some measure of honor—or at the very least, revenge—after their demobilization. The most active of these were Germans from the western front . Still armed and still in uniform and more often than not unemployed, they formed the Freikorps and set out to obliterate Bolshevism, not only in Germany but also in Poland, the Baltic states, and anywhere else their ruthless efficiency and penchant for violence was welcomed by someone. Victorious soldiers in Italy, facing unemployment and a peace that Mussolini told them didn’t honor their sacrifice, marched on Rome. Greek soldiers deposed their own government after the debacle at Smyrna. Turkish forces opposed to the Treaty of Sevrés overthrew their own government and forced a new treaty at Lausanne. For most of the 1920s, internationally recognized governments in central and eastern Europe and the former Ottoman Empire waged war against populist armed uprisings of their own people.
Fulton notes that Gerwarth’s book would have benefited from greater attention to the former Ottoman states in the Middle East; I’ll only note that the record there is one of repeated ethnic conflict, civil wars and revolts against the new colonial authorities throughout the 1920s.
So — is it accurate to say that the first World War ended in 1918, or should we choose a different date? If so, where should we date it? 1923? 1927? 1945? Has the World War ever ended? If we set a date other than November 1918, why that date; what are the standards you’d use to draw the line?