German Freikorps volunteers in Berlin during the 1920 Kapp Putsch, a failed attempt to overthrow the Weimar Republic
German Freikorps volunteers in Berlin during the 1920 Kapp Putsch, a failed attempt to overthrow the Weimar Republic © Getty

In The Radetzky March, the 1932 masterpiece of Austrian novelist Joseph Roth, a conservative Polish aristocrat named Count Chojnicki foretells the Habsburg empire’s collapse in 1918. With bitterness he blames it on the empire’s restive national minorities: “As soon as the emperor [Franz Josef] says goodnight, we’ll break up into a hundred pieces . . . All the peoples will set up their own dirty little statelets . . . Nationalism is the new religion.”

As Robert Gerwarth explains in The Vanquished, it was no coincidence that Roth and other central European Jews looked with nostalgia, from the vantage point of the 1930s, on the vanished Dual Monarchy. For them, life had felt safer in that multi-ethnic empire, with its relatively tolerant treatment of minorities, than it did in most of the nation-states that replaced it, let alone in Nazi Germany.

Austria-Hungary was one of four empires to break up as a result of the first world war, the others being Hohenzollern Germany, tsarist Russia and the Ottoman empire. Across the territories of all four fallen empires, the immediate postwar years were times of extraordinary upheaval and danger. “As civil wars overlapped with revolutions, counter-revolutions and border conflicts between emerging states without clearly defined borders or internationally recognised governments, ‘postwar’ 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,” Gerwarth writes.

The clue to the overarching theme of Gerwarth’s book lies in those quotation marks around the word “postwar”. The Vanquished is not a general history of Europe between 1917 and 1923. Rather, it is a mixture of fast-paced narrative and fluent analysis of the turmoil that unfolded in the lands of the four shattered empires, as well as Greece and Italy, either side of the November 1918 armistice on the western front.

Front cover of 'The Vanquished', by Robert Gerwarth

Gerwarth demonstrates with an impressive concentration of detail that in central, eastern and south-eastern Europe the carnage of the first world war by no means came to an end, as it did for the British and French, in late 1918. In the Bolshevik coup and ensuing Russian civil war, the far-left uprisings in Bavaria and Hungary, the Greek-Turkish war and similar events, Gerwarth traces a seamless flow of violence and political disorder set in motion by the near-simultaneous collapse of empires.

In this sense, the first world war was “the unintentional enabler of the social or national revolutions that were to shape Europe’s political, social and cultural agenda for decades to come”, Gerwarth says. Among its legacies was “a new logic of violence”, often directed at racial and religious minorities, and making no distinction between civilians and combatants, that was to have baleful consequences two decades later.

“The violent actors of 1917-1923 were often identical with those who would unleash a new cycle of violence in the 1930s and early 1940s,” Gerwarth writes. The Freikorps, or volunteer German paramilitary units, which stamped out leftwing revolution in the Weimar Republic and ran riot in the Baltic states, were the spiritual predecessors of the Nazis.

Gerwarth, a Berlin-born professor at University College Dublin, is the author of two well-received works on German history, The Bismarck Myth (2005) and Hitler’s Hangman (2011), a biography of Reinhard Heydrich. His latest book develops many ideas aired in War in Peace: Paramilitary Violence in Europe after the Great War (2012), a volume of stimulating essays that he co-edited with John Horne.

The Allies’ 1919 Versailles peace treaty with Germany did little to calm the postwar violence. In a challenge to once-dominant historical interpret­ations, Gerwarth contends that the issue at the heart of Versailles and related treaties was not the Allies’ insistence on including war guilt clauses to justify reparations payments from Germany and other defeated powers. Rather, it was the near-impossible task of transforming Europe from a set of ruined land empires into new states whose legitimacy, it was thought, should derive primarily from their ethnic homogeneity.

This principle of national self-determination, commonly associated with Woodrow Wilson, the wartime US president, was more attractive in theory than in the real postwar world. Its application to Europe’s dismantled empires was always likely to be inconsistent and fraught with the risk of ethnic conflict. Gerwarth calls it “at best naive and, in practice, an invitation to transform the violence of the first world war into a multitude of border conflicts and civil wars”.

From the start, there were winners and losers. The British, French and US victors rewarded peoples such as the Czechs, Greeks, Poles, Romanians and southern Slavs who were wartime allies or considered to be of a friendly disposition. These received either new, independent states or territories to add to existing states. Conversely, the war’s losers, especially Germans, German-speaking Austrians and Hungarians, were punished, with their titular states reduced in size and large minorities left outside them.

Wisely, Gerwarth does not go so far as to lament the end of Europe’s land empires. But his book argues convincingly that “the story of Europe in the years between 1917 and 1923 is crucial for understanding the cycles of violence that characterised the continent’s 20th century”.

The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923, by Robert Gerwarth, Allen Lane, RRP£25, 464 pages

Tony Barber is the FT’s Europe editor

Photograph: Getty

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