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Fortune and its hostages

25 November 2016

Robert Beaken on the trouble stored up at the Great War’s ‘end’

The Vanquished: Why the First World War failed to end, 1917-1923
Robert Gerwarth
Allen Lane £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50



I AM not convinced that the book’s title entirely does justice to its contents. Confronting the Mess, 1917-1923 might be more accurate.

Robert Gerwath begins his book in 1917 with the collapse of Tsarist Russia and the Bolshevik revolution. He then charts the implosion of the German, Habsburg, and Ottoman empires and their allies in 1918. Gerwath challenges the view that the dissolution of these empires was inevitable, and suggests that it was due to their military defeat, with a bit of a shove from President Woodrow Wilson

The book next looks at the attempts to create new countries from these old multi-ethnic empires. The concept of national self-determination was championed by the victorious Allies, but was imple­mented only when it suited them. After 1919, for example, almost three million Hungarians found themselves living in Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia.

I found Gerwath especially good on the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. As he detailed the harsh treaty provi­sions imposed without consultation on the defeated Germany, I started to understand why many men and women in the 1930s — not understanding the wickedness of Hitler and the Nazis — embraced appease­ment in the mistaken belief that if only the injustices of Ver­sailles could be adjusted, everything would come right.

The remainder of the book is given over to showing how the post-war settlement gradually came unstuck, especially after the 1929 Wall Street Crash. As Gerwath points out, “Contemporaries who lived through the period saw the continuities between the years 1917-23 and the Second World War more clearly than many scholars have since. . .

”In the collective memory of the peoples this period featured prom­in­ently either as one of revolution­ary turmoil, national triumph, or perceived national humiliation to be redeemed through another war. As such, the period helps us to under­stand the logic and purpose of subsequent cycles of violence that often extended beyond 1939.”

I offer a small criticism and a warning. The reader will look in vain in the index for references to the Church, or Christianity. Mon­archs, generals, and politicians are mentioned, but not Christian lead­ers. One cannot imagine that church leaders were silent or inactive.

A quick trawl, for instance, through the papers of Archbishop Randall Davidson shows that he was concerned about Russia, Germany, Turkey, the 1919 treaty of Versailles, the League of Nations, and the position of Christian Assyrians. The book would have been rounder for two or three pages looking at what Pope Benedict XV, Pope Pius XI, and other church leaders were doing.

This leads into the warning: almost every chapter contains accounts of war, massacres, ethnic cleansing, murders, and rapes. The book at times left me feeling numb. I would encourage all readers to have something light-hearted ready to read afterwards.

In sum, Gerwath here offers us a fine piece of research — the final chapter is the best bit of historical writing I have read for several years. I would encourage all historians and readers interested in the mid-20th century to read this book.

The Revd Dr Robert Beaken is Priest-in-Charge of Great Bardfield and Little Bardfield, in the diocese of Chelmsford.

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