CONVENTIONALLY, the First World War ended at the 11th hour on 11 November 1918, with the signing of the Western Front armistice. This was the fourth armistice signed since the end of September as hostilities simultaneously came to an end on all fronts.
But the formal end to fighting did not mean an end of war. As events in Russia after the Bolshevik seizure of power in November 1917 had already proved, defeat in international war could be the precursor to civil war; and the collapse of an empire could be the spark for new international conflicts. The “war to end war” spawned legacy conflicts in Europe and in the Middle East which lasted for several years, and whose consequences still reverberate in the 21st century.
Armistices send soldiers home, but they do not remove the reasons or desire for fighting. Instead of returning home to family life and peacetime occupations, demobilised soldiers found shattered societies and domestic turmoil. They might have had to find their place in a newly created state, or choose a political allegiance to one of the parties competing in the new arena of mass politics defined by universal suffrage and deep ideological divisions between the Communist Left, the liberal Centre, and the nationalist Right.
Men who returned home happy to have survived the front might have had to take up arms in the legacy wars that spread across Europe from Dublin to Moscow, and from Helsinki to Istanbul. Accustomed from the brutal environment of the front to fighting and death, returning soldiers would have had no compunction in transferring such violence to the streets on which these ideological clashes were fought out.
In disputed borderlands, paramilitary forces replaced the state’s armed forces when empires collapsed, and fought to defend or to expand territories. Veterans such as Mussolini and Hitler, disgruntled chancers who skilfully exploited the social and political fractures that the war brought about, promoted new, dynamic, and unifying nationalist ideologies that recruited believers among their former trench comrades.
So, while victorious statesmen were poring over maps in Paris in an attempt to draw up new borders and settle new regimes established on democratic principles, events on the ground would confound their efforts.
MAKING peace with defeated Germany proved to be relatively unproblematic. The Versailles Treaty was signed — grudgingly, and with objections on the part of Germany’s representatives, it must be acknowledged — in July 1919. But the process of “negotiation”, in which the German delegation could only accept or reject the treaty as a whole, as well as its specific terms, in particular assigning blame for the war to Germany, fuelled resentments that would ultimately facilitate the rise of National Socialism in Germany and provoke a second pan-European war.
Making peace with Germany’s former allies was more protracted. Austria and Hungary, the successor states of the Hapsburg Empire, were gripped by Communism. In Hungary, armed force had to be used to suppress a short-lived Soviet regime in summer 1919, and, for some months, Austria was also on the brink of turning Communist.
The new states that finally accepted terms in the treaties of Saint-Germain (1919) and Trianon (1920) were shrunken and resentful, losing provinces to Italy, Yugoslavia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. Democracy in Hungary had already collapsed when the strong-man Admiral Miklós Horthy took power as regent for life on behalf of the vestiges of the pre-defeat regime, and pledged to revise the Treaty of Trianon.
It was the first but not the last time that the army would step into a nation’s domestic political vacuum. Bulgaria had also lost territory to Greece and Yugoslavia in the 1919 Treaty of Neuilly. In all cases, ethnic minorities and disputed border regions existed in the new states, despite promotion of the principle of national self-determination in the peace process.
The Middle East proved difficult to pacify. The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres with the Turkish government failed. The victors’ attempt to incorporate former Ottoman territories into their own empires provoked resentment and fuelled the rise of the nationalist movement led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. War broke out between Greece and Turkey, which led to the atrocities against ethnic populations in each other’s territories.
A second treaty was signed with Turkey at Lausanne in 1923, which recognised the new Turkish Republic and restored territory and sovereignty over Istanbul and the Straits. Greek and Turkish ethnic populations were to be exchanged between the two states. The rest of the former Ottoman Empire was divided into territories administered by the victors, Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon among them — artificial creations whose geography does not correlate with political and religious realities a century later.
NOR did supposedly victorious states escape the post-war chaos. Italy, in particular, endured two “red years” in which Communists and Fascists fought for control of the streets against a background of dissatisfaction with the terms of the peace treaty with Hungary: the so-called “mutilated peace”, which denied Italian claims to territories promised in wartime treaties but also claimed by the new Yugoslav state. The final outcome of these years of domestic turmoil was the collapse of the liberal state in Italy, and the assumption of power by Mussolini’s Fascists in the first of the many right-wing dictatorships that were to emerge in Europe between the wars.
Nor did Britain escape. In Ireland, a state of near civil war existed as paramilitary police units, the “black and tans”, fought the IRA for control of the countryside while the terms of Irish independence were negotiated. Once that was achieved, in 1922, a civil war between Irish factions over the nature of the new Irish Free State followed.
Russia, on whose splintered territory “White” armies of varying political persuasions fought the Bolshevik “Reds”, presented the largest and most intractable problem. Military interventions by the victorious allies were merely pinpricks on the edges of a vast state, and were soon abandoned.
Backing White factions also failed to promote democracy, since these were isolated and defeated one by one by the Reds. After a succession of border clashes in the Ukraine, in 1920 the newly resurrected Polish state fought a conventional war against invading Red forces, driving them back from the gates of Warsaw, thereby saving Eastern (and perhaps Western) Europe from incorporation into the Soviet system for 25 years.
The Peace of Riga, signed between Poland and the Soviet Union in 1921, brought formal hostilities to an end, although, in 1939, Russia would have revenge for her defeat and seize Eastern Poland. Although the small wars that followed the great one had largely played themselves out by 1922, issues remained that would fuel tensions in the future.
TO PREVENT or mitigate future conflicts between states, open diplomacy rather than secret treaties of alliance; disarmament; and a system of collective security operating through a League of Nations was proposed. These were the ideas of the American President, Woodrow Wilson, an idealist who felt that he could impose the values of the New World on the broken old one. He could not. These were progressive ideas, ahead of their time and difficult to establish at a time when conflict was the norm, and statesmen still had a pre-war mind-set.
European statesmen were more pragmatic. They adopted the new ideas, but stuck to the old ways of security, too: large armies and navies, and mutual security treaties. The United States, in fact, killed off President Wilson’s hopes when Congress refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. If there was a hope after 1917 that the US would step in to manage the security of the world, it was premature.
The “stillness heard round the world in 1918” was momentary. Creating a stable, peaceful, post-war world had proved impossible at the negotiating-table, and there was no mechanism or will to sustain the fragile status quo of the 1920s when Germany remained weak and Soviet Russia remained isolated.
When Germany threatened world peace again in the Second World War, unconditional surrender rather than a negotiated peace was to be sought. The victors would reconstruct defeated states on their own lines, not leave them the opportunity to challenge formal peace settlements that were often as not the root cause of future conflict.
THE second time around, the US would sponsor capitalist democracy in Europe, and provided funds and forces to sustain it. This was essential, since one of those victors would be the Soviet Union, which imposed a Communist system on Eastern Europe and a Cold War on the world until 1991. Better a stand-off than another bloodletting, although the many wars and insurgencies that followed would be extra-European, and brutal in their own way, as the European empires that had survived the First World War now broke up.
More positively, nations would bind more closely together in international bodies, United Nations, or European Communities, to work towards removing the sources of grievance and sharing responsibility for a more peaceful future.
Yet war has returned again in the 21st century. One hundred years after the end of the Great War, it is wise to remember that peace is the temporary absence of war, but not the destiny of mankind.
Dr William Philpott is Professor of the History of Warfare at King’s College, London. His books include Attrition: Fighting the First World War, published by Little, Brown.
Read our faith feature, and our full supplement on the Armistice