Author: Robert Gerwarth

Title: “The Vanquished – Why the First World War Failed to End”

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2016; 267 pages

Robert Gerwarth, in “The Vanquished – Why the First World War Failed to End,” has written a remarkable book about how the Great War changed the world, particularly for the countries that lost. This is not an easy read, but it nicely surveys how the three big victorious countries — Great Britain, France and the United States — largely dismembered Germany, Austria–Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria. Russia, which had been defeated by Germany, lost territory to Germany in a separate 1917 treaty. By the end of the war and the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the Bolshevik Revolution had vanquished the czar and had begun to set up Soviets, thus Russia was not included in the treaty.

Gerwarth writes of the Paris Peace Conference convened in 1919.

“Reconciling the Allies’ conflicting positions while also keeping the delegations of the smaller countries in Paris happy was an almost impossible task. Even if the Western Allies’ political leaders were reluctant to admit it, they were fully aware from the start of the deliberations in Paris that the final versions of the peace treaties were going to be a compromise — not between the victors and the vanquished, but between the key actors among the victorious Allies.”

Aside from Italy, which was not a key actor, but which had lost hundreds of thousands of men, the smaller countries listed in the Treaty of Versailles of June 28, 1919, included Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, China, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Ecuador, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, the Hejaz, Honduras, Japan, Liberia, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serb-Croat-Slovene State, Siam and Uruguay.

“The Paris Peace Conference fell short of its ultimate objective: the creation of a secure, peaceful and lasting world order," according to Gerwarth.

“When the First World War ended with an Allied victory, three vast and centuries-old dynastic land empires — the Ottoman, Hapsburg and Romanov empires — vanished from the map. A fourth, Imperial Germany … was significantly reduced in size, stripped of its overseas colonies (leaving) what Germans … referred to as a ‘bleeding frontier’ toward the east …. As the continental empires disintegrated, ten new states emerged from their ruins: Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, German-Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Turkey …. Meanwhile, in the Arab Levant, which had been ruled for centuries by the Ottomans, Britain and France invented new ‘states’: Palestine, Transjordan (Jordan), Syria, Lebanon and Mesopotamia (Iraq).”

What made this book more difficult for me to enjoy were the continuing wars and revolutions, all the mass killings and butchery, and forcible removal of people from the lands of their birth and the lands of their ancestors, as Bolsheviks, nationalists, fascists and others fought to rule these various new states. And the Jews in these new countries were singled out for removal or death, thus presaging the slaughter of the Jews and others by the Germans in World War II. Those of Finnish descent can take great pride in the fact that of all these new states only Finland survived as a liberal democracy.

A widely accepted belief is that the heavy reparations imposed on the losing states by the victorious Allies were the cause of all of the post-World War I turmoil, but Gerwarth notes most of the reparations were never paid or were ignored. The absence of established governments in most of these new states essentially led to unrestrained power grabs and dictatorships and totalitarianism. In his epilogue Gerwarth notes: “On the eve of the Second World War, there were thus many fewer democracies in Europe than there had been before the Great War.”

This book in surveying the post-World War I conflicts will convince you that the Great War never completely ended. It makes you wonder just how the world would look like today if World War I had never been fought.

Bob Wefald is a retired North Dakota State District Court judge. Judge Wefald became a lawyer in 1970. His career included serving a year as a law clerk, four years as attorney general, more than 23 years in private practice in Bismarck and 12 years as a judge. He served as an officer in the Navy for three years of active duty plus 24 years in the Navy Reserve.

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