Book Review: The Vanquished
by Robert Gerwath
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016
“The worst of all war’s attendant horrors,” wrote a grubby sage referring to the endless slog of the Vietnam War, “worse than bloodshed, worse than famine, is chaos. All the certainties vanish.” It had been a truism for two millennia prior to that wording, and it’s the underpinning of The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, an utterly fascinating new work by University College Dublin history professor Robert Gerwath.
The book probes deeply into an area of this intensely-studied war that comparatively few studies take on at such length and detail: it’s sprawling aftermath. The First World War brought about the downfall of three gigantic imperial powers: the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire, and Gerwath studies the chaos that followed these collapses, catching millions of civilians in waves of pogroms, insurrections, and economic hardships. Mass expulsions and land-grabs wracked the territories of the powers the war had decapitated, and Gerwath is looking to the future of the 20th century when he characterizes these as “ideal conditions for new and lasting conflicts”:
It was no coincidence that the centre of gravity for attempts at territorial revisionism in Europe over the following decades was located in the lands of the old multi-national empires whose break-up created new ‘frontiers of violence’. Territorial gains of ‘historic’ lands and the recovery of populations lost in 1918 played a crucial role in foreign and domestic policies in east-central Europe until the end of the Second World War, and sometimes even beyond 1945, particularly for Hungary, Bulgaria and Germany.
The long after-effects of the Great War are painted with comprehensive skill in these pages; it’s an account unlike any other in the crowded field of WWI studies, and from the tangle of post-war confusion and violence, Gerwath not only teases out with eerie insight the monsters that would be born from that confusion but also describes the new kind of warfare then coming into being:
This was a radical reversal of the long-standing ambition of European policymakers since the Wars of Religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to tame armed conflict by distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants, and by decriminalizing the enemy as iustus hostis. In the internal and international armed conflicts discussed in this book, and again in the civil wars and inter-state wars from the mid-1930s onwards, by contrast, opponents were often portrayed and perceived as criminalized and dehumanized enemies undeserving of mercy or military restraint. The distinctions between civilians and combatants, already blurred during the First World War, completely vanished in this type of conflict.
Vanquished is buttressed by exhaustive notes and a long bibliography; it breaks a good deal of new ground in telling a story that’s in its way very much more vital to our understanding of the war and its consequences than yet another history of the Somme. This is vital reading, essential for any student of the First World War.