Fall­out felt around the world

BBC History Magazine - - Armistice 100 Years - by David Reynolds David Reynoldss is pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional history at the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge. He is the au­thor of The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Cen­tury (Si­mon & Schus­ter, 2013)

In Bri­tain, we usu­ally con­sider the Treaty of Ver­sailles to be the most im­por­tant and prob­lem­atic po­lit­i­cal legacy of the First World War. But we need to think more broadly. Among the larger themes, three stand out.

Old em­pires crum­ble

The First World War was to­tal war, test­ing not just the armed forces but also the whole econ­omy and so­ci­ety of each bel­liger­ent power. And los­ing to­tal war meant to­tal de­feat. First to crum­ble in 1917 was Russia: the March rev­o­lu­tion top­pled the tsar, and the Novem­ber coup brought Lenin and the Bol­she­viks to power, though they then had to fight a five-year civil war to gain full con­trol of the coun­try. In the au­tumn of 1918, not only the German Re­ich crum­bled but also the Hab­s­burg dy­nasty – dom­i­nant in cen­tral Europe for four cen­turies. And the Ot­toman Turks, who in 1683 had been at the gates of Vi­enna, were now driven al­most com­pletely from south-east­ern Europe. In 1919–22, Tur­key had to fight for its very ex­is­tence as state.

On the ru­ins of these great dy­nas­tic em­pires were built a va­ri­ety of new states. In the Baltic, Es­to­nia, Latvia and Lithua­nia won bit­ter wars of in­de­pen­dence against Russia, their old im­pe­rial mas­ter. Poland emerged again from its long par­ti­tion be­tween Ger­mans and Rus­sians. Aus­tria and Hun­gary be­came in­de­pen­dent states; Cze­choslo­vakia was in­vented from scratch. And in the Balkans, the Serbs forged a south Slav state, Yu­goslavia, from peo­ples for­merly un­der Hab­s­burg and Ot­toman rule.

These new states were, how­ever, rick­ety and flawed: gen­er­ally multi-eth­nic, but with one eth­nic group in con­trol. And most bor­ders were in dis­pute, those of Poland and Cze­choslo­vakia be­ing es­pe­cially con­tentious. Here was the fuel for the next war.

Strong­men seize their chance

The First World War also gen­er­ated new and ex­plo­sive forms of demo­cratic politics, es­pe­cially in Italy and Ger­many.

Italy had an es­tab­lished tra­di­tion of par­lia­men­tary gov­ern­ment but in 1918, as in Bri­tain, the fran­chise was en­larged to univer­sal male suf­frage in or­der to re­pay the troops. Ger­many, by con­trast, had im­ple­mented a demo­cratic fran­chise in 1871, but the par­lia­ment ex­erted lit­tle con­trol over the gov­ern­ment un­til the kaiser was top­pled in the repub­li­can rev­o­lu­tion of 1918.

Italy and Ger­many, from these dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions, now tried to make mass democ­racy work as a form of gov­ern­ment in so­ci­eties that were po­larised po­lit­i­cally and em­bit­tered by the sour fruits of war. The Ger­mans wanted to tear up Ver­sailles; many Ital­ians protested against their ‘mu­ti­lated vic­tory’ and de­manded more ter­ri­tory in the Adri­atic and Mediter­ranean.

To break the dead­lock in frac­tious and frac­tured par­lia­ments, charis­matic politi- cians appealed to the pop­u­lace at large – pro­mot­ing the cult of the ‘strong leader’ and in­tim­i­dat­ing op­po­nents us­ing pri­vate armies of street thugs (many of them bru­talised war vet­er­ans). Ben­ito Mus­solini de­ployed his squadristi to help lever him­self into power in Rome in 1922. Adolf Hitler’s stormtroop­ers played a sim­i­lar sup­port­ing role in his ap­point­ment as German chan­cel­lor in 1933. Once in power, both men abol­ished mean­ing­ful par­lia­men­tary gov­ern­ment and em­barked on plans for ag­gres­sive ex­pan­sion.

Glimpses of a new global or­der

Al­though the Bri­tish called 1914–18 the ‘Great War’, the Ger­mans al­ways used the term ‘World War’ ( Weltkrieg), be­cause they con­sid­ered it a strug­gle to establish them­selves as a top-rank global em­pire and naval power in the man­ner of Bri­tain and France. Not only did Ger­many’s bid fail, the Bri­tish and French ended the war with even larger em­pires – pick­ing up German pos­ses­sions in Africa and the Pa­cific and evict­ing the Ot­tomans from the Mid­dle East.

Yet these lands had strings at­tached – they came as ‘man­dates’ from the new League of Na­tions, whereby the Euro­pean power ruled as a ‘trustee’, pre­par­ing the in­hab­i­tants for fu­ture self-gov­ern­ment. Syria and Le­banon for France, Iraq and es­pe­cially Pales­tine for Bri­tain, proved poi­soned chal­ices. Older parts of their em­pires also be­came less tractable. The years af­ter 1918 saw vi­o­lent up­heavals in In­dia, Egypt and French In­dochina. And China and Ja­pan felt short-changed by their Euro­pean al­lies in the ter­ri­to­rial carve-up at the Paris Peace Con­fer­ence.

So it wasn’t just the Ger­mans and Ital­ians who craved a place in the sun. Across the world, Bri­tish and French hege­mony looked in­creas­ingly shaky. Yet no one fore­saw the hur­ri­cane that would blow away the Europe-cen­tred global or­der be­tween 1937 and 1945.

New im­pe­rial pos­ses­sions – Syria and Le­banon for France, Iraq and Pales­tine for Bri­tain – proved poi­soned chal­ices

A stamp used in the Bri­tish man­date of Pales­tine, which ended in 1948

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