Sunday, February 10, 2019

Robert Gerwarth's The Vanquished

"On 23 March 1919 we raised the black flag of the fascist revolution, the forerunner of European renewal. Veterans of the trenches and young men gathered around this flag, forming squads that wished to march against the cowardly governments and against fatal Eastern ideologies, in order to free the people from the influence of 1789. Thousands of comrades fell around this flag, fighting like heroes, in the truest meaning of the Roman word, in the streets and squares of Italy, in Africa and in Spain. Their memory is always alive and present in our hearts. Some people may have forgotten the hardships of the post-war years, but the squadristi have not forgotten, they cannot forget."
That's from a speech of Benito Mussolini gave in 1939, and quoted in Robert Gerwarth's The Vanquished: Why The First World War Failed To End. It's pretty representative of why Gerwarth thinks his period is important, and I would agree.

The main period he covers in his book runs from the revolutions in Russia in 1917 until the Treaty of Lausanne between Atatürk's new Turkey and the victors of WWI in 1923. It covers pretty much every country that was engaged in that war, plus a few that weren't (Spain, for instance) but brings all the major events together in a way I hadn't seen before.

Some of them are well enough known, even to English readers, particularly the Russian Civil War of the early 1920s and the negotiations of the Versailles Treaty. Maybe less well-known, but not completely obscure, are the revolutions in Germany that led to the founding of the Weimar Republic, and the Greco-Turkish War of 1919 to 1922, but there are lots of other events are described or alluded to: the war of Irish Independence, the coup in Spain that led to the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera in 1923, the March on Fiume and the Regency of Carnaro, the Hungary of Béla Kun, so many others.

The bio on the back flap tells me that Gerwarth is a professor of Modern History at the University College Dublin, but Wikipedia adds that he was born in Germany and mostly educated there. The (extensive) bibliography includes works in English and German, unsurprisingly, but also Italian, French, Greek, Spanish, Russian, Serbian, and Bulgarian. Does he know all these languages? Yikes! Maybe so. It does seem he's ridiculously competent to write this book.

Anyway, it's a period that interests me, and it's well-done. Recommended, if you're at all interested in World War I, its politics and its impact. The book came out in 2016 and I saw it recommended as one of the best history books of that year by Steve Donoghue of Open Letters Monthly. I can't conceivably keep up with Donoghue's level of reading, but I think he was probably right.

With it touching so many European countries, I could use it for practically anywhere in my European Reading Challenge, and so I will use it for one of the more obscure ones, of course... 😉

It was full of information I didn't know about the Finnish Civil War or the Finnish War of Liberation, depending on how you look at it, of 1918. It also covered the short-lived Republic of Armenia of 1920 and 1921. But one of the most interesting bits was the early history of Latvia when it first established independence at the end of World War I, an independence later obliterated in 1939. Freikorps troops--independent German soldiers--fought against Russian revolutionaries at the instigation of the British and French, but then also fought against Latvian nationalists. And I discovered Marguerite Yourcenar wrote a novel in 1939 about that conflict, titled Coup de Grace. Who knew? (Well, I'm sure there are many somebodies who did, but I wasn't one of them.) So I'm going to call this one for Latvia for my European Reading Challenge.


  1. This is one that I really want to read. So many incredible history books, so little time...

    1. Here's an added incentive... ;) If you don't count the 150 pages of notes, bibliography, and index, it's actually a pretty short book!

  2. Excellent book! I loved it! Here's a link to my review: