Thursday, 30 June 2011

The long war ...

Australia, Britain and France are littered with memorials to the men who died in the first world war. One curious feature is that they fail to agree on a date - some say 1918, some say 1919.

I suppose that - like most people this disagreement over dates hadn’t really registered with me - war memorials were simply part of the urban landscape and of no great significance.

However, I’ve been doing some reading around the February and October 1917 revolutions in Russia, and had begun to realise that the end of the first world war was distinctly messy, not just because of the chaos in Germany and Russia, but over the whole of eastern Europe.

When exactly did the first world war end? Was it 1918 or 1919, or some other later date?

The conventional answer is of course 1918 with the Armistice, or if one is being pedantic, the treaty of Versailles in 1919 which formed the peace between the Allies and Germany.

Of course Germany was allied with Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, and while 1919 saw the peace treaty with Germany, the other treaties took time to negotiate leading some people argue for 1923 on the basis that the treaty of Lausanne, which brought to an end hostilities between the Allies and the Ottoman Empire, was the last to be concluded. It's a minor point that by then the Ottoman Empire no longer existed and had been replaced by Ataturk's Turkish Republic.

Let's wind back to 1912. The world was at peace, save for some unpleasantness in the Balkans in the form of the first Balkan war, revolution in Mexico, and growing instability in China. The defeat of Russia by Japan in 1905 and the consequent rise of Japan and its expansion into Korea and towards northern China was a worry to be sure, but that was for the future - a complacent view to be sure, but a common view at the time. Most military experts of the time were not so complacent and had realised that it probably represented a dress rehearsal for wars to come.

Also the world was on the whole governed by men who spoke English, French, or German as first or second languages, and who had been through the various military academies of the English, French or German speaking worlds. Even the young Turkish army officers who had deposed the Sultan had been educated overseas.

A middle class European could look back at the previous century and assume that the world was increasingly at peace, and that peace and prosperity would continue to spread. War might not be completely unimaginable, but it seemed unlikely with diplomatic and political problems being increasingly resolved in offices and on paper than on in the muck and gore of the field of battle.

How wrong.

1914 changed everything, and like all wars the First World War had a messy ending. 11 November 1918 marked the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front - the Bolshevik government in Russia, seeking an early exit to better devote its forces to the civil war, had already made its own arrangements with the Treaty of Brest Litovsk in March of that year, although they were later to abrogate it on November 13 after the armistice between Germany and the western allies. By then Austria Hungary had collapsed and the withdrawal of German troops and the collapse of effective government, combined with revolution and insurrection spilling over from the civil war in Russia, meant that for the peoples of eastern Europe the war definitely did not finish in 1918.

Just to emphasise the speed of change - when my father was born, in February 1917, there was still a tsar in Petrograd, if only for a few days more. By the time my mother was born at the end of 1918, the tsar and his family had been shot, and there was no longer a Kaiser in Berlin, the Austro Hungarian empire had collapsed and the last Habsburg deposed.

So, was can agree that 11 November marked the end of hostilities, if not the end of the war.
The treaty of Versailles in 1919 is another suggested end date. Again this will not do as while the treaty of Versailles represents the formal conclusion of hostilities between Germany and the western powers it did nothing to help end the confusion, anarchy and uncertainty in the east.

Austria-Hungary had by this time fractured into various de facto successor states. The 1919 treaty of Saint Germain-en-Laye between the Allies and the government of the Austrian rump state did little more than formalise the fracture lines in the former Austrian part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Revolution and chaos meant that there was no effective government in Hungary for the western Allies to negotiate with in 1919, meaning that the second part of the Austro Hungarian settlement had to wait until the Trianon treaty of 1920, and while that formalised the boundaries, it didn’t put an end to the conflicts in the east - perhaps making 1921, with the treaty of Riga marking the end of the Polish Soviet war or the treaty of Rapallo, between the RSFSR and Germany in 1922 marking the formal end of conflict in eastern Europe, by which time the civil war was effectively over in the European part of Russia and Japanese forces were withdrawing from the Amur region of Siberia in the face of the advancing Soviet forces.

It's important to remember that this was a world war and that Japan was on the side of the allies, and shared in the spoils gaining a number of German outposts in the Pacific, such as the Marianas and the German concession of Kiatschou (Qingdao) in China.

China was of course continuing its slide towards instability and warlordism but the re-establishment of Soviet power curbed Japanese expansion for the moment and delayed their annexation of Manchuria to form a colony to add to their existing colony in Korea although the north east of China remained an area of conflict between the Soviet Union, China, and Japan throughout the twenties culminating the the Japanese annexation of Manchuria in 1931.

So 1923, when the Allies concluded an agreement with Ataturk’s government in Ankara might well do for an end point for the first world war. Borders were stable, Britain had acheived a settlement in Ireland in the previous year, and governments were beginning to govern again and power no longer teetered on the edge of falling into the street.

If one considers stability of government a criterion, one could perhaps argue for 1924 rather 1923, as by then hyperinflation in Germany was over and the new economic policy was bearing fruit in the Soviet Union. But 1923 will do, as a date when something like a settlement had been achieved for the moment.

Of course there was unfinished business that led eventually to the second world war, and of course there were those for whom it never really ended, those who had to flee across borders and those who found themselves cut off with friends and family mysteriously living in a separate country that didn’t used to exist.

The fact that hundreds of thousands of Nansen passports were issued in the 1920's to people who suddenly found themselves stateless shows the scale of the problems and dislocation caused by the changes in eastern Europe.

There is also the view by some historians that the first and second world wars was really a single European civil war, with the interwar years representing a ceasefire in the middle of the war.

This view focuses of the European experience, but could be stretched to also cover Japanese expansionism in the east, in Siberia and Mongolia and Stalin's various manoeuvres in Xianjiang and Mongolia to provide a counter to Japan's expansion, while at the same time trying not to provoke a conflict.

Following this argument one could say that the war ended in 1949 with the founding of the People's Republic of China. By then a measure of stability had been imposed by the division of the Eurasian landmass into two opposing camps. The cold war was exactly that, but detente and mutually assured destruction delivered something like stability, and something that had been lacking in the chaos of the interwar years.

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