The War That Didn't End

The War That Didn't End

There is a conventional story we all learned at school. Here it is in a nutshell: World War I ended at 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. Six hours earlier, a German delegation signed the armistice in a train car in Compiègne, 80 miles from Paris. The guns fell silent at 11 a.m. precisely. The troops came home. The interwar years began. Twenty-one years later, interwar turned into wartime, which in its turn ended with a bang after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. War. Peace. War.

If only history were as neat as that, or that it approximated the clean break with violence captured by a U.S. Signal Corps seismograph, showing the sound of artillery until 11 a.m. on Nov. 11 and the unbroken line of silence thereafter. If this had been an electrocardiograph of war, we would conclude justly that the First World War died precisely then.

History is messier than that. War didn’t die, and violence didn’t stop. The war on the Western Front between Germany and the combined forces of Britain, France, the United States and others was over, but everywhere else, fighting continued in many different forms. International war bled into civil war, indistinguishable from revolutionary and counter-revolutionary conflicts. New nations fought against old nations and against other new nations. Poland fought Bolshevik Russia, and both fought Ukrainian nationalists. Baltic nationalists fought Bolsheviks and each other. Finns engaged in a nasty civil war, and armed groups roamed throughout eastern and southern Europe with impunity.

Why the explosion of post-Nov. 11 violence?  Because the collapse of the German empire was only one of a number of such disasters to beset the old imperial order. The abdication of the Russian czar in 1917 and the decision of the moderate provisional government that replaced him to continue to fight on the Allied side created a power vacuum filled by the Bolsheviks, who took over in late 1917. Vladimir Lenin pulled Russia out of the international war so he could consolidate power in the face of armed opposition from many sides. 

In 1919, the Allies, led by Winston Churchill, made a halfhearted decision to help overthrow the communist government by injecting troops from Britain, France, Greece and the United States into the fighting. They were joined by Czech troops already there. Their presence in Russia helped galvanize local support for the Bolsheviks, and did nothing to save the disorganized and corrupt White armies from defeat. So after November 1918, when peace supposedly had broken out, on the Russian front a hot war was fought and lost by an anti-communist coalition that included the United States, leading by 1924 to the recognition of the Soviet Union and the start of a cold war.   

The Russian front was on fire after November 1918, but it was not the only front still marked by violence. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire led to the formation of new states in Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland. In each, there was the threat of a communist seizure of power. In Hungary, communist Béla Kun did seize power in Budapest, leading to a Red Terror, followed by a White Terror when his short-lived regime was overthrown. In Austria and Czechoslovakia, centrist elements prevailed. In Poland and Ukraine, nationalists attacked Jews supposedly allied with their enemies. Jews who had been uprooted during the war faced even worse conditions after November 1918. The mixture of anti-Bolshevik, extreme nationalist and anti-Semitic attitudes created a potent, toxic brew out of which fascist movements emerged in the early 1920s. The Nazis were but one startup party that emerged not during the war, but in its aftermath.

The Ottoman front was the site of ongoing and extensive warfare as well. After the occupation of Constantinople, the old regime signed a peace treaty that effectively partitioned Anatolia into colonial holdings under the control of British, French, Italian and Greek forces, the last of which engaged in brutal treatment of Muslims in western Anatolia. In response to the partition of their country and the maltreatment of Muslims, a new military force arose that overturned both the peace and the old Ottoman order. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the hero of Ottoman resistance at Gallipoli in 1915, created a new Turkish army that defeated the invading forces – and in the process brutalized and dispossessed Christian civilians whose ancestors had lived in Anatolia for 1,000 years or more. The end of this period of ethnic cleansing was the burning down in 1922 of the Christian city of Smyrna on the west coast of Anatolia, and its reconstruction as the Muslim city of Izmir. A new peace treaty was signed by Atatürk and the Allies reflecting the new facts on the ground, creating the dangerous precedent of the recognition in international law of ethnic cleansing euphemistically termed “population exchange.”

Atatürk’s victory heralded a new era in the history of Turkey. He modernized the language and urged his fellow Turks to follow the lead of the West. To ensure that he alone held power, he ended the caliphate, which had made the Sultan the symbolic head of Sunni Islam. To many devout Muslims, the end of the caliphate ushered in a crisis in Islam itself. Who would guard the sacred sites of Islam? Who would uphold the Muslim moral and political order? Into this vacuum, several devout Muslim groups emerged. Among them was the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Cairo in 1928 and the theological and spiritual inspiration of a number of anti-Western groups, including, eventually, al-Qaida.  

At the same time, the Allied carve-up of the Middle East produced violence on the local level that has also spanned the century following the “peace” of 1918. A 1919 revolt in Egypt followed the Allies’ refusal to allow local leader Saad Zaghloul to present Egypt’s demand for independence to the Paris Peace Conference. He was arrested and imprisoned on Malta and later in the Seychelles. When freed, Zaghloul returned to Egypt and continued the struggle for independence, which finally succeeded in 1952. Riots in Palestine in 1919 anticipated the chronic violence attending the conflict between Zionist and Palestinian Arab political groups, which a century later refuses to dissipate.   

Further afield, the anti-colonial struggle entered a new phase in 1919. In India, hundreds of peaceful demonstrators were massacred in Amritsar, turning those who had supported the British war effort – including Mahatma Gandhi – into a force that over time pushed the British into contemplating what until then had been unthinkable: leaving India to the Indians. That too came after World War II, but was foreshadowed after the 1918 armistice.

A different kind of anti-colonial force emerged elsewhere in Asia. On March 1, 1919, Korean leaders – influenced by Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points – read out a declaration of independence of Korea, then a province of the Japanese empire. More than 1 million people participated in demonstrations in support of this demand, and when local police could not quell the disorder, the military was called in. Several thousand Koreans were killed. 

Wilson’s message mattered in China too. The country had been in the midst of a civil war and could not match the naval contribution Japan made to the Allied cause. Consequently, when the Allies met at Versailles to distribute the colonial or quasi-colonial holdings of the old German empire – including the province of Shandong, south of Beijing – they considered the Japanese case stronger than the Chinese case. At least temporarily, Shandong came under Japanese rule. No matter that 150,000 Chinese laborers were sent from Shandong to dig trenches in France; no matter that Shandong was the birthplace of Confucius. Rewarding Japan for its contribution to Allied victory came first. When the news reached Beijing of this decision on May 4, 1919, students burned down the telegraph office, rioted and organized a new movement named for the day of the riots – the May Fourth Movement – out of which emerged the Chinese Communist Party.  

These events in India, Korea and China signaled one of the paradoxes of the peace of 1918. On one hand, the Allies won the war because they were able to marshal their imperial armies and resources, and consequently in a war of endurance, the Central powers ran out of men and materiel first. In this sense, the Great War was the high point of empire. But the war was also the beginning of the end of empire, in part because it economically weakened Britain and France, both of which were unable over time to reconstruct their societies at home and consolidate their imperial holdings abroad. The mandate system of the new League of Nations, established by the peace treaty, envisioned freedom for colonies over time. How much time was a matter of dispute, but once the Wilsonian message of self-determination of peoples was linked to the Allied victory, and to the new league Wilson created, the days of empire were numbered.

One of those present in Paris at the end of the war began his and his people’s march to independence then and there. In 1919, Vietnam was part of the French empire. During the peace conference, Nguyen Ai Quoc (Ho Chi Minh) petitioned the
Allies to establish a regime of law and freedom of speech and assembly in Vietnam. He also sought representation in the French Parliament, from which he believed self-determination for the Annamite (Vietnamese) people would be enacted in law. He received no reply. Instead, he was put under surveillance by the French security police. A year later, Ho was at the founding meeting of the French Communist party. Thereafter he traveled to the Soviet Union and China, en route to Vietnam and the 50-year struggle ahead of him and his movement. 

This global tracery of agitation and violence was not visible in the United States when the America Expeditionary Forces came home. World War I became a short-term memory, one of victory purchased by American bravery and muscle over roughly one year of combat. Fortunately, only 50,000 American soldiers died in combat; 50,000 more died of the influenza epidemic of 1918 and 1919. This statement does not for a moment diminish the harshness of the struggle against Germany in 1918 leading to the armistice, but U.S. combat losses in the whole of World War I were approximately equal to the losses France suffered in August 1914. The United States suffered a bloody nose, not a bloodbath. Hence the family memories of soldiers’ sacrifice in 1914-1918 pale in comparison with those of either the Civil War or World War II.

Industrial warfare did take its toll. When the Marines took Belleau Wood in June 1918, they did so at a high price: 1,800 killed and another 8,000 wounded – more than the United States had suffered at any time since 1865. American forces played a major part in the last Allied offensive in September and October 1918 in the Ardennes, and kept the pressure up on retreating German forces until they had to come to terms with their defeat. Gen. John J. Pershing wanted to push on into Germany in later November 1918, but French generalissimo Ferdinand Foch overruled him.  

The war on the Western Front ended on Nov. 11 with German troops still occupying French and Belgian territory. They returned home as an army, and were saluted as if they had been undefeated by the new provisional government in Berlin. The truth was otherwise. The German army had been beaten decisively in the field, and with the collapse of her allies in September and October 1918, Germany could not continue the war. But the timing and terms of the armistice created the material out of which an entirely false narrative emerged: that Germany had been undefeated but betrayed by the “November criminals” – Jews, socialists and other traitors at home.  

It is hardly surprising that in “Mein Kampf,” Adolf Hitler says he decided to start his political career on the day the war ended on the Western Front: Nov. 11, 1918. In one sense, he was right. The armistice was not the harbinger of peace we have taken it to be for a century. It was a cease-fire leading to a botched peace settlement and continuing violence in eastern and southern Europe and beyond.  

Why did the peace fail? Like so many Americans, those who made the peace paid too much attention to the end of hostilities in France and Belgium, and too little attention to wildfires raging everywhere else. And in part it was because those who made the peace in 1919 did not recognize that the war could make the world safe for democracy only if it was underwritten by economic stability. By punishing Germany through reparations, the peacemakers provided the warmakers thenopportunity to come with all the ammunition they needed.  

In 1945, recognizing that the surrender of Germany did not signal peace, the Allies started a massive program to rebuild Europe economically, and thereby to undergird the new democratic order of the postwar years. The man whose name is
associated with this program, Gen. George C. Marshall, had served as a key planner of U.S. military operations in France in 1918. In 1945, he knew what it would take to avoid a repetition of the shortsighted vision of 1918, which had prematurely declared that victory was ours and peace was at hand. Making a real peace took more than stopping the guns on one front. Marshall saw beyond the Signal Corps seismograph that had misled so many others. He lived to see a kind of peace that had evaded the victors of 1918, a peace that lasts.  


Jay Winter is professor of history emeritus at Yale University and honorary professor at Australian National University. He is the author of “Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History” (1995), “War Beyond Words: Languages of Remembrance From the Great War to the Present” (2017) and editor of the three-volume “Cambridge History of the First World War” (2014).