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date: 24 March 2018

1918 and the End of Europe’s Land Empires

Abstract and Keywords

This, the first of two complementary chapters on the First World War and its colonial aftermaths, focuses on the collapse of ‘compact’ empires in Central, Eastern, and South-Eastern Europe. It conceptualizes the reconfiguration of Europe and its eastern borderlands after the collapse of Imperial Russia, Austria-Hungary and Imperial Germany as a form of decolonization internal to Europe during a ‘Greater War’ that, broadly speaking, continued until 1923. The global ramifications of this particularly European struggle became evident in new repressive techniques by colonial states and the widespread turn towards political violence to achieve the overthrow of imperial regimes.

Keywords: First World War, 1918, land empire, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman empire, Turkey, violence, decolonization


1The Great War ended with the military collapse and disappearance from the map of three vast and centuries-old land empires: the Ottoman, Habsburg and Romanov empires. A fourth, the Hohenzollern Empire, which had become a major land empire in the last year of the war when it occupied enormous territories in East-Central Europe, was significantly reduced in size, stripped of its overseas colonies, and transformed into a parliamentary democracy with what Germans across the political spectrum referred to as a ‘bleeding frontier’ towards the East.2 Nor were the victorious Western European empires unaffected by the cataclysm of war: Ireland, for example, had experienced an unsuccessful nationalist uprising in 1916, but eventually gained independence after a bloody guerrilla war against British forces.3 Elsewhere, nascent decolonization movements around the world felt inspired by the public discourse over ‘autonomous development’ and ‘national self-determination’ as prompted (with very different intentions) by US President Woodrow Wilson and Lenin, the leader of the Russian Bolsheviks.4

Ultimately, the small non-European decolonization movements were to be disappointed by the results of the Paris Peace Conference as ‘national self-determination’ was applied to some of the Central European Successor States favoured by the Allies, but denied to everyone else. In Egypt, India, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Burma, Britain responded to imperial unrest with considerable force while, over the following decades, France fought back against resistance to its imperial ambitions in Algeria, Syria, Indo-China, and Morocco.5

But it was in East-Central Europe and the territories of the defeated Ottoman Empire that the effects of the lost war and the implosion of imperial structures were felt most keenly and immediately. For centuries, European history had been a history of empires. On the eve of the Great War, much of the landmass of the inhabited world was divided into European empires or economically dependent territories, and there was little to suggest that the age of land empires was about to end. To be sure, the ‘awakening of peoples’ as a result of nineteenth-century nationalism posed a significant challenge to the future of imperial rule, most notably in the Balkans where national and imperial interests collided. Balkan nationalism exploded violently during the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913 when a coalition of Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, and Bulgaria expelled the Ottomans from all of their remaining European territories before turning on each other over the spoils of war.6 The influx into Anatolia of huge numbers of penniless and brutalized Muslim refugees had a profound impact on Christian-Muslim relations in the Ottoman Empire over the following decade.7

However, the situation in the Balkans in 1912–1913 differed significantly from that elsewhere. While there were calls for more autonomy within imperial structures, few in 1914 envisaged a future without the European land empires. It was the Great War and the defeat of the Central Powers that were to transform Europe’s map more profoundly still. After four years of mass slaughter, Europe’s land empires mploded, and while violence ended on the Western front and in some other theatres in the autumn of 1918, it continued unabated and sometimes even intensified in the shatter-zones of the defeated empires. As a consequence of imperial collapse and the rise and clash of nationalist as well as Bolshevik and anti-Bolshevik movements, an extensive zone of violence stretched from Finland and the Baltic States through Russia and Ukraine, Poland, the borderlands of Austria, Hungary, and Germany, all the way through the Balkans into Anatolia, the Caucasus, and the Middle East.8

The post-1918 process of nation-state-building amidst this violence was completed through secession from the defeated empires that had hitherto managed, sometimes violently but more often peacefully, a volatile mix of ethnic groups.9 Many of the now defunct empires had been more successful in accepting ethnic and religious difference (notably in the late nineteenth century and up until to 1914) than the majority of Successor States would prove to be in the interwar period. The complex mix of tensions between post-imperial state-building, the challenge of managing ethnic diversity in states that wanted to be homogenous, and the irredentism of aggrieved minorities would remain among the most explosive issues on Europe’s political agenda between 1918 and the forced ‘unweaving of peoples’ during and after the Second World War.

A World of Empires: Europe in 1914

When Europe went to war in 1914, empires dominated the continent geographically and politically. Despite some calls for more regional autonomy, few would have predicted—or indeed demanded—a complete dissolution of the continental land empires when hostilities broke out in August that year. Although the decline and fall of Europe’s continental land empires after 1918 has often been portrayed as a historical inevitability, the ruling dynasties of the pre-war world seemed firmly in control of the vast swathes of territory that belonged to their empires. At least in hindsight, as Richard Bessel and others have argued, Europe on the eve of the First World War appeared remarkably stable.10

Imperial Germany, for example, certainly experienced political and social tensions, but even the most outspoken internal champions for change, the Social Democrats, had begun to advocate evolution over revolution. The fact that the SPD had become the largest political party in the Reichstag on the eve of the Great War was thus no indication of imminent revolution, but clear evidence that the Kaiserreich was by no means a dictatorship without extensive political participation rights. Even the far more autocratic tsarist regime in St Petersburg seemed more stable in 1914 than it had been in previous years.11

The complexity of the imperial structures that existed in 1914 can be illustrated with the example of the Habsburg Empire. Before the war, Austria-Hungary had been Europe’s third most populous state (after the Russian and German empires), with over 50 million people, and one of its most ethnically diverse land empires. According to the official census of 1910, 23.36% of the empire’s population spoke German, 19.57% Hungarian, 16.37% Czech or Slovak, 9.68% Polish, 8.52% Serbian, Croatian or Bosnian, 7.78% Ukrainian, 6.27% Romanian, 2.44% Slovene, and 1.5% Italian; while the remaining 2.3 million spoke a variety of other languages.12 The allegiance of these different ethno-linguistic communities was dynastic, in this case to Emperor Franz Joseph, who ruled between 1848 and 1916. Following Vienna’s catastrophic defeat at the hands of Prussia in 1866, Franz Joseph instigated a number of reforms, most notably the 1867 Ausgleich, which turned Hungary into a sovereign kingdom with a separate parliament within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was what many among the non-German and non-Magyar ethnic groups within the empire—notably Czechs, Poles, and Croats—aspired to as well. Yet calls for complete independence from the empire were rare – at least outside annexed Bosnia. Before 1914 some Croat and Slovene intellectuals within the Habsburg Empire had talked of sharing a common, South Slav identity with the Serbs, but they were a minority.13

It was the outbreak of war in 1914 that began to undermine the imperial consensus within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Initially, however, empire loyalties held remarkably firm and endured for several years. For much of the war, these loyalties (undoubtedly mixed with fears of repression and reprisals) trumped national loyalties as Poles, Czechs, and Croats joined Germans and Hungarians to fight for the Emperor as conscripts.14

The internal cohesion of the Dual Monarchy was undoubtedly weakened by the death of Emperor Franz Joseph in November 1916. Franz Joseph, who had ruled since the 1848 revolution, personified the empire and imperial continuity. 15 Yet, without the eventual defeat of the Central Powers, the Dual Monarchy would have undoubtedly survived the transfer of power from Franz Joseph to his heir, Karl. The war’s outcome was thus decisive for the Habsburg Empire’s fate as was the fact that French, British, and American decision-makers gradually moved away from the idea of preserving the empire and towards the intention of dismantling it. From the start of the war, exile circles from within the Habsburg monarchy, notably of Czech(oslovak) and South Slav background, had made contact with influential experts on Central Europe in Britain and France such as the well-connected Times journalists Henry Wickham Steed and Robert Seton-Watson, and the Sorbonne historian Ernest Denis, who advised the French government on war aims in relation to the Bohemian lands. All three men played a key role in Allied propaganda attempts to portray the Dual Monarchy as a ‘people’s prison’, encouraging non-Germans and non-Magyars in Austria-Hungary to break away from the Imperial State.16

Even more important was the skilful manoeuvring of Tomáš Masaryk, a Czech philosophy professor and nationalist politician, who had fled Prague in late 1914 before settling in London. There he taught Slavonic studies at London University while simultaneously engaging in high-powered conversations about the future of Central Europe. In early 1918, he also travelled to the United States, later meeting President Wilson in the White House in an attempt to secure his approval for an independent Czechoslovak state.17

Until the beginning of 1918, however, Entente decision-makers were reluctant to embrace the break-up of the Dual Monarchy as an official war aim. Allied plans for the post-war future of the Habsburg monarchy focused on the transformation of the political system and the empire’s constitutional composition without questioning its existence.18 That said, in January 1918, Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech advocated an independent Poland and a federal Austria-Hungary, whose peoples ‘should be accorded the freest opportunity to autonomous development’. Yet autonomy was not secession. By June, Wilson’s position had hardened: he now proposed that ‘all branches of the Slav race should be completely free from German and Austrian rule’. When the allies formally endorsed Poland’s right to an independent state and recognized Masaryk’s dissident Czechoslovak National Committee in Paris as the legal representatives of a Czechoslovak nation, the fate of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was sealed.19

Matters were significantly more clear-cut when it came to the Ottoman Empire. Long dismissed by Western diplomats and statesman as Europe’s ‘Sick Man’ and oppressor of Christian minorities, the Ottoman empire’s entry into the war on the side of the Central Powers and its genocidal policies towards the Armenians encouraged those who—like Lloyd George—were determined to break up the empire. Geostrategic and economic interests played a significant role in attitudes towards the Ottoman Empire: some of the Empire’s Arab provinces contained large reserves of oil, while other territories—from the Straits to the Middle East—were considered strategically vital by both the British and French.20

In May 1916, the diplomats Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot came to a secret agreement about future British and French spheres of influence in the then-still Ottoman-controlled Middle East, notably in today’s Iraq, Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon. However, in order to encourage an Arab revolt against Ottoman rule, the British simultaneously made promises about post-war ‘independence of the Arabs’.21 Such promises were clearly at odds with both the Sykes-Picot agreement and the Balfour Declaration of November 1917, in which the British government had pledged support for ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’.22

What exactly would replace the disintegrating empires was thus unclear when the war ended in November 1918, and would depend on a mixture of local and international factors.23

The Imperial Paradox of 1918: Dissolution and Expansion

On 31 October 1918, the Commander of the Adriatic-based Habsburg fleet, Miklos Horthy, sent a final telegram to his Emperor, Karl I, assuring him of his ‘unshakable loyalty’. Minutes later, he surrendered the flagship of his fleet, the SMS Viribus Unitis, and released the Czech, Croatian, Polish, and German Austrian sailors and officers around him into an uncertain future as post-imperial subjects.24 By that point, the national revolutions within the empire had already taken place. On 16 October, Karl responded to Wilson’s Fourteen Points, growing pressure from within, and the spectre of defeat by issuing his ‘Peoples’ Manifesto’ in which he promised to reorganize the empire along federal lines. Karl envisaged a loose imperial superstructure in which German, Czech, South Slav, and Ukrainian territories would be ruled autonomously. The ethnically Polish territories of the Habsburg empire were to become part of the independent Polish state that Wilson had promised in January 1918.

Yet it was clear by this point that the ‘People’s Manifesto’ would not be sufficient to persuade the Czechoslovak National Committee in Paris to drop its demands for full independence.25 In early October other peoples took similar steps: a National Council of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was formed in Zagreb on 6 October. On the following day, the Council of Regency in Warsaw proclaimed a ‘free and independent Poland’.26 The fate of the Habsburg empire was sealed at this point.

Elsewhere, however, the transition from empire to nation-state was significantly less peaceful. In fact, the cessation of hostilities on the Western front was atypical for the early ‘inter-war’ period in Europe, as violent upheavals—both inter-state and civil wars—remained a characteristic feature of life after 1918. Violence was particularly intense in the vast territories of the vanquished land empires whose defeat in the Great War provided the opportunity for the emergence of new and often nervously aggressive nation-states.27 Those who fought in the name of these new nation-states sought to determine or defend their real or imagined borders through force and strove to create ethnically or religiously homogenous communities. The birth of these new nation-states in East-Central Europe and the Baltic region was generally most violent in those regions where national and social revolutions overlapped. For herein lay one of the peculiarities of the ‘wars after the war’: in the overlap of two types of revolution, the revolutions of national self-determination and the social revolutions for the redistribution of power, land, and wealth along class lines.28

In the ethnically diverse Western borderlands of the former Romanov Empire, the situation was particularly complex, as the rapidly unfolding Russian Civil War intersected with different conflicts over borders. Although most national independence movements within the empire had been relatively weak before 1914, the fall of the Tsar and the German occupation of wide swathes of territories in East-Central Europe created a unique historical constellation for cessation movements.29 Following the February Revolution, which transformed Russia into a short-lived liberal democracy, Petrograd lost control over Poland, Lithuania, and much of Latvia. Soon after Lenin’s coup, anti-Bolshevik forces took control over Estonia.30 On 23 November 1917, the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland broke with Petrograd; Kiev declared Ukrainian independence in January 1918.31

Unlike the peaceful events in the collapsing Habsburg empire, these national revolutions in the former lands of the Romanov empire were generally accompanied and followed by years of wars and civil conflict.32 In the absence of functioning states, militias of various political persuasions assumed the role of the national army for themselves (often against armed opposition from other groups which harboured similar ambitions), while the lines between friends and foes, combatants and civilians were less clearly delimited than had been the case during the Great War. Not since the Thirty Years’ War had a series of inter-connected civil wars been as inchoate and deadly as now, as civil wars overlapped with revolutions, counter-revolutions, and border conflicts between states without clearly defined frontiers or internationally recognized governments. German Freikorps soldiers fought with (and against) Latvian and Estonian nationalists (as well as Polish troops in Upper Silesia), Russian whites and reds clashed throughout the region while Polish, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian armed bands fought over ill-defined borders. The death toll during the short period between the Great War’s official end in November 1918 and the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 was extraordinary: including those killed in the Russian Civil War, well over four million people lost their lives as a result of civil wars or inter-ethnic struggles, not counting the millions of expellees and refugees who roamed the new borderlands of Europe.33

The abrupt break-up of Europe’s land empires and the inability of the successor states to settle territorial disputes with their neighbours peacefully was pivotal in triggering post-war violence. Newly independent Poland, for example, waged six wars against her neighbours between 1918 and 1920 in order to expand the country’s borders. Under the leadership of Josef Piłsudski, the Polish troops proved highly effective in doing so. In January 1919, Polish troops conquered Lithuania’s designated capital, Vilnius (Wilna/Wilno), and incorporated the ethnically mixed city into the Polish nation-state. For the entire inter-war period, the return of Vilnius to Lithuania remained a rallying point for Lithuanian nationalists and a bone of contention between the two states.34

By the spring of 1919, Piłsudski’s troops were also engaged in Upper Silesia against strong German volunteer forces, in Teschen (Teshyn) against the Czechs, and against Ukrainian forces in Galicia.35 However, the most existential conflict for the newly reconstituted Polish nation-state was the war against Soviet Russia. When the conflict began, the Poles pushed as far eastwards as Kiev, but Trotsky’s Red Army held firm and eventually advanced on Warsaw.36 Only a bold Polish counter-attack against the Russian army, still celebrated in national mythology as the ‘Miracle on the Vistula’, averted a Polish defeat and secured victory over the Red Army. The Treaty of Riga, signed in March 1921, left Poland with the western parts of Belorussia and Ukraine.37

Territorial dismemberment was also the fate of the Ottoman Empire, which lost all of its Arab possessions and was threatened in Western Anatolia by an initially successful Greek advance into Asia Minor. Armenian and Kurdish independence movements in Eastern Anatolia meanwhile saw their historical opportunity to free themselves from Turkish rule.38 What nationalist historians in Turkey to this day refer to as the ‘War of Liberation’ (İstiklâl Harbi, 1919–1923) was, in essence, a form of violent nation-state formation that included mass killings and expulsions, and represented a continuation of wartime ethnic un-mixing that culminated in the violent exclusion of Ottoman Greeks and Armenians from Anatolia.39 Here, as elsewhere, the nation-building process came at a high price, which, in particular, was paid by the minorities. When Smyrna was re-conquered by Turkish troops in 1922, up to 30,000 Christian residents were massacred. Many more were expelled in what became the largest involuntary population transfer in European history before the Second World War. All in all, some 70,000 civilians died violent deaths in Turkey during the decade after the war’s end, while approximately 900,000 Ottoman Christians and 400,000 Greek Muslims were forcibly resettled in a ‘homeland’ most of them had never visited before.40

At the same time, it could be argued that Lord Curzon’s euphemistically labelled compulsory ‘unweaving of people’, as the expulsions of 1922–1923 were called, spared the region the even more violent convulsions that most of the other imperial shatter-zones experienced over the subsequent two-and-a-half decades. While this was not foreseeable at the time, it quickly became clear that, in the multi-ethnic lands of Eastern and Central Europe, ‘national self-determination’ was a dangerous concept. The settlements of Versailles, St. Germain, Sèvres, and Trianon emphasised the duty of new nation-states to protect ‘their’ minorities, but they also established seemingly arbitrary new borders, which would be challenged—time and again—over the course of the twentieth century. The application of the principle of national self-determination to territories of mind-boggling ethnic complexity was at best naïve, and, in practice, an invitation to transform the violence of World War I into a multitude of civil wars. All the new states supposedly founded on the principle of national self-determination had within their borders large, vocal national minorities, which soon (and in any case after the onset of the Great Depression) began to demand re-unification with their ‘homelands’. The problem of irredentism continued to haunt European politics for decades, not least because many of the ‘Successor States’ of East-Central Europe were, in fact, mini-Empires themselves and every bit as multi-ethnic as the vanquished land empires (with the added problem that pre-war ethnic tensions had been exacerbated by four years of brutal fighting).41

The only more or less ethnically homogenous states in post-war East-, Central-, or South-Eastern Europe were the core states of the vanquished land empires: the Weimar Republic, German-Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Turkish Republic. The new Polish ‘nation-state’, by contrast, contained a population that was nearly 40% Ukrainian, Belarusian, Lithuanian, or German. Czechoslovakia contained more ethnic Germans (22% of the overall population) than Slovaks and some three million Hungarians lived under Romanian rule. The new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (renamed as Yugoslavia in 1931) also did not reflect in its name that the state was also populated by very sizeable German, Hungarian, Bosnian, and Albanian minorities.42 All of this made it abundantly clear that ‘self-determination’ was only granted to peoples who were considered allies of the Entente (Poles, Czechs, Romanians), but not to their wartime enemies. Nor was it a principle to be extended to non-Europeans. As the leaders of decoloniazation movements in Africa and Asia demanded the application of Wilson’s concept of ‘self-determination’ to their homelands, the US President shied away from alienating Britain and France, whose empires expanded further, notably through the League of Nations’ mandates in the Middle East and elsewhere.43 Unlike the white citizens of the now defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire, so ran the emphatically racist rationale, the colonial people were not ready to run their own states.44

It would be wrong, however, to blame the Paris Peace Conference for all the dangerous asymmetries of power that were established after the Great War. The statesmen at Paris were by no means the only architects of the new post-imperial order—often they simply sanctioned decisions that had been made by emerging and victorious states on the ground before the Paris Peace Conference had even met.45 In some disputed cases, the Allies allowed for plebiscites in ethnically mixed territories where the population could decide to which state they wished to belong in the future. The most frequently cited example of this is the coal-rich region of Upper Silesia, one of several contested German border regions for which plebiscites were laid down in the Versailles Treaty.46 After significant outbursts of violence between ethnic Poles and Germans in Upper Silesia, the region was divided in October 1921: Poland received a third of the disputed territory and 43% of the population—a solution which satisfied neither side.

The Allies also acted as mediator between rival post-imperial powers fighting over the small but strategically and economically important Duchy of Teschen, which both Poland and Czechoslovakia insisted should be part of their new states. Unsure as to how to appease their two key allies in Central Europe, the Allies partitioned the duchy in July 1920.47

The peacemakers in Paris did recognize that ethnic minorities in the postimperial Successor States needed to be protected and they insisted on the signing of so-called Minorities Treaties that would guarantee the rights and religious freedom of minorities before the new states would be internationally recognized.48

Alleged violations of the treaties could be brought to the attention the League Council and the International Court of Justice, either by members of the minority itself or by other states on their behalf. As Zara Steiner has rightly emphasized, the Minorities Treaties were among the Peace Conference’s most ‘notable’ achievements, as they provided a legal framework through which suppressed minorities could file complaints against their maltreatment by states.49

Overall, however, the Minorities Treaties proved to be a blunt instrument. Even Czechoslovakia, generally considered the most tolerant and democratic of the Successor States, prioritized Czechs over any of the state’s minorities. Even many Slovaks soon felt disenchanted by the new political realities. Masaryk had promised the Slovaks far-reaching autonomy rights at the close of the war, but they were never implemented. He was even less inclined to safeguard the rights of ethnic Germans who, up until 1918, had dominated the economy and owned large estates which were now broken up.50 Foreign minister Edvard Beneš told a British diplomat bluntly: ‘Before the war, the Germans were here’ (pointing to the ceiling) and ‘we were there’ (pointing to the floor). ‘Now’, he declared, reversing his gestures, ‘we are here and they are there’.51

In some ways, the Minorities Treaties were even counter-productive. Many from within the ethnic majorities in the newly created nation-states perceived the legal provisions as a mechanism to undermine national sovereignty and consequently viewed minorities as privileged segments of the population.52

Worse still was the situation for those minorities for whom no state showed a particular interest. Of the various minorities that felt marginalized in the new nation-states, none were affected as adversely and often violently as the Jews living in the western borderlands of the Romanov Empire and the eastern half of the former Habsburg Empire, notably in West Galicia and in Hungary. Fanned by the comparatively strong Jewish representation in the Russian revolution, anti-Bolshevik movements were quick to stigmatize the 1917 overthrow as the result of a ‘Jewish conspiracy’.53 The claim was first used for propaganda purposes by the ‘White’ Russian forces as they tried to mobilize resistance against the Bolsheviks who otherwise had much more appealing promises of ‘land, bread, and liberation’ to offer new recruits.54 The anti-Judeo-Bolshevik card gave the ‘Whites’ something popular with which to identify and it quickly led to outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence throughout the former Romanov Empire. In Western Russia and Ukraine, the situation was even worse as Jews bore the brunt of anti-Bolshevism. Between June and December alone, some 100,000 of them were murdered, notably by members of General Anton Denikin’s ‘Volunteer Army’. Denikin’s men, however, were not alone in singling out Jews for murder: Ukrainian and Polish nationalist forces and various peasant armies also participated in the slaughter of Jews, usually in alcohol-fuelled pogroms; in 1919, 934 were recorded in Ukraine alone.55 In the Baltic States, too, violence was often directed towards the Jewish minority. When in January 1919, Vilnius was conquered by Polish troops, a three-day pogrom killed over sixty people and an additional thirty-seven in the nearby town of Lida.56

For obvious reasons, the Jewish minorities of East-Central Europe had been the strongest supporters of multi-ethnic empires. And many of the leading authors who—after 1918—bemoaned the end of empires were, in fact Jewish citizens of the former Habsburg empire. As Joseph Roth put it in his famous Radetzky March: ‘As soon as the emperor says goodnight, we’ll break up into a hundred pieces … All the peoples will set up their own dirty little statelets.’ To Jews like Roth, the Habsburg empire had not been a ‘people’s prison’, but a state that had guaranteed his equality before the law and protection from anti-Semitic violence or diffamation. In the post-imperial Successor States of East-Central Europe, few politicians were particularly concerned about the legal rights of their Jewish citizens. At the same time, many Jews in Russia supported the idea of Bolshevism, which explicitly advocated the notion of overcoming ethnic or religious differences in the interest of transnational class solidarity. It did not take long before the notion of Jews as both undesired pro-imperial outsiders within the new nation-states and the main ‘beneficiaries’ of Bolshevism spread throughout Europe and beyond. The fact that a relatively high number of Jews played prominent roles in the subsequent Central European revolutions of 1918–1919—Rosa Luxemburg in Berlin, Kurt Eisner in Munich, Béla Kun in Hungary, Victor Adler in Vienna—seemed to make such accusations plausible, even for observers in Britain and France. French newspapers, for instance, frequently attributed the Bolshevik revolution to Jewish influence.57 And in Britain Winston Churchill published an infamous newspaper article in 1920 that attributed blame for the continental European revolutions to the Jews: ‘There is no need to exaggerate the part played in the creating of Bolshevism and in the actual bringing about of the Russian Revolution by these international and for the most part atheistic Jews. It is certainly a very great one; it probably outweighs all others.’58

The international circulation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion from 1919 onwards further fuelled these already widespread views. Its exposure as a forgery in 1921 did not reverse its enormous impact on the counter-revolutionary imagination. Yet the unholy marriage of anti-Semitism, nationalism, and anti-Bolshevism produced contrasting results in different European settings. It was only east of the river Rhine (and more dramatically east of the river Elbe) that anti-‘Judeobolshevism’ would lead to the pogroms and mass murders of Jews that became such a stark and gruesome feature of European history until 1945.

The inclination within the international system to move away from protecting multi-ethnicity and endorsing the move towards ethnic exclusivity received a further boost in 1923, immediately after the brutal Greco-Turkish War (1919–1922). The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that ended this conflict stipulated that a meaningful peace between the former combatants could only be achieved through a ‘population exchange’ between Greece and Turkey. During the ‘exchange’ (that was already well on its way when the negotiators met in Lausanne), some 1.2 million Christian were expelled from Turkey to Greece, while nearly 400,000 Muslims living in Greece were ‘repatriated’ to the newly founded Republic of Turkey. Religion was the sole criterion for the expulsions.

Lausanne thus left a dangerous legacy: it abandoned the idea of multi-ethnicity and multi-religiosity that had characterized the old land empires for centuries and sanctioned instead the right of state governments to expel large numbers of citizens on the grounds of ‘otherness’. The common problem of multi-ethnicity and religious diversity in post-imperial societies that wanted to be the exact opposite—namely mono-religious and ethnically homogenous—would ultimately, both during and after the Second World War, lead to ‘solutions’ that proved disastrous across the territories of the former land empires: attempts to cleanse communities of their alien elements so that a utopian new society could emerge, and renewed efforts to root out those perceived to be harmful to community cohesion. These beliefs constituted a powerful component of radical politics and action in Europe after 1918, particularly in those countries frustrated with the outcomes of both the Great War and the post-war conflicts. As such, an analysis of the ways in which empires ended in Europe and its eastern margins is crucial for understanding the cycles of violence that characterized the twentieth century.59


The First World War and the period of transition from war to peace between 1917 and 1923 transformed Europe from a continent of dynastic empires into one of nation-states. None of the continental European dynastic empires that entered the war survived the conflict in their pre-war form. From the ashes of the Romanov, Habsburg, and Hohenzollern empires rose several republican states, nine of which—among them Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia, and the Baltic States—had not existed in 1914.60 Never before in the modern period had the map of Europe been re-drawn so dramatically.61

While this national revolution was widely welcomed by the new elites of the Successor States, it turned out to be a very mixed blessing for Central, Eastern, and South-Eastern Europe. Admittedly, the old empires had been autocratic to varying degrees (with the Romanov empire at one end of the scale and the Dual Monarchy at the other), but the Successor States validated at the Paris Peace Conference were not without serious flaws either. Often impoverished, aggressively insecure, and populated by large, unloved minorities that felt oppressed by the new dominant ethnic majorities, most of the Successor States proved unstable. The Weimar Republic, often viewed as synonymous with a stillborn democracy, was actually (with the exception of Czechoslovakia and Finland) the last of the post-war republics, created in East-Central Europe and the Baltics in 1918, to give way to an authoritarian dictatorship of one kind or another.

More immediately, the break-up of empires and the struggle over ill-defined borders led to a continuation of violence beyond November 1918. The post-war violence that haunted the territories of the defeated land empires was in part a struggle over the formerly imperial territories that were now claimed by emerging nation-states. But even mass violence was largely confined to Europe in the immediate aftermath of the Great War, there were also wider global ramifications. Wilson’s talk of self-determination and the rights of small nations, as well as Lenin’s anti-imperial rhetoric inspired champions of decolonization across the world. Even if would take another world war to implement the ideas of ‘self-determination’ and post-imperial independence from Europe’s blue-water empires, the ideas that underpinned that process can clearly be traced back to the Great War and its immediate aftermath.


(1) This chapter draws on the introduction to Robert Gerwarth and Erez Manela (eds.), Empires at War, 1911–23 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

(2) Annemarie H. Sammartino, The Impossible Border: Germany and the East, 1914–1922 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010); Gregor Thum, ed., Traumland Osten: Deutsche Bilder vom östlichen Europa im 20. Jahrhundert (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006); Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, War Land on the Eastern Front: Culture, National Identity and German Occupation in World War I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

(3) On the Irish case, see the recent accounts of: Diarmaid Ferriter, A Nation and not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913–1923 (London: Profile Books, 2015); Charles Townshend, The Republic: the Fight for Irish Independence 1918–1923 (London: Penguin, 2014).

(4) Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007), 37–43.

(5) For case studies, see: Gerwarth and Manela, Empires at War; David M. Anderson and David Killingray, eds., Policing and Decolonisation: Politics, Nationalism and the Police, 1917–1965 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992); Derek Sayer, “British Reaction to the Amritsar Massacre, 1919–1920”, Past and Present 131 (1991): 130–164; Jon Lawrence, “Forging a Peaceable Kingdom: War, Violence and Fear of Brutalization in Post First World War Britain”, The Journal of Modern History, 75 (2003): 557–589; Susan Kingsley Kent, Aftershocks: Politics and Trauma in Britain, 1918–1931 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 64–90.

(6) Richard C. Hall, The Balkan Wars, 1912–1913: Prelude to the First World War (London: Routledge, 2000).

(7) See, for example, Nicholas Doumanis, Before the Nation: Muslim-Christian Coexistence and its Destruction in Late-Ottoman Anatolia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

(8) For an overview, see: Robert Gerwarth and John Horne, eds., War in Peace: Paramilitary Violence after the Great War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); and subsequently: Omer Bartov and Eric D. Weitz, eds., Shatterzone of Empires: Coexistence and Violence in the German, Habsburg, Russian, and Ottoman Borderlands (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013).

(9) Theodor Schieder, “Typologie and Erscheinungsformcn des Nationalstaats in Europa”, Historische Zeitschrift 202 (1966): 58–81; David Reynolds, The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century (London: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 12.

(10) Richard Bessel, ‘Revolution’, in Jay Winter, ed., The Cambridge History of the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), vol. 2, 126–144, here 127; See, too: Jeffrey R. Smith, A People’s War: Germany’s Political Revolution, 1913–1918 (Lanham: University Press of American, 2007), 25–49.

(12) Robert A. Kann, Geschichte des Habsburgerreiches 1526 bis 1918 (Vienna: Böhlau, 1990), 581.

(13) Peter Haslinger, “Austria-Hungary”, in Gerwarth and Manela, Empires at War, 73–90, here 74.

(14) Bela K. Kiraly and Nandor F. Dreisiger, eds., East Central European Society in World War I (Boulder: Social Science Monographs, 1985), 305–306; and more generally Jonathan E. Gumz, The Resurrection and Collapse of Empire in Habsburg Serbia, 1914–1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

(15) Mark Cornwall, “Morale and Patriotism in the Austro-Hungarian Army, 1914–1918”, in: John Horne, ed., State, Society, and Mobilization in Europe during the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 173–191. See also John W. Boyer, Culture and Political Crisis in Vienna: Christian Socialism in Power, 1897–1918 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 369–443. Laurence Cole and Daniel L. Unowsky, eds., The Limits of Loyalty: Imperial Symbolism, Popular Allegiances and State Patriotism in the Late Habsburg Monarchy (New York: Berghahn, 2007).

(16) On anti-Habsburg propaganda: Mark Cornwall, The Undermining of Austria-Hungary: The Battle for Hearts and Minds (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000). Twentieth-century central European historiography (in English language) was long grounded in this wartime propaganda. Influential historians such as Oszkár Jászi and C. A. Macartney built on the work of the historians mentioned above and argued that national conflict had rendered the Habsburg monarchy moribund even before the beginning of hostilities in August 1914. Oszkár Jászi, The Dissolution of the Habsburg Monarchy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1929); C. A. Macartney, The Habsburg Empire, 1790–1918 (New York: Macmillan, 1969). For examples of the subsequent generation of historians who agreed that the war was merely a catalyst for the empire’s fall, see: Robert A. Kann, The Multinational Empire: Nationalism and National Reform in the Habsburg Monarchy, 1848–1918, 2 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press 1950); A. J. P. Taylor, The Habsburg Monarchy, 1809–1918: A History of the Austrian Empire and Austria-Hungary (London: Penguin, 1948).

(18) Peter Haslinger, “Austria-Hungary”, in Gerwarth and Manela, Empires at War, 73–90.

(19) Arthur J. May, The Passing of the Hapsburg Monarchy, 1914-1918 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968), vol. II, 722–727 and 748–755; Alexander Watson, Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary at War, 1914-1918 (London: Penguin, 2015), chapter 13.

(20) For the context, see, Eugene Rogan, The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914–1920 (London: Allen Lane, 2015).

(21) Gudrun Krämer, A History of Palestine: From the Ottoman Conquest to the Founding of the State of Israel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 146.

(22) John Darwin, Britain, Egypt and the Middle East: Imperial Policy in the Aftermath of War, 1918-1922 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1981), 156.

(24) Thomas Sakmyster, Hungary’s Admiral on Horseback: Miklos Horthy, 1918–1944 (Boulder: East European Monographs, 1994).

(25) Jan Křen, Die Konfliktgemeinscbaft: Tschechen und Deutsche, 1780–1918 (Munich: Oldenbourg Wissenschaftsverlag, 1996), 371–372.

(27) Michael A. Reynolds, Shattering Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, 1908–1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Alexander V. Prusin, The Lands Between: Conflict in the East European Borderlands, 1870–1992 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 72–97; Piotr Wróbel, “The Seeds of Violence: The Brutalization of an East European Region, 1917–1921”, Journal of Modern European History 1 (2003): 125–149.

(28) Peter Gatrell, “Wars after the War: Conflicts, 1919–1923”, in John Horne, ed., A Companion to World War I (Chichester: Wiley, 2010), 558–575. Bessel, ‘Revolution’, 138.

(29) Ian Bremner and Ray Taras, eds., New States, New Politics: Building the Post-Soviet Nations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 240. Joshua Sanborn, Imperial Apocalypse: The Great War and the Destruction of the Russian Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

(30) Karsten Brüggemann, “Kooperation und Konfrontation. Estland im Kalkül der weißen Russen 1919”, Zeitschrift für Ostforschung 43 (1994): 534–552; see also Brüggemann, “Die Esten, das Baltenregiment und die weißen Russen im Krieg 1919”, Mitteilungen aus baltischem Leben 41 (1994): 15–17.

(31) On this, see Rudolph A. Mark, “National Self-Determination, as Understood by Lenin and the Bolsheviks”, Lithuanian Historical Studies 13 (2008): 30–32.

(32) Recent literature on some of these conflicts include: Serhy Yekelchyk, Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); Reynolds, Shattering Empires; also M. Reynolds, “Native Sons: Post-Imperial Politics, Islam, and Identity in the North Caucasus, 1917-1918”, Jahrbücher fur Geschichte Osteuropas 56 (2008): 221–247; John Paul Newman, “Post-imperial and Post-war Violence in the South Slav Lands, 1917–1923”, Contemporary European History 19 (2010): 249–265; Julia Eichenberg, “The Dark Side of Independence: Paramilitary Violence in Ireland and Poland after the First World War”, Contemporary European History 19 (2010): 231–248; Ryan Gingeras, Sorrowful Shores: Violence, Ethnicity, and the End of the Ottoman Empire, 1912–1923 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Tim Wilson, Frontiers of Violence: Conflict and Identity in Ulster and Upper Silesia, 1918–1922 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

(33) Robert Gerwarth and John Horne, eds., War in Peace: Paramilitary Violence after the Great War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

(34) On the Polish-Lithuanian conflict, see: Andrzej Nowak, “Reborn Poland or reconstructed empire? Questions on the course and results of Polish eastern Policy (1918–1921)”, Lithuanian Historical Studies 13 (2008): 134–142; P. Łossowski, Konflikt polsko-litewski 1918–1920, 2nd ed. (Warsaw: Książka i Wiedza, 1996); Timothy Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 57–65.

(35) Julia Eichenberg, “Soldiers to Civilians, Civilians to Soldiers: Poland and Ireland after the First World War”, in Gerwarth and Horne, War in Peace; Wróbel, “Seeds of Violence”; Wilson, Frontiers of Violence. On the Polish-Ukrainian conflict, see: Torsten Wehrhahn, Die Westukrainische Volksrepublik: Zu den polnisch-ukrainischen Beziehungen und dem Problem der ukrainischen Staatlichkeit in den Jahren 1918 bis 1923 (Berlin: Weißensee-Verlag, 2004), 102–112; Mykola Litvyn, Ukrayins’ko-pol’s’ka viyna 1918-1919rr. (L’viv, 1998); Michał Klimecki, polsko-ukraińska wojna o Lwów i Wschodnią Galicję 1918-1919 r. Aspekty polityczne I wojskowe (Warsaw: Oficyna Wydawnicza Volumen, 1997).

(36) Adam Zamoyski, Warsaw 1920: Lenin’s Failed Conquest of Europe (London: William Collins, 2008), 67. Norman Davies, White Eagle, Red Star: the Polish-Soviet War, 1919–20 (New York: St. Martins Press, 1972).

(38) John Keegan, The First World War (New York: A. Knopf, 1999), 415; Erik-Jan Zürcher, “The Ottoman Empire and the Armistice of Moudros”, in: Hugh Cecil & Peter H. Liddle, eds., At the Eleventh Hour: Reflections, Hopes, and Anxieties at the Closing of the Great War, 1918 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, Ltd, 1998), 266–275.

(39) Erik-Jan Zürcher, The Unionist Factor: The Rôle of the Committee of Union and Progress in the Turkish National Movement 1905–1926 (Leiden: Brill, 1984); Paul Dumont, “The Origins of Kemalist Ideology”, in: Jacob M. Landau, ed., Atatürk and the Modernization of Turkey (Boulder: Westview Press, 1984), 25–44.

(40) There are no reliable statistics on the postwar Kurdish massacres, but the approximate numbers are: 5,000 deaths in 1921, 15,000 deaths in 1925, 10,000 deaths in 1930, and 40,000 deaths in 1938. See: Robert Gerwarth and Ugur Ümit Üngör, “The Collapse of the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires and the Brutalization of the Successor States”, Journal of Modern European History 13 (2015): 226–248.

(41) On the Successor States as mini-empires, see Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Modern Totalitarianism, 2nd ed (New York: Meridian Books, 1958), 153.

(42) See statistics in M. C. Kaser and E. A. Radice, eds., The Economic History of Eastern Europe, 1919–1975, vol. 1 (London, 1985), 25. See also the detailed discussion of the issue in Prusin, The Lands Between, chs 1–4.

(43) Manela, Wilsonian Moment, 60–61 and 145–147. On the May Fourth Movement, see Rana Mitter, A Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle with the Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

(44) Susan Pedersen, “The Meaning of the Mandates System: An Argument”, Geschichte und Gesellschaft 32 (2006): 571; Susan Pedersen, The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 17–44.

(45) Joseph Rothschild, East Central Europe between the Two World Wars (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1974), 89.

(46) For the full story of Upper Silesia’s dramatic yet profoundly ambivalent nationalization, see James E. Bjork, Neither German nor Pole: Catholicism and National Indifference in a Central European Borderland, 1890–1922 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008); T. Hunt Tooley, “German Political Violence and the Border Plebiscite in Upper Silesia, 1919-1921”, Central European History 21 (1988): 56–98, and Hunt Tooley, National Identity and Weimar Germany: Upper Silesia and the Eastern Border, 1918–22 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997). See also Tim K Wilson, “The Polish-German Ethnic Dispute in Upper Silesia, 1918-1922: A Reply to Tooley”, Canadian Review of Studies in Nationalism 32 (2005): 1–26.

(47) Robert Howard Lord, “Poland”, in Edward M. House and Charles Seymour, eds., What Really Happened at Paris: The Story of the Peace Conference by American Delegates (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1921), 82–83; on the dispute see H. M. V. Temperley, ed., A History of the Peace Conference of Paris (6 vols, London: Institute of International Affairs, 1920–1924), vol. 4, 348–363.

(48) Mark Levene, Devastation: Volume I: The European Rimlands 1912–1938 (Crisis of Genocide) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 230–240.

(49) Carole Fink, Defending the Rights of Others: The Great Powers, the Jews, and International Minority Protection (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 260; Zara Steiner, The Lights that Failed: European International History 1919–1933 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 86.

(50) On land reform, see Daniel E. Miller, “Colonizing the Hungarian and German Border Areas during the Czechoslovak Land Reform, 1918-1938”, Austrian History Yearbook 34 (2003): 303–317.

(51) As quoted in Mark Cornwall, “National Reparation? The Czech Land Reform and the Sudeten Germans 1918–1938”, Slavonic and East European Review 75 (1997): 280.

(52) Charles S. Maier, “International Associationalism: The Social and Political Premises of Peacemaking after 1917 and 1945”, in: Paul Kennedy and William I. Hitchcock, eds., From War to Peace: Altered Strategic Landscapes in the Twentieth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 37–52, here 43.

(53) Oleg Budnitskij, Russian Jews between the Reds and the Whites, 1917–1920 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

(54) Norman Cohn, Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (London: Serif, 1996).

(55) William W Hagen, “The Moral Economy of Ethnic Violence: The Pogrom in Lwów, November 1918”, Geschichte und Gesellschaft 31 (2005): 203–226.

(56) Joachim Tauber, “Antisemitismus in den baltischen Staaten in der Zwischenkriegszeit am Beispiel Litauens”, Zeitschrift für Ostmitteleuropaforschung 54 (2005): 25–35.

(57) Léon Poliakov, The History of Anti-Semitism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), vol. 4, 274–276.

(58) Winston Churchill, “Zionism versus Bolshevism”, Illustrated Sunday Herald, February 8, 1920.

(59) For a more detailed discussion of these issues, see: Robert Gerwarth, The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923 (London: Allen Lane, 2016).

(60) Mazower, Dark Continent, 1–2.