Op-Ed: It was never quiet on the Eastern Front. Still isn’t

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the guns on the Western Front fell silent after four years of unfathomable carnage. Never again, came the cry from Europe’s devastated people — and although the promise of the armistice was betrayed in 1939, since 1945 Europe has remained at peace.

Something has always been missing from our popular understanding of World War I, however. The armistice signed at Compiègne, France, on Nov. 11, 1918, may have put an end to hostilities between the Great Powers fighting on the Western Front, but it did nothing of the kind on the war’s eastern fronts, where the fighting went on and in many areas intensified. In Western Europe, the post-armistice lesson was that nationalism, taken to its extreme, was deadly. In the East, 1918 brought instead the downfall of empires, the dissolution of borders, and a desperate scramble by fragile emergent nations to survive.

In Russia — where the Bolsheviks had come to power in 1917 and signed a separate peace with Germany — the western armistice helped clear the decks for a far bloodier civil war. In the contested lands between Russia and Germany, new nation states mobilized armies to seize territory from jealous neighbors, or defend what territory they had. In the Near East, a series of wars broke out as outside powers and local national groups — Arabs, Armenians, Greeks, Kurds, and, in response, Turks — staked claims on the disintegrating Ottoman empire.


There was a good reason for the war’s vastly different outcomes. On the Western Front, the arrival of millions of American “doughboys” helped Britain and France win the war by convincing the overmatched Germans to sue for peace in October 1918. But there was no comparable victory for the Allies in Eastern Europe. In fact, German armies had been unambiguously victorious on the fronts from Romania and Hungary up through Poland and East Prussia. There were 1 million German troops occupying defeated Russia in 1918, including 600,000 just in Ukraine.

Something has always been missing from our popular understanding of World War I.

The Compiègne armistice, in tacit recognition that the Allied victory was not quite complete, stipulated that the Germans were not to withdraw immediately from Ukraine or the Baltic region — areas the Allies still hoped to save from the spread of Bolshevism.

So desperate for manpower were the supposedly all-conquering Allies that later, while negotiating the peace treaty at Versailles, they offered the United States what had been Russia’s take in the divvying up of the Ottoman Empire if the Americans would just supply an occupying army. Congress declined. Britain and France instead invited Greek and Armenian troops to occupy Turkey and avenge the horrendous mistreatment of their brethren during the war, with predictably disastrous results.

Meanwhile, the fires of the Russian Civil War burned on for years after 1918, sucking in troops from Britain, France, the United States and Japan to fight over the carcass of czarist Russia even as the Reds sought to absorb or crush emergent would-be nations — Finns, Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Cossacks, Georgians, Armenians, Azeris. The peoples of the former Romanov empire saw more than 10 times as many people killed and wounded during the multitiered Russian Civil War (and the related Volga famine of 1921) as during the First World War.

Ukraine, in particular, suffered horribly. Control of Kiev changed hands 16 times between 1918 and 1921. Charts of mortality rates among Ukrainians show World War I as a period of relative calm; the human wages of war, famine, pestilence and anti-Semitic pogroms then soar upward in 1918-1922, with still greater horrors to come in 1930s and 1940s.

Though not as devastating as in Ukraine, small-scale wars also raged on in Poland, Hungary, Romania and Greece. The only countries that gained anything from the conflict were Poland, Romania and “greater Serbia” (that is, Yugoslavia), each of which exploited its luck in having joined the winning side to fatten greedily on neighboring territory. All this led to was the predictably terrible vengeance of their neighbors in World War II, and a Soviet occupation to follow.

The radically different experiences of Western and Eastern Europe in the years after 1918 explain much about the continent’s political landscape a century later. In the West, the First World War is well and truly over. Its lesson, even if fully absorbed only after 1945, was Robert Graves’ “Goodbye to All That”: No more nationalism or arms races. Down with borders, tariffs and currency controls. Hello, European Union.

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In the East, by contrast, the war of 1914-18 never really ended. In the former Ottoman Empire, Iraq and Syria (or what is left of them) remain war zones today. Ukraine is again a bitterly contested borderland, where the festering wounds of the 20th century have never healed. Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Baltic and Balkan states were invited to join the EU after the fall of communism, but it turns out that the ideal of borderlessness is far less appealing in countries abutting Russia or the conflict zones of the eastern Mediterranean than it is in Brussels.

The rise of national populism in Hungary, Poland and Austria — not to mention in Ukraine and Russia — is a reminder that, in Eastern Europe, history did not end in 1918, 1945 or 1989. In these countries, where memories of Holocaust and Holodomor, of devastating invasions, civil wars and foreign occupations remain fresh, firm national identities and secure frontiers are bulwarks against catastrophe. The dissolution of borders appears, to most Eastern Europeans, not a dream but a reminder of past nightmares.

The tragic, pessimistic view of the world propagated by Eastern European nationalists, and their thus-far less successful counterparts in Western Europe and the United States, may not be as inspiring as the “goodbye to all that” post-nationalist cosmopolitanism favored by elites in Brussels and Washington. It is, however, a worldview rooted in hard historical lessons that we would be wise to heed.

Sean McMeekin, a professor of European history at Bard College, is the author of “The Russian Revolution: A New History” and “The Ottoman Endgame.”

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