This is not one of those blog posts where I astound my loyal audience with my feats of insight and original thought, this is one of those blog posts where I say “Hey! I read this book, let me tell you about it at great length”. I trust you will forgive me.
In my junior year at Brandeis University, I attended a conference on ‘World War One And The Aesthetics of Empire’. Held in an auditorium on campus, it was attended by a few dozen professors, graduate students–and I, the only undergrad to wander in. I had come because there was free food and a lecture on zeppelins, I ended up staying for the entire day because the first presentation, by Professor Erz Manela, completely changed the way I thought about the First World War. Later, I bought the book of essays that he based his lecture on (seen above), and was fully convinced. The idea he and his compatriots argue on behalf, sometimes called ‘The Greater War theory’, is deceptively simple. Contrary to what we all learned in school, WWI did not begin in August of 1914 and end on November 11th, 1918. Instead, it began in September of 1911 and did not conclude until July, 1923. Or rather, the global crisis of Imperialism that the First World War is merely the epicenter of began and ended on those dates.
I like this theory because I think it fully grasps the magnitude of World War One. This was not just a Great Power War like the Napoleonic Wars or the Seven Years War or the War of Austrian Succession, this was a cataclysmic crisis that shook Western Civilization to the core. No Great Power War before this had ended with the outright collapse of four of the world’s most dynastic empires or had so profoundly changed the global geopolitical situation. But I also like it because I think it speaks to a fundamental truth: between 1911 and 1923, there was pretty much constant warfare in Europe and the Near East. It seems almost silly to carve out four specific years from that decade of death and say “Here. These are the true war, nothing else is important”. But this post isn’t really an attempt to ‘prove’ the Greater War Theory–I don’t have the qualifications for that–it’s an attempt to explain it, to lay out what I think is is so interesting and important about it, and to draw out some of the implications. That said, let’s look at these thirteen tumultuous years in some more detail.
The Gathering Storm: 1911-1913
On September 29th, 1911, Italy declared war on the Ottoman Empire.On the surface, this was merely the latest step in the slow dismemberment of the Sultan’s domains that had been ongoing for decades, but the consequences would be grave. Italy had been scrabbling around the edges of the various Great Power struggles since the 1870s trying to build up an overseas empire, and by 1911 it had little to show for it. Some dirt-poor possessions in Eritrea and Somalia, a humiliating defeat at the hands of Ethiopia, and by 1911, the Scramble for Africa was done. Virtually no more unclaimed territory was left. Italy’s invasion of Libya was a signal that the next stage of Imperialism had begun, the destruction of the weaker empires by the strong. As mentioned above, the Turks had been loosing territory to the European Empires for most of the 19th century, but never so blatantly as this. And as Italian troops, servants of a second-rate Power at best, won a series of victories over the hapless Ottomans, other nations began stirring.
Alone, the Italo-Turkish War could have been an isolated incident. But on October 8th, 1912, the Kingdoms of Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Montenegro declared war on the Ottoman Empire as well and commenced a massive offense to attempt to drive the Turks out of Europe once and for all. This was immensely successful, with the Ottoman Empire being driven back into the small corner of Thrace still held by Turkey today. But the allies swiftly fell out, and on June 29th, 1913, Bulgaria attacked Serbia and Greece, triggering the Second Balkan War, lasting until the 10th of August, when Bulgaria was forced to sue for peace. At this point, the Great Powers descended on the Mediterranean and in their age-old fashion patched up a general peace. Italy gained Libya and the Dodecanese islands, each of the Balkan state’s new territories were apportioned out, and the Principality of Albania came into existence. But the damage was done. The Balance of Power in Eastern Europe was destroyed. Serbia was flush with victory, seeking to consolidate it’s newfound position as dominant Balkan power, while Bulgaria seethed with revanchism. And though peace had been declared, low-level political violence continued to flare throughout the region as nations attempted to put their ethno-national stamp on newly-acquired lands.
The Epicenter: 1914-1918
Peace in Europe lasted from the 29th of June, 1913, to the 28th of July, 1914. The details of how the First World War began are far too complicated to go into here. Suffice to say that assassins associated with Serbian Military intelligence murdered the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Austria and Germany took umbrage at this, and things spiraled out from there. A war initially fought to curb Serbian ambition in the Balkans soon transformed into a global conflict to secure imperial domination. Italy’s blatant theft of Ottoman lands soon proved prescient, with all of the Great Powers busily signing treaties partitioning up their enemies and creating vast new dominions for themselves. A history of the course of the Great War is beyond the scope of this essay, but just to get sense of the scale of this conflict, the combatants are worth enumerating. For four years, Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria waged war against the British Empire, France, Belgium, Russia, Japan, Portugal, Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, Romania, Italy, the United States and (nominally at least), China, Siam, Brazil, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica, and Honduras.
But even during these years, the borders of imperial conflict were broader than that of the Great War itself. The USA, for example, did not enter the war until 1917. And yet, from 1914 onward U.S marines saw combat dozens of times as they invaded and occupied three nations. America had been deeply involved in Caribbean and Central American affairs since the 1898 Spanish-American War, but it was the imperialist maniac Woodrow Wilson who sought to create an outright empire to our south. In 1914, U.S marines occupied Veracruz, and in 1917, a U.S army column invaded and occupied northern Mexico in an attempt to hunt down the warlord Pancho Villa. In 1915, the U.S government established a protectorate over Haiti, backed by a garrison of marines, and in 1916 this rule was extended to the Dominican Republic. In 1916, the U.S would acquire a new colonial possession, purchasing the Virgin Islands from Denmark. In essence, Wilson was taking advantage of the European power’s distraction to attempt to assert unbridled American hegemony.
A similar situation was ongoing in East Asia where Japan, another rising Power , took advantage of the global chaos to extend its reach into China. In 1915, the Japanese government presented the Republic of China with a list of Twenty-One Demands, that taken together would have effectively reduced China to a Japanese client state. International outcry from the United States and Great Britain formed Japan to moderate their ultimatum, but the damage to the legitimacy of the fragile Chinese government was still great. In 1916, President Yuan Shikai died and the country slid into warlordism and civil war.
On November 11th, 1918, the Armistice went into effect on the Western Front, ending WWI. So history tells us. This would have been a surprise however, to most inhabitants of Eurasia, where fighting continued unabated. In the closing months of 1918, as government after government collapsed, chaos blossomed to a degree we don’t really appreciate. From the Baltic Sea to the Aegean, from the Vistula River to the Pacific Ocean, there were virtually no fully recognized governments left. Half a continent, burning.
Of all the defeated nations, Germany was in the best shape. A government still held power in Berlin, and most of the provinces recognized its authority. But even there, stability was shaky. Starting in November 1919, socialist and communist insurrection flared. In January of 1919, the Spartacist rebels attempted to seize Berlin. In May, Bavaria attempted to declare itself an independent socialist republic. It was not until August 1919 that the government secured full control, and even so, there was an attempted right-wing coup in 1920. Moving south, Austria-Hungary had simply ceased to be that fateful November, with most constituent governments seceding. War broke out immediately over the new borders. In Hungary, a swiftly-declared Democratic Republic was overthrown in March by the Hungarian Soviet Republic, which was then attacked by Romania, Czechoslovakia, and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, which was itself newly-declared and not fully unified. Armed border clashes would soon develop with Albania and Italy. Meanwhile, Greece was in the grips of the National Schism, with both Monarchist and Republicanist factions claiming control of the government, as well as an ongoing war with Turkey. And in Italy, 1919 begins what are called the Bienno Rosso, the Two Red Years of violent conflict between the government and various left-wing forces, ending only in 1922 with the Fascist takeover.
To the East, the Russian Revolution had been followed by the Russian Civil War. Reds fought Whites fought Greens across the entirety of the country, while French, British, and American troops invaded Crimea and Murmansk to try and crush the Communist menace and the Japanese invaded Siberia. All along the Russian periphery, nation-groups seized the opportunity to try and declare independence. Most were brought back under the Russian yoke by the Soviets after they crushed the Whites, but Poland emerged victorious in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-2921. Elsewhere in the world, revolts flared like wildfire. Ireland (1919). Iraq (1920). Egypt (1919). Korea (1919). In Turkey, the Sultanate was overthrown in 1919 by Nationalist forces under the command of Mustafa Kemal who repudiated the humiliating terms forced upon the country by the Allies. Over the next few years, Kemal’s forces would prove victorious in the Greco-Turkish War, the Turkish-Armenian War, and the Turkish War of Independence, forcing the Allied Powers to recognize the existence of a fully independent Turkish Republic in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.
Gerwarth and Manela use the Treaty of Lausanne as their endpoint for the Greater War, and I think it’s as good as any. Not all the chaos unleashed by WWI would be contained by then–China, for example, would not be fully reunified until 1949–but the Treaty marks the stabilization of frontiers in the Middle East and marks a capstone to Allied imperialist adventures in the region. That same year, the Russian Civil War came to a close, meaning that the last Allied military operations were ended. According to Empires at War, the four and a half years between the Armistice on the Western Front and the Treaty of Lausanne saw another four million deaths in Europe and Russia.
The First World War brought down the Great Empires of Europe but it was the aftermath wars that shaped what replaced them. We talk of the Allies in Versailles dictating the the future of the Continent, but much of what they decided was determined by the facts on the ground. Just for example, the city of Memel was supposed to become a Free City under League of Nation protection. In 1923, Lithuania seized it by force and the Allies accepted the fait accompli. If not for success of Kemal in the Turkish War of Independence, the Middle East would look entirely different today. The Polish-Soviet War has been forgotten today, but many historians believe that a Russian victory there would have led to attempted Soviet invasions of Germany and Hungary, both of which had very active Communist parties. In terms of determining the future of the Continent, the years of 1919 and the 1920 were just as important as 1915 and 1916.
I’d like to end this post with a conceit of mine, let’s call it: The Greatest War. If we accept that WWI truly began in 1911 and ended in 1923, it’s worth noting that it’s quite arguable that World War Two began in 1931 when the Japanese invaded Manchuria and began the conquest of China. Fighting spread to Europe in 1936 when the Spanish Civil War broke out, and became a general war in 1939 with the Anglo-French declaration of war against Germany, and came to an end in 1949 when the Chinese and Greek Civil Wars ended. Put together, we see that both world wars are part of the same general breakdown in civilization that shook the world continuously throughout the first half of the 20th century. I’m not sure if this is the best way to look at things, but I do think that we should acknowledge how many of the dividing lines we put in history are artificial. There was constant fighting in China from 1916 to 1949. From 1916 to 1927 we call it ‘The Warlord Era’. From then until 1936 it’s ‘The Chinese Civil War’. In 1937 it becomes ‘The Second Sino-Japanese War’, and in 1941 it turns into a theater of WWII. This continues until 1945, when it goes back to being ‘The Chinese Civil War’. Important historical distinctions, I agree. But in the end, all they really amount to are lines on a page.