Earlier this month, world leaders gathered in Paris to mark the centennial of the armistice that ended World War I. Scores of articles and essays accompanied these events, discussing the war and the moment the “guns fell silent.” They included images of poppies and trenches and quoted lines from war poets. But for many Europeans, especially those in central and Eastern Europe, peace in any meaningful sense of the term did not come in November 1918.
From the vantage of Paris, the “bloody and pointless” war, as Slate’s Rebecca Onion recently described it, did indeed appear to be over with the signing of the armistice. But if we turn to the east, everything about the war looks much different. There, the “Great War” morphed into smaller conflicts. Empires collapsed; civil wars, border wars, revolutions, and anti-Semitic pogroms broke out; paramilitaries and militias formed; wartime emergency legislation and blockades remained in effect; refugees were on the move, people starved, and POWs languished in captivity. In short, millions of central, eastern, and southeastern Europeans fought or died long after the November 1918 armistice, and the war “failed to end,” as historian Robert Gerwarth puts it.
This “long First World War” was certainly bloody, and we can and should argue about the destructive effects of nationalism for the history of Europe. But it was hardly pointless. Given that these conflicts led to the creation of independent states in these “shatterzones of empires” and that great power politics continued its disruptive influence in a revamped postwar form, World War I in this region is central for understanding 20th-century European and global history and even provides some insights on developments in contemporary Europe.
Unlike the stationary front lines and trenches on the Western Front, the war in the east was one of movement. The Russian Empire advanced west, only to be pushed back in mid-1915 even farther than where they started as the German and Austro-Hungarian armies advanced eastward. These campaigns produced millions of casualties and approximately 6 million POWs, which easily dwarfed the number of soldiers held in captivity in the west. The violence and repression that characterized the occupation regimes established in Eastern and southeastern Europe between 1914 and 1918 were preludes to more radical occupations of the region later in the century.
The fighting on the Eastern Front also produced millions of refugees, many of whom fled to urban centers like Budapest and Vienna or deep into the Russian interior to avoid the expansive front lines. Already displaced from their homes, these refugees became the target of political attacks as military and material conditions deteriorated. Many of those uprooted were Jewish, and they became increasingly vulnerable to persecution because of the political and geographical transformations that would follow the armistice.
Paradoxically, the Central Powers of Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and Austria-Hungary, which ended up being on the losing side of the overall conflict, were the victors on the battlefield in the east. The punitive treaties of Brest-Litovsk and Bucharest ceded huge swaths of territory and natural resources to them as the Russian Empire plunged into revolution and civil war. But then the tide of the war in the west and, perhaps more importantly, the home front turned, and by the time the peace conference in Paris began in January 1919, the empires that had dominated the political geography of central and Eastern Europe were no more.
In place of the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires emerged countries that were newly independent and shrunken (Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria), brand-new or newly independent (Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia), reconstituted (the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, later Yugoslavia), enlarged (Romania) or “resurrected” (Poland).
But the transition wasn’t easy or peaceful. Newly established national militaries, militias, and paramilitaries engaged in battles over territory and borders into the early 1920s. The Second Polish Republic, for example, went to war more than six times, with every one of its neighbors, between 1918 and 1921. Hungary’s territorial losses—over two-thirds of its prewar territory—sparked renewed war in 1919 and continued to influence Hungarian politics and foreign relations through World War II and even beyond. Despite attempts by political leaders and their dutiful historians to define these smaller conflicts as their own distinctive, national wars, local populations seem to have generally believed that these struggles were fundamentally linked to the Great War.
These regional conflicts over future state boundaries were arguably less violent than the internal struggles that raged for the hearts, minds, and souls of these countries. Liberal and social democratic revolutions broke out in autumn of 1918 in Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary and seemed to signal the victory of liberalism and social democracy in the region. By the winter of 1918–19, political radicals, buoyed by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, found an opportunity to “solve” the inequalities that had ravaged their societies before and during the war. In Germany, uprisings broke out in early 1919 in Berlin and Munich, pitting revolutionary socialists and Communists against radical nationalist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Communist volunteer militias known as Freikorps. After the German government re-established order, the Freikorps moved to the Baltic countries, where they terrorized local communities, killing Communists and Jews without consequence.
The story is similar in Hungary. After the failure of the democratic government to secure better treaty terms in Paris for the beleaguered country, Communists modeling themselves on the Russian Bolsheviks took power in March 1919 and established the Hungarian Soviet Republic. The most successful of the Communist revolutions that took place outside of Russia lasted 133 days, implementing radical social reforms and waging a renewed war with its neighbors.
But in the end, it too failed, collapsing when Romanian troops, supported by the U.S., Great Britain, and France, invaded Budapest in August and helped install a violent and anti-Semitic counterrevolutionary government. A far cry from principles of democratic governance espoused in Paris during the Versailles peace conference, Hungary’s leaders could nevertheless count on the Western powers for at least tacit support of their “Christian National” state because of its commitment to anti-communism. Right-wing paramilitary groups were active in Hungary into the 1920s, subjecting the country to a “white terror” campaign of retribution.
The experiences of these conflicts and their legacy profoundly shaped the rest of the 20th century. These states, often regarded as marginal to the history of Europe, served as the front lines of global conflicts in World War II and the Cold War. After all, it was Eastern Europe that fueled the Nazis’ dreams of expansion and where the first anti-Semitic legislation of the post-1918 era—a 1920 law limiting Jewish students’ access to universities in Hungary—was passed. It was expansion into Eastern Europe that enabled the Soviet Union to become a global superpower in the second half of the 20th century, and it was the collapse of state socialism in Eastern Europe and the USSR that ended the bipolar standoff, not some imagined global victory of capitalism over communism.
As we consider contemporary developments in the region, such as the rise of illiberalism and nationalism and the antipathy expressed toward the European Union by the governments of Law and Justice Party in Poland or Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz in Hungary, thinking about the legacy of “the unknown war” in the east might be helpful.
The recent attacks on the press, civil society, and academic institutions, including my alma mater, Central European University, in the very countries once considered the success stories of post-Communist transition is a vivid reminder that state building involves entire populations, takes a long time, and is not something that can be imposed from the outside.
The more recent rise of nationalism and ethnic conflict in the region can, at least partially, be attributed to the brutal process of “unmixing” populations that began in 1918, often with the approval of western powers. And recalling past foreign interventions, revolutions, and treaties that dismembered countries and produced vulnerable minorities across the region during and after World War I isn’t just about exploiting narratives of victimization or grievance by cynical politicians.
Pretending that developments in Eastern Europe are the result of the supposed backward and inferior character or culture of the people living in the “powder keg” of Europe, a persistent popular myth that largely goes uncontested, won’t make these genuine challenges owing to distinctive histories go away.
But even as we consider why central and Eastern Europe have mattered so much to the great powers, and certainly before we deploy the region simply as the world’s canary in the coal mine for the growth of illiberalism that affects those of us who live in powerful countries, it’s important to remember that what happens in Eastern and central Europe affects real people whose lives, experiences, and history are worth remembering even though they’re complicated and difficult for outsiders to fully grasp.
Many of the questions these “wars after the war” opened up in 1918 are still on the table in many of the countries of the region today: what does it take to build democracy, how to be independent while still vulnerable, and how to be a nation in an era of unequal globalization. But in the end, perhaps the most urgent ones are what does it mean to be overlooked, and what happens when we privilege only the perspective from Paris?