Monday, April 2, 2018

Robert Gerwarth's The Vanquished

Robert Gerwarth's The Vanquished doesn't offer any startlingly new insights into the history of early Bolshevism. In fact, Gerwarth's brief account of Lenin's circuitous return to St. Petersburg, subsequent labors to overthrow the Provisional Government, and painful if strategic decision to bring about the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, is remarkably free of original historiographical interpretation.  However, the book does place the Russian Revolution into a useful historical context by reviewing the extent of chaos that overwhelmed Europe at the End of World War I.  Gerwarth's argument is not that the experience of total war brutalized human beings as some historians have previously argued.  For the British and French did not experience any particularly virulent disruption of their national political culture after the end of the war.  Rather, Gerwarth argues that the experience of loss in Central, Eastern, and South Eastern Europe led to instability, revolution, and violence on an unprecedented scale in the so-called interwar years.

Gerwarth's thesis is not perhaps new.  But he does offer a shift in emphasis away from the Treaty of Versailles' allegedly misguided war guilt clause, territorial adjustments, and massive reparation payments.  For Gerwarth, the temporary eclipse of the German and Russian Empires, and the complete collapse of the Austrian-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, led to immediate and cataclysmic repercussions for the people who occupied these now furiously contested multi-ethnic, multicultural spaces. Losing the Great War meant losing any semblance of political peace.  At the conclusion of the Great War, Germany endured both a socialist revolution and a failed communist revolution.  Perhaps more importantly, Germany became a space of dark fantasies of political and biological revenge against both internal and external foes.  But disorder also descended upon Eastern and Central Europe.  Most interestingly, the Ottomans managed to partially overturn their loser status by defeating the Greek army and expelling foreign powers from Anatolia.  Uniquely, Italy properly belonged in the victor category, but managed to experience the war as a loser, since it suffered mightily from the conflict and emerged from the war with few clear political gains.  Gerwarth's implicit contention is that this experience of loss in Italy contributed to its willingness to embrace violence in the interwar years, both in its internal politics and in its foreign policy. 

What does all this mean for students of Russian history?  Probably that the tragedies of Soviet history remain firmly linked to the tragedy of the First World War, and that tragedy is twofold:  First, that it took so many lives;  and Second, that it created a power vacuum and therefore failed to end.  Gerwarth makes one interesting if highly controversial insight about Russia's impact on Germany history.  According to Gerwarth, the collapse of the Whites in the Russian Civil War led many profoundly antisemitic Russian emigres to flee to Germany.  These antisemitic Whites then helped to interpret Judaism to German nationalists.  According to Gerwarth, embittered Nazis leaders and other right wing thinkers already blamed Jews for what they perceived as the depredations of international capitalism.  Traditional German antisemitism led them to associate Judaism with banking and international finance.  But the virulently anti-Semitic Russian emigres soon taught people like Hitler to blame the Jews for Communism too.  Of course, the Civil War had created something of an anti-Semitic feedback loop:  when Whites attacked Jews for allegedly aligning themselves with the Bolsheviks, Jews increasingly sometimes turned to the Bolsheviks as their best hope of avoiding further pogroms.  The idea that White Russians contributed to Nazi anti-Antisemitism is an intriguing one, but it seems unfair or even dangerous to even slightly shift the blame for the origins of the Holocaust to Russia, which suffered so much from Nazi invasion and contributed so much to Nazi Germany's eventually downfall. 

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