The Ghosts of the Great War

By John Daniel DavidsonMay 26, 2014

The Ghosts of the Great War

The Long Shadow by David Reynolds

MOST AMERICANS think World War I was a botched and tragic conflict between the decrepit empires of Old Europe. As Christopher Hitchens once put it, “Probably no historical image would be harder to dislodge from the collective memory than that of the teak-headed, red-faced, white-moustached general, his tactics derived from long-ago cavalry maneuvers, sitting in a château headquarters well behind the lines as he orders waves of infantry across minefields and through barbed wire, forcing them like the Light Brigade itself ‘into the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell,’ and into the waiting German machine guns.”

We have more or less settled on this view of the war: antiquated, unnecessary, brutal. In 1979, George Kennan called it, “the great seminal catastrophe of this century” — a tragedy of epic proportions that unleashed Nazism, Communism, and a century of unprecedented violence and destruction. Looking back at the 20th century, it’s easy to see how World War I can be viewed as a blundering prelude to something far worse.

Although there is good reason to take this view, it cannot wholly illuminate the war and all that came after — and it leaves the complexities and deeper ramifications of the thing itself something of a mystery. Unable to comprehend the causes of such vast butchery, we tend to chalk it up to sheer madness. In his 2009 book, Three Armies on the Somme, historian William Philpott begins on this note: “In the casualty-averse age in which we live now it is easier to respond to the state-managed mass death of the First World War with horror than to try to comprehend it.”

But we have to comprehend it, because although we might think we’re done with the Great War, it’s not done with us. This is the theme of Cambridge historian David Reynolds’s new book, The Long Shadow, which traces the legacies of the war through the 20th century up to the present day. It is “a book about the living as much about the dead because life went on after 1918 […] Most of postwar Europe was not frozen in perpetual mourning; the 1920s and 1930s were not predominantly a ‘morbid age.’” Reynolds aim is to draw us up out of the mud and trenches of the western front and expand our view of the conflict to new vistas — the home front, which “mattered almost as much as the battle front” because of the ways it transformed European society and remade entire economies.

And also the eastern front, which Reynolds’s argues is scarcely understood in the West. Now, as the ghosts of the Great War stir in Russia and Eastern Europe, Reynolds’s subtle accounting of the past’s unfinished business is transparently more urgent than ever. The Long Shadow emphasizes the British and American experiences of the war and its aftermath, but if Reynolds were still working on the book today he might have devoted more pages to the “bloodlands” of the Baltic states and Ukraine, “where ethnic conflict, political brutalization, and paramilitary violence had been especially ferocious during and after the two world wars.” Thus even though his focus is elsewhere, Reynolds’s lucid charting of the disparate Eastern European histories that unfolded in response to the war’s end is one of the most valuable facets of the book.

Reynolds’s thesis begins with the persuasive claim that the dominant Western understanding of World War I — from our official memorialization and remembrances to our cultural and scholarly productions — is, by virtue of how we remember World War II and the Cold War, incomplete and idiosyncratic. We have major blind spots, perhaps none more salient than the denouement of the war in Russia and the chaos that ensued:

Understanding the Balkan roots of this conflict is important not just to comprehend 1914 but also to appreciate the war’s enduring impact across eastern and southeast Europe—from Sarajevo 1914 to Sarajevo 1994, from the Bolshevik Revolution to the Soviet collapse. Although the Great War was won by the Allies on the Western front, Germany’s defeat of Russia in 1917-18 unhinged the whole of eastern Europe for the rest of the twentieth century.

It may someday be necessary to add, “and the first decades of the 21st century.”

Much of the trouble comes from the different ways “nations” were carved out of the remains of the Russian empire after the war. In Eastern Europe, many of these nascent nations were later re-claimed by the Soviet Union. The implications of the Soviet collapse for Ukraine and the Balkans, and the nationalist and ethnic problems that arose in these “Soviet borderlands” in the 1990s, therefore trace a direct line back to 1917-’18. For instance, Reynolds argues that the violent breakup of Yugoslavia and the “velvet revolution” of Czechoslovakia, although seemingly disparate responses to the Soviet breakup, both represented a rejection of the post-1918 settlement in which multiple fractious nationalities were subsumed in a larger Soviet sphere. Not so for the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Prior to World War I, they had been under Russian control since the 18th century. After the war, each fought for and briefly gained independence, before being absorbed by the Soviet Union. Here, “the 1990s dynamic was rather different—a return to post-1918 order rather than its rejection.” Ukraine also gained independence in the ’90s, but it came as a corrective to its failed attempt to gain recognition at the Paris peace conference in 1919, and so the country took an odd and unstable shape, cobbled together amid the collapse of an arrangement forged in the fires of 1917-’18.

None of this, claims Reynolds, makes much sense to the West because it does not conform to the dominant historical narrative that the two world wars form a kind of parentheses in the 20th century, after which good triumphs over evil and the madness of World War I is redeemed by total victory in World War II. In the East, the parentheses must extend at least to 1989, and perhaps longer. “As Western historians began to recognize in the 1990s, the Baltic states and Ukraine have been the ‘shatter zones’ of twentieth-century Europe, where Germany and Russia kept colliding.”

This ongoing friction helps illuminate the Ukraine crisis. As we approach the centenary of “the war to end all wars,” a great power, Russia, has annexed territory from a weak neighbor, Ukraine, under the pretext of defending ethnic countrymen caught up in civil strife. Claiming precedent in international law that grew from World War I’s legacy, Russia has massed troops at the border and threatened invasion. The international community condemns Russia’s actions but hasn’t stirred from its torpor to act, even as tensions mount and the crisis threatens to spiral out of control. War — perhaps a short war, or perhaps not — could be imminent.

This is 2014, not 1914 — but the problems in Ukraine are a direct result of World War I’s troubled conclusion in Russia. For all the questionable historical analogies that have been floated since the Ukraine crisis began — Munich in 1938, the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968, Kosovo in the 1990s, Georgia in 2008 — few have suggested the roots of the crisis lie in the pre-Soviet era and the collapse of the House of Romanov, which at the outbreak of World War I had ruled Russia for more than 300 years. But Reynolds’s study makes this interpretation seem inevitable. When the Romanov dynasty fell apart, the Bolsheviks forcibly seized power in Russia — as did smaller nationalist groups across Eastern Europe and the Baltics — partly under the pretext of ideas espoused by President Woodrow Wilson in the League of Nations Covenant.

The League of Nations aimed to be a peacekeeping organization. But its very name points to a difficulty it faced in accomplishing this aim: what was a “nation,” and who had the power to confer — and defend — nationhood? Wilson’s rhetoric took for granted a category that was, in fact, under the most volatile pressure, and the ripple effect of this language still can be felt today. The current troubles in Ukraine are evidence of the lingering effect of Wilson’s “seductive sounds bites” about territorial integrity and political independence.

The most fraught Wilsonian sound bite of them all was “self-determination,” an ill-defined notion that frustrated many, including US Secretary of State Robert Lansing, who thought the phrase “simply loaded with dynamite.” Lansing’s vexation over the term is just as relevant today: “When the President talks of ‘self-determination’ what unit has he mind? Does he mean a race, a territorial area, or a community?” Likewise, what does Russian President Vladimir Putin mean when he invokes such a principle for Crimea or Russian-speaking enclaves in eastern Ukraine? What does the United States mean when we invoke it in Egypt or Libya, but not Iran or Syria?

Wilson’s failure to think through what he meant by a League of Nations created insurmountable problems for its acceptance back in the United States and also sowed confusion among European states. Article 10 of the League Covenant bound it to “preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence” of all member states, yet provided no mechanism to enforce the charge. After World War II the same problem arose in Article 2 of the United Nations Charter, this time exacerbated by an explicit prohibition on the use of force “to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.”

Yet after World War I, the borders of Europe were profoundly unsettled, as was the criteria for nationhood — a problem that would resurface after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the Paris peace conference, however, Wilson believed the world was “moving inexorably toward the triumph of democracy,” and did not see that his ideas about a new international order, especially the principle of self-determination among newly formed nations or just-collapsed empires, might produce something other than democracy. He also did not anticipate that his slogans would be adopted by anticolonial activists throughout the British and French empires, who assumed, incorrectly, that the American President supported the right of colonized peoples to govern themselves.

Wilson did not support such a right. At the Paris peace conference, he backed British imperial claims in Egypt and India, and supported the transfer of Germany’s colony in Shandong to Japan rather than handing the province back to China, which came as shock to Chinese nationalist leaders like Mao Zedong. Like other nationalist leaders, Mao would turn to communism after the war. “Right across the colonial world, in fact, Leninism gained from Wilson’s shattered credibility,” writes Reynolds. “But the discourse of self-determination, which Lenin and Wilson had both popularized, was now part of the discourse of international politics.”

Self-determination immediately ran headlong into the League of Nations’s system of “mandates” to deal with Allied territorial gains from the Great War. Most of these were in the Middle East, where successor states to the Ottoman Empire were largely invented by the British and French. Here as elsewhere, Wilson’s sound bites were applied unevenly by the Allies. The Wilsonian maxim that America must “make the world safe for democracy” was matched with the British idea that it must “make democracy safe for the world.” In practice, this meant withholding democratic rule from vast swaths of the former Ottoman Empire that Britain considered unfit for self-government, while accepting democracy, for example, in Jewish Palestine. “The weak point of our position,” said British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, “is that in the case of Palestine we deliberately and rightly decline to accept the principle of self-determination.”

It’s easy to see the long shadow cast by Wilsonian internationalism in the Middle East, where the repercussions of Wilson’s muddled Fourteen Points have precipitated a civil war with World War I–style weapons like chlorine gas, which the Syrian government recently used to put down a rebel uprising.

It’s harder for American readers to see that shadow in eastern Europe and Russia, and perceive the ways in which the international system created in 1919 depends on great powers acting on the basis of settled principles and international law. Unlike the continental powers, the United States and Great Britain entered World War I mostly for the sake of ideals — Britain, to defend the neutrality of Belgium and preserve “civilization” from the threat of Prussian Kultur; America, Wilson declared, “for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own government, for the rights and liberties of small nations.” The Allies didn’t fully live up to those ideals after the war, but they nevertheless became the framework for an evolving international system that depends on the willingness of great powers to act in defense of them.

As Reynolds’s book reminds us, we cannot dispense with the memory — and the example — of great nations going to war for small ones, and using military force in the name of freedom and democracy rather than conquest or revenge. Likewise — and just as important — we cannot remain ignorant of the ways in which Russia’s ordeal in 1917-’18 represents a still unsolved problem in a now-globalized world. This unsolved problem, this riddle of nations, is slowly taking a familiar form not far from where the First World War began: the armies of a great eastern power amass on the borders of a fledgling one, the world watches in mute stupor, and America stands aloof on safe and distant shores.


John Daniel Davidson is a writer based in Austin, Texas.

LARB Contributor

John Daniel Davidson is a writer based in Austin, Texas. He is a senior contributor at The Federalist and his writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Texas Monthly, National Review, First Things, n+1, The Morning News, and elsewhere.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.