Report from the (Now Quiet) Fronts #53: A Legacy of Autocracy

(The major post-war political arrangements would not be confirmed until the Versailles Treaty of June 1919 and the Treaty of Trianon of June 1920, but most were in the air before that.)


The Great War dramatically changed the map and political culture of Europe.  Three large empires had collapsed: Romanov Russia, Hapsburg Austria and Ottoman Turkey.  The result was the emergence of independent states in Eastern Europe, new French and British provinces in the Middle East and Africa and the general disappearance of autocratic monarchy in favor of dictatorships.

Europe 1923

Yugoslavia, composed of the Slavic provinces of the Austrian Empire, appeared, along with Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, while the emasculation of Germany and the chaos in Russia allowed the formation of an independent Poland for the first time since the Third Partition of Poland in 1795.  While the Russian Civil War raged through 1918 and 1919, Belarus, the Ukraine and several pocket states in the Caucasus asserted their independence, only to be reabsorbed into the new Russian Empire with the triumph of the Bolsheviks and establishment of the USSR.  And Turkey was reduced to Anatolia and a toehold in Europe in the area surrounding Istanbul.

Partitions of Poland

The new Polish Republic

The dismemberment of the Austrian Empire













The German Empire was a special case.  Though possessing minorities of Danes, French and especially Poles on its western and eastern frontiers, it was overwhelmingly ethnic Germans and could not “collapse” as its neighbors did.  Like the former provinces of the Austrian and Russian Empires, Germany would have its frontiers redrawn along ethnic lines, according to the mandate of President Wilson. Consequently, Germany lost the northern part of Schleswig-Holstein to Denmark and Posen to Poland, which was given access to the Baltic Sea by creating a “corridor” along the Vistula River to the now “free” city of Danzig (Gdańsk).  This of course separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany, a perfect recipe for future trouble.

Post-war Germany

Pre-war Germany



















But Germany had another problem: France.  87% of the population of Alsace-Lorraine was German-speaking (it was conquered by Louis XIV), but even President Wilson could see that the French would never accept anything less than a full restoration of the province to France.  This was a question of honor, and the territory was returned to France, despite the wishes of many of the inhabitants; some French politicians even demanded the incorporation of the Rhineland into France.  Altogether, Germany lost 25,000 square miles of territory and 7 million people.

French, British and Italian territorial demands apart, restructuring Eastern Europe along ethnic lines was not at all easy, given the intermingling of ethnic populations and historic claims to territory.  The biggest loser was Hungary, whose frontiers were settled by the Treaty of Trianon, dictated by the Allies in 1920.  The new Hungarian Republic lost 72% of the territory and 64% of the population of antebellum Kingdom of Hungary, mostly to Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia.  Granted, the Kingdom had a huge non-Hungarian population, but the Treaty left 3.3 million (31%) ethnic Hungarians outside the Republic.  Romania, on the other hand, was a big winner, gaining Transylvania, Bessarabia and Bukovina and thus doubling the size of the Romanian state.

Hungarian losses

Romanian gains








Under the influence of the Allies, especially America, all these new political entities, including Germany, began their post-war existence with parliamentary governments, either as republics or limited monarchies.  Like America attempting to create a democratic government in Afghanistan, this was wishful thinking on a grand scale.  None of these polities had any real experience with democracy, and they were ill-equipped to deal with the turbulent 1920s.  Despite the attempt to draw boundaries according to ethnic lines, there was immediately dissatisfaction with the new frontiers; old territorial claims could not so easily be discarded.  A number of local wars promptly broke out, confronting the new civil governments with serious strain and threats, especially from successful military leaders.

The Versailles Treaty established an international body for Europe, the League of Nations, but such an organization was before its time and lacked the powers necessary to enforce its decisions.  Even President Wilson, the major supporter of the League, could not convince an isolationist Congress to join the organization.   If France and Britain were reluctant to challenge Hitler in the late 1930s, they certainly had no interest in going to war in the 1920s because of border conflicts in Eastern Europe.

There was also the looming presence of the new Soviet Empire, eager to regain czarist provinces lost during the defeat and following Civil War and ready to support communist movements throughout Europe.  Unsurprisingly, the typical response was official and unofficial repression of these political groups (and ethnic minorities), leading inevitably to attacks on other political opponents and more authoritarian governments.  These trends were then exacerbated by the worldwide Depression, which caused economic hardship and further destabilized society, creating more support for strong leaders who could solve problems that seemed beyond elected parliaments.  And of course, a suffering population was more than ready to blame the ethnic and religious “others” in their midst.                

As the leader of the defeated Central Powers and occupier of eastern France and Belgium (and for the French as the victor of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71), Germany was a special case. Much more than the other Allies, France wanted revenge, crippling reparations and the emasculation of Germany for all time to come, an approach to peace that almost guaranteed the failure of the new democratic republic.  French demands could only strengthen the German far right, which was already gaining popular support in its increasingly violent struggle against the communists.

They also fanned the flames of resurgent German nationalism and the growing myth of the Dolchschoẞ (“stab in the back”), the idea that the German military did not lose the war but was betrayed by the civilian government that succeeded the Kaiser.  The men who signed the Armistice and the later Treaty of Versailles were the “November criminals,” who had stabbed Germany in the back, and the anti-democratic forces, especially Hitler’s National Socialists, seized upon this nonsense to attack the Weimar government.

Philip Scheidemann, November criminal

Matthias Erzberger, November criminal

A Jew delivering the stab in the back

Scheidemann and Erzberger administering the stab in the back











As a result of all these pressures, aided by the emergence of the fascist Third Reich, by the middle 1930s only two states in Central and Eastern Europe possessed functioning democratic governments: Finland and Czechoslovakia (despite its multi-ethnic population).  Germany, Austria, Italy, Romania, Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Russia all had authoritarian governments.  And Europe was again on the brink of war.

The Great War also altered the cultural landscape of Europe, essentially eliminating courts and royalty as well as the last continental empires. The sense of European peace and security that had existed since the fall of Napoleon evaporated, replaced by a growing nervousness as Europe left centuries of tradition behind.  The shock that the Great War delivered to European civilization can hardly be overestimated; as F. Scott Fitzgerald would later say in Tender Is the Night, “All my lovely beautiful safe world blew itself up.”  Coincidentally, the emergence in the early years of the twentieth century of relativity and quantum physics shattered the well understood and orderly universe of classical physics, dragging science itself into the brave new world of confusion and uncertainty created by the Great War.

The roots of the Second World War are clearly found in the Great War and its immediate aftermath.  The Treaty of Versailles, especially the financial demands, almost guaranteed that the Weimar Republic would not survive, at least not as a democratic entity.  The Bolshevik Revolution and emergence of the Soviet Union threatened Eastern Europe and helped fuel the rearmament of Germany, which under Hitler was increasingly focused on the east.  And when the crisis approached in the late 1930s, the horrific losses of the Great War certainly contributed to the inclination towards appeasement rather than early and robust action against Hitler.  The First and Second World Wars might be viewed as a single war with a twenty year pause, a European civil war that ended with two non-European powers, the USSR and the USA dominating the continent.

Incidentally, on 3 October 2010 Germany paid off the last of the Great War reparations.

Happy New Year, Quintus Fulvius Nobilior

(A repeat for the New Year holiday)


Ever wonder why the year begins on January 1?  Probably not.  It is the sort of thing that is such an established facet of life that it never occurs to one to ask why:  “Because that’s when the calendar begins,” which is of course not much of an explanation.  That’s akin to saying because the previous year ends on December 31.  But consider: why should we begin our year in the middle of the winter and on a day that has absolutely no significance, except that somehow it has become the first day of the year.  Why not on a day that has some significance in nature, such as the equinoxes and solstices.  Or considering the importance of agriculture, why not in the spring, when life returns, or fall, when the harvest is in?

In fact, in antiquity states typically began their calendar years in the spring or in the fall with the harvest. So, what happened?  Well, it’s because of the Romans and an otherwise relatively trivial event in their history.  It begins with the defeat of Hannibal.

Part of Rome’s booty in the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) was the Mediterranean coast of Spain, formerly territory of the now defunct Carthaginian Empire.  The Romans of course had no intention of allowing this area to go free, but neither were they moved to any campaign of conquest in the Iberian peninsula.  Italian capital and manpower were exhausted by  the long and costly struggle against Carthage,  and the first half of the second century BC was filled with major conflicts in the Greek east.  The result was that the Roman occupation of Spain was haphazard and slow, driven by the desire to exploit the natural resources and to protect the coastal communities from the natives of the interior.

Conquest of Iberia

The Roman Senate was loathe to create provinces; they had to be administered and garrisoned, which was expensive. Nevertheless, there were in Spain no potential client kingdoms ready at hand, and consequently the Spanish possessions were organized into two provinces in 197 BC.  But poor Roman administration led in that same year to the first serious insurrection, and crushing it triggered the First Celtiberian War (181-179 BC).  Relative peace then lasted until the outbreak of the Lusitanian War (154-138 BC), during which occurred also the Second Celtiberian War (153-151 BC) and the Third Celtiberian (or Numantine) War (143-133 BC).  Thus it was that three quarters of a century of cruel and bloody counterinsurgency warfare were necessary to pacify the peninsula, and the job was not actually completed until the reign of Augustus, the first emperor, at the end of the first century BC.  The Spanish provinces then went on to become the most peaceful and Romanized in the empire.

Celtiberian soldiers

Celtiberian soldiers







When in late 154 BC a number of Celtiberian tribes, encouraged by the Lusitanians, revolted, Rome appointed Q. Fulvius Nobilior commander of four legions about to be sent to quell the revolt.  Nobilior had just been elected consul, one of the two annual magistrates who were the executive heads of the Roman state.  The consulship, like the subordinate praetorship, conferred upon its holder imperium, the superior form of official power, one element of which was the all-important power to command troops.  The consuls (and to a lesser degree the praetors) were thus Rome’s generals.

Roman soldiers of the mid-Republic









The consuls and most of the other important magistrates began their terms of office on  the Ides of Martius, that is, March 15, which consequently placed the beginning of the Roman civil year at roughly the vernal equinox (March 21) and the beginning of the seasonal year.  The Senate was anxious to get Nobilior to Spain as early as possible in order to extend his campaigning season, but until he actually took office some three months hence the consul-elect had no authority to command troops.  Preeminently pragmatic, the Romans solved the problem and avoided any constitutional crisis by simply moving the beginning of the civil year, and thus Nobilior’s term, to the Kalends of Januarius, that is January 1.

When the new year began had never been of much importance in the generally sloppy and conflicting calendars of the ancient Mediterranean, and the Romans, seeing no compelling reason to move the beginning of the civil year back again, left it on 1 January. (Coincidentally, Januarius was named after the god Janus, who as the god of gateways and transitions looked both ways, making the month of January very apt as the first of the year.)  This day was thus enshrined as the beginning of the year in the Julian calendar of 45 BC, which despite tinkering in the Middle Ages and the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1582 (the Julian calendar was slipping out of synch with the seasonal year) was passed on to Europe and much of the rest of the world.  Because of the Roman Senate and an obscure Iberian war, the vast majority of the human race now celebrates New Year’s in the middle of the winter.

Incidentally, in August Nobilior’s army was ambushed by the Belli and Arevaci on its way to capture the city of Numantia in north central Spain and lost 6000 men, and it was only saved from complete annihilation by his Roman cavalry. He never did take the city and was replaced the following year.  The war went on.