In The Vanquished, Robert Gerwarth attempts a more nuanced look at WW1 and why the carnage didn’t end in 1918.

On September 11, 1919, Gabriele D’Annunzio, one of the most brilliant Italian poets of his day and a decorated war hero, drove to Fiume in a bright red Fiat. Leading an army of 2,000 irregulars, formed ad hoc, he set off from Ronchi dei Legionari, some 300 kilometers north-west of the disputed territory he intended to conquer.

His bold mission ended in the spectacular takeover of the Adriatic port so coveted by the Italians without firing a single short. He immediately renamed it the Regency of Carnaro, with its own constitution and currency. And for 15 months, D’Annunzio ruled as a self-proclaimed Duce (leader), before it was finally re-taken by the Italian army.

The chapter devoted to D’Annunzio’s triumphant march in Robert Gerwarth’s new book, The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923, bears a one-word title “Fiume,” offering this episode as iconic of the larger social and political processes that swept the continent after the Great War of 1914-1918.

So while the tale is not, in a sense, part of the main history Gerwarth sets out to tell – a broad panorama of major and lesser conflicts that broke out after peace treaties had been signed (or even while they were still being negotiated) – the story of Fiume is an apt illustration of the book’s central thesis.

There were three factors – all present in D’Annunzio’s escapade – that propelled the bloody aftermath of the Great War: humiliating defeat (or, as in Italy, unsatisfactory victory), revolutionary certainty (that the social and political order could be remade after the great conflict), and imperial collapse.

The author’s intention is both instructive and polemical. Supporting his argument with some lesser-known examples, such as the violent birth of a communist republic in Estonia or a brief episode of Bolshevik rule in Munich, he describes the exceptional brutality of the post-war conflicts. Still, Gerwarth strongly opposes the so-called brutalization thesis – that trench warfare had immunized societies and made violence more acceptable. Why did violence break out with such intensity in some countries and not others, though all had participated in the Great War?

The trenches reconsidered

the vanquished
Robert Gerwath
The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923
(Allen Lane, 2016)
pp. 464
€19.99 // Cover courtesy of publisher

By focusing on these three interrelated factors – defeat, revolution, and imperial collapse – The Vanquished attempts a more nuanced explanation, taking into account differing experiences and outcomes of the war, as well as the situations in the respective countries. Meticulously researched and vividly written, with carefully selected examples from memoirs, Gerwarth’s narrative provides an insight into the state of mind and political passions of people jockeying for position in a post-war order according to their interests and beliefs.

Still, Gerwarth falls short of explaining how the experience of trench warfare transformed territorial and ethnic conflicts into what he calls existential conflicts, in which achieving one’s goal tips into a fight for survival against enemies of class and race. Geopolitical calculations or national interests fail to illuminate this passion for destruction and longing for the new world born out of the flames.

Why were 2,000 men ready to abandon their homes and follow D’Annunzio’s red Fiat? Ultimately, Gerwarth does not provide a convincing explanation.

Perhaps one has to re-read passages from Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, in which she argues that the Great War led to emergence of large groups outside all social hierarchies, both of the underclass and bohemian artistic circles, for whom the only unifying experiences were of violence und uncertainty. Without this new anti-social group, it is hard to imagine how humiliating defeat, subsequent imperial collapse, and revolutions would have resulted in the orgy of violence that paved the way for the Second World War.