The War After the War: 7 Revolutions Caused By World War One
The War After the War: 7 Revolutions Caused By World War One

The War After the War: 7 Revolutions Caused By World War One

Mike Wood - July 7, 2017

The War After the War: 7 Revolutions Caused By World War One
Demonstrators in Tahrir Square, Cairo, 1919. Pinterest

5 – Egypt

“Yahia el Watan! Yahia el Watan!” (Long live the nation!).
Demonstrators, Egypt 1919.

The modern day nation of Turkey was not the only one to emerge from the rump of the Ottoman Empire. Egypt would also make her first appearance as a modern nation state as a result of the end of the First World War, and in a way that will seem very familiar to those who keep up with 21st century current affairs in the region.

While there had been a basic separation between the Ottoman government in Constantinople and the centre of power in Cairo since 1805, the Sultan remained the official leader of Egypt and the local figurehead, the Khedive, a subsidiary. When war broke out between the Ottomans and the British in 1914, who retained a strong influence in Egypt, the British stepped in and elevated the Khedive to an equivalent to the Sultan, declaring the country as their protectorate.

This excited many Egyptian nationalists, who saw the break with Constantinople as a forerunner for full independence when hostilities ended. The nationalists – similarly to their counterparts in Ireland and Turkey – were a minority and largely drawn from an educated, middle class elite in the cities, however the hardship of war on the majority of the population soured the reputation of the British and saw the average Egyptian increasingly turn towards nationalism as a political ideal.

Local labourers had been conscripted to work for the British, thousands of foreign soldiers had arrived in Egypt as a staging post and huge swathes of resources, particularly food, were requisitioned to suit the needs of the British war effort. Unsurprisingly, the occupying forces were far from popular. When the war was won and the British army failed to leave, the anger in the streets was palpable.

A coterie of nationalist leaders, organised in the Wafd Party and lead by Saad Zaghlul, demanded that they be including in the peace talks to end the war as representatives of the Egyptian people. They organised in the streets, coordinating huge campaigns of civil disobedience against the British regime and agitating among the wider population.

As the British were wont to do in such situations, they rounded up Zaghlul and other leaders and threw them in jail. They were exiled to Malta and back home, huge protests sprung up. Civil disobedience escalated to mass strikes, demonstrations and sabotage of British institutions with almost a thousand Egyptians killed in the process. By the end of 1919, the protectorate was in full blown revolt.

The revolution encompassed both Christians and Muslims, poor and rich, urban and rural, men and women. The British centre, occupied by colonial wars in Ireland and the Middle East as well as intervening in the Russian Civil War, could no longer hold. A report in 1921 recommended that Egypt be granted independence and on February 22 1922, the new nation was born. In 1924, Saad Zaghloul was elected Prime Minister.

The manner in which the nation of Egypt came into existence has marked it ever since. Few nations can compete in terms of popular involvement in politics and particularly in the participation of the streets in the political discourse. Governments would be deposed by the people in 1952 – when Gamal Abdul Nasser deposed the King on the back of a popular revolt and created the Egyptian Republic – and again most famously in 2011, when the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak was smashed from below. The repercussions of the First World War live on, in spirit at least, in Egypt.

The War After the War: 7 Revolutions Caused By World War One
Workers occupy the Fiat factory, Turin, 1919.

6 – Italy

“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.”
Antonio Gramsci, Italian revolutionary

Italy’s revolutionary story is one that might stand alongside that of Germany in the role of cautionary tale. If anything, it represents the same broad outline as that seen to the north but sped up, progressing from devastation to revolt to crackdown in just three years. Italy was not in the same terrible state as Germany at the end of the First World War, but it was far from a functioning nation. The Italians had been on the winning side, after all, and the fighting had largely been confined to the northern regions that bordered Austro-Hungary. Socially, however, the nation was on its knees.

The revolutionary spirit that had consumed Russia and was spreading through Germany had also hit hard in Italy, where the factories of Turin and Milan were paralysed by industrial action. Elsewhere on the peninsula, unemployment was sky-rocketing and emigration was seeing thousands leave every year for the United States and South America, particularly from the impoverished south. Soldiers returning from the front found themselves without jobs or food.

The leftist activists in Italy were inspired by the same ideals as their Soviet and German counterparts, but also offered radical new ideas about how society could and should be organised. Anarcho-syndicalism was a major ideological driver and pushed for workers to occupy their factories and expropriate the contents, while more Marxist oriented groups, particularly those organised around Antonio Gramsci, created factory councils (similar to Soviets) to democratically run workplaces.

The left was rampant in the northern industrial cities, but the far-right was also growing rapidly. Ideologically there were significant left-ish sections within the Fascists – leader Benito Mussolini claimed to be fusing socialism and nationalism, though his practice in government does little to bear this out – alongside the more characteristic expansionist nationalism and conservative traditionalist values.

The clashes between fascist groups and the communist and anarchist groups was usually centred around industrial disputes, where bosses would often recruit far-right thugs to smash strikes and demonstrations. With the state flailing and unable to cope with the power of the left, they enlisted the fascist Blackshirt gangs to help control the socialists.

At height of the Biennio Rosso, the so-called “two red years” of 1919-1921 in which the far left paralysed Italy, there were thousands of strikes, hundreds of factory occupations and millions of people on the streets. By the end, the internal fighting between the trade union movement, the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) and the various anarchist groups had failed to take advantage. The door was open and the fascists marched straight through it.

The PSI had been the biggest party at both the 1919 and 1921 elections, but was outnumbered by liberal politicians who managed to form a government. The extra-parliamentary opposition, from both right and left, fought with the government and each other before Mussolini, the leader of the Fascist Party, staged his now infamous March on Rome and forced the government to hand him power. By 1924, Mussolini was the sole dictator of Italy, Gramsci was in prison and the backlash against organised workers in Italy was in full flow. It would not be until the end of the Second World War that fascism would fall in Italy.

The War After the War: 7 Revolutions Caused By World War One
“To arms! to arms!” A poster from the Hungarian Soviet Republic, 1919. Wikipedia

7 – Hungary

“Everywhere counter-revolutionaries run about and swagger; beat them down! Beat their heads where you find them! If counter-revolutionaries were to gain the upper hand for even a single hour, there will be no mercy for any proletarian. Before they stifle the revolution, suffocate them in their own blood!”
Tibor Szamuely, writing in “Red News”, a communist newspaper.

We have spoken of the fall of the German Empire, the overthrow of the Tsar, the breaking of British colonialism and the dissipation of the Ottoman Empire, but as yet not of the collapse of Austria Hungary. The dual monarchy in central Europe was obliterated by the First World War, and the ramifications of its breakup are still being debated today.

Hungary, the secondary power in the nation, was hugely affected and – in the view of many Hungarians – has never recovered from its pre-war position. The years that followed the end of World War One have left an indelible mark on the Hungarian psyche, and the story of the revolution that occurred in the country is essential to any understanding of it.

The nuts and bolts of the Hungarian Revolution of 1918-1920 are not that dissimilar to those that took place in other parts of central and eastern Europe at the same time and in fact took in elements of all the revolution mentioned above. Several republics were declared and independence proclaiming, a putative soviet was created in the image of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, a right-wing backlash came and crushed the social revolutionaries and a whole host of wars broke out with neighbouring countries.

What makes this period so vital in the history of Hungary is the Treaty of Trianon, which was signed in the midst of all this strife. The succession of events that brought Hungary to Trianon was rapid: from the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the dissolution of Austria-Hungary on October 31 1918 to the signing of the treaty that essentially destroyed the previous borders of Hungary was just 20 months. In that time, there were three Hungarian republics, a catastrophic war with Romania and two terrors, one each from both the left and the right.

When Austria-Hungary dissolved, the Hungarian People’s Republic was proclaimed by Mihaly Karolyli, a nobleman with airs towards social democracy and liberalism. His republic lasted just six months before it was decided not to be quite liberal and socialist enough and the Hungarian Soviet Republic was created. Bear in mind that when the Hungarian Communist Party was created in a Moscow hotel on November 4 1918, the Karolyi government had existed for 3 days – within 6 months, the Communists were in power.

They started with the usual purging of political opponents – Hungary’s Red Terror – and subsequently began expanding Hungary towards its pre-war borders. Unsurprisingly, the other nations that had once shared Austria-Hungary and now neighboured the Soviet Republic didn’t take kindly to this expansion, and the largest, Romania, invaded. They pushed all the way back to Budapest before the Soviet fell in August 1919.

The Romanians backed a coup from the head of the Hungarian Army, Miklos Horthy and Istvan Friedrich, a right wing group made up of ex-soldiers. They began the second terror, the White Terror, targeting anyone who had been involved with the previous two republics as well as Jews and intellectuals. Around 5000 people are thought to have been killed before the monarchy was restored in early 1920.

The new, old government would be the one in Versailles when the final peace treaties were signed. The one pertaining to Hungary, signed in the Grand Trianon Palace and named thereafter, was devastating to Hungarians. Their army was to be limited, the navy ceased to exist at all.

Hungary, which had once stretched from Istria on the Adriatic to the west and Translyvania to the east, from Belgrade in the south to the Tatras mountains in the north, was now just 28% of what it has once been. Those borders, forged in the fire of the First World War and crystallized in the Treaty of Trianon, are still the borders of Hungary today.