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 First World War was the defining event of the 20th Century and its legacy is still being seen today. The political landscape of Europe and surrounds were redefined in the immediate aftermath of the conflict as the two major power blocs – the Triple Entente and the Central Powers – clashed and were reconstituted.

Two of the largest entities in Europe, the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary, were obliterated and required a complete redrawing of the maps, while one of the Entente powers, Russia, collapsed inwards under the social weight of the largest war humanity had ever seen.

The social tensions that had accompanied industrialisation were laid bare in Russia and soon spread to other nations, where the organised working class had long been opposed to what was seen as a war between elites. The human collateral of mechanised conflict was most keenly felt by those who laboured in the factories and subsequently the trenches, leading to easy cross-pollination of ideas from the anti-war movement into the anti-capitalist workers movement.

If the First World War might be seen as Europe throwing the balls into the air, then the immediate post-war period was seeing where they landed. The map of Europe and the Middle East was about to be fundamentally redrawn, and the revolutions that came with the largest conflict in human history to date would set the stage for the even larger conflagrations to come.

The War After the War: 7 Revolutions Caused By World War One
The General Post Office in Dublin, 1916. Irish Central

1 – Ireland

“Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.”
William Butler Yeats, Easter 1916

The Irish Revolution was arguably the first to be directly linked to the First World War, beginning in 1916. There were two key strands that came together to create the movement that lead to the Easter Rising and beyond. The first was political. In the British parliament, the Irish Parliamentary Party organised around the question of Home Rule, the right of Ireland to be governed from Dublin rather than London. These voices grew and grew to the point where Home Rule was agreed, in principle at least, in 1914 with the intention of devolving power to Dublin. This would never be implemented, however, as the First World War put paid to it before the ink was dry.

It also bears mentioning at this point the status of Ulster, in the north of Ireland, which was predominantly Protestant and had no interest in the notion of Irish Home Rule, as they feared that it would lead to “Rome Rule”, the supremacy of Catholics. There is nowhere near enough space in this or several articles to go into the finer points of this, but suffice to say Northern Ireland exists and this the one of the first major points of proposed partition on the island.

The second strand was economic. Contrary to the bourgeois nature of the Irish Parliamentary Party, the working classes were far less orderly in their attempts to wrest power from Britain. Indeed, many of them saw little point in independence and much more value in socialism, with leader James Connolly famously remarking:

“If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organization of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you.”

With thousands if not millions of Irish workers having left for Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow and London, there was far more to bind those in the industrial cities of Ireland to their proletarian comrades in Britain. The working class of Dublin had been locked out of their workplaces in 1913 after strikes and formed the Irish Citizen Army to defend poor areas from police and would be the organ of the masses in the uprising.

It would be the dovetailing of these two movements – the nationalist and the socialist – that would unite in Easter 1916 in the streets of Dublin. The Rising of Easter Week was smashed by the British Army and the leaders executed, but the seed of revolution was planted. As soldiers returned (or didn’t) from the Somme and Gallipoli, it became increasingly obvious to most that the the ideals of the British state bore little resemblance to those of the Irish population.

Sinn Fein, the party that most supported independence, triumphed at the General Election of 1918 and began to meet in Dublin, not London, claiming to be the legacy government of that proclaimed in 1916. The wheels of the revolution were in place and after a War of Independence, the Irish Free State came into existence in 1922, with Northern Ireland remaining within the United Kingdom, the situation that remains to this day.

The War After the War: 7 Revolutions Caused By World War One
Lenin, Petrograd, 1917. Britannica

2 – Russia

“I will not see the revolution in my lifetime”
Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov, aka Lenin, Switzerland, January 1917

The second great revolution of the World War One era would be one that had a drastic effect on the conflict as it was taking place. The underpinning for the war had been the balance of alliances between the Entente Powers of Britain, France and Russia with the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire and the shock of revolution in Russia would throw the balance asunder, removing one of the key players from the table.

That the revolution was as a direct result of the war is unquestionable, but the circumstances that provided the impetus for it had existed far longer. The conditions in the areas that would make the revolution happen – the industrial cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg – were dire for the working classes, while all over the country, food insecurity, poverty, social divides and technological backwardness affected everyone that wasn’t a noble. Russia wasn’t ready for a modern war and, predictably, were absolutely terrible at it when it started.

The autocratic rule of the Tsar, Nicholas I, was hopelessly inadequate at organising the logistics that kept soldiers fed and clothed and even worse at providing them to those in the factories in the cities. When Nicholas took over the failing army in 1915, the situation went from bad to worse. Russians had already rose up against him in 1905 and gained significant concessions, but despite that and the ongoing food shortages, few expected the uprisings that characterised early 1917. Indeed, the quote above from Lenin is indicative of the way that the most dedicated revolutionaries thought.

At the beginning of 1917, the flimsy structure of the Tsar’s Russia fell apart. Soldiers mutinied and deserted against a war that they knew they were losing and refused to have any more part in. Industrial workers, well aware of the potential famine coming as a result of the poorly managed economy and infrastructure, struck against the government. Landless workers, a generation ago indentured serf slaves, took control of the land that they toiled and booted out their masters. In March, Nicholas I abdicated and ceded power to a Provisional Government based in Saint Petersburg.

The slogan of the Bolshevik Party, “Peace, Bread and Land”, was designed to appeal to these three groups. When Lenin, their leader, made his return to Russia in April, there was a situation of dual government between the Provisional Government on one hand, lead by bourgeois politicians, and the Petrograd Soviet, lead by the far left including the Bolsheviks. In July, huge protests, orchestrated by the Bolsheviks, almost resulted in another revolution. In August, a Tsarist general named Kornilov attempted to stage a coup, but the Bolsheviks used their control of trade unions to stop him literally in his tracks by organising a railway stoppage.

Come October, the Bolsheviks were politically the largest force. Their leaders, previously arrested, had largely been released. Their most militant members had been armed in the expectation that Kornilov would attempt to take Petrograd by force. Their time had come. The peace as promised in “Peace, Bread and Land” would soon follow, with Russia officially leaving the war in early 1918.

The War After the War: 7 Revolutions Caused By World War One
Spartacists march through the Brandenburg Gate, 1918. Pinterest

3 – Germany

“Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.”
Rosa Luxembourg, Spartacist League leader, 1916

The question of whether there was actually a revolution in Germany in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, or whether there was a succession of failed uprisings that eventually begat the Weimar Republic is one about which historians still argue. The timeline from the end of the war until the takeover of Hitler in 1933 is one with several potential revolutions, sprung from both sides of the political spectrum, all of which have left their lasting effect on German society to this day.

The situation in Germany at the end of the war was dire to say the least. The army and the navy were split on whether the war was over at all – the ground forces had given up, but the Naval Command ordered another attack on the British – and the various revolutionary forces that had been quietly (or in the case of the Communists, not so quietly) active during the war were able to take advantage of the situation.

The Communist Spartacist League, lead by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht and inspired by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, had been staging strikes in Berlin and other cities throughout 1918 and after a series of mutinies on naval bases on the Baltic Coast, the Kaiser abdicated on November 9th. With the leader gone, one of the strangest incidents in German history took place.

The German Socialist Party (SPD), which had supported the war and sought to undercut the Communists by advocating for a parliamentary system as opposed to the Soviet-style overthrow that the Spartacists wanted, declared a republic from the balcony of the Reichstag, the parliament building in Berlin. However, just a mile away at the Berliner Stadtschloss, the seat of the city government. Thus, two left-wing republics were declared on the same time, the second far to the left of the first.

Armistice with Germany was signed but the battle for control of Germany was only beginning. As 1918 became 1919, groups of nationalist ex-soldiers known as Freikorps began to clash with workers across the country, while in Berlin the two parallel governments organised themselves. The Spartacists acted first, enacting a putsch against the new parliament in Weimar that was brutally crushed by the new regime with the help of the Freikorps, who murdered Liebknecht and Luxemburg.

Elsewhere, similar Soviet councils sprang up in Bavaria – where a republic was also declared – while strikes paralysed the Ruhr Valley, Saxony and the Rhineland. By May 1919, when the uprising in Bavaria was crushed, the far left revolutionary period was over. The SPD, lead by Friedrich Ebert, increasingly began to exert its authority and something approximating parliamentary rule would emerge in Weimar.

By June 1919 all aspirations that the SPD had of a socially organised Germany were dashed by the punitive conditions of the Treaty of Versailles, which slapped the battered Germans with reparation payments, economic sanctions and other conditions that severely limited any scope for reconstruction. In March 1920, a right-wing coup in Berlin, known as the Kapp Putsch, was orchestrated by the Freikorps. It forced the government to flee but was thwarted by a combination of mass strikes and resistance from the government bureaucracy, while in the industrial Ruhr area, a leftist uprising began that was put down by a combination of Freikorps and regular military.

Another coup attempt – the Munich Beer Hall putsch led by Hitler and the nascent Nazis – would be foiled in 1923, plus another leftist revolt in Hamburg before a period of stability. Economically in tatters, the Weimar government was forced to battle catastrophic hyperinflation as well as the heavily armed groups of rightists and leftists that were permanently in competition in the streets. The revolutions of 1918 and 1919 might have failed, but they foreshadowed the brutality and violence that was coming. Rosa Luxemburg spoke of “socialism or barbarity” as a stark choice, and she was not wrong.

The War After the War: 7 Revolutions Caused By World War One
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Wikipedia

4 – Turkey

“My people are going to learn the principles of democracy, the dictates of truth and the teachings of science. Superstition must go.”
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

If the fate of the post-World War One German Empire was complicated, the state of the Ottoman Empire was just as chaotic. The capital, Constantinople, was occupied by Entente Powers and the rest of the territories were tearing apart at the seams. The Ottoman Empire was arguable the most culturally, linguistically and geographically diverse in the world for much of the 17th and 18th centuries, running from the gates of Vienna to the Horn of Africa and from modern day Algeria to the Persian Gulf, but by 1914 it was already known as “the sick man of Europe” and was on it’s metaphorical last legs.

The Turks, who made up the majority of the population, had fought gallantly to defend their homeland at the famous battles of Gallipoli and the Dardanelles, but by the end of the war, they were forced to sue for peace. Unbeknownst to them, however, the British and French had already drawn up a secret deal, the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, that divided control of the Middle East (and the oil that had been struck there in 1908) between them.

The Armistice of Mudros of 1918 stopped the fighting, but the Entente powers were far from agreed on what was to be done with the territory of the Empire. The British and French wanted their lands in Middle East as agreed in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Greeks and Armenians saw the potential to expand their homelands into Anatolia. The Turks themselves were largely left out.

With the French occupying Constantinople, the British exerting influence in Palestine and the Greeks invading Smyra and western Anatolia and the Turks largely powerless to stop it all, it became clear that some sort of national unity was going to be needed. Mustafa Kemal, the hero of the Gallipoli Campaign for the Turks, stepped into the breech.

On April 23 1920, Mustafa Kemal was elected as Chairman of the Grand National Assembly of the Ottoman Empire in Ankara. However, the last Sultan in Constantinople had already signed the Treaty of Sevres, which gave the vast majority of the empire away to the Entente Powers. Again, a situation of multiple governments existed and a power struggle would ensue.

Kemal began fighting with the Greeks in the west, the Armenians in the east and the French in the south. Backed by hefty supplies from the Soviets, they defeated the Armenians and rolled back the Greek advances towards Ankara. The French and British had little interest in more war and agreed to peace talks.

However, they invited the Ottoman Sultan – whom the Turkish Nationalists considered a traitor – to the peace conference, causing Kemal to officially abolish the Ottoman Empire and therefore the Sultanate. The Treaty of Lausanne, agreed between the Entente and Mustafa Kemal established new borders for Turkey and a huge population exchange between Greeks living in Turkey and Turks living in Greece, leading to the modern borders and ethnic make up that we see today.

Furthermore, Kemal – now known as Ataturk, or Father of the Turks – was adamant that the new Republic of Turkey would eschew the ways of the Ottoman Empire. He passed sweeping reforms that enforced secularism, modernised the government and essentially stripped the new republic of any of the Islamic trappings that had characterised the Ottoman Empire. The modern Turkey was born.

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.