Here's What You Need To Remember: The tragic and prolonged conflicts that raged after World War I “ended” serve as a cautionary tale as to how historical narratives are so often over-tidily trimmed of inconvenient details—and how cynicism and idealism alike can sabotage the quest for peace.
Countless history books record that “on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918, the calamitous Great War finally came to an end.
Indeed, no longer would machinegun fire tear apart generations of young men on West European battlefields, nor would week-long artillery barrages torture the very land itself into a cratered, muddy moonscape.
But the supposed world peace brought about by Armistice Day was anything but universal. In 1919, across Eastern Europe to Central Asia, the violence begun in World War I raged on for as long as five more years—sucking in not only local actors, but troops from the United States, France, the UK and Japan, despite political pressure to bring them home.
Fundamentally at issue was the dissolution of both the Austro-Hungarian empire in Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire in Central Asia. This was justified by London, Paris and Washington on the basis of recognizing the passions of aspiring nationalists who sought their own nation-state ungoverned by foreign occupiers.
The problem with this reasonable conceit was that despite the frequent brutality and increasing dysfunction of the multinational empires based in Vienna and Istanbul, they nonetheless by their very nature facilitated a degree of toleration and intermingling of diverse ethnic and religious minorities throughout their sprawling domains. Not only were new ethno-nationalist governments often uninterested in protecting minorities dwelling in their territories, but the fact that those communities were heavily intermixed—inevitably led to violent conflict between newborn nation-states.
Furthermore, a principle of national self-determination seen as fair when applied to Eastern Europe was not equally applied to nationalists among European colonial subjects in Africa or Asia, whose political ambitions would have come at the victor’s expense. Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh was shown the door when he petitioned for inclusion in the Versailles conference. Territory in China, which had supported France in the war, was awarded to Japan. In April 1919, British troops gunned down 1,600 Indians in a public garden in Amritsar protesting a law facilitating the arrest of Indian nationalists. That last act too contributed to another war begun in 1919—an opportunistic Afghan invasion of British India by King Amanullah under pressure to resist British political domination.
Armistice Day, of course, did nothing to stop the civil war raging within the shattered husk of Imperial Russia between the Whites and the Reds. The conflict had its roots in the decrepitude of Tsarist rule and the rise of international socialist ideology prior to World War I. The strain of the Great War triggered a largely peaceful revolution that installed a liberal-democratic “White” government in Moscow. A bloody civil conflict might have been averted had Imperial Germany not arranged for Lenin and his supporters to travel to Russia by sealed train in 1917. His political agitation led to a far bloodier second revolutionary act.
Not only did millions of Russians, East Europeans and Central Asians take up arms against each other during the civil war, but British, French and U.S. troops landed in the Arctic Arkhangelsk in a confused and half-hearted attempt to support the White cause. Later, a second force of U.S. and Japanese troops invaded Siberia, the former ostensibly seeking to facilitate the withdrawal of the Czech Legion, the latter looking to annex territory and support the Whites.
The Red versus White conflict reached its climax in 1919 with the defeat of White forces in Siberia and Ukraine, followed in 1920 by the evacuation of White troops and Kolchak’s execution. U.S. troops finally withdrew from Russia in 1920, but White-held Vladivostok did not fall until 1922. Conflict raged for two more years as Soviet troops reconstituted former Tsarist Russian territories in Central Asia, using aircraft, poison gas and primitive armored vehicles to crush upstart republics and ethnically cleanse through forced migration and executions “troublesome” minorities such as the Cossacks.
Over 1.5 million soldiers and eight million civilians died in the Russian civil war—the latter mostly due to famine as well as political terror campaigns waged by both sides—making it debatably the deadliest civil war of the twentieth century.
The revolution had a spill-over effect in Poland, which in 1919 regained formal independence over a century after it had been annexed out of existence by Germany, Austria and Russia. However, the nationalist government of Józef Piłsudski government dreamed of rebuilding a wider Polish-Lithuanian empire—an idea Poland’s neighbors were not on board with. In a darkly ironic turn, after suffering over a hundred years of foreign domination, Warsaw fought a half-dozen border wars with Ukraine, Germany, Czechoslovakia and the Baltics. Then in 1920, the Poles launched a full-scale offensive on Kiev (the capital of modern-day Ukraine), capitalizing on the chaos of the Russian civil war.
The war seesawed, however, as the Polish instigated a devastating Russian counterattack. The Poles were driven as far back as the gates of Warsaw before a renewed counter-counter-offensive left Poland closing hostilities in 1921 with additional territory in modern-day Western Ukraine and Belarus. The conquest backfired in the long-run, making potential allies leery of Warsaw. After World War II, the Soviet Union took back the lost territory and compensated the Poles with German land, from which the Germans were forcibly deported.
Though Paris, London and Rome didn’t formally dissolve the Ottoman Empire, they quickly seized valuable Middle Eastern territories for their own profit and deployed occupying forces on the Anatolian peninsula. At times the ostensible allies even competed with each other to seize the most territory. The Sultan’s government was rendered largely powerless and utterly dependent on the occupying forces.
In May 1919, the multi-ethnic city of Smyrna was handed over to a Greek occupation force, formerly subject to Ottoman rule and now its greatest enemy. The resulting sense of national humiliation led a resurgent nationalist movement led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a general who had successfully defeated British and French forces at Gallipoli during World War I. When Turks grew outraged at the terms of the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, Ataturk’s Grand National Assembly led an uprising against the foreign armies.
As pressure to bring the troops home caused France and the UK to shy away from deeper engagement in the conflict, the Turkish nationalists principally battled Greek troops. However, in October 1920, the Greek King was fatally bitten by a monkey in an altercation also involving his German Shephard Fritz. This led to a political purge of the Greek military which fatally compromised its effectiveness.
The Greco-Turkish War culminated in the Greek defeat in the Battle of Sakarya, the suppression of Armenian national army and the Turkish capture of Smyrna on September 1922. Four days later, a fire broke out in the Greek quarter—by many, but not all, accounts started by Turkish soldiers—utterly destroying only those parts of the city and killing over ten thousand Greeks and Armenians. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to the docks where they remained crowded for two weeks, subject to rape, theft, killing and starvation before roughly half were evacuated by British and U.S. ships.
Once again, the establishment of one national homeland took place at others’ expense: in the treaty, Ankara and Athens agreed to forcibly deport 1.6 million Orthodox Christians and 355,000 Muslims into each other’s territory, though religious minorities were allowed to remain in Istanbul and Western Thrace.
The tragic and prolonged conflicts that raged after World War I “ended” serve as a cautionary tale as to how historical narratives are so often over-tidily trimmed of inconvenient details—and how cynicism and idealism alike can sabotage the quest for peace.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This article first appeared in 2019.