This post forms part of a series where members of the Defence Studies Department share their thoughts on the books they are reading this summer.
Over the summer, I read Robert Gerwarth’s The Vanquished, an account of the series of inter-state conflicts and civil wars that afflicted Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean in the aftermath of the First World War. The Vanquished provides a succinct coverage of both well-known events in post-1918 historiography (including the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War (1917-1921), the Fascist seizure of power in Italy (1922) and the German Freikorps) and ones which are less well-known (such as the Finnish civil war of 1918 and post-war internal strife in Bulgaria).
Other historians (notably Ian Kershaw) have drawn linkages between the two world wars, treating the period from 1914 to 1945 as Europe’s second ‘Thirty Years War’. They have also noted as Gerwarth has done that the paramilitary violence and ethnic cleansing that afflicted Central and Eastern Europe from 1917 to 1923 had its parallels with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire from 1911 onwards (notably with the Balkan Wars and the Armenian genocide). The Vanquished also highlights the regression to barbarism that characterised this era, including the rise of militias (notably the Freikorps and the Hungarian ‘White Guards’) that challenged the state’s ‘monopoly of violence’, the deliberate targeting of civilians as part of a strategy of ethnic cleansing, and also the emergence of ideologies that emphasised the use of violence to purify societies on racial or class grounds.
Gerwarth’s book is bound to rile nationalists, as for the Czechs, Poles and Finns in particular the post-1918 era is traditionally seen as a struggle for national liberation, and his description of atrocities committed by paramilitaries in their own independence struggles implicitly challenges cherished national myths. But then every war of ‘liberation’ has an ugly underside, and Gerwarth does well to remind us that the collapse of the Romanov, Ottoman, Habsburg and Hohenzollern empires was seen as a calamity by those on the losing side; not just the militarists, revolutionaries and nationalists who flocked to the new paramilitary movements, but also those (like the Austrian Jewish writers Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig) who feared that the Great War had catastrophically undermined the foundations of European civilisation. The Vanquished is also an uncomfortable reminder that the aftermath of WWI set precedents for the crimes against humanity committed by the Axis powers (and also Stalin’s USSR) during WWII. Gerwarth quotes a Freikorps soldier’s scornful remark that it was laughable for the Weimar Republic’s politicians to claim that the Great War was over, ‘because we were the war’ (p.124). The Vanquished provides a chilling and timely reminder that men like these ended up as participants in or even as instigators of the horrors of a second global conflict.
Srinath Raghavan’s India’s War provides a succinct one-volume account of the Raj’s experience of the Second World War, intertwining military history and strategic commentary with an analysis of the political and socio-economic implications of the war on the Indian people. Raghavan reminds us that India made a massive contribution to the Allied victory in WWII, not just with the enlistment of 2.5m volunteers to serve in the Indian Army, the Royal Indian Navy and the Royal Indian Air Force – fighting in a series of campaigns from the Mediterranean to South-East Asia – but also with the development of the domestic war economy. India’s embroilment in the war also exposed both underlying tensions within the Raj, and also the complacency of the metropolitan and vice-regal governments. Indians were being asked by their British overlords to fight a war for freedom and self-determination, and were also expected to endure the continuation of colonial rule. For Congress and other political parties, for the populace, and for allies such as the USA and Nationalist China, this was a position that was both hypocritical and absurd.
Raghavan’s account of war shows that there was a direct link between India’s contribution to the anti-Axis fight, and the nationalist pressures (notably with the ‘Quit India’ campaign of 1942 and the emergence of Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army) which eventually led to the end of British imperial rule and the traumas of Partition in 1947. India’s War covers campaign history with high politics and diplomacy, as well as impact of the global conflict on the Raj’s communities. In this respect I found myself discovering how little I knew. I was unaware, for example, that the dreadful famine in Bengal in 1943-1944 was mirrored by similar calamities elsewhere in India (notably in Travancore); and that the ‘Quit India’ protests morphed into a proto-insurgency that was only suppressed with exemplary violence by the Indian Army; yet another reminder of the often brutal realities behind the myth of the ‘British Way in Counter-insurgency’. I strongly recommend India’s War to all Second World War specialists and imperial historians, not just for its exemplary scholarship but for its erudition and lucidity. Seventy years on from India and Pakistan’s independence, it is a highly relevant and enlightening work of historical scholarship.
Michael Doran’s Ike’s Gamble provides a provocative revisionist account of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s handling of Middle Eastern politics prior to, during and after the Suez Crisis of 1956, focussing in particular on his administration’s failed efforts to build a relationship with the Egyptian revolutionary and President, Jamal Abdel Nasser. Doran challenges the argument that the USA squandered opportunities to align with Nasser, driving a potential ally into the arms of the Soviets and alienating Egypt from the West. In contrast, he argues that Nasser exploited American naivety both over the protracted diplomatic struggle to close the British base at Suez and also over the Arab-Israeli dispute, and that Eisenhower and his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles erred grossly in presuming that Nasser would reconcile with the USA once the British military occupation of the Canal Zone ended, and if Washington DC could force Israel to make concessions for a peace settlement.
Doran’s thesis is contentious, and I felt there was an implicit comparison being drawn between the 34th US President’s policy towards Egypt and that of the 44th towards Iran. Ike’s Gamble could also have done with a more detailed historical context (explaining, for example, the reasons behind Egyptian nationalist resentment towards the British), and also overlooks the often aggressive policies of Nasser’s adversaries – there is no mention, for example, of the British SIS’s pre-Suez plotting to have Egypt’s President assassinated.
Nonetheless, Doran presents a convincing case that Eisenhower’s administration not only overlooked the significance of regional Arab power politics (not least with Nasser’s ambitions for regional dominance), but also allowed itself to be used by the Egyptian President as a result. There is a narrative of Middle Eastern power politics that presents Arab states, rulers and non-state groups as the helpless playthings of Western imperialist powers, rather than as independent and often proactive actors who can often exploit their ostensible patrons to their own advantage. Doran’s account does act as a corrective to what can be termed the Robert Fisk school of writing, and encourages us to revisit traditional accounts on a crucial period in post-war Middle Eastern history.