The disruptions of 1918 for the populations of Eastern Europe
A history of the memories of the First World War in Europe reveals four key phases in European historians’ analysis of the events. They have moved, at different speeds of course, depending on the locations of the memories, from diplomatic history to social history, and then thirty years ago, from a cultural history to a transnational history of the Great War. Certain recent works bear witness to this desire on the part of contemporary historians to decentralise their accounts, for example La Grande Guerre, une histoire franco-allemande [The Great War, a Franco-German history] by Jean-Jacques Becker and Gerd Krumeich, and the Cambridge History of the First World War edited by Jay Winter. This latter phase, based on the desire to pool points of view in order to find a truth capable of raising itself beyond national visions of the world, is particularly interesting because it unlocks the possibility of truly bringing peace to the wounds inflicted by the conflict. Elsewhere, in more recent decades, we have learned to better understand that the old wounds of a whole century could have remained buried deep in the consciousness of the various peoples if they were not brought to light and tended.
The victors and the vanquished: diverging memories
This new history of the First World War naturally takes account of the fact that the memory of the conflict has not progressed in the same way among the victors and the vanquished. In eastern Europe, the Hungarian state considers the Treaty of Trianon of 4 June 1920 to be a national catastrophe that deprived the Kingdom of Hungary of two-thirds of its territory (Croatia, Ruthenia, Transylvania and parts of Slovenia and Austria). Conversely, every year the Polish government celebrates the 11 November 1918 as the anniversary of re-establishing its sovereignty after its dismemberment by the large empires between 1795 and 1918.
The suffering of Russians in the First world war
On the other hand, the Russian state tends to ignore the First World War for three reasons: firstly, because, despite the commitments made by the Tsarist state, Lenin and Trotsky signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on 3 March 1918 with the German Empire, which ended the war in the east and enabled an exchange of more than 3 million prisoners between the two sides. Secondly, because the Bolshevik power did not respect its own undertakings since, after 17 November 1918, it went on to reconquer Belarus and Ukraine. Finally, because of Marxist historiography, the conflict was explained to the Russian population as nothing but the result of “the bourgeois capitalist culture”, but without responding to legitimate questioning by Russian citizens of the defeats suffered by both the Tsarist regime (especially in 1915) and by the Bolshevik generals (in particular that of General Pilsuski against Poland). Overall, Russia lost more than 1.81 million soldiers during the conflict (compared to 1.39 million French). Add to this the civilian victims (1.5 million) and the wounded (4.95 million), and this makes Russia one of the countries that suffered the most from the First World War.
The tragic history of Ukraine
There is another reason that explains the unease of the Kremlin’s contemporary historiography of the First World War. Contrary to the view expressed by Russian propaganda that Ukraine is not an autonomous state, and that it “always formed part of the Russian Empire”, the events of 1917-1922 reveal the opposing desire of the Ukrainian people to emancipate themselves from the grip of Moscow. On 17 March 1917, the Central Council of Ukraine was established in Kiev, headed by Mykhailo Hrushevsky. This council (the Rada) very soon declared complete independence of Ukraine from Russia, on 22 January 1918. On the same day, the Ukrainian People’s Republic also adopted a sky-blue and yellow flag, the colours of the Ukrainian movement since the revolution of 1848 in Galicia, and a coat-of-arms showing the trident of the princes of Kiev. Ukraine was subsequently invaded and conquered by the Bolshevik government, then forcefully integrated into the USSR in 1922 (with the addition of Galicia from 1945). But throughout its history from that date onwards, Ukraine has wanted to return to the spring of 1917, to emancipate itself from Russian control and to be established as a European nation state. The current conflict, in which Ukraine is opposing Russia in Crimea, Donbass and the Sea of Azov, may be considered a far-reaching consequence of the tragic events of 1918.
Thus, although for some countries in western Europe, 11 November 1918 is a date for celebration, of the end of the First World War and of national resurrection (Poland), conversely, for other countries this date signifies the end of an empire (Hungary) or of the dream of a nation state (Ukraine).
Director of Research at the Collège des Bernardins
Histoire de la conscience européenne [History of the European Consciousness], edited by Antoine Arjakovsky, Paris, Salvator, 2016.
Translated from the original text in French
The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Social Centre.