I can’t help carping on about the worldwide turmoil in progress while the empires of the West were celebrating peace in November 1918, if only because nobody else seems to be mentioning it. We seem to be living in wild and crazy times today, and no doubt expect them to be remembered as such, but try stripping away the sensationalism built into information overload and comparing modern madness with the everyday news hitting the streets a century ago. With the grim exception of climate change, our apparently seismic social and political shifts can look pretty tame. Starting from where I left off in Germany, Russia, Belgium and Luxembourg, this is some more of what I mean.
On the day that Allied forces entered Luxembourg, 21 November, the German Navy surrendered to the Allies in the Firth of Forth, just off the Royal Navy base at Rosyth. The surrender, and that of some 160 U-boats at Harwich (in batches through the second half of the month), put an end to the only threat to Great Britain’s home security since Napoleon, and was a hugely symbolic moment for the British, whose path to war had been mapped by the rapid rise of German sea power. Given that the Kaiser hanging from a gibbet was off the menu, at least for now, the image of his feared warships tamed was most visible proof of victory available to the British public. The nation rejoiced, but soon had other things on its collective mind.
The following day saw the publication of election manifestos by the two main contenders in the British general election, the Coalition Liberals led by Lloyd George and Andrew Bonar Law’s Conservative Party. Called within twenty-four hours of the Armistice and due to take place in mid-December, the election asked a greatly expanded franchise – including some women for the first time, and millions of men serving overseas – to choose a government fit to rebuild the nation and the world while the party political system in Britain was in a state of unprecedented flux.
Most Conservatives and the majority of Liberals committed to continuation of the wartime coalition stood as ‘Coupon’ candidates – because they carried a coupon identifying them as the coalition’s chosen candidate – and were opposed only by those against the coalition. The latter included a large portion of the new force in British politics, the Labour Party, and a substantial rump of the Liberals, still led by former premier, Herbert Asquith.
Asquith had won the last general election, but that had been back in 1910 and since then his popular stock had fallen a long way, prompting predictions of electoral failure in 1918 from almost everyone but Asquith himself, whose campaign was already being described as complacent and lethargic. Pundits assumed with equal certainty that the Labour Party, which produced its own manifesto on 27 November, would make substantial gains, not least because of the broader franchise, but how well it would do was anybody’s guess. With the future shape and prosperity of the Empire manifestly in the balance, and given that I haven’t even mentioned that it was also an obviously pivotal moment for the future of Ireland, this was one of the most extraordinary and eagerly awaited public votes in British history… and I’ll get back to it.
While the British were all agog with triumph and trepidation, other victorious peoples were taking crucial steps towards nationhood or adherence to a chosen nation. In Zagreb and Belgrade, late November saw urgent attempts to organise a united front of southern Slav peoples in time to make a bloc impact at the forthcoming peace negotiations. The kingdoms of Serbia and Montenegro had been unified in wartime, with the former far and away the more influential partner, but a separate National Council of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs had been established during the War’s last year at Zagreb, where it had proclaimed a Kingdom of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs in March 1918. On 23 November, after hasty negotiations in Geneva and elsewhere, the National Council proclaimed full unification of Serbia and Montenegro into a Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (ah, the wording).
A compromise reached under deadline pressure, created by a body that was self-appointed rather than representative, the new Kingdom was headed by the elderly King Peter of Serbia and came into being when his heir Prince Alexander accepted the Council’s declaration on 1 December – but it pleased neither pan-Slavic nor nationalist elements within its constituent nations and was largely ignored by Britain, France and Italy. Allied troops continued to occupy parts of the territory claimed by the Kingdom (KSCS), occasionally becoming entangled in skirmishes with ragged local defence forces, and although the KSCS went on to send a delegation to Versailles, so did the Kingdom of Serbia. The Big Four (France, Britain, Italy and the US) chose to negotiate with the latter, though the US eventually recognised the KSCS in February 1919, while Britain and France gave it reluctant recognition at the end of the peace process. This was the only means of getting the KSCS to sign the treaty, and of passing responsibility for ongoing disputes about its legitimacy back to the Slavs themselves.
Despite its universal unpopularity and an almost continuous history of instability – including a coup in 1929 by which the then King Alexander established autocratic rule and Serbian dominance of a renamed Yugoslavia – the state would survive until the 1990s, when its tensions would finally explode into bloody civil war, an outcome that was predicted with some confidence by British newspapers and politicians in November 1918.
Meanwhile the disintegration of Germany was unfolding on a daily basis. A workers’ republic of northern German states, with Hamburg as its capital, was proclaimed on 24 November. Three days later the newly proclaimed People’s State of Bavaria, a social democrat regime filling a power vacuum since the flight of King Ludwig III on 7 November, severed relations with Berlin, and on 28 November the Kaiser signed the deed that turned his own flight to the Netherlands into a formal abdication.
Further east, the area that would one day be controlled by the USSR was in a state of dramatic, often dangerous flux, as civil war gathered pace in Russia and regions formerly dominated by the Russian, German or Austro-Hungarian Empires sought to establish their political identity and geographical borders.
The Bukovina region announced its intention to join Romania on 24 November, and a week later King Ferdinand reoccupied Bucharest at the head of his army. In between, on 28 November, Romanian troops retook the much-disputed Dobrudja province from Bulgaria, a move that forced the resignation of liberal Bulgarian premier Malinov. The new Bulgarian premier, Teodor Teodorov, took power the same day and was tasked with simultaneously making clear Bulgaria’s condemnation of its alliance with the Central Powers (a crucial position in the run-up to peace negotiations), maintaining Tsar Boris III in power and appeasing the demands of both nationalists on the right and revolutionaries on the left (principally the Agrarian Union and the Communist Party). He would last until the following October, when revolutionary forces would take control of government without overthrowing the Tsar.
In Poland, the personal prestige of independence campaigner Josef Piludski had helped him form a generally accepted and stable government in the immediate aftermath of the Armistice, but it had territorial ambitions. The first skirmishes of the nine-month Polish-Ukrainian War for control of Galicia’s mixed population were already taking place in November 1918, just as a revolutionary socialist Directorate was taking power in Kiev, while Polish disputes with Lithuania and Russia about the Vilnius region and Belarus would sputter briefly into open warfare before Poland’s Baltic frontiers were set by the 1919 peace treaty.
Poland also sent forces into the northern Czechoslovakian provinces of Spis and Orava during November, and helped foster uprising to support its claims in Silesia, which was eventually partitioned between Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia after a plebiscite imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. Czechoslovakia was meanwhile engaged in border confrontations with Hungary that would spill over into warfare during 1919, and part of the Romanian Army had also entered Hungary in pursuit of territorial claims to Transylvania that culminated in the proclamation of a Romanian-Transylvanian union on 1 December.
I could go on like this for hours, reeling off crisis reports from all corners of a confused world, and still leave out plenty of big news. I won’t. Instead I’ll make the small point that, as mass media commemoration of the Great War issues its last outraged squawks, an explosion of events with far more global significance than trench battles are passing their centenaries on a daily basis. You won’t be hearing much about them from the mainstream, but they’re worth even this brief, partial examination, both as a perspective on the modern world and as a reassuring reminder that we have survived crazier times than these.