Review: The Splintered Empires: The Eastern Front, 1917-21, Prit Buttar

By Andy Veo


June 28, 2019, marked a century since the signing of the Versailles Treaty. That famous document was supposed to have ended, what H.G. Wells famously called, the “war to end all wars.” 

If only it were that simple.

Many overlook the fact that the treaty ended hostilities in only one theatre of conflict. There was still the matter of the war’s Eastern Front. As author Prit Buttar details in The Splintered Empires, that theatre of conflict would not end so quickly. 

The Splintered Empires analyses the revolutionary upheaval and nationalist struggle that consumed Eastern Europe from 1917 through 1921. The “splintered empires” Buttar’s title refers to are those of Austria, Germany, and Russia. All three imperial monarchies entered the First World War, but none of them survived it. 

Buttar opens with a summary of the Eastern Front from the outbreak of hostilities in summer 1914 to the opening winter of 1917. Social, economic, and political tension resurfaced as inept leadership wasted hundreds of thousands of lives in failed campaigns. Such failure would bring decisive consequence for the rulers behind it.

As the author summaries:

Although many military thinkers feared that a major war between the Great Powers might prove to be a drawn-out affair, they were outnumbered by those who believed that offensive tactics would allow for a swift victory. Instead, the continent was condemned to a drawn-out war of attrition that ended with the three great empires that dominated Central and Eastern Europe...all being destroyed and replaced by republics. From their peripheral fragments were born the states that formed complex new patterns and alliances....many of these found themselves at each other’s throats as they struggled with competing claims and expectations. [Pg. 431]

Buttar sees personification in these powers’ early failures. Vienna had its person in Conrad von Hötzendorf, Austria’s Chief of the General Staff, who micromanaged one disaster after another distant from the front. Berlin had Erich von Falkenhayn, Hötzendorf’s German counterpart, whose attritionary warfare bled the German army without gain. Lastly, Petrograd had Emperor Nikolai II, who assumed overall command of his army with plenty of dismissiveness but no military expertise. 

Incompetent leadership swept away the patriotism seen at the war’s outbreak. The Austrian monarchy contended with a resurgent ethnic nationalism from the likes of Croats, Czechs, and Serbs. Russia’s emperor contended with a nationalist drive from his Baltic, Finnish, and Polish subjects, as well as from anarchists and socialists. Even Germany’s ruler, largely free from ethnic strife, faced parliamentary resolutions demanding armistice and a sailors’ mutiny in the port city of Kiel.

The Russians were the first to fold. Emperor Nikolai’s stubborn refusal to change course and respond to domestic upheaval alienated him from his generals and nobility. Protests erupted in Petrograd in January 1917, and followed labor strikes, and then mutinies. The country was in an upswell of revolution by February. Once his Cossack battalions and imperial guards joined the revolt, Nikolai had no choice but to abdicate in March.

It was too late for abdication by then. Strikers and mutineers embraced radical ideas, forming soviets (socialist governing councils) that challenged a provisional republic trying to maintain order. The monarchy was forever gone, its royalty imprisoned, and a troubled dyarchy at helm. “Herein lay the biggest problem for Russia after the revolution,” Buttar writes, “power was effectively shared between the two bodies, each of which drew its support from a different part of the population, and the failure to resolve the resultant tensions would ultimately lead to further unrest.” [Pg. 100] 

That further unrest became a second revolution led by Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik faction in November. That revolution tore Russia apart, allowing the likes of Azeris, Estonians, and Ukrainians a chance for independence. 

Revolution would eventually sweep away the Austrian Hapsburg and German Hohenzollern monarchies as well. A wave of Allied offensives in autumn 1918 was the tipping point, triggering riots and mutinies over the many shortages of essentials. Germany’s emperor, Wilhelm II, abdicated on November 9. Austria’s emperor, Karl, followed soon after. 

Yet war continued for three more years. The Bolsheviks renounced their treaty with the Central Powers, signed at Brest-Litovsk in 1918, and tried to take back relinquished territory. The large cities of Narva, Riga, Kiev, and Vilnius became battlegrounds. Estonians, Latvians, and Poles fought to retain independence and widen their turf, while Germans and Russians jumped back into the fray. 

Hostilities among the competing powers ceased by 1921. But the specter of communist revolution loomed. Ottokar Černín, an Austrian diplomat, summarized bitterly in 1919: 

The Entente [Allied Powers], who would not allow the war to end and kept up the blockade for months after the cessation of hostilities, has made Bolshevism a danger to the world. War is its father, famine its mother, despair its godfather. The poison of Bolshevism will course in the veins of Europe for many a long year. [Pg. 435]

All told, Buttar’s history of an epilogue–just one epilogue–of the First World War bears many qualities a few faults. It’s a detailed, well-paced account of a critical chapter in the twentieth century. The consequences of that violent chapter still reverberate, for better or worse.