A year of anxiety and upheaval – An Irishman’s Diary on 1919
The “big three” at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919: French president Paul Clemenceau, US president Woodrow Wilson and British prime minister David Lloyd-George.
Many may be feeling some anxiety about the uncertainties ahead in the year to come but at least we can be grateful that we weren’t around this time 100 years ago, when Europe faced into a period of great uncertainty. Indeed, in January 1919, there were few countries in Europe that didn’t experience some instability, our own included.
The aftermath of such a massive conflict as the first World War was bound to have witnessed enormous economic and social dislocation anyway but the break-up of four major empires – the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman – greatly exacerbated this instability and explains why central and eastern Europe experienced the worst of the upheavals.
Adding to the chaos was the voluntary movement and enforced transfer of groups of people (what today would be euphemistically called “ethnic cleansing“) resulting from the collapse of those empires and the emergence of new states. Large numbers of Europeans became refugees, eventually leading to the creation of “Nansen passports” or, as they were officially known, “stateless persons’ passports”.
Defeated Germany was extremely volatile politically, socially and economically. The Social Democratic Party (SDP) was officially in power but faced many challenges, not least from groups on the extreme left, such as the Spartacist League, which wished to turn Germany into a soviet republic on the Russian model. Between January 5th and 12th, the Sparticists staged an uprising in Berlin.
It was led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg and succeeded in mobilising large numbers of workers but it was brutally suppressed by the regular army and what were called the Freikorps (anti-communist paramilitary groups, made up mainly of ex-soldiers), who murdered both Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Similar uprisings in Bremen, the Ruhr, the Rhineland, Saxony, Hamburg and Thuringia were also suppressed.
On January 5th, Anton Drexler and Karl Harrer founded the German Workers’ Party (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, DAP), forerunner of the Nazi Party, in Munich. Working as an intelligence agent for the German army at the time, Adolf Hitler was sent to spy on the DAP during the summer of 1919. Attracted to Drexler’s anti-Semitism, anti-capitalism, anti-Marxism and nationalism, he joined the party in September.
Czechoslovak Legions occupied much of the city of Pressburg (now Bratislava) on January 1st. The city, which was majority German and Hungarian rather than Slovak, had proclaimed itself a “free city” rather than be incorporated into the new postwar state of Czechoslovakia. Despite its birth pangs, Czechoslovakia was one of the few newly formed states to remain a democracy between the wars.
The Russian civil war, which had broken out the year before, continued throughout January 1919, with fierce fighting between the Red Army and the White Army particularly in the Caucasus. The terrible conflict, when it came to and end in 1922, left a minimum of seven million dead, most of those civilians.
The Estonian war of independence also continued throughout the month, as Estonian forces repelled a Soviet Russian invasion to preserve the country’s recently proclaimed independence.
From January 23rd to February 1st, the “Khotyn Uprising” of Ukrainians in northern Bessarabia against their incorporation into the Kingdom of Romania occurred; up to 15,000 were killed in its brutal suppression by Romanian forces.
Ireland was not immune from the upheaval going on in the rest of Europe. On January 21st, representatives of Sinn Féin, elected in the previous month’s general election, gathered at Dublin’s Mansion House to form the first Dáil Éireann, thus fulfilling the dream of the party’s founder, Arthur Griffith, that elected Irish public representatives would no longer attend Westminster but set up their own parliament in Ireland.
On the very same day, what are generally regarded as the first shots in the Irish War of Independence were fired when at Soloheadbeg in Co Tipperary, members of the Third Tipperary Brigade of the Irish Volunteers shot dead two Royal Irish Constabulary policemen who were escorting a consignment of gelignite to a local quarry and escaped with the explosive. The establishment of the Dáil and the Soloheadbeg ambush, occurring on the same day, symbolise the nature of the independence struggle that followed in that it was to have both non-violent and violent dimensions.
Add to all of the above the continuation of the deadly influenza pandemic that that had started the year before and we can thank our lucky stars that we weren’t around 100 years ago.
Of course, climate change threatens far worse catastrophe than anything experienced by our European counterparts a century ago but it feels somehow more remote, or perhaps our capacity for self-delusion has grown in the interim.