By Seva Gunitsky. Princeton NJ: Prnceton University Press, 2017. Reviewed by John Bacher.
Seva Gunitsky’s Aftershocks reveals the big picture behind the most important historical trends of the past hundred years. The tumultuous progress of democracy across the globe, successes and failures in spreading freedom, and the complex machinations of authoritarian regimes to strangle it, are woven together into a vivid tapestry of history.
Gunitsky compelling narrative leads the reader from a world dominated by authoritarian states (led by Imperial Germany on the eve of the First World War) to the current standoff between repressive capitalist states on the one hand and the democratic world on the other hand. He explains that, while the defeat of the authoritarian Ottoman, German and Austrian-Hungarian states in the First World War ignited the first global wave of democracy, incompetent leadership, epitomized by the US refusal to join the League of Nations, frittered this away.
Gunitsky shows how inept fumbling by democratic statesmen—notably U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s refusal to make compromises in ratifying the Treaty of Versailles—led to disastrous rollbacks of the first global democracy wave. As a direct result, some of the world’s most vicious dictators would cooperate with one another, despite their vast ideological differences.
One surprise in Gunitsky’s compelling story is that, after the collapse of Czarist Russia, the democratic states of Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan emerged in the Caucasus. He notes that, “These states aspired to adopt the best practices of democratic rule; Azerbaijan, for instance, became the first Muslim nation to grant female suffrage, adopted a parliament that was elected through parliamentary representation, and included members from Jewish and Armenian minorities.”
In suppressing democracy in the Caucasus region, Communists would align with Islamic autocrats. In December 1920 the Red Army, under the direction of the first Communist dictator Vladimir Lenin, would quash democracy in Armenia in an invasion assisted by Ottoman troops and directed by the last Sultan of the empire, Mehmed VI.
Gunitsky pours out mountains of evidence that, prior to the decisive defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, authoritarians would combine to undermine the efforts of the League of Nations to build a more democratic world order. He points that “Yitzhak Shamir, the future Prime Minister of Israel, was a member of Zionist terrorist groups which attempted to approach the Nazi government to cooperate against the British as late as (astonishingly) 1941.”
At the very time when Shamir was seeking an alliance with Hitler and when the British Commonwealth was alone standing up to Nazi Germany, anti-Semitic fascists across the Arab world were also working closely with Hitler. For example, Iraq’s dictator, Rashi Ali al-Gailani, was “the country’s leading advocate for rapprochement with fascism.” With Hitler’s help he overthrew the government of Iraq, which was recognized by the League of Nations. After a month, the legitimate government’s army ousted him wiith the help of the British.
Gunitsky notes that, “In the Middle East, Nazi influence took the form of cultural exchanges, propaganda efforts, and the patronage of local philofascist movements.” Such Iraqi extremists in 1938 had a delegation to the Nazi Nuremberg rally.
In weaving such a complex tapestry, it is inevitable that some important facts will be omitted. For example, although it fits into his thesis, Gunitsky strangely ignores the important role that financial assistance from the German army played in Lenin’s 1917 coup against the republican Russian government. Despite such gaps, he has set an exemplary pattern for future scholars’ work on the crucial issues of peace and human rights.
Reviewed by John Bacher, an activist based in St Catharines.