Wednesday, April 23, 2014

World War I: The Fate of Monarchy

As most know, prior to the First World War, the world was a much more monarchist place. Some seemingly timeless monarchies had fallen before the war (such as in China and Portugal) and more would actually fall in the aftermath of World War II rather than World War I. However, there was a very definite shift away from monarchy after the First World War, particularly in Europe, as well as a shift away from liberal democracy, capitalism and traditional religion as all of these ideas, as well as monarchy, were seen as having “failed” to prevent the catastrophe that was the First World War and the bungled aftermath of it which, rather than preventing future disasters, simply paved the way for an even more destructive conflict to come over an even greater portion of the world. So, what were the fates of those monarchies involved in the First World War? Here is a brief summary:

The Allied Nations:

The U.K. & British Empire: Survived the war and came away with a lot of new territory. However, there was a big upswing in socialism and anti-monarchy sentiment toward the end, led in large part by the trade unions, that was the cause of great concern for King George V and which was partly behind the refusal of sanctuary to the Romanovs. It also placed Britain heavily in debt to the United States which did not bode well for the future and caused Britain to abandon her traditional aloofness from the continent of Europe to become more involved in European affairs.

The Russian Empire: Completely destroyed before the war was finished. The Romanovs were ultimately massacred by the Soviets, Russia suffered extensive territorial losses (which were only partly recovered with the ultimate Allied victory) and fell into civil war after it was over. To make matters worse, the good guys lost and the Soviet Union was established as a major power and helped to bring down monarchy in Mongolia in 1921, the first instance of many monarchies that would fall prey to communist aggression and become Soviet puppet-states.

The Kingdom of Italy: Although it came close to disaster, the Italians recovered and came back to deliver the death-blow to Austria-Hungary. The King was cheered as the champion of the Italian soldier and possibly the most powerful monarch in Europe after World War I (much of the competition had been eliminated). However, while some territory was added to the Italian frontier, promised gains were not delivered and communist revolution seemed imminent.

The Kingdom of Serbia: Despite being totally conquered and having their army driven into the sea, the Serbs emerged as one of the biggest winners of World War I with extensive territorial gains at the expense of Austria-Hungary. The “Greater Serbia” that Serb nationalists had long dreamed of was realized with the creation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918 later to be known as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia under the rule of the Serbian Royal Family. However, this saddled Serbia with many of the same problems that had plagued Austria-Hungary and the region has continued to know precious little peace and friendliness.

The Kingdom of Montenegro: Despite not being on the best terms with the Serb Royal Family, the King of Montenegro was the first to rush to their defense against Austria-Hungary. His reward was to see his country conquered by the Austrians and, after the war, handed over to Serbia as part of the new Yugoslavia. King Nicholas I never accepted this and spent the rest of his life in exile in France. His grandson would later reconcile with Yugoslavia.

The Kingdom of Romania: Again, despite being conquered by the combined forces of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria, the Romanians ended up doing quite well, being rewarded with vast amounts of mostly Hungarian territory. Romania became “Greater Romania” by the stroke of a pen. It ended up twice as large but with bitter neighbors and many spiteful minorities to deal with. Nearly 30% of the population was non-Romanian and the divisions this caused helped bring about a greater shift toward authoritarian politics.

The Empire of Japan: The Japanese bore the brunt of the fighting against the German presence in Asia, escorted British imperial convoys to Europe and helped put down a mutiny against the British in Singapore. Japan gained some German islands in the Pacific, benefited from the loss of Russian competition in Manchuria but was angered by American efforts to deny them any spoils at all as well as being offended by the Allied refusal to include a clause asserting racial equality in the Versailles Treaty. An economic downturn and Britain breaking off the Anglo-Japanese alliance worked with these events to encourage a more belligerent, anti-western attitude.

The Kingdom of Belgium: Few others emerged from the Great War with so much world-wide admiration as the Belgian King Albert I. His prestige was immense for leading his little country in a seemingly hopeless stand against German might, fighting on throughout the war on the last unoccupied (and soggy) patch of Belgian soil. Belgium gained some minor territory from Germany and Rwanda and Burundi in Africa and despite liberating a country in ruins, the country recovered fairly quickly. What could not be easily recovered was the question concerning whether true Belgian security was served by alliances or a return to traditional neutrality.

The Kingdom of Greece: The Greek King wanted to stay out of the war but he seemed to be the only one. The Allies invaded, rebels and royalists clashed in the streets and King Constantine was forced to abdicate. He later came back but this caused Allied support for the Greeks to collapse after the First World War was over and the Turkish territory promised to Greece was lost. The Turks even conquered some Greek territory in the aftermath, forcing the Greek populations to flee. It was an ugly end to a war that matched the unsavory way the country had first entered the conflict; divided and fighting amongst itself. Anti-royalist forces went on a rampage and a second republic was proclaimed in 1924.

The Kingdom of Siam: Although the Thai contribution to the war was minor, Siam (Thailand) did send a small expeditionary force to the western front and declared war on the Central Powers both to gain the appreciation of Britain and France and to strengthen Thai unity and a sense of nationalism. This was a long-term goal of the reign of King Vajiravudh and, at first, it seemed to work, rescuing the monarchy from a low point and restoring prestige. However, no concrete gains were made by the war and the ensuing financial disaster hit Thailand hard so that, in the end, the monarchy was no better off and the next king became the only Siamese monarch in history to ever abdicate the throne.

The Central Powers:

The Empire of Austria-Hungary: The war had started with Austria-Hungary and it was Austria-Hungary that was to suffer more than any other of the defeated Central Powers as it completely ceased to exist as a result. The Hapsburgs were driven into exile, Austria and Hungary were separated and reduced to small states surrounded by new and often less than friendly countries. Centuries of Hapsburg rule in central Europe had come to an end and the feuding ethnicities and nationalities that the Austrian Emperors had tried to keep under control were set free. Communist forces almost took over in both countries but were eventually stopped by the rise of a regency in Hungary (who nonetheless refused to restore the monarchy) and the so-called “Austro-Fascist” state in Vienna.

The German Empire: Despite the absurdity of it, Germany was held to blame for the entire conflict and suffered extensive territorial losses. The empire was destroyed, all the monarchies were overthrown in a wave of leftist, Marxist agitation that was only suppressed with great brutality by returning war veterans. All German colonies were lost and territory was lost to almost every neighbor but particularly France and Poland. The Kaiser went into exile in the Netherlands and was almost put on trial as a war criminal but the Dutch Queen refused to allow his extradition. The republic that agreed to the terms of Versailles was doomed to failure.

The Kingdom of Bulgaria: The only monarchy of the Central Powers to survive the war was Bulgaria but it was a very close run thing. Rebellion had spread throughout the country and the army with some leaders even proclaiming a republic. However, it was finally enough that Tsar Ferdinand III abdicated in favor of his child son Boris III. Bulgaria surrendered, lost all territorial gains and the access to the Aegean Sea it had gained before the war to Greece. Sadly, the Bulgarian monarchy would not be lucky a second time when the next world war came to an end.

The Ottoman Empire: Most people had counted out the Ottoman Empire at the start of the war and not a few were surprised by the several stunning victories won by Ottoman forces. The wartime Sultan Mehmed V died in the summer of 1918 and it was left to Sultan Mehmed VI to preside over the total dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. The Arab lands were partitioned between Britain and France and the nationalists denounced the Sultan for agreeing to the Allied terms. A new government was set up and in 1922 the monarchy was abolished and the last Sultan was exiled from Constantinople.

Neutral Monarchies:

The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg: Although occupied by Germany, Luxembourg did not offer resistance nor ever officially join the Allies though eventually the German plan was to annex Luxembourg in the event of a Central Powers victory. Most monarchists know that Grand Duchess Marie-Adelaide was eventually forced to abdicate for having been seen as being too friendly toward the Germans but not many know that there was a real danger of Luxembourg being annexed by either France or Belgium and that Luxembourg radicals almost brought down the monarchy. The socialists actually declared a republic and order under the existing government was only restored by the intervention of French troops. For not having been officially involved, the Luxembourg monarchy was very nearly lost because of World War I.

Potential Monarchies:

The United Baltic Duchy: This was part of the effort by Germany to create a buffer between the German heartland and Soviet Russia as well as, in the words of Hindenburg, to have a place to anchor the left flank of the German army in the next war against the communists. The idea was to combine Estonia and Latvia into a monarchy called the United Baltic Duchy that would be in personal union with the Kingdom of Prussia. In charge of the duchy was to have been Duke Adolf Friedrich of Mecklenburg-Schwerin but, of course, the Allied victory meant the idea never came to fruition.

The Kingdom of Lithuania: For much of 1918 the German forces in Lithuania presided over a short-lived independent monarchy after Lithuania was detached from Russia. Duke Wilhelm of Urach was chosen in the summer to become King Mindaugas II of Lithuania but he never visited the country and after the collapse of Germany the Lithuanians took back the offer to make him their king.

The Kingdom of Finland: When the Russian Empire collapsed into revolution, the Germans gave aid to the White faction and royalist Finns resisting a Soviet takeover. The result was the short-lived Kingdom of Finland or at least the attempt at such. It was to be reigned over by Prince Friedrich Karl of Hesse, however the downfall of Germany and the victory of the Allies caused the Finns to scrap the idea of monarchy and adopt a republican form of government.

The Kingdom of Poland: After driving out the Russians, Germany and Austria-Hungary recognized a nominal Kingdom of Poland under a regency of pro-German officials. Austria-Hungary had first wanted Poland partitioned and later there were disagreements between Germany and Austria-Hungary over who should be the new King of Poland with each side proposing more than one candidate. In the end, the Allies were victorious and the idea of a monarchy collapsed before a monarch could be decided on.

The Hetmanate of Ukraine: Also known simply as the Ukrainian State, this was the short-lived effort in 1918 to create an independent Ukraine that was friendly to the Central Powers. Officially it was more like a Cossack military dictatorship than an actual monarchy, but based on the subsequent history of the family, it was essentially to be a monarchial state with the office of Hetman being hereditary. The Austrians had wanted a Hapsburg as King of Ukraine but the Germans favored the Hetman, Pavlo Skoropadskyi, who had deep family ties in the Ukraine. In the end, the Hetman was overthrown by the socialists and Ukraine was absorbed by the Soviet Union. An independent Belarus was also declared under German occupation but it was, from the outset, republican.

The Principality of Albania: The status of Albania was ambiguous throughout World War I. The original independent leader of Albania, Prince Wilhelm, was driven out of the country shortly before the war started. He wished to regain his throne, Austria-Hungary wished to absorb Albania and many local Muslims wished to reunite with Ottoman Turkey. In the end, the Allies agreed to partition Albania with most becoming an Italian protectorate. Eventually, a Kingdom of Albania was established after the war by President Ahmed Zogu.

The Dervish State: This was a nominal Islamic monarchy which claimed sovereignty over parts of Italian and British Somalia and the Empire of Ethiopia led by Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, the so-called “Mad Mullah”. Recognized by the German and Ottoman Empires it was part of an effort by the Germans and Turks to bring the Horn of Africa under Central Powers control, mostly in the name of Ottoman Turkey. It was defeated by Italo-British colonial forces and Somalis loyal to Italy.

German Intrigues:

Ireland: During World War I the German Empire sent weapons and support to the Irish by submarine in an effort to encourage rebellion against Great Britain. This resulted in the failed Easter Rising of 1916 which, although considered a sort of birthday of the Irish republic, also had a monarchist element to it. Because success was seen to depend on the victory and goodwill of the Germans, some backed the idea of making Ireland a monarchy with the Kaiser’s son Prince Joachim as King.

China: There was plenty of monarchist activity in China while World War I was raging. In 1916 the General-turned-President Yuan Shihkai declared himself “Emperor of China” only to face an immediate backlash and his hasty retreat a few months later. When the Republic of China voted to declare war on Germany, one of the reasons given was supposed German support for a restoration of the monarchy under the old Manchu dynasty. In 1917 the last Qing Emperor was restored by a monarchist general but this lasted less than 2 weeks before republican forces crushed the effort.

There were, of course, numerous other German intrigues, from efforts to encourage a rebellion in India to the proposal to have Mexico declare war on the United States and persuade Japan to betray the Allies and join the Central Powers. However, other schemes did not involve monarchies or efforts to restore monarchies but were republican in nature.

In the end, it is hard to see any real gain for the cause of monarchy by the First World War. Some monarchs came out of it with great prestige (like King Albert in Belgium) but the benefits were often illusory. Many monarchies were lost and even those that survived were left in a position of being overstretched, almost broke and beholden to foreign powers. Others emerged victorious but embittered that their meager gains did not match their extensive losses. For some, their victory caused them to have an exaggerated sense of strength and importance that did not serve them well in the long run. In short, for the cause of monarchy as well as the cause of the world in general, the Great War was disaster that left both victor and vanquished in a terrible position; it would just take the victors longer to realize it.


  1. The King of Yugoslavia was also a grandson of King Nicholas of Montenegro who was among the first to advocate the idea of the unification of southern Slavs - it was only that he hoped to be on the throne of Yugoslavia. The fact that he disbanded the armed forces and fled gave precedence to the dynasty from Serbia who stuck with the troops and fought to the bitter end - my great grandfather was a soldier of Montenegro who, like most of his colleagues, refused to surrender, joined the army that did not leave them out to dry and got the chance to liberate his hometown from Austrians when the counteroffensive had commenced.

  2. You forgot the Emirate of Bukhara. The Soviet Communists overthrew the Bukharan Emir and expelled him to Afghanistan.

    1. I forgot one other monarchy. The Khanate of Khiva was another Central Asian Muslim monarchy which was under the protectorate of the Russian Empire. The Soviet Communists overthrew the last Khan of Khiva Sayid Abdullah like they did to Bukharan Emir Mohammed Alim Khan in 1920.

      Those two monarchies were the rightful rulers of what is now Uzbekistan.

  3. The Sultan of Darfur Ali dinar also sided with the Central Powers and as a result he was killed in action during a battle with the British and the Darfur Sultanate's Keira Dynasty was deposed by Britain. His descendants live in Sudan today.

    The Saudi royals also seized on the aftermath of the war to absorb the lands of two Sharifian monarchies - the Kingdom of Hejaz and Idrisid Emirate of Asir.

    The Hashemites of Hejaz, the Hashemites of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen, the Idrisids of Asir, the Senussi Idrisids of Libya, and the Alaouites of Morocco are all members of the Sharifian family- descendants of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad.

    The Saudi royal family were not Sharifian and they were alarmed by Sharif Hussein's declaration of a Caliphate in Hejaz in 1924. Saudi Arabia then quickly moved to eliminate the newfound Caliphate of Hejaz and the threat to their prestige.


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