Uncovering the First World War. Dublin: International Society for First World War Studies in association with Trinity College Dublin, 23.09.2005-25.09.2005.
Reviewed by Alexander Watson
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (January, 2006)
Uncovering the First World War
At a time when the memory of joint participation in the Great War is being mobilised as a basis of shared identity between Irish people living in Northern Ireland and those in the Republic, the choice of Trinity College, Dublin, as the venue for the International Society for First World War Studies’ third conference on 23-25 September 2005 seemed particularly fitting. The conference, entitled ‘Uncovering the First World War’, aimed, in the organisers’ words, to ‘contribute to the comparative and interdisciplinary study of the Great War and help foster international collaboration and exchanges between different generations of historians.’ http://www.tcd.ie/Modern_History/wwi.php The initial call for papers elicited more than one hundred responses, from which nineteen graduate participants working at universities in seven different countries were selected. All of their papers were circulated in advance, reviewed and analysed during the conference by a more senior historian and then opened up for discussion among the eighty other participants and listeners. A selection of papers will be published in a forthcoming volume. Messages to presenters can be forwarded through the conference web address: email@example.com.
The broad range of subjects presented at the conference were divided into seven groups, variously entitled (i) ‘Perceptions of War in Britain’, (ii) ‘Wartime Faith Cultures’, (iii) ‘Experiences of Occupation’, (iv) ‘The Social and Moral Economy of War’, (v) ‘Imperial Identity and Wartime Mobilisation’ (vi) ‘Military Cultures and Combat Experience’ and (vii) ‘Portrayals of War’. Had the papers not been so skilfully selected, such diversity might have made the conference too diffuse. Instead, a common concern with mentalities united the presentations; war cultures, perceptions and portrayals of conflict and their effect on soldiers’ and civilians’ behaviour provided a constant framework within which the First World War was considered. Two innovations introduced by the organisers aided this continuity and furthered the conference’s declared aims. On the first evening, a ‘Keynote Address’ was given by Professor Isabel V. Hull (Cornell) on ‘Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany’. This lecture not only provided a fascinating insight into how the German army’s unique concern with annihilation influenced its conduct and performance in and outside of battle but also acted as a point of reference to which participants returned throughout the conference. The ‘Round Table Discussion’ held the following evening on the proposition ‘That National History of the First World War is Redundant’ also encouraged participants to grapple with cultures – in this case, those which shape their own historical interests and perceptions – and did much to further the twin conference aims of promoting dialogue between historians of different nationalities and generations. The appointed speakers, Professors Annette Becker (Paris-X, Nanterre), Gerhard Hirschfeld (Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte and Stuttgart), Gerd Krumeich (Düsseldorf) and Ms. Jane Leonard (Ulster Museum, Belfast) all sided with the proposal, provoking a vigorous discussion with the audience. Issues raised included the importance and difficulties of creating a European or global history of the war, the historian’s duty to address the public’s often distinctively national concerns and the influence of national preoccupations even on historians researching explicitly international comparative topics. When the chair, Professor John Horne (Trinity College, Dublin), called the assembled to a vote, the proposal was firmly rejected – a good reflection of the International Society’s openness to scholarly concerns outside its own comparative historical agenda.
To turn to the papers themselves: the first group, ‘Perceptions of War in Britain’, focused on how one European society comparatively isolated from direct experience of the fighting understood its accompanying violence. Jo Laycock (Manchester) investigated the reception to news of the Armenian massacres in Britain between 1915-18. Reports of the genocide, she argues, were coloured by negative orientalist stereotypes, a new discourse on ‘war atrocities’ and a propagandistic concern to hold responsible not only the Ottoman government but also the Germans. Rebecca Gill’s (Manchester) paper examined how Britain’s population and government reacted to the arrival of a quarter of a million Belgian refugees. Charitable donations declined as the romantic image of Belgians as ‘helpless’ victims of German brutality quickly faded and, as government intervention became necessary, the new arrivals’ ability to negotiate their status decreased and the conceptual distinction between ‘citizens’ and ‘refugees’ hardened. Although sympathy for refugees dissipated quickly, the great initial impact of Belgium’s occupation on Britons was underlined by Catríona Pennell (Trinity College, Dublin), who presented a fascinating microstudy of the invasion fear felt in South-East England in 1914. The government took the possibility of attack by sea seriously and for men in Essex, the notional threat from the Germans to their homes provided a major impulse to enlist.
The following papers on ‘Wartime Faith Cultures’ had a more military flavour, due to Edward Madigan’s (Trinity College, Dublin) and Peter Anthony Boyle’s (National University of Ireland, Maynooth) research on, respectively, Anglican and Catholic chaplains in the British army. Both argued convincingly against received wisdom that these men had played a vital role in supporting troop morale on active service. The discussion of these two papers raised a number of interesting issues, including the perceived conflict between the role of military chaplains and Christian teaching and the reasons for the better reputation of Catholic priests at the front. The final paper in this section, presented by Sarita Cargas (Wolfson College, Oxford), moved away from this military-institutional focus, instead investigating the broader trend of religious belief during the Great War and refuting Modris Ekstein’s and Samuel Hynes’ claims that the war had precipitated a new period of anti-religious ‘modernism’.
In the session dedicated to ‘experiences of occupation’, the papers focused particularly on the relationships between military authorities and civilians in defeated countries. Lisa Mayerhofer (Munich) shed light on the complex relations between the native population and their German conquerors in Romania between 1916-18. Although some political elites were repressed, persecution and hostility were by no means universal. Local communities often integrated German soldiers, the resulting collaboration leading to the dictates of higher occupation authorities being ignored or circumvented for mutual profit. The lack of totalitarian control by the central authorities over occupied populations was also a theme in the subsequent two papers. Jovana Knežević (Yale) explained how the Austro-Hungarian authorities in Belgrade avoided vain attempts at repression by encouraging peacetime forms of entertainment to conciliate the population and distract it from hardships and shortages. Nor, in German occupied Belgium, as Aurore François (Université Catholique de Louvain) demonstrated in her paper on the treatment of underage prostitutes in Brussels’ Tribunal des Enfants, were the conquerors able to disregard totally the views of the subject people. Occupation was always a two-way dialogue, albeit between unequal interlocutors.
The underlying theme of mentalities was perhaps most pronounced in the group of papers focusing on ‘The Social and Moral Economy of the War’. Claudia Siebrecht (Trinity College, Dublin) investigated the portrayal of the mater dolorosa by female German artists, explaining how these women expressed their view of themselves as active participants rather than passive bystanders in their nation’s sacrifice. François Bouloc (Université de Toulouse – Le Mirail) focused in his paper on wartime perceptions of ‘war profiteers’, asking what exactly constituted this well-known yet indistinct figure. Finally, in her paper on the Republican portrayal of the war in Weimar Germany, Vanessa Ther (Trinity College, Dublin) discussed the efforts of the democratic left to promulgate its memory of the conflict on society. Characterised by pacifism, the vilification of the old military elites and rejection of the ‘Stab in the Back’ theory, this distinctively Republican view of the war failed to dominate Weimar because, unlike competing right-wing explanations, it presented no solutions to the reality of defeat.
Given the Eurocentric focus of much First World War historiography, it was refreshing to hear the first paper in the session ‘Imperial Identity and Wartime Mobilisation’, presented by Daniel Steinbach (Humboldt Universität zu Berlin), on the experiences of German settlers in East and South-West Africa. Focusing on the concept of Heimat, he analysed the complex identity of these overseas Germans and explained how they responded to the advent of hostilities and the loss of their land. The second paper, by Jan Vermeiren (University College London), focused on a neglected subject closer to home: the transitory boost given to the notion of Großdeutschland provided by the Austro-German alliance in 1914. The ethnic ‘brotherhood’ uniting the two empires was briefly celebrated in both the intellectual and public spheres, contributing to the initial ideological mobilisation for war.
No First World War conference would be complete without an examination of the Western Front, and the session on ‘Military Cultures and Combat Experience’ presented some exciting new research. Alex Watson (Balliol College, Oxford) reassessed German junior leadership during the war, arguing that the officer corps’ aristocratic ethos, far from inciting inter-rank strife, actually supported good relations by encouraging a paternalistic concern for subordinates’ welfare. Wencke Meteling (Tübingen) analysed the effect of the unexpectedly bloody fighting on French and German regimental cultures, contending that high casualties among peacetime personnel and the new demands of trench warfare encouraged more technical and rational approaches to war. Finally, George Morton Jack (Oxford) presented much needed research on the Indian troops who fought with the British on the Western Front during 1914-15. Examining their conditions of service and combat motivation, he demonstrated that their battlefield performance and contribution to Britain’s war effort has been vastly underrated.
The closing session focused on ‘Portrayals of War’. Joëlle Beurier (European University Institute, Florence) investigated the French illustrated press’ presentation of the fighting, highlighting its often vivid images of violent death at the front and examining the workings of censorship and propaganda. While such pictures were presumably meant primarily to influence adults’ perceptions of wartime conditions, Sonja Müller’s (Stuttgart) highly original work on wartime board games and juvenile literature shed light on how children in Germany and Britain were co-opted into the ideological mobilisation for war conducted by all belligerents. The manufacture of these items was not sponsored by governments but rather motivated by profit; the messages they disseminated nonetheless reflected the particular war aims and concerns of each society.
The conference organisers, as Professor Horne acknowledged in his closing address, performed an impressive feat in bringing together such a wide range of graduate scholars and established historians from all over the world. The diversity of the topics under discussion and the continued special relevance of the First World War to the present – a point underlined by a concluding visit to the recently renovated Irish National War Memorial at Islandbridge – made ‘Uncovering the First World War’ an exceptionally successful and important conference. The high quality research presented and the fruitful debate it engendered serve as a fitting reminder that the best way forward in the endeavour to understand the hostilities of ninety years ago is by international cooperation.
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