Neutrality

The First World War was the first global conflict. Through a complex network of connections between royal families, empires and their colonies, global finances and production, many countries became entangled in the war. It became a catastrophe: costing many millions of lives, leaving many economies destroyed, and replacing European hegemony with an American one. The war led also to the uprooting of monarchic systems, it questioned colonial dependencies and gender roles, and stimulated the emergence of democratic national states. Only very few countries managed to stay out of the war and remained neutral until the end of the conflict. Due to the global character of war, no country was unaffected by it. In particular, small neutral counties had to strike a balance between the belligerents and remain on friendly terms with both sides of the conflict. For the belligerents, neutral countries were potential friends or enemies; they may have had to choose sides thus changing the balance of power and, potentially, the outcome of war. Their moral support or condemnation was also important for international judgement of certain aspects of war. Each side of the conflict tried to convince the neutrals of their reasons for and methods of fighting the war, to win their sympathy and support.

Neutral countries became theatres of a propaganda war, that tried to reach all social strata. Intellectuals were the target of multi-faceted propaganda campaigns, consisting of carefully edited books, lectures, concerts,and art exhibitions. The ‘middle-brow’ public was targeted with translations of popular literature, illustrated magazines, and the daily press, while film was mainly considered to be a ‘low-brow’ medium, unsophisticated but able to reach and move the masses. At the same time, intellectuals, journalists, writers, and filmmakers from neutral countries developed propaganda that was designed to maintain neutrality. It focused on convincing compatriots and the belligerent nations about the uniqueness of their own culture, their ability to mediate between the belligerents, and their ability to defend the country.

The neutrality of these countries, which deliberately chose to stay out of the war, was threatened not only by neighbouring belligerent counties attempting to win their support, but also by many expatriates from the colonies were establishing centres of anti-colonial activity in non-belligerent countries. Radical activists from anti-colonial movements were often supported by the German Empire, which aimed to destabilise the existing colonial order. According to Germany's agenda, colonial unrest would both keep the Allied countries occupied by internal conflicts and facilitate a new world order under German supremacy. For this purpose, Germany secretly infiltrated neutral territories to transport weapons, pamphlets, and radical intellectuals to British, French, Italian, and Russian colonies.

As the war progressed, the meaning of neutrality changed radically. At the start of the war, countries which stayed out of the conflict were perceived as morally superior and predestined to judge about the justness of war Yet in the final phase of the conflict, they were generally seen as immoral and lacking a sense of solidarity or the ability to make sacrifices for a greater good. Their ambition to stay out of the conflict proved anachronistic; a rise of democratic and socialist movements, which questioned the structures of power, enforced some structural changes in these neutral countries. The neutrals emerged from war with not only a greater sense of global connections and obligations, but also with a better understanding of national values.

Tessa Lobbes