Intellectual Exchange

In cultural life, the Great War gave rise to movements of withdrawal and rapprochement. On one hand, the conflict obstructed international dialogue among intellectuals. As nationalism rose, borders were closed and former friends became enemies. But on the other hand, the conflict also created new spaces and opportunities for intercultural encounters. Many intellectuals felt urged to take up a position overtly, engaging themselves as writers, artists, and academics in cultural propaganda initiatives, on international peace missions, and/or in the promotion of a new world order.

At the outbreak of war, a large number intellectuals from neutral, belligerent, and colonial countries decided to dedicate themselves to official and private propaganda initiatives. From 1914, Allied and Central Powers eagerly recruited public intellectuals such as novelists, painters, poets, cartoonists, translators, editors, and scientists as propaganda agents. In the early war years, belligerent officials believed in the power of a rather elitist propaganda, in which intellectuals played a key role, since they were considered to be able to influence individuals from across all levels of society. As the war was interpreted not only as a conflict of geopolitical or economic interests, but also as a true clash of civilizations, the belligerents were keen on the support of the supposed ‘most civilised’ human beings -

Many intellectuals from belligerent powers volunteered for service in the newly created official propaganda services such as Wellington House, Britain's official propaganda bureau. Many of the country's most famous writers, such as Arthur Conan Doyle, John Buchan, and Arnold Bennett worked here. Yet, belligerent officials were also keen on exploiting the language skills, local expertise, and networks of like-minded neutral and colonial intellectuals, who served as a front for belligerent-sponsored operations. In the context of the German ‘Programme for Revolution’, neutral Dutch and Indonesian intellectuals secretly encountered belligerent officers in The Hague and Batavia to influence colonials from the Dutch empire.

The war of arms therefore went hand in hand with a war of words and images. The intercultural encounters between belligerent, neutral, and colonial intellectuals and officials resulted in a variety of propaganda outputs, such as manifestos, open letters, pamphlets, translations, brochures, and newspaper articles in multiple languages. These intercultural alliances were not only ideologically motivated, they were also fuelled by financial, poetic, and professional ambitions. Propaganda offered many opportunities to ‘isolated’ intellectuals: it enabled them to reestablish relations with friends abroad or to gain access to foreign editors, translators, and galleries. In some cases, cultural propaganda activities were set up so secretly that some autonomous neutral and belligerent artists collaborated with galleries such as the expressionist and dadaist venue of Der Sturm, without knowing that Der Sturm operated as a front for German propaganda. In the 1920s, the official propaganda war was largely rejected as a consciously created lie. It provoked new debates about the individuality and autonomy of the intellectual, in contrast to his or her willingness to voice the government’s opinion.

Neutral intellectuals who were more cosmopolitan in their outlook tended to define themselves as peace promoters par excellence. As outsiders, coming from the Netherlands, the United States, or Switzerland, they considered themselves to be able to transcend all belligerent debates and war logic. They saw it as their moral duty to be defenders of international justice and pacifism, due to their history and their ‘neutral nature’. In this climate, neutral territories attracted dissident war critics such as the French writer Romain Rolland, who lived as a Swiss exile, as well as harbouring a plethora of peace initiatives. These internationalists constructed transnational neutral networks through which peace missions were organised, dissident anti-war manifestos were translated, pacifist journals were published, and socialist conferences were set up. The war, and its effects on shifting international and imperial relations, also stimulated a minority of internationalist and colonial critics to dream of a truly global world order. They promoted reciprocal cultural exchanges between Western and Eastern intellectuals. In this context, the Dutch writer Frederik van Eeden and the Indonesian poet Noto Soeroto translated and analysed the most famous Indian philosopher and poet Rabindranath Tagore, as they aimed to create cultural interactions between the West and an ‘emancipated’ Asia on an equal footing.

Tessa Lobbes