The First World War resulted in unprecedented carnage but it also facilitated a remarkable range of encounters and exchange – direct and indirect, personal and mediated, forced or unforced, and at times somewhere in between. Diverse groups of people, categorised by nationality, race, class, ethnicity, gender, language, religion, political affiliation, or geographical location, came into contact with each other. The aim of this digital sourcebook is to showcase this extraordinary range of encounters and exchange happening during and immediately after the war.
This sourcebook has a particular focus on two substantial groups of people often considered 'peripheral' to the war and thus largely written out of dominant war narratives: the colonial subjects of the European empires who were mobilised for the war effort, and the neutral countries which became the site of cultural propaganda as well as of anti-colonial movements. The fact that many of the neutral states such as the Netherlands had their own empires with colonies in Asia or Africa further complicated the picture. The sourcebook also explores the striking symmetries and points of contact as well as the significant differences between these two groups, colonials and neutrals. It thus opens up a comparative perspective and seeks to raise a number of fresh questions, both conceptual and methodological, about the nature of encounters, exchanges, and entanglements in wartime.
The colonies of the European empires and the neutral states and their empires had an oblique yet vital relationship to a war not of their making: each watched the developments in the war with great curiosity but at a distance; each was bombarded with propaganda which was consumed, recycled, and appropriated; each realised that their future destiny would be profoundly altered by the outcome of the war. Above all, both shared a certain angular yet vested interest in the conflict, which led to some of the most unexpected and unusual points of encounters and entanglements, with each other or with the belligerent nations. The differences between the two are equally illuminating. The radically different political relationship of the colonies and neutrals to the belligerent states shaped the nature and structure of their entangled histories: while the colonies became recruiting grounds for soldiers or turned into theatres of war, the neutral states became 'discursive battlefields'. Both colonial and neutral states were drawn into the war as 'economic partners' through their substantial contribution of money and materials. A close comparative account reveals not only points of contact and divergence between the two but helps to decentre the war from an Anglo-French-German grand narrative and provide an alternative conceptual framework and vocabulary: a war seen out of the corner of one’s eye, often away from the battlefields, and yet forever present.
More than four million non-white men, including two million Africans and one and half million Indians, were recruited into the armies of Europe for the war. Between 1914 and 1918, several million people – soldiers and labourers, white and non-white, officers and privates, sepoys, sowars, tirailleurs, askaris, doctors, nurses, journalists, translators, writers, photographers, painters – travelled to different parts of the world, all caught up in the maelstrom of war. At the Western Front alone there were 50 different ethnic groups and, over the four years, two million non-white men passed through France. The resulting encounters ranged from nameless, fleeting ‘sightings’ in markets, streets, and cafes to pockets of sustained intimacy between Asian, African, or Maori troops and local French and Belgian women and children in a constantly changing contact zone, dependent on military mobilisation to lateral encounters in POW camps and hospitals in Europe, Mesopotamia, or East Africa. At the same time, there were also more ideologically motivated yet personal encounters, as when, for instance, North African, Indonesian, or Indian anti-colonial revolutionaries collaborated with German military and political officials both in Europe and in the colonies.
Such personal encounters were complemented by an ever wider range of mediated encounters – of an even more complex and sometimes insidious or covert nature – propelled by one of the tools of any kind of warfare: propaganda. The belligerent nations flooded the colonies, both their own and those of their enemies, and the neutral nations with a variety of cultural products harnessed to political ends. The people within the colonies were subjected to a wide range of cultural propaganda: newspapers, illustrated magazines, war posters, photographs, film screenings, translations of texts (novels, poems, songs), and often the commissioning of new works. The same kind of cultural infiltration of the non-belligerent home-front in Europe was particularly pronounced in the neutral countries such as Switzerland, Sweden, Spain, Denmark, and the Netherlands: they became international contact zones as rival belligerent states tried to win them over by exploiting or enticing the media, funding cultural institutions, and trying to influence artists and opinion makers. During the war, artists, officials, film-makers, journalists, and editors from belligerent and neutral nations often joined forces in neutral countries and negotiated the translation and exchange of literature, drawings, newspaper articles, songs, and lectures.
These politically motivated 'exchanges' sometimes resulted in pure propaganda texts but, more often, they led to the resurgence of international collaboration and exchange within a propaganda context in which all the partners were not always equally aware of the political cross-currents: they occurred at different levels, from the tours of international expressionist artists in neutral countries, secretly financed by the German propaganda services, to the creation of bilateral cultural societies such as 'The Netherlands-France' and 'Sweden-France', funded by French officials. Of course, these encounters were stimulated not only by geopolitics and ideology, but also by professional and financial reasons – just as recruiting was by local landholders and powerbrokers in the colonies rather than any simple loyalty.
In recent years, there has been a swell of interest, both conceptual and historiographical, in the idea of 'cultural encounters'. This sourcebook seeks not so much to provide a comprehensive 'history' or 'survey' of cultural encounters and exchange occurring during wartime but to showcase the extraordinary diversity – in terms of source material and the nature of interactions – and in turn use that diversity to put pressure on and question the very terms 'encounter' and 'exchange'. In a critical climate crowded with theoretical and conceptual paradigms, part of the aim of the sourcebook is to go back to original sources across disciplinary boundaries, carefully contextualise them and place them in dialogue, and investigate what they suggest about the critical concepts themselves - how they help us to frame them differently and whether they lead us to ask an altogether new set of critical questions. Rather than trying to slot encounters into a predetermined grid, the sourcebook encourages a multi-focal approach, suggesting different perspectives and points of entry into a particular source. Making available sources which have hitherto been stored in archives, both in and beyond Europe, and ordered along 'national' lines, the sourcebook, by contrast, offers the opportunity to reorder the material using a different set of criteria, puts them in dialogue with each other under fresh headings, and helps to generate fresh research questions.
Does encounter necessarily involve exchange and vice-versa, and what are the shifting agendas, power-structures, and asymmetries when diverse individuals or groups of people meet and interact? In recent years, there have been much interest and debate around these questions: the concept of 'entangled histories' between different racial and cultural groups has emerged as crucial to an understanding of how different societies and cultures developed, connected at various points even if the connections have often been unequal and contradictory. Thus Urs Bitterli, in Cultures in Conflict: Encounters between Europeans and Non-European Cultures, 1492-1800 (1993) has suggested the concept of 'entangled cultures', even delineating the several stages of Kulturbeziehung (cultural contact): Kulturbegegnung, Kulturkontakt, Kulturaustausch (encounter, contact, exchange). In his study Age of Entanglement: German and Indian Intellectuals across Empire (2014), Kris Manjapra notes, 'As opposed to studying encounters in terms of the pity of colonial domination, or else in terms of the charms of cross-cultural encounter, a new study of entanglement would ask: what do different groups, some stronger, some weaker, get out of their political relations together?' While the ideas of Bitterli and Manjapra are richly productive and resonant, the understanding of the concept of entanglement in this sourcebook is somewhat, and perhaps necessarily, different. First, the context of the war meant that people from different social groups, nationalities, ethnicities, and religions were often thrown together unexpectedly; second, in the sourcebook, the focus is not on 'entanglements' between different 'groups' or 'cultures' at an abstract, theoretical level but usually between individuals, on a personal, embodied and cultural level, even when there are greater political stakes involved.
If the term 'encounter' suggests contingency and fleetingness while 'exchange' implies reciprocity and engagement, the concept of 'entanglement' is productive for our purposes in multiple ways: it registers the complexities and long-term effects of the intercultural process; it leaves room for varying degrees of agency for the partners; it shows how the contact during wartime affected men and women; and it recognises moments of intimacy and contact, while being wholly alert to various asymmetries, hierarchies, and differences. It is thus used in the sourcebook as a critical tool that leaves room for agency, for unbalanced power relationships, for possible exchanges and effects on and between all participants, as well as their longer-term post-war effects - vital elements to thoroughly understand a 'histoire croisée' in all its subtlety. The sourcebook at once showcases and tests the capaciousness of the term, as in the example of the Indian medical orderly Sisir Sarbadhikari sharing heat, food, and war thoughts with Armenians, Turks, Russians, Rumanians, Syrian Christians, and English in the POW camp in Aleppo in spite of linguistic, cultural, and class differences, or anti-colonial Indian, North African, or Indonesian revolutionaries negotiating with German officials and at times even actively intervening in German imperial policies. Entanglement for us helps to capture both the sense of connection and difference as well as fluctuations in power dynamics and give-and-take in spite of overall hierarchies or differences.
The concept of 'entanglements' in the context of the sourcebook is not so much a question of 'getting' or 'benefitting', but is more about the very processes of intercultural contact and how they happen and, in turn, are remembered and represented. While every encounter involves a number of variables, we found a few categories repeatedly coming up in our sources such as race, nationality, religion, and language. Consequently, we have provided short essays on each of these topics. At the same time, we remain alert to the historical specificities and emotional ambiguities that underline these processes. How do particular sites such as battlefields, billets, restaurants, hospitals, or prisoner-of-war camps, embassies, boardrooms, and conferences shape and determine the nature of interactions, and how do we define and understand them when many of them inhabit that twilight zone between 'forced' and 'unforced' encounters? Part of the aim is to try to move beyond such strict and often reductive categories and showcase the fraught contours of these ambiguous zones, which often admit messy and even painful histories. On the other hand, if imperial strategies and propaganda policies are often studied as a one-way traffic and from a top-down perspective, we instead try to reveal the intercultural contacts and reciprocal, if uneven, exchanges which preceded, accompanied, or even altered the construction of these policies. A focus on individual agency, concrete, real-life encounters, we argue, can help us to study the reception of these imperial strategies and propaganda policies in the colonies, dominions, and neutral countries.
Keeping the various threads of history separate as well as studying their mesh together, the sourcebook exhibits a multidirectional interest in the poetics, politics, and practices of transnational histories of the world’s first global war.
Santanu Das with CEGC group