‘Race’ is perhaps one of the most difficult categories and concepts to define in the context of the early twentieth century and the First World War. Understood now as a social construct, contemporary knowledge of race as factual, based on scientific information and analysis, helps us to understand its power and importance during the conflict. Used as a tool in propaganda and mobilisation, rhetoric and discourses on ‘race’ operated on a global scale during the war and shaped the notion of the ‘enemy’ across the world. On a personal level, military mobilisation of troops and servicemen and -women from diverse backgrounds forced people to consider race and racial identity on an unprecedented scale. The often blurred definitions of ‘race’ based on culture, language, and/or ‘biology’ are explored here to think through its various uses and functions in the global conflict, and intercultural and interracial encounters.

A racialised world-view frequently underpinned contemporary cultural assessments of the First World War, interpreting the conflict as a clash between the German race and the French race, between German and Latin cultures, as well as between and within global empires. Race could act as a point of unification; ideas of racial affinity or racial brotherhood based on language or culture such as Pan-Germanism, could be used to reinforce (inter)national allegiances, surpassing national boundaries. From this sense of shared character and definition of the communal, and international, ‘self’, a clearer sense of the ‘other’ was created by promoting racial difference. It was not only the Germans, but in fact all belligerent nations, who used racial differences to mobilise their home front against an enemy who was represented as degenerate and racially inferior. Racial differences could also be used to encourage neutral intellectuals to take sides, by choosing Germany or France as their Leitkultur. So, while targeted by cultural propaganda, neutral intellectuals, in particular the Dutch, pondered on the value of race, the nation-state, and language, and often felt caught in the middle, raising questions about their own sense of identity. As Dutch speakers, they seemed to belong to the Germanic family, together with the Flemish, the Germans, and the Boers, but they questioned whether they should make racial and linguistic compromises in place of the Dutch nation-state. Should there be a balance between the influences of the different European ‘races’ on other national cultures?

Despite the promotion of separate racial groupings in propaganda, very pragmatic interracial alliances were necessitated during the war to ensure victory. The German ‘programme for revolution’ (Aufwiegelung) saw relationships forged between German officials and British Indian, Tunisian, Egyptian, Algerian, and Indonesian anti-colonial activists in an attempt to secure and enhance Germany’s strong imperial ambitions. Race was not an insurmountable category.

Equally, mobilisation of the French and British Empires would depend on an understanding of ‘race’, frequently organised in hierarchies. While the troops might be collectivised under the banner of their respective empires, racial difference was clearly marked and was more complicated than a binary opposition between white and black. While the white Dominions could be more immediately associated with the British imperial family, specific nations and ethnicities were endowed with superior fighting ability through a theory of martial races, including the Scottish Highlanders, Punjabi Sikhs, and Nepalese Gurkhas. Perceived biological or cultural predisposition to combat was applied; the necessary strategy of imperial rule required complex, inconsistent, and frequently contradictory uses of scientific and cultural understandings of race. While martial race theory saw Indian troops mobilised to fight in Europe by the British, West Indian men were not permitted to serve as combatants on the Western Front where their black masculinity, understood as ‘potent’, ‘aggressive’, and ‘unpredictable’, might threaten white prestige at its heart. The way the troops were mobilised from the beginning of war and the status they were given would influence their experiences of encounters and exchange during their service.

The war brought together different racial groups, based on ethnicity, language, or culture, to centralised locations. Camps – military encampments for training or near the frontlines, or prisoner of war camps – were a space in which racial distinctions and hierarchies could be observed and established through academic knowledge production. Anthropologists and linguists measured, recorded, and photographed prisoners of war all over Europe, aiming to understand what made these different groups separate from each other. They used the sites of these camps as research bases for the newly-arising disciplines of ethnology or ‘Volkskunde’.

Alongside scientists, the troops themselves had personal encounters that crossed racial divisions, as well as categories of nationality, gender, class, and military status. These personal encounters were driven not only by proximity but also by curiosity, and were reflected upon in letters, diaries, and memoirs, as well as in visual material including photographs. Observations of different racial groups could challenge racial preconceptions or reinforce them.

Race became a central factor in the post-war ‘internationalist moment’; its role was evident in the Pan-African and Pan-Asian movements along with other factors, including anti-colonial consciousness and anti-imperial and nationalist ideas. Other movements, like the socialist internationalist conferences from 1917, were rooted in the interracial encounters and global mobilisations of the First World War. Cooperation between Irish republicans and Indian revolutionaries, begun long before the war, intensified as the centre of gravity shifted partly to Europe with contacts made in Berlin. Collaboration intensified after the Irish Republic was founded on a shared basis of strong anti-British sentiment, yet at the same time many Irishmen supported British racial politics in India. The transformative nature of the First World War in understanding race and racial difference revealed parallel tendencies: agency and agitation, collectivity and collaboration, antagonism and a heightened sense of the other. The 1919 race riots in Britain, the occupation of the Rhineland by French colonial troops, and the Pan-African Congresses were all legacies of the experience of the First World War.

Anna Maguire & Tessa Lobbes