A new approach to neutrality, 1914-1918

20e eeuw

Keynote: Neutrals at War, 1914-1918. Comparative and transnational perspectives

Who: Maartje Abbenhuis (prof. at Auckland University) @maartjeabb

Where: Vrije Universiteit, 15th floor on the ‘booming’ Zuid-As

To be neutral is to have missed out on the war. To refuse to fight in the good war, is to have no right to speak. This attitude towards neutrality had a long tradition in Europe.

During the 19th century however, the concept of neutrality transformed. Neutrality was considered safe and cheap, and the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland actively promoted this idea. Even the great power Britain wished to have no call to mingle in the strife of belligerent powers on the continent. The Lady’s Newspaper stated that Britain was to preserve a dignified neutrality and be of service in restoring the peace of the world.

When war came around in 1914, neutrality was not a unique position. Although large number of countries declared formal neutrality, less countries remained so in 1918. The concept of neutrality changed (again) because of the war’s huge impact. The Dutch lived in a war society by all accounts. The country mobilised its armed forces and closed its borders. Bombs were accidentally dropped on Dutch territory, mines and torpedoes sunk many merchant ships. The Dutch faced harsh measures because food was in short supply, especially during the later years. The war affected all citizens.

Neutrality also had an important impact on the course of the war. Belligerent strategies heavily relied on neutral powers. The original history of the war focuses on the belligerents and policies of neutrality have been seriously understudied.

Maartje Abbenhuis – the New-Zeeland author of The Art of Staying Neutral. Netherlands during the First World War and An Age of Neutrals, 1815-1914 – states that in order to write a truly global history of the war, neutrals and neutralry must be reintergrated in these studies. Also, we need to view the wars history in a truly global sense. War history is still too much confined in national narratives.

In short: neutral countries did not simply stay passive but actively pursued complicated policies to remain out of the war. To study such endeavours is to add to the general knowledge of the war and its international implications. By analysing neutral policies and identities as well as those of the belligerents, we can redefine the meaning of total war.

Tom Duurland

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