Neutral identities

20e eeuw

During the morning session ‘Neutral identities’, several subjects were discussed that not only provide new insights into what neutrality meant during the First World War, but also seem to touch on current affairs regarding a society’s attitude towards ‘others’.

During Eirik Brazier’s presentation of his article ‘The stranger in our midst. Public discourses, constructions and representations of the “others” in Scandinavia, 1914-1918’ similarities between the fear of strangers then and now could not go unnoticed in the light of the current refugee crisis. Brazier discussed how, after the war broke out, Europe shut down and it became difficult to move from one side of the front to the other. Denmark, Norway and Sweden became a transit area for Russians expelled from Germany and Germans expelled from Russia. As these expelled Germans and Russians traveled through Scandinavia, chaos ensued. The local Scandinavian population experienced the transit of thousands of migrants as an invasion. Resources were stretched thin and rationing was introduced in 1914. Apparently there was even talk in the media of imposing a tax on migrants or moving them out of the cities and into the countryside, perhaps even put them in camps. Brazier pointed out that, simultaneously, both the Germans and the British ran operations in Scandinavia during the war. After the discovery of several spy stations in Denmark and Sweden, a ‘spy mania’ swept Scandinavia. The defining of the insider and outsider gained priority within society, while governments remained neutral. Therefore, according to Brazier, neutrality can be seen as a state policy, not part of society.

The defining of the insider and outsider was also discussed during Anja Huber’s presentation of her article ‘Restrictions against Swiss nationals in England during the First World War’. Huber pointed out that although British authorities did not support xenophobic movements, many Swiss migrants encountered xenophobic attitudes within England. While they were an accepted community in England before the war, they were confronted with a new situation after the outbreak of the war. Some Swiss returned to Switzerland voluntarily, others under military pressure. They were limited in movement and some were even expelled. Due to the fear of a German invasion, German speakers in England were under general suspicion. In an effort to protect Swiss from xenophobic sentiments in belligerent countries, Switzerland tried to construct a positive image of its neutrality. Meanwhile, the British government remained absent in protecting the Swiss migrants, causing these migrants to be affected by xenophobic attitudes anyway.

The gap between a state’s policy and the position of its society was also discussed by Marjet Brolsma and Tessa Lobbes. In her presentation on ‘Negotiating neutrality. Dutch intellectuals, belligerent cultural propaganda and neutral identities during the First World War’, Lobbes pointed out that the Dutch neutral identity was constantly debated during WWI. There was a growing Dutch uneasiness with neutrality. Some intellectuals posed the question whether, as a matter of national preservation, it would be better to pick a side during the war, as it was believed that the war was also a war between cultures and civilizations. This idea was also discussed during Brolsma’s presentation of ‘In search for an “ardent neutrality”. The Great War and the European revolt against rationalism among Dutch intellectuals’. Dutch intellectuals did not necessarily reject neutrality, but they saw the war as an antidote to cultural decline. It was believed that the destructive energy of war could be harnessed to rebuild a unified European society. Some Dutch intellectuals were concerned that if The Netherlands remained neutral during the war, this would prevent the country from enjoying the unifying and renewing outcome of that conflict.

The morning session offered many new insights concerning neutrality during World War I. The gap between state policy and society regarding neutrality and migrants is not only an interesting new aspect of World War I studies, but may also offer an interesting perspective on current affairs.

Sam Torres


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