Towards a new research agenda: brainstorm session and debate

20e eeuw

Chair: Michael Wintle (University of Amsterdam/ACCESS)

Summing-up: Ido de Haan (Utrecht University)

This part of the conference summed up what was discussed during the day and also investigates themes for further research.

Ido de Haan starts with the observation that World War I is not a big (research) topic in the Netherlands. The general perspective – for scholars and the public alike – seems to be that being neutral means to avoid being actively engaged in war or the pragmatic refusal to take up arms. But neutral countries such as the Netherlands were none the less total war societies during World War I. In many cases the question “how were neutral countries involved in the war?” still goes unanswered. This conference tried to break through this consensus by looking more closely at the neutral countries during the Great War.

The following key-points give an overview of the most important ideas that emerged out of the conference:

(1) A conceptual history of neutrality.

A recurring topic during the conference was the definition and changing meaning of the concept of neutrality. Before the nineteenth century it was seen as something positive and was associated with terms like safe and cheap. But these associations changed by World War I. All sorts of neutrality came in to existence: dignified neutrality, armed neutrality, complex neutrality, absolute neutrality, etc. The meaning of neutrality was reformulated from something dignified to something that was treated with disdain. It’s clear that the term neutrality is contested.

(2) A reinterpretation of the concept of war.

The concept of war has been framed in different ways: a just or unjust war; an inevitable or avoidable war; a necessary or cathartic war. Most people agree that neutrality means that you are not engaged in armed warfare. But during the conference, it was discussed that neutral countries were indeed engaged in economic and cultural warfare within their own territory. So the stakes of war change and shift.

De Haan mentions the importance of the racialization of war that took place during World War I. The difference between the Germans and the French were defined in racial terms. As Tessa Lobbes made clear in her presentation, the Dutch saw themselves as racially German but culturally French. Foreigners were now often considered racial enemies.

World War I turned into a civil war in Europe within the territory of the different nations, resulting in social divisions. These divisions took several forms and had different outcomes. According to De Haan, total war does not imply that a country has many troops and fights a physical war, nor that it takes part in a massive war on a global scale. The answer lies in the fact that neutral societies were mobilized for war, not only military, but also culturally and ideologically. Two factors are important here. First: a substantial military mobilisation and military rule creates political and cultural cleavages in society. Second: the nature of total war appeared in the institutions in neutral countries. The war created institutions related to border control, economic interaction, financial support, movement of troops across the territories of neutral countries, their participation in economic warfare. What was the effect of this? How did the relations between the state and the army change? What was their impact? The position of political elites changed. Does this lead to changing repertoires of political impact?

(3) Legacies of World War I.

On the one hand you could debate that neutrality leads to nothing. It’s not a legitimate position anymore. Neutrality becomes suspicious after World War I. On the other hand, it’s not a history of absence. How does the neutrality of certain countries in World War I impact the ways those countries handled the Second World War? What was for example the impact of the way they responded to people who have been victimised? The legacy of World War I plays a huge role here. In Belgium and France this was thoroughly organised trough the experience of World War I. The Netherlands didn’t have that (same) experience. Also the experience with commemorations, refugees or military occupation is crucially different in neutral countries. So what kind of legacies are there? Why are some forgotten and others are not?

During World War I political and economic warfare emerges and acquires not only a political, but also an ideological, cultural and racial nature. Total war does not incorporate a distinction between the battle front and the home front, nor between the battling armies and battling populations. The experience of neutral countries is not a marginal phenomenon but plays a central and crucial role in World War I.

Discussion remarks

During the discussion many opinions and ideas came forward. The most important points were:

(1) In the debate about neutrality it is important not to forget the medical personnel because they were actively involved in the war. They had a double neutrality because their countries were neutral and because of the nature of their profession. They are often pictured as the ones proving that neutrality was not an act of cowardice but strengthened the moral force. But the medical personnel could also endanger neutrality because they smuggled contraband to warring countries. Apart from this the medical personnel also met each other at the front and shared experiences.

(2) The fact that ideological and racial conflicts emerge in neutral countries is a sign that the war does not stop at the border of warring countries. Prior to 1914 civilisations in the Anglo-European world behaved in certain ways — defined by commonalities and certain standards. During World War I these civilised criteria are violated. What neutrality incorporates isn’t the same before and after the war. On the one hand neutrality is frowned upon and was met with contempt. On the other hand a positive development took place because it became associated with the act of standing up; a humanitarian voice; the voice of the good and civilised. So it’s important to rethink and reframe the concept of neutrality.

(3) Thinking about the state prior, during and after the First World War is also important. For instance, there is a huge difference in the expenditures of the state at the beginning of the war and in 1918. People think differently about the state because of the war.

A new research agenda

By S. Kruizinga and W. Klinkert

The conference poster is taken as a starting point to reflect on the conference and a new research agenda. It was easy to come up with the theme of the conference, but not with a way to visualise it. The image on the poster is striking for a number of reasons. The image depicts a militarised border between Belgium and the Netherlands during World War I. German soldiers at one side and Dutch soldiers at the other side of the border, look in a way the same. Iconographic there are differences but also similarities. The border in the picture is not a concrete one: it’s hard to pass the border between neutrals and belligerents, but in a sense it is also a flexible border. So the picture shows us that there are similarities between neutral and belligerent countries but also notes differences in for example the history of neutrality in a context of global war and the experience, or lack there of, on many fronts (for example in combat) that shape these countries during and after the First World War.

The mission of this conference was to put neutrality and World War I into the spotlight, to fill in the gaps, to rewrite the Great War and finely include the neutrals in it. World War I is a very special period in the history of warfare and the development of Europe. The conference showed us that neutrality was about interacting, influencing and making choices. The war took on a transnational character: neutral countries weren’t isolated entities, shielded from the war. On the contrary, the neutral and belligerent countries were — on one level or another — connected with each other during the war. It’s also clear that the concept of ‘total war’ is hard to define. Neutral war experience is in a way a contradictio in terminis because the language of war is used to define the neutral experience. Total mobilisation might be a better term to define the neutral experience.

It’s clear that the neutral countries were as much a part of World War I as the belligerent countries. Without an account of the neutrals the history of World War I is incomplete.

Eva Andersen


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