Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Identity Politics and the Great War

Turin Factory Strike, 1919

World War I called into question expressions of identity on a number of levels around the world. National or colonial allegiance, racial and sexual identity, age, ethnicity, personal loyalty—all these concepts were tested as millions of civilians were mobilized to serve the needs of states at war. Some of the first tensions regarding identity emerged at the personal level as families and individuals sought to cope with the demands of the state for their sacrifices.

These personal identity struggles played out in a variety of private and public situations, in the form of pension applications, conscientious objectors' entreaties, and drawing-room battles. For families with divided loyalties regarding the war, assertion of a united identity was often impossible, and this led to cleavages. Even in families or communities with the same surface loyalty, different interpretations of war, sacrifice, and patriotism could spark tensions or even violence. War meant choosing sides and taking stands, and for individuals, the expression of individual loyalties was often the first hard task.

As for larger-scale identity politics, communities at war fragmented along a number of lines; most commonly, the fractures appeared over civil war and revolution questions of class, race, ethnicity, language, nation, gender, and religion. As war made demands on society, the fragile bonds connecting people together often were severed, and differences became a focal point for the violence and bitterness of war.

In France, for example, the importation of colonial and foreign workers led to workplace violence, escalating personal attacks in the streets, and, in some cases, collective violence or rioting. As historian Tyler Stovall has written about these attacks, the patterns of racial violence suggest a close correspondence with "the crisis of morale and the rise of war weariness in France" but also with a wave of strikes and working-class agitation after 1917. In this case, race might have served as a visible marker of other anxieties surrounding class status or gender issues such as protection of French women, who had entered the workplace in larger numbers by 1917. Uncertainty over jobs certainly fueled much fear in the minds of male workers at the front and behind the lines.

Indeed, workers' agitation and strikes, along with subsistence riots, were a staple of the latter years of the war in almost all nations involved in the conflict, even those on the periphery, such as Argentina, Chile, and Peru. In Germany, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Britain, industrial strikes undermined the war effort, and bread riots also contributed to a dangerous atmosphere in cities. 

Unemployment was a significant problem in many urban areas in 1919, and strikes were common occurrences in large cities such as Paris and London in the latter years of the war and into the early postwar period. Even combatant countries far from the physical damage of the war, such as the United States and Australia, faced significant labor unrest. For instance, a general strike in Sydney shut down much of the city for the month of August in 1917, while in the United States a civilian "Protective League" deported and interned an estimated 1200 men, women, and children in New Mexico in order to stop a mining strike in Bisbee, AZ, in 1917.

A Black Veteran and an Illinois Militia Man Facing Off
During the Chicago Riots of 1919

Those on the margins of society—foreigners, Jews, gypsies, and refugees—were often most at risk in the violence that sometimes ensued from labor agitation or civil war. As historian Christopher Capozzola has observed, sometimes the line between national defense or patriotic vigilance and vigilante violence was blurred. War's emphasis on sacrifice and vigilance fed the flames of extra-legal justice. In the United States the reorganization of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915 and a wave of anti-German sentiment led to lynchings and other violence against minority groups and perceived internal enemies. Such mob violence was only exacerbated with conscription in 1917, when African Americans and recent immigrants were called to national service alongside "white Americans." The concentration of young men of all races in training camps around the country led to clashes with civilian populations near the camps. This violence did not stop with the end of the war, and, in fact, it escalated in the immediate aftermath with race riots throughout the country between 1919 and 1922. In 1919 alone, there were more than 25 documented race riots in U.S. cities, from Chicago to Washington, DC, to Tulsa and to Omaha. 

Racial, religious, and ethnic violence became particularly severe and prolonged in regions where order had completely collapsed, such as the Russian/Austro-Hungarian borderlands. In East Galicia, which had suffered through occupations by more than one army over the course of the war, violence followed in 1918 amidst terrible economic hardships and lack of effective leadership. Armed bands of looters, army deserters, and criminals terrorized villages and towns, while quickly formed paramilitaries sought to regain control. 

In the Polish-Ukrainian border wars that plagued the region in late 1918, Jews tried to remain "neutral," but this policy was a dismal failure, with Jews targeted again and again by both sides in the conflict. In one of the most egregious episodes of the conflict, Polish forces attacked the Jewish community in L'viv over several days in November 1918. The pogrom resulted in hundreds of
casualties, including more than 100 dead.

Aftermath of the 1918 L'viv Pogrom

In addition to the human casualties, the pogrom led to property damage and the loss of irreplaceable historical buildings and artifacts (including a 17th-century synagogue). A prominent scholar of the event, Carol Fink, called the 1918 attack on L'viv "the most prolonged and extensive carnage against civilians in Eastern Europe since 1906." Despite an international investigation of this incident, violence against Jews continued, especially as a feature of the Soviet war with Poland and Ukraine between 1919 and 1921. 

From:  "World Uprising! Civilians, the Great War, and the Coming of Civil War and Revolution," by Tammy M. Proctor,  Relevance, Quarterly Journal of the Great War Society, Summer 2011

1 comment:

  1. Good sample.
    Another item for the "WWI didn't end on 11/11/18" file.