288 – 1914 – 1918: And where were the citizens?

Posted on June 1, 2014 by


One hundred years ago, WWI broke out. Out of the blue, the Western-based “concert of nations” failed catastrophically. The ensuing war transformed the world. Despite the avalanche of writings on this singularity in world history already on the market, on this centennial occasion historians have churned out reams of new titles (many of them clones or linear combinations of each other). Most of them are in the major key of dystopia: mankind’s inability to recognize and avoid looming catastrophes, or about our “March of Folly” – making a bee-line for disaster, as if driven by the darker instincts of our nature.

Our current fascination with impending catastrophe is so intense that every contemporary twist and turn of events in international relations is seen despondently through the lens of what happened in 1914. To read the pundits, WWIII, as a repeat of WWI, is just waiting to happen. What seems to save humanity from definitive dystopia is the excess of choice as to where the conflagration might ignite.

Cambridge University has joined the band-wagon in publishing a monumental three volume history of WWI. Introducing the three volumes, Jay WINTER, the general editor, explains the collective ambition of the work: to write transnational history, breaking out of national tropes and focusing on people’s experience of the event, thus ignoring national boundaries: “These communities of experience had a visceral reality which was lacking in the imagined communities” (my re-translation from the French, with apologies – the English language version is twice as expensive).

Though roughly following a time-line, each author focuses his study on a specific aspect: how did families – couples, children, and families – experience WWI in the different countries? In the section “Gender,” women retell their experience of being suddenly thrust in the role of family head, bread-winner, nurse for the wounded, and widows. Another section deals with the transformation of the economies wrought by war: how did it impact on cities, peasants, workers? It seems that the impossible aim of “narrating” or “explaining” WWI – the grand Gibbonian fresco – has yielded to the more immediate vignettes of “experiences.” Personally, I welcome this approach. Here history is not “the past in the making,” but a contingent process full of twists, turns, and infinite surprises.

In a sense, the “experience” approach is a kind of “big data mining.” Rather than interrogating the past through the prism of a “theory,” we let reality throw up a lot of interesting points of view. The two approaches are orthogonal: if the first one aims to conquer history’s abundance by reducing it to a (hopefully unassailable) story line, the second revels in abundance, replacing the mnemonic device of theory by a subjective “feeling” for the event. It is aided in this by our novel capacity to grasp abundance through the infinitely pliable mnemonic device of the computer, which not only stores all facts, but allows us to make many sections through the intricate “Gordian knot” of history.


(history may be seen as akin to our brain where, again thanks to the computer, we are learning to highlight its meandering networks and interconnections)

In this way, historians can generate infinite such experiences. All have some justification. We might wish to privilege the statistically more common experience today, but we may do just the opposite and give small minorities a chance to be heard.

Whittling down the open set of possibilities to a manageable amount is a matter of subjective choice of the historian. The “collective subjectivity” of the authors is then of particular interest. Which experiences did they agree to privilege? Here my subjective and limited view.

If Vol. 1 deals with the experience of war itself, and is closest, in many ways, to the conventional narrative of yore, Vol. 2 focuses on the “States” – hence its sub-title. How did the “political powers” (Heads of state and government, Parliaments, diplomats, civilians and military persons) or the “armed forces” act – and were transformed by their actions? Vol. 3 deals with the individual, and a few aspects of “culture.”

What is missing, it would seem to me, is “civil society.” I do not employ the term in its narrow contemporary sense – the plethora of interest groups masquerading as representatives of the social group and vying for influence in the societal decision-making process. I mean the social group as a whole: the citizenry as the ultimate legitimizing i.e. political agent (the term “citizenry” or “citizen,” as I write it down here, has already seems to me to have a quaint tinge to it – a whiff of nostalgia).

This is no idle question: just as the French Revolution was carried and legitimized by the people, so was WWI. Citizens did support their governments whole-heartedly – in many countries it was close to plebiscite.. Nationalist fervor swept the continent and found millions eager to enlist, fight, and die. Governments may have lit the match, but nationalist material had accumulated and instantly lit. How did it happen?

In focusing on “joint intentionality” – how a nation took on the many and the new roles needed to win – the three volumes leave the “collective intentionality” – the legitimation of war – in the shadow. This is regrettable, for two reasons.

The emergence of collective intentionality – a complex phenomenon – is poorly understood (some would say that it cannot be explained: and they may be right, but there may be implicit fault-lines worth noticing in the evolving process, even though we may not use them for prediction). Between the narrow world of evidence-based prediction and impenetrable chaos there is the rich plain of pattern recognition, of analogy, which allows for a Bayesian understanding of unfolding reality. Close study of an event may not yield actionable “truth,” but elements “good enough” to inform operative guesses in a world of uncertainty. We enlarge the scope of the adjacent possible.

The other reason has to do with the implicit denial, so fashionable nowadays, that individuals weigh the private and the public weal as alternatives, rather than complementarities. It is not the essentialist me vs. them. People somehow consciously address both their self-interest and the interest of the social group to which they belong and strike an actionable balance. Millions accepted the risk of death or maiming in order to save the “nation’s honor,” or to fight “militarism.” Why did they do it? How can we reconcile this mass phenomenon with the essentialist view that we are autonomous and essentially selfish beings?

I’m not evoking at all the unpromising “Volksgeist” – the immanent “will of the people.” Mine is a very pragmatic observation: people do care about the group. We are apparently able to strike a synthetizing balance between the utilitarian position (the individual is subject to the group) and the Pareto-optimal position (the group exists to serve the individual). Eschewing a theoretical solution, experimental philosophy haltingly addresses the issue of understanding the diversity of attitudes people express. Rather than trying to find the underlying “truth,” we move toward understanding of people’s varying attitudes. Mining the past for the roots of such pragmatic compromises, would seem to me, a most insightful exercise.

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