World War I on the Eastern Front

By Kane, Eileen | Kritika, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

World War I on the Eastern Front


Kane, Eileen, Kritika


Michael Reynolds, Shattering Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, 1908-1918. 340 pp. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. ISBN-13 978-0521195539. $98.00.

Annemarie H. Sammartino, The Impossible Border: Germany and the East, 1914-1922. 248 pp. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010. ISBN-13 978-0801448638. $39.95.

Ronald Grigor Suny, Fatma Muge Gocek, and Norman Naimark, eds., A Question of Genocide: Armenians and Turks at the End of the Ottoman Empire. 464 pp. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. ISBN-13 978-0195393743. $34.95.

The vast historiography of World War I in Europe can be divided in two. Much better documented is the history of the Western Front, involving huge armies bogged down in trench warfare; unprecedented carnage that disproportionately eliminated men from the upper classes, left millions dead, and transformed the human landscape by sending home millions more wounded and disfigured veterans; and a flu pandemic that killed more than half a million people in France and Britain alone. Less studied by historians, the Eastern Front was very different. Here war contributed to the collapse of empires and set off mass waves of human migration, both forced and voluntary. It also resulted in the creation of new nation-states, the transformation of 25-30 million people from imperial subjects to national minorities, and genocide.

Recent studies of the experiences and effects of World War I in the East, many of them by historians of Russia, are helping to right this imbalance in the historiography. (1) The three books under review here further this work, using new sources, methodologies, and conceptual frameworks to explore how war and imperial collapse transformed the lives of people living in German, Ottoman, and Russian imperial lands before, during, and just after World War I. Overlapping in chronology and geography, these three books offer new insights into the role of nationalism in wartime conflicts and postwar nation building, causes of ethnic conflict in imperial borderlands, and reasons for genocide. They also offer models for reframing the history of these regions in ways that better get at wartime and postwar human mobility, overlapping populations, and imperial entanglements.

Of the three books, The Impossible Border directly tackles the subject of wartime and postwar migrations, specifically the various migratory waves moving across Germany's open eastern border between 1914 and 1922 (the year that its eastern border with Poland was finally set). During this period, millions of Europeans were uprooted from their homes due to war, postwar settlements, and revolution. Germany, Sammartino reminds us in this book, lay at the center of these migrations. Between 1914 and 1922, Germany received some one million German citizens from France and Poland, tens of thousands of ethnic Germans and Jews from the east, and hundreds of thousands of Russians (2).

By focusing on migration--each of the book's eight chapters focuses on a particular wave moving into or out of Germany--Sammartino seeks to do two things. First, to put human migrations, and anxieties about Germany's "impossible border" in the east, at the center of the "crisis of sovereignty" that Germany experienced in this period; she describes this crisis as a result of the collapse of multinational empires and characterized by widespread German anxiety and questioning about the relationship among nation, state, and territory (1-5). Her second goal is to interrogate Hannah Arendt's charge, made in The Origins of Totalitarianism, that "the failure of postwar states" to protect migrants contributed

to the rise of totalitarianism. (2) Sammartino asks, "Does the totalitarianism of the 1930s have its origins in the migration crisis of the war and postwar decade?" (2).

This framing is unsatisfying for three reasons. First, Sammartino does not situate her study within broader debates about continuities between Weimar and Nazi Germany, or the historiography of totalitarianism, nor does she explain the continued relevance of Arendt's 40-year-old book in pursuing these questions. …

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