Mimesis: African Soldier @ the Imperial War Museum

Making a new world

For the past year or so, Imperial War Museum London has given over its third floor to four related but very different exhibitions marking the end of the First World War a hundred years ago.

They come under the overarching title of Making A New World, and have been accompanied by a programme of live music, performance and public debates, all addressing aspects of the aftermath of the conflict. Here’s the promotional video.

I’ve reviewed three of the four already:

Across the corridor from these two spaces is a door opening onto a darkened corridor leading to a blacked-out screening room in which is being shown a new art film by John Akomfrah, titled Mimesis: African Soldier.

John Akomfrah

Akomfrah was born in Accra, Ghana in 1957. His mother and father were both anti-colonialist activists. His father served in the cabinet of Ghana’s first post-independence Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah. When the latter was overthrown in a coup in 1966, his mother fled the country with young John. Surprisingly, maybe, they fled to the epicentre of the colonial oppressor, to the home of racism and imperialism, to Britain, where John became a British citizen, trained as an artist and went on to become a famous and award-winning maker of art films.

John Akomfrah in front of Mimesis: African Soldier, co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, New Art Exchange, Nottingham and Smoking Dogs Films, with additional support from Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo © IWM / Film © Smoking Dogs Films

John Akomfrah standing in front of a screen showing Mimesis: African Soldier, co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, New Art Exchange, Nottingham and Smoking Dogs Films, with additional support from Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo © IWM / Film © Smoking Dogs Films

So prestigious has Akomfrah’s career been that in 2008 he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and in 2017 appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). Also in 2017, Akomfrah won the biennial Artes Mundi prize, the UK’s biggest award for international art, having been chosen for the award for his ‘substantial body of outstanding work dealing with issues of migration, racism and religious persecution.’

It is a story in itself, and one not without irony – how the son of vehemently anti-British anti-colonial activists went on to become a lion of the British art establishment.

Purple

I first heard Akomfrah’s name when I came across the massive multi-screen installation of his film Purple at the Barbican a few years ago.

In the long darkened space of the Barbican’s Curve gallery, Purple projected onto a series of massive screens a combination of historic archive footage of industrial life in the West – coal mines, car factories, shopping centres and street scenes from the 1940s, 50s and 60s – and stunningly beautiful modern footage shot at remote and picturesque locations around the planet with pin-prick digital clarity.

The purpose of Purple was to inform its viewers that humanity’s industrial activity is polluting the planet.

As a theme I thought this was so bleeding obvious that it made no impact on my thinking one way or the other: I just sat entranced by the old footage, which had its own historic interest, the 1960s footage in particular, tuggingly evocative of my own distant childhood – and enjoying the aesthetic contrast between the historic footage and the stunning landscapes of, for example, Iceland – which made me desperately jealous of the lucky researchers, camera crews and prize-winning directors who get to fly to such breath-taking destinations.

Mimesis: African Soldier

Visually, Mimesis: African Soldier does something very similar.

There are three big screens instead of the six used by Purple (the screening room at the IWM is a lot smaller than the long sweeping Curve space at the Barbican where Purple was screened).

Once again the screens intercut creaky old archive footage with slow-moving, almost static ‘modern’ sequences shot in super-bright digital clarity at a number of remote locations – both of which are fascinating and/or entrancing in their different ways.

The vintage black-and-white footage shows black African and Indian soldiers, labourers and carriers at work during the First World War. There’s a lot of footage at docks where all manner of goods are being unloaded by black labourers and heaped up into enormous piles of munitions and rations. Other footage shows Indian troops on parade, marching – and then footage of what appear to be black soldiers going into battle.

Installation view of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of an ‘archive’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

The modern sequences are completely different in every way. For a start they are in colour. They are shot with stunning digital clarity. But most of all they are very, very slow.

For, as with Purple, the visual contrast is not just between the black and white and modern colour footage – there’s a rhythm thing going on, too, in that the old footage has that speeded-up, frenetic quality (due to the discrepancy between the speed of the cameras it was shot on and the different speed of the projectors we now play it on) which brings out even more the hauntingly slow, almost static nature of the modern sequences.

In the colour sequences which I saw, a black soldier is walking through a jungle, very, very, very slowly, until he comes upon a skeleton hanging from a tree, and stops dead. Different screens show the static scene from different angles. Pregnant with ominousness and meaning.

Installation view of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of a ‘modern’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

In another ‘modern’ sequence a handful of black men in uniform are on a wet muddy beach. The beach is dotted with flags of many nations, and also random crates. The men stare out at sea. They turn. One picks up a crate. Another takes off his helmet and wipes his forehead. All very slow.

In another sequence an Asian man in army uniform and wearing a turban is standing in a landscape of dead and fallen trees, and slowly chopping a piece of wood with an axe. Very slowly. The ‘bock’ sound of each blow of the axe is amplified on the soundtrack which, from amid a collage of sounds, sounds of docks, works, men, soldiers, guns going off.

By and large the loudness and business of the audio track contrasts eerily with the Zen slow motion movements of the black and Asian actors.

Installation view of a 'modern' segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of a ‘modern’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Mimesis: African Soldier is 75 minutes long – long enough to really sink back and become absorbed and entranced by this audiovisual experience.

The message

So much so that it’s easy to forget Akomfrah’s message. This is that some three million African and Asian men served on the Allied side during the Great War, as labourers, carriers and soldiers, and their story – indeed their existence – is rarely if ever acknowledged.

This is spelled out in the wall label outside the gallery, in the wall label in the corridor leading to the screening room, in the ten-page handout to the exhibition, and in the extended prose descriptions about the film on the museum’s website:

And in the interviews Akomfrah has given about the work:

But having read all these sources and listened to all the interviews, none of them get me much further than the basic idea. All these texts just repackage the same basic fact:

Between 1914 and 1918, millions of African and colonial soldiers served in long campaigns that spanned the whole of the African and European continents, contributing to victories throughout the First World War. These soldiers from British and French African territories were brought to Europe’s western front, where hundreds and thousands lost their lives alongside unknown, unheralded and undocumented African labourers and carriers. Mimesis: African Soldier seeks to commemorate these Africans and colonial soldiers who fought, served and died during the First World War.

This information takes less than a minute to process and understand – in much the same way as I have in the past processed all manner of obscure or (to me) unknown aspects of this war, of the other world war, and of countless other historical episodes.

It was, after all, a world war. It had a global reach and consequences which are almost impossible for one person to grasp. A few months ago I was reading about the Mexican Revolution and the role played in it by the notorious Zimmerman Telegram in which the Germans promised to give Mexico back large chunks of Texas and other neighbouring states, if only Mexico would come in on the side of the Allies.

You could argue that Mexico thus played a key role in the First World War. Who knew?

To take another example, not so long ago I made a conscious effort to break out of the straitjacket of always viewing the war through the experiences of the British on the Western Front, and read two books to try and understand more about the war in the East.

Who in this country knows anything about the course of the First World War in Galicia or Bulgaria or Romania, let alone the vast battles which took place on the huge eastern Front? Who is familiar with the ebb and flow of fighting in little Serbia, which caused the whole damn thing in the first place?

Or take the example of another First World War-related exhibition I visited recently: I knew nothing about the role played by the Canadian army, which not only supplied cavalry on the Western Front, but also proved invaluable in setting up lumber mills behind the Front which supplied the millions of yards of planking from which the trenches and all the Allied defences were built. I had never heard about this until I went to the Army Museum’s exhibition about the painter Alfred Munnings who documented their contribution.

For me, then, the message that some three million Asians and Africans fought and supplied invaluable manual labour to the Allied side is just one more among a kaleidoscope of aspects of the war about which I freely admit to being shamefully ignorant.

Not being black, and not coming from one of the colonies in question, it doesn’t have a salience or importance greater than all these other areas of which I know I am so ignorant. Why should the black dockers have more importance than the Canadian lumberjacks? And why do their stories have any more importance or relevance than the millions of Russians, and Poles, and Romanians and Hungarians and Ukrainians and Jews who died in fighting or were massacred in the ugly pogroms and racial violence which characterised the war in the East?

Surely all human lives are of equal value, in which case all deaths in massacre and conflict are equally to be lamented and commemorated.

Art film as a medium for education

As it stands, the mere presence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum as part of this year-long commemoration means that all visitors to this part of the building will read the wall labels explaining the importance of the millions of Africans and Asians who aided the Allied war effort.

And since the IWM gets around two and a half million visitors, that’s potentially a lot of people who might have their minds opened to this overlooked aspect of the war.

But I’m not sure the film itself does very much to educate and inform. It’s an art film. It moves very, very slowly. The soundtrack is a disorientating mash-up of what is presumably the sounds of ships and docks and workmen with what seem to be African tribal music, chanting and so on. I get that this is the aural equivalent of the mash-up we’re seeing on-screen, but I’m not sure it really adds anything to anyone’s understanding.

In a nutshell, I’m not sure art films are an effective way to convey information about anything, apart from the film-maker’s own aesthetic decisions.

Comparison with Bridgit 2016

I had much the same response to Charlotte Prodger’s film, Bridgit 2016 which won the 2018 Turner Prize. It was intended to be a lecture about LBGTQ+ rights and gender and identity, but I found all the information-giving parts of it boring and sanctimonious (where they weren’t factually incorrect).

Instead, what I responded to in Bridgit 2016 was not the right-on, politically correct sentiments but the haunting nature of some of the shots, especially the sequence I saw (like every other visitor, I didn’t stay to watch the whole thing) where the camera was pointed at the wake being made in the grey sea by a large ferry, presumably off the Scottish coast somewhere.

The way the camera didn’t make any kind of point, and the way that, for at least this part of the film, Prodger wasn’t lecturing me about LGBTQ+ rights, meant that, for that sequence at least, the film did what art films can sometimes do – which is make you see in a new way, make you realise the world can be seen in other ways, make you pay attention enough to something humdrum in order to let the imagination transform it.

Which has a liberating effect, far far from all political ideologies, whether conservative or socialist or politically correct or politically repressive. Just that long shot of the churning foaming wake created by a big ship ploughing through a cold northern sea spoke to me, at some level I can’t define.

Which is better at conveying information – art film or conventional display?

Similarly, like Bridgit 2016Mimesis: African Soldier comes heavily freighted with the moral earnestness of a Victorian sermon (and it’s as long as a Victorian sermon, too, at a hefty 75 minutes).

Akomfrah wants ‘Britain’ to ‘acknowledge’ the contribution of these millions of colonial subjects who fought and died for their imperial masters.

OK. I accept it immediately without a quibble, and I can’t imagine anyone anywhere would disagree. Isn’t this precisely what visiting museums is all about? That visitors are bombarded with all kinds of information and facts about the subjects of exhibitions they have chosen to visit? That people visit museums to learn.

And if the aim of the film is to educate, you can’t help wondering whether the point wouldn’t have been better made, more impactful, if it had been replaced – or maybe accompanied – by a more traditional display of hundreds of photos of the time accompanied by wall labels giving us facts and figures and, maybe, the stories and experiences of half a dozen African and Asian soldiers.

The rise and rise of the ‘forgotten voices’ trope

But as I reread the text around the film asserting that its aim was to restore an overlooked aspect of the history of the war, to rediscover lost voices, and restore people to their rightful place in history, I found myself more intrigued by this aspect of the display – the claim to be rediscovering, reclaiming and restoring – rather than its actual content.

How each era gets the history it requires

History is written for its times, responding to the cultural and economic needs of its day.

Machiavelli wrote his histories of Rome as warnings to Renaissance princes. Carlyle wrote a history of the French Revolution to thrill Victorian society with a vision of how Great Men direct the course of events.

The often-ridiculed ‘Whig’ historians reassured their liberal-minded readers by writing British history as if the whole thing, from Magna Carta to the reform acts of the 1800s, demonstrated the inevitable rise of the best and fairest possible liberal democracy.

Tougher minded Edwardian historians set out to show their readers that the British Empire was a force for peace and the enlightened development of the colonies.

The historians I read as a student (Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill) were Marxists who showed in their particular areas (the long nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution, the British Civil War, respectively) that history consisted of class struggles which confirmed Marx’s underlying theory of a dynamic and the forward march of history which would inevitably lead to a proletarian revolution.

And so they were very popular among students as the Cold War 1950s turned into the heady student revolutions of the 1960s and on into the strike- and violence-soaked 1970s and 1980s.

But, as I understand it, during the 1970s and 80s there was also a reaction against these grand, high-level (and very left-wing) narratives among a younger generation of historians who decided instead to specialise in provincial studies of particular localities (I’m thinking of John Morrill’s studies of Chester or David Underdown’s studies of the West Country during the Civil War). These tended to show that events at a local level were much more complicated than the lofty, and dogmatic, Christopher Hill-type versions suggested.

And it’s possible to see these reactions against the Marxist historians as a symptom of the way that, throughout society, the old communist/socialist narratives came to be seen as tired and old fashioned, as Mrs Thatcher’s social revolution changed British society and attitudes in the 1980s.

But another trend, when I was a student in the 1980s, was a growing move towards apolitical oral history, with a rash of books telling the ‘untold stories’ of this, that or the other constituency – generally the working classes, the class that didn’t make policies and diplomacy and big speeches in the House of Commons, the ordinary man or woman throughout history.

I’m thinking of Lyn MacDonald’s accounts of the key battles of the First World War in which she relied heavily on letters and diaries with the result that her books were marketed as telling ‘the untold stories of…’, ‘giving a voice to…’ the previously ignored common squaddie.

This ‘popular’ approach prompts pity and sympathy for ‘ordinary people’ of the past without being overtly left or right-wing, and it is an approach which hasn’t gone away, as these recent book titles indicate:

  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Somme’ by Joshua Levine
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of D-Day’ by Roderick Bailey
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust’ by Lyn Smith
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Second World War’ by Max Arthur
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of Burma’ by Julian Thompson
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Falklands’ by Hugh McManners
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of Mao’s Great Famine’ by Xun Zhou

To bring us up to date, the end of the Thatcher era coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of communism as a viable political theory. I’ve watched as over this period, the past 30 years, increasing numbers of progressive thinkers, writers, historians, artists and so on have become steadily more in thrall to questions of identity – especially the twin issues of race and gender – which have spread out from academia to become two of the broader, defining issues of our time.

And watched as a new generation of historians, including many women and black and Asian historians, has arisen which has packed bookshelves, magazines, radio and TV programmes with new interpretations of history which ‘restore’ the place of women and non-white figures in British and world history.

Combining all this, we arrive at the present moment, 2019, where there is:

  1. more cultural production than ever before in human history, with an unprecedented number of poems, plays, radio programmes, TV documentaries, films and art works ranging over all of recorded history in search of subjects and people from the past to restore, revive and reclaim
  2. and this unprecedented output is taking place in an age obsessed by identity politics, and so is ever-more relentlessly conceived, produced and delivered in terms of identity, specifically the two great pillars of modern progressive ideology, race and gender

Adding the ‘forgotten stories’ trope to the inexorable rise of identity politics helps to explain the explosive proliferation of books, plays, movies, documentaries and radio programmes which use the same rhetorical device of reclaiming the stories of unjustly forgotten women and unjustly forgotten people of colour from pretty much any period of the last 3,000 years. Thus, to give just a few examples of each:

Forgotten Women

  • 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World
  • The Forgotten Tudor Women: Anne Seymour, Jane Dudley & Elisabeth Parr
  • Ladies of Lascaris: Christina Ratcliffe and The Forgotten Heroes of Malta’s War
  • Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music
  • The Forgotten Tudor Women: Margaret Douglas, Mary Howard & Mary Shelton
  • Daughters of Chivalry: The Forgotten Children of Edward I
  • Roaring Girls: The forgotten feminists of British history
  • Charlie Company’s Journey Home: The Forgotten Impact on the Wives of Vietnam Veterans
  • Invisible Women. Forgotten Artists of Florence
  • War’s Forgotten Women
  • Forgotten Desert Mothers, The: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women
  • When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt

Forgotten people of colour

  • Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes
  • Black and British: A Forgotten History
  • The Forgotten Black Cowboys
  • Forgotten black TV and film history
  • 5 Forgotten Black and Asian Figures Who Made British History
  • Black on the battlefield: Canada’s forgotten First World War battalion
  • The Forgotten Black Heroes of Empire
  • Black servicemen: Unsung heroes of the First World War
  • Forgotten? : Black Soldiers in the Battle of Waterloo
  • The Forgotten Black Soldiers in White Regiments During the Civil War
  • Black Athena: The Afro-asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization

My point is that the whole notion of listening to ‘forgotten voices’ and restoring ‘forgotten histories’ has become a central trope of our times, and moreover it is, a moment’s thought suggests, a potentially bottomless well of material.

Once you have accepted the premise that we need to hear the voices of everyone who has ever lived, then there is potentially no end to the number of forgotten women whose voices we need to hear and whose stories we need to be told, just as there is no end to the number of forgotten black slaves, entrepreneurs, soldiers, heroes, scientists, writers, pioneers, cowboys, immigrants, poets and artists whose voices need to be heard and whose stories need to be told.

A flood of forgotten voices

To return to Akomfrah’s film, what I’m trying to do is understand the times I live in, and understand how a politically-committed work of art like Mimesis: African Soldier fits into it.

My view is that the Imperial War Museum commissioning this piece, and John Akomfrah making it, are very much not ground-breaking or innovative.

The opposite. Mimesis: African Soldier is smack bang in the centre of the cultural mood of our times. We are in the middle of an absolute flood of such productions:

I’m not saying any of this ‘forgotten history’ is untrue or unworthy. I’m just pointing out that each era gets the ‘history’ it asks for and, on some level, needs. That societies write history not to reveal any ‘truth’ (there is no fixed historical ‘truth’) but to manufacture the stories they need to sustain their current social and cultural concerns.

For reasons which are a little too deep to be tackled in this blog post, our culture at the moment is undergoing an obsessive interest in identity politics, focusing in particular on the twin issues of race and gender. ‘Diversity’, already a major concern and ubiquitous buzzword, will only become more and more dominating for the foreseeable future.

And so history retold from the perspectives of race and gender, history which perfectly reflects the concerns of our day and age –  is what we’re getting.

And, of course, it’s popular and fashionable. And lucrative.

History retold from the perspectives of race and gender is the kind of history which historians know will get them academic posts and high student approval marks from their evermore ‘woke’ pupils, the kind of history TV companies know will get them viewers, which publishers know will get them readers, and which artists know will get them museum commissions and gallery exhibitions.

Summary of the argument

All of this is intended to show that, if I have a relaxed approach to the political content of Akomfrah’s film, if I read that millions of blacks and Asians laboured and fought for the European empires and accept it without hesitation, filing it next to what I’ve also recently learned about Canadian lumberjacks, or about the troops who fought and died in Palestine or East Africa – it is not out of indifference to the ‘issue’. It is:

1. Because, on a personal level, there are hundreds of aspects of the First World War which I don’t fully understand or comprehend, and all kinds of fronts and campaigns which I am pitifully ignorant of – and I am pretty relaxed about living with that ignorance because life is short and I have umpteen other calls on my time.

2. Because, on a cultural level, Mimesis: African Soldier can be seen as just one more artifact in the tsunami of cultural products in our time which all claim to be unearthing ‘the untold story’ and restoring ‘the forgotten voices’ and putting the record straight on behalf of neglected women, ignored people of colour and any number of other overlooked and oppressed minorities.

I am trying to understand my complete lack of surprise at finding the film on show here, or at its subject matter, and the complete lack of factual or historical illumination I felt when watching it.

Summary on the film

The political motivation behind Akomfrah’s piece is worthy, if entirely uncontroversial.

And because it has no voiceover or captions and because it relies for understanding and meaning on the introductory wall labels, the film is not that effective as purely factual information. A conventional display would have been infinitely more informative. In fact, in his interviews, Akomfrah emphasises the enormous amount of research which went into the making of the film. Well, following that line of tnought, I couldn’t help thinking the whole project would make significantly more impact if it was accompanied by a book which dug really deeply into the subject, with maps and figures and deeper explanations, explaining just how many people came from each colony, willingly or unwillingly, how they were deployed, the special conditions they worked under, and so on, all liberally illustrated with – that favourite trope of our times – the actual stories of African and Indian soldiers in their own words. Ironically, there are no voices in the film: just silent and slow moving actors.

But quibbles about its meaning and purpose and its place in broader cultural movements aside, there is no denying that, as a spectacle, Mimesis: African Soldier is wonderfully hypnotic and tranquilising. The archive footage is artfully selected, the contemporary sequences are shot in stunning digital clarity, the two are edited together to make entrancing viewing.

And, just as with Purple, Mimesis allows the viewer’s mind to take the archive footage and modern scenery (its foggy jungles and muddy beaches and lonely Asian chopping wood) as starting points from which to drift off into reveries of our own devising, making our own connections and finding our own meanings.

Installation view of the 'beach' sequence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of the ‘beach’ sequence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Imperial War Museum

World War One-related art reviews

World War One-related book reviews

Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson (2014) and multi-ethnic societies

Mutual suspicion, brinkmanship, arrogance, belligerence and, above all fear were rife in the halls of power across Europe in the summer of 1914. (p.8)

I’m very surprised that this book won the ‘2014 Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize in Military History’ and the ‘Society of Military History 2015 Distinguished Book Award’ because it is not really a military history at all.

It’s certainly an epic book – 788 pages, if you include the 118 pages of notes and 63 pages of bibliography – and it gives an impressively thorough account of the origins, development and conclusion of the First World War, as seen from the point of view of the politicians, military leaders and people of Germany and Austria-Hungary.

More social than military history

But I found it much more of a sociological and economic history of the impact of war on German and Austro-Hungarian society, than a narrative of military engagements.

Watson gives a broad outline of the German invasion of Belgium and northern France, but there are no maps and no description of any of the vital battles, of the Marne or Aisnes or Arras or Ypres. Instead he spends more time describing the impact on Belgian society of the burning of villages and the atrocities carried out by the Germans – in retaliation for what they claimed were guerrilla and francs-tireurs (free-shooter) attacks by civilian snipers.

I was specifically hoping to learn more about the famous three-week-long battle of Tannenberg between Germany and Russia on the Eastern Front, but there is no account of it at all in this book.

Instead Watson gives a detailed description of the impact on society in Galicia and East Prussia of the ruinous and repressive Russian advance. Little or nothing about the fighting, but a mass of detail about the impact on individual villages, towns and cities of being subject to Russian military administration and violence, and a lot about the impact of war on the region’s simmering ethnic tensions. I hadn’t realised that the Russians, given half a chance, carried out as many atrocities (i.e. massacring civilians) and far more forced movements of population, than the Germans did.

Watson does, it is true, devote some pages to the epic battle of Verdun (pp. 293-300) and to the Battle of the Somme (pp. 310-326), but it’s not what I’d call a military description. There are, for example no maps of either battlefield. In fact there are no battlefield maps – maps showing the location of a battle and the deployment of opposing forces – anywhere at all in the book.

Instead, what you do get is lots of graphs and diagrams describing the social and economic impact of war – showing things like ‘Crime rates in Germany 1913-18’, ‘Free meals dispensed at Viennese soup kitchens 1914-18’, ‘German psychiatric casualties in the First and Second Armies 1914-18’ (p.297) and so on. Social history.

Longer than the accounts of Verdun and the Somme put together is his chapter about the food shortages which began to be felt soon after the war started and reached catastrophic depths during the ‘Turnip Winter’ of 1916-17. These shortages were caused by the British naval blockade (itself, as Watson points out, of dubious legality under international law), but also due to the intrinsic shortcomings of German and Austro-Hungarian agriculture, compounded by government inefficiency, and corruption (all described in immense detail on pages 330-374).

So there’s more about food shortages than about battles. Maybe, in the long run, the starvation was more decisive. Maybe Watson would argue that there are hundreds of books devoted to Verdun and the Somme, whereas the nitty-gritty of the food shortages – much more important in eventually forcing the Central Powers to their knees – is something you rarely come across in British texts. He certainly gives a fascinating, thorough and harrowing account.

But it’s not military history. It’s social and economic history.

A lot later in the book Watson gives a gripping account of the German offensive of spring 1918, and then the Allied counter-offensive from July 1918 which ended up bringing the Central Powers to the negotiating table.

But in both instances it’s a very high-level overview, and he only gives enough detail to explain (fascinatingly) why the German offensive failed and the Allied one succeeded – because his real motivation, the meat of his analysis, is the social and political impact of the military failure on German and Austrian society.

Absence of smaller campaigns

Something else I found disappointing about the book was his neglect of military campaigns even a little outside his main concern with German and Austro-Hungarian society.

He gives a thrilling account of the initial Austrian attack on Serbia – which was, after all, the trigger for the whole war – and how the Austrians were, very amusingly, repelled back to their starting points.

But thereafter Serbia is more or less forgotten about and the fact that Serbia was later successfully invaded is skated over in a sentence. Similarly, although the entry of Italy into the war is mentioned, none of the actual fighting between Austria and Italy is described. There is only one reference to Romania being successfully occupied, and nothing at all about Bulgaria until a passing mention of her capitulation in 1918.

I had been hoping that the book would give an account of the First World War in the East, away from the oft-told story of the Western Front: the war in Poland and Galicia and the Baltic States he does cover, but in south-eastern Europe nothing.

The text – as the title, after all, indicates – is pretty ruthlessly focused on the military capabilities, mobilisation, economy and society of Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Ethnic tension

If there’s one theme which does emerge very clearly from this very long book it is the centrality of ethnic and nationalist divisions in the Central Powers themselves, and in the way they treated their conquered foes.

Throughout its examination of the impact of war on German and Austro-Hungarian society – on employment, women’s roles, propaganda, agriculture and industry, popular culture and so on – the book continually reverts to an examination of the ethnic and nationalist fracture lines which ran through these two states.

For example, in the food chapter, there are not only radical differences in the way the German and Austro-Hungarian authorities dealt with the crisis (the effectiveness of different rationing schemes, and so on) but we are shown how different national regions, particularly of Austria-Hungary, refused to co-operate with each other: for example, rural Hungary refusing to share its food with urban Austria.

What emerges, through repeated description and analysis, is the very different ethnic and nationalist nature of the two empires.

Germany

Germany was an ethnically homogeneous state, made up overwhelmingly of German-speaking ethnic Germans. Therefore the fractures – the divisions which total war opened up – tended to take place along class lines. Before the war the Social Democrat Party (much more left-wing than its name suggests) had been the biggest socialist party in Europe, heir to the legacy of Karl Marx which was, admittedly, much debated and squabbled over. However, when war came, Watson shows how, in a hundred different ways, German society closed ranks in a patriotic display of unity so that the huge and powerful SDP, after some debate, rejected its pacifist wing and united with all the other parties in the Reichstag in voting for the war credits which the Chancellor asked for.

Watson says contemporary Germans called this the Burgfrieden spirit of the time, meaning literally ‘castle peace politics’. In effect it meant a political policy of ‘party truce’, all parties rallying to the patriotic cause, trades unions agreeing not to strike, socialist parties suspending their campaign to bring down capitalism, and so on. All reinforced by the sense that the Germans were encircled by enemies and must all pull together.

Typical of Watson’s social-history approach to all this is his account of the phenomenon of Liebesgaben or ‘love gifts’ (pp.211-214), the hundreds of thousands of socks and gloves and scarves knitted and sent to men at the front by the nation’s womenfolk, and the role played by children in war charities and in some war work.

He has three or four pages about the distinctive development of ‘nail sculptures’, figures of soldiers or wartime leaders into which all citizens in a town were encouraged to hammer a nail while making a donation to war funds. Soon every town and city had these nail figures, focuses of patriotic feeling and fundraising (pp. 221-225).

Watson is much more interested by the impact of war on the home front than by military campaigns.

Austria-Hungary

The spirit of unity which brought Germany together contrasts drastically with the collapse along ethnic lines of Austria-Hungary, the pressures which drove the peoples of the empire apart.

The Empire was created as a result of the Compromise of 1867 by which the Austrians had one political arrangement, the Hungarians a completely different one, and a whole host of lesser ethnicities and identities (the Czechs, and Poles in the north, the Serbs and Greeks and Croats and Bosnians in the troublesome south) jostled for recognition and power for their own constituencies.

Watson’s introductory chapters give a powerful sense of the fear and anxiety stalking the corridors of power in the Austro-Hungarian Empire well before the war began. This fear and anxiety were caused by the succession of political and military crises of the Edwardian period – the Bosnia Crisis of 1908, the First and Second Balkan Wars of 1911 and 1912, the rising voices of nationalism among Czechs in the north and Poles in the East.

To really understand the fear of the ruling class you have to grasp that in 1914 there was a very clear league table of empires – with Britain at the top followed by France and Germany. The rulers of Austria-Hungary were petrified that the collapse and secession of any part of their heterogenous empire would relegate them to the second division of empires (as were the rulers of Russia, as well).

And everybody knew what happened to an empire on the slide: they had before them the examples of the disintegrating Ottoman and powerless Chinese empires, which were condemned to humiliation and impotence by the Great Powers. Austria-Hungary’s rulers would do anything to avoid that fate.

But Watson shows how, as soon as war broke out, the empire instead of pulling together, as Germany had, began dividing and splitting into its component parts. Vienna was forced to cede control of large regions of the empire to the local governments which were best placed to mobilise the war effort among their own peoples.

This tended to have two consequences:

  1. One was to encourage nationalism and the rise of nationalist leaders in these areas (it was via wartime leadership of the Polish Legions, a force encouraged by Vienna, that Józef Piłsudski consolidated power and the authority which would enable him to establish an independent Poland in 1918, and successfully defend its borders against Russian invasion in 1920, before becoming Poland’s strongman in the interwar period).
  2. The second was to encourage inter-ethnic tension and violence.

The difference between homegeneous Germany and heterogeneous Austria-Hungary is exemplified in the respective nations’ responses to refugees. In Germany, the 200,000 or so refugees from Russia’s blood-thirsty invasion of East Prussia were distributed around the country and welcomed into homes and communities all over the Reich. They were recipients of charity from a popular refugee fund which raised millions of marks for them. Even when the refugees were in fact Polish-speaking or Lithuanians, they were still treated first and foremost as Germans and all received as loyal members of the Fatherland (pp. 178-181).

Compare and contrast the German experience with the bitter resentment which greeted refugees from the Russian invasion of the Austro-Hungarian border region of Galicia. When some 1 million refugees from Galicia were distributed round the rest of the empire, the native Hungarians, Austrians or Czechs all resented having large number of Poles, Ruthenians and, above all, Jewish, refugees imposed on their communities. There was resentment and outbreaks of anti-refugee violence.

The refugee crisis was just one of the ways in which the war drove the nationalities making up the Austro-Hungarian empire further apart (pp. 198-206).

Two years ago I read and was appalled by Timothy Snyder’s book, Bloodlands, which describes the seemingly endless ethnic cleansing and intercommunal massacres, pogroms and genocides which took place in the area between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia in the 1930s.

Watson’s book shows how many of these tensions existed well before the First World War – in the Balkans they went back centuries – but that it was the massive pan-European conflict which lifted the lid, which authorised violence on an unprecedented scale, and laid the seeds for irreconcilable hatreds, particularly between Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians and Jews.

The perils of multi-ethnic societies

Although I bet Watson is a fully paid-up liberal (and his book makes occasional gestures towards the issue of ‘gender’, one of the must-have topics which all contemporary humanities books have to include), nonetheless the net effect of these often harrowing 566 pages of text is to make the reader very nervous about the idea of a multinational country.

1. Austria-Hungary was a rainbow nation of ethnicities and, under pressure, it collapsed into feuding and fighting nationalities.

2. Russia, as soon as it invaded East Prussia and Galicia, began carrying out atrocities against entire ethnic groups classified as traitors or subversives, hanging entire villages full of Ukrainians or Ruthenians, massacring Jewish populations.

3. The to and fro of battle lines in the Balkans allowed invading forces to decimate villages and populations of rival ethnic groups who they considered dangerous or treacherous.

Austro-Hungarian troops hanging unarmed Serbian civilians (1915)

Austro-Hungarian troops hanging unarmed Serbian civilians (1915) No doubt ‘spies’ and ‘saboteurs’

In other words, everywhere that you had a mix of ethnicities in a society put under pressure, you got voices raised blaming ‘the other’, blaming whichever minority group comes to hand, for the catastrophe which was overtaking them.

Unable to accept the objective truth that their armies and military commanders were simply not up to winning the war, the so-called intelligentsia of Austria-Hungary, especially right-wing newspapers, magazines, writers and politicians, declared that the only reason they were losing must be due to the sabotage and treachery of traitors, spies, saboteurs and entire ethnic groups, who were promptly declared ‘enemies of the state’.

Just who was blamed depended on which small powerless group was ready to hand, but the Jews tended to be a minority wherever they found themselves, and so were subjected to an increasing chorus of denunciation throughout the empire.

Ring of Steel is a terrible indictment of the primitive xenophobia and bloodlust of human nature. But it is also a warning against the phenomenon that, in my opinion, has been ignored by generations of liberal politicians and opinion-formers in the West.

For several generations we have been told by all official sources of information, government, ministires, and all the media, that importing large groups of foreigners can only be a good thing, which ‘enriches’ our rainbow societies. Maybe, at innumerable levels, it does.

But import several million ‘foreigners’, with different coloured skins, different languages, cultures and religions into Western Europe – and then place the societies of the West under great economic and social strain thanks to an epic crash of the financial system and…

You get the rise of right-wing, sometimes very right-wing, nationalist parties – in Russia, in Poland, in Hungary, in Germany, in Sweden and Denmark, in Italy, in France, in Britain and America – all demanding a return to traditional values and ethnic solidarity.

I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, I’m just saying the evidence seems to be that human beings are like this. This is what we do. You and I may both wish it wasn’t so, but it is so.

In fact I’d have thought this was one of the main lessons of history. You can’t look at the mass destruction of the Napoleonic Wars and say – ‘Well at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the appalling suffering created by industrialisation and say, ‘Well at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the mind-blowing racist attitudes I’ve been reading about in the American Civil War and say, ‘Well, at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the mad outbreak of violence of the First World War and the stubborn refusal to give in which led to over ten million men being slaughtered and say – ‘Well, at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the Holocaust and say – ‘Well, at least we’re not like that any more’.

We cannot be confident that human nature has changed at all in the intervening years.

Because in just the last twenty years we have all witnessed the savagery of the wars in former Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide, the genocide in Darfur, the failure of the Arab Springs and the civil wars in Syria and Libya, the 9/11 attacks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise of ISIS, the war in Yemen, the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar prove.

If all these conflicts prove anything, they prove that —

WE ARE STILL LIKE THAT

We are just like that. Nothing has changed. Given half a chance, given enough deprivation, poverty and fear, human beings in any continent of the world will lash out in irrational violence which quickly becomes total, genocidal, scorched earth, mass destruction.

In the West, in Britain, France, Germany or America, we like to think we are different. That is just a form of racism. In my opinion, we are not intrinsically different at all. We are just protected by an enormous buffer of wealth and consumer goods from having to confront our basest nature. The majority of the populations in all the Western nations are well off enough not to want, or to allow, any kind of really ethnically divisive politics or inter-ethnic violence to take hold.

Or are they?

Because creating multi-cultural societies has created the potential for serious social stress to exacerbate racial, ethnic and nationalist dividing lines which didn’t previously exist. When I was growing up there was no such thing as ‘Islamophobia’ in Britain. 40 years later there are some 2.8 million Muslims in Britain, some 5% of the population – and I read about people being accused of ‘Islamophobia’, or Muslims claiming unfair discrimination or treatment in the media, almost every day in the newspapers.

It’s not as if we didn’t know the risks. I lived my entire life in the shadow of ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland which were based entirely on ethnic or communal hatred. And now not a day goes past without a newspaper article bewailing how Brexit might end the Good Friday Agreement and bring back the men of violence. Is the peace between the ethnic groups in Northern Ireland really that fragile? Apparently so. But British governments and the mainland population have always had an uncanny ability to sweep Ulster under the carpet and pretend it’s not actually part of the UK. To turn our backs on 40 years of bombings and assassinations, to pretend that it all, somehow, wasn’t actually happening in Britain. Not the real Britain, the Britain that counts. But it was.

Anyway, here we are. Over the past 40 years or so, politicians and opinion makers from all parties across the Western world have made this multicultural bed and now we’re all going to have to lie in it, disruptive and troubled though it is likely to be, for the foreseeable future.

Conclusion

Although it certainly includes lots of detail about the how the societies of the Central Powers were mobilised and motivated to wage total war, and enough about the military campaigns to explain their impact on the home front, overall Watson’s book is not really a military history of the Central Powers at war, but much more a social and economic history of the impact of the war on the two empires of its title.

And in the many, many places where he describes ethnic and nationalist tensions breaking out into unspeakable violence, again and again, all over central and eastern Europe, Watson’s book – no doubt completely contrary to his intentions – can very easily be read as a manifesto against the notion of a multicultural, multi-ethnic society.


Related links

Other blog posts about the First World War

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