Overview Conference “Unknown Fronts” – November 2015, Groningen
On the 5th and 6th of November 2015 the enlightening conference on “Unknown Fronts” took place in Groningen, organized by the University of Groningen and the Netherlands-Russia Centre. The main purpose of this conference was to shed light on the fronts that formed the South Eastern and East European theatres during the First World War. There exists a serious gap in the historical knowledge about these Eastern fronts, both in the West and the East of Europe. However, since the Communist bloc in Eastern Europe collapsed many sources became available after being invisible for a long time. These ‘new’ sources also provoked ‘new’ historical debates. As it did, for instance, after Christopher Clark presented his findings on this topic in his book called The Sleepwalkers (2012). With Clark not being the only one, he can be seen as part of an “Eastern Turn” in First World War historiography. Aimed at filling the gap and making unknown fronts known, this conference has made an important contribution to the necessary revision and redefinition of the First World War.
These two days of exchanging and sharing information were divided into six different blocks, three on each day, in which twenty-two speakers presented their latest research. These blocks were preceded by a keynote lecture given by Geert Buelens (University of Utrecht). He emphasised the importance of a reassessment of the First World War, not only in historical content, but also in the meaning of the word itself. One of the focus points in this, he states, should be on nationalism in the changing political landscape of the period surrounding the war. Nationalist wars started before and ended after The Great War, of which the significance in several cases turned out to be greater than of the First World War itself. He also points at the importance of looking at the Jewish perspective of “fighting your own brothers”. In this way linking important societal developments with developments in literature, Buelens stressed that a more transnational approach to the war is needed to overcome, both in historical content and in the meaning of the word, the predominantly Western interpretation of the First World War.
After the keynote lecture it was time for the different blocks to begin and they started on the subject of Historiography and Historical Reflections. As part of this first block Paul Miller (McDaniel College); Jan Vermeiren (University of East Anglia); Andrea Carteny (Sapienza University of Rome); and Maciej Górny (Tadeausz Manteuffel Institute of History, the Polish Academy of Sciences and the German Historical Institute) presented their findings. One of the things that became clear during this block is that, in a reassessment of the war, we need to take into account the presence of a tension between what we believe that has happened and what really did happen. Or, as Miller pointed out, between people’s memory and history. The second block on Diplomatic Entanglements included lectures by Hans van Koningsbrugge (University of Groningen, director Netherlands-Russia Centre); Roberto Sciarrone (Sapienza University of Rome); Denis Clark (University of Oxford); and Wim Coudenys (University of Leuven). As Van Koningsbrugge stated, diplomatic sources are the “oldest sources” we have on the First World War. But from the lectures of this block also came a warning signal that these diplomatic sources need to be approached carefully. They are almost never completely objective and it is not strange for a diplomat to keep a hidden agenda. The third and final block of the day focussed on the Arts and Culture from the unknown fronts, beginning with a lecture given by Vivien Newman (independent researcher and author) and followed by a presentation from Lennart Steenbergen (University of Groningen). In these lectures it became clear that next to the diplomatic history, it is also necessary to look at the cultural encounter of the First World War. Take the women from Newman’s contribution for instance, who travelled to Serbia risking their lives to provide medical aid and for whom poetry became like today’s twitter as a way to express their everyday encounters.
Ending the last block of presentations did certainly not mean the end of the first day. As a perfect closure of the Arts and Culture section, dramatist and playwright Goran Stefanovski (Canterbury Christ Church University) gave a lecture on the development of the play “Figurae Veneris Historiae”. A play for which he was inspired by Magnus Hirschfeld’s Sitten Geschichte des Weltkrieges (“Sexual History of the First World War”). The play shows war as a form of ‘political pornography’, meaning the ‘impossibility of love in the political world’. “Figurae Veneris Historiae” exemplifies how the phenomenon of war can be and always will be given artistic expression. This can also be seen in the comic exposition “Front Lines” with which this first day of conference ended with an official opening. Based on a poem of their own choosing, several artists have created comics inspired by poetry from the First World War. The exposition is still open for public at the University of Groningen.
The second day again consisted out of three different blocks. The first block entitled Diaries and Life Stories included the presentations of Raymond Detrez (University of Ghent, University of Leuven); Elka Agoston-Nikolova (University of Groningen); Jeremias Schmidt (Ludwig Maximillian University of Munich); Sanda Kočevar (Municipal Museum of Karlovac); and Nicole Immig (Friedrich-Schiller University of Jena). This block focussed on personal experiences as direct sources from the those who fought at frontlines. Unfortunately, many of these sources are still hidden, not accessible, or like Nicole Immig pointed out, still can have a propagandist meaning to it. The second block discussed the Jewish Experiences of the First World War with lectures given by Lukas Waltl (Centre for Jewish Studies, University of Graz) and Giuseppe Motta (Sapienza University of Rome). As already been said in the keynote lecture the Jewish people “fought their own brother” during the war, which gives an interesting Jewish perspective from ‘both sides’ of the war. And finally, the last block of the day and of the conference was on the subject of The Netherlands and the Eastern Front as part of which Guido van Hengel (University of Groningen); Nicolaas Kraft van Ermel (University of Groningen, Netherlands-Russia Centre); and Pelle van Dijk (University of Amsterdam) gave their lectures. One of the things that became clear in these lectures is that the position of the Netherlands, or of a Dutch medical professional like Arius van Tienhoven on which the presentation of Van Dijk focussed, was not as neutral as some would like to believe and the Dutch media played an important part in this.
This second day and the conference as a whole ended with a few concluding words by Guido van Hengel (University of Groningen). He concluded that a new understanding of the First World War is needed. This aim for a new understanding is not a new one, for the “Eastern Turn” already started some decades ago since the fall of the Communist Regime. But there are still many sources to be found and ways in which other sources can be accessed. Another reason for a reassessmentVan Hengel pointed out, is the importance of looking at the war as a cultural encounter and the significant part played by the media in this. Maybe there is nothing new to be found, but as he states “history is not only about finding the truth, it is also about empathy, experiencing what happened in the past and creating art out of this input .” Confirming Buelens in the need to problematize the national and transnational reading of the First World War, Van Hengel sees this conference as a good example of transnational research. He thinks new research has a political meaning, for “we need to understand these nationalisms because we live in a new age of nationalism,” dealing with crossing borders in globalization and European integration.
But this conference could not have been so successful without financial support of the Groningen Research Institute for the Study of Culture and the Nicolaas Mulerius Fund. Also we would like to thank all the participants for their inspiring contributions and presence, to the organization of the conference and to all the other interested.