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TematicheItalia ed EuropaWorld War I Centenary: Nationalities and Minorities

World War I Centenary: Nationalities and Minorities


Mobilizing up to 65 millionpeople and invoking the use of newer, deadlier technology, World War 1 changed the face of Europe—and the Western world –forever. Occurring in the wake of fierce technological, military and industrial gains made by emerging European powers, the Great War represented different things to different people. The pivotal political, social and ideological contexts of the time made the concept of post-war society ambiguous and often times, hopeful—not only to the leaders of the great powers of the time, but also to cultural groups within European empires. The beginning of the nineteenth century saw tremendous changes in Europe’s map. These changes were only exacerbated by the ending treaty of the war. Along with new geographic demarcations—including the newfound independence of numerous previous colonies—the period after the War also saw transformations in the treatment of minority groups within these regions, more often than not for the worse. From the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire to the Jews in Eastern Europe, minorities found themselves facing augmented hostility and persecution in their respective regions. However, before we can discuss the reasons behind this change, we must consider the context.

As aforementioned, Europe was in the midst of an ongoing battle of power.  Britain, the long standing reigning power of Europe, was being contested by Germany, who was making industrial and colonial gains. Russia, who espoused the largest army at the time, was in the process of establishing her air force. Meanwhile, Italy was increasing her army and France, who had transformed herself from an agriculture-based economy to an industrial economy, was enhancing her naval force with new submarines and battleships. This type of arms race was the political situation necessary to plunge the world into the largest war of that time period However, in addition to the mounting political tension, two societal sentiments were on the rise: nationalism and modernization.

Along with the strides in power of each country, a surge of nationalism pervaded throughout Europe. Citizens of each nation began to commit unwavering confidence and esteem into their own country’s military prowess. In fact, the value was placed not only in their fighting capabilities, but also in each nation’s customs, ideologies, ways-of-doing things and perceived brilliance.  There was a newfound sense of pride in one’s own nation, merely enhanced by negative representations of other nationalities in the media. Throughout the continent, there was also an overarching sense of modernism. This mode of thought manifested itself in constant preoccupation with progress, growth and construction. Systems began to be seen in relation to modernism. Thus, everyone strived to create ideas and systems that could and would be judged as “modern”, “advanced” or “superior”. However, the attention placed on all aspects of society deemed “modern” meant that there were inevitably also aspects that were deemed “outdated”, “backward” and “inferior”, with no space in between the two extremes. The concurrent preoccupation with both modernism and nationalism led to the perceived interconnectedness of the two ideas. Nationalism implied a sense of common identification, in turn implicative of a common origin. Thus, all non-homogenized elements (e.g. language, culture, ethnicity) were seen as anti-nationalist and thus anti-modern, This bifurcated perception extended to people, leaving those who would be labelled as “minority” or “other” particularly vulnerable. Because of the obsession to solely deal with “modern” ideas, people delegitimized anything not considered modern; it was enough for something to be considered “anti-modern” in order for its complete and unquestioned exclusion from society. Thus, those who were set apart from the majority in any way became subject to intense pressures to assimilate with the majority. Those who wouldn’t—or couldn’t—were persecuted and excluded.  This reality is highlighted through the genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. In the Ottoman Empire, ethnic cataloguing was a longtime practice. During the war, all Armenians had come to be seen as backstabbers, setting the pavestone for the eventual ethnic cleansing in 1915. This is similar to the narrative of Jews Europe at the beginning of the 19th century. In Germany, Jews were also the subject of numerous censuses aimed at detailing the amount of Jews serving in different positions in the war, prompting the distancing of Jews from Germany. Long seen as “others”, during the war, newspapers began advertising Jews as not sharing their portion of the military burden. Similarly, Jews in Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe were increasingly looked down upon by their fellow countrymen—an occurrence that was only made more pronounced by the war. Despite the Jews’ efforts to demonstrate their loyalty to their nation, media tooted supposed “evidence” of Jewish betrayal and disloyalty to the country during battles. Thus, after the war ended, their problems continued.

The Great War was a turning point for global political, military and diplomatic relations. However, due to the ideological obsession with nationalism and modernism during the years leading up to the war, no less significant or pivotal was the deterioration in domestic relations experienced by minorities at the time.

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