By Maartje Abbenhuis

It is only by unmasking the myriad local and global transformations occasioned between 1914 and 1918 that we can truly understand this conflict as a total global war and a total global tragedy.

What happens when you take an event as unparalleled as the First World War and turn its history inside out? What happens when, in considering this past, you shift your gaze from the actions of the key belligerents and the major battlefields and look instead at the histories of those who are often marginalised in the traditional histories of the war? What happens when you use the history of international power as it shifted not as a narrative in and of itself (in answer to the question: what happened to the powerful?) but rather as a lens through which to analyse the consequences of these power shifts across a global landscape?

The stakes in war are almost always about life and death. As such, historians of war tend to prioritise the experiences of war’s most immediate agents – those who fight its battles. More often than not, histories of war are histories of belligerent societies. Given the enormous number of combatants in the First World War, it is entirely unsurprising that local, national or imperial versions of these belligerent histories abound. In New Zealand, for example, the history of the First World War is a history of New Zealanders – Māori and non-Māori – facing crisis, change and upheaval, sending a generation of young men (and some women) off to serve the British empire at war in Europe, northern Africa and the Middle East, while those that were left behind anxiously awaited news from these foreign fronts and faced down challenges of wartime shortages, conscription and grief. The history of belligerence is well trod, as no doubt it ought to be.

But do societies that did not fight, that upheld their non-belligerency or neutrality between 1914 -1918, have a history of war? For a very long time, histories of neutrals and neutrality were considered peripheral to the history of the First World War. These countries did not risk their populations to fight ‘the good fight’, nor condemned them to death. Neutrals watched as others fought and died. At best, they offered humanitarian relief, like the American-led Commission for the Relief of Belgium, which sent food shipments from the neutral United States to the neutral Netherlands, which were then transported over land into German-occupied Belgium to stave of starvation among its civilian population. At worst, neutrals profitted from the war by selling essential goods or proferring war loans to the belligerents. [For more on the general neglect of neutrality in war history you might like this blog, written for the University of Kent’s Centre for War, Media and Society]

My friend and esteemed colleague, Prof. Ismee Tames (Netherlands Institute of War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies), and I started our careers as historians of the neutral Netherlands in the First World War. Since completing our PhDs, we’ve had many conversations about the inadequacies of war histories that ignore, neglect or under-value the neutrals. Our new book – Global War, Global Catastrophe: Neutrals, Belligerents and the Transformation of the First World War (Bloomsbury, 2021) – tries to correct this imbalance by drawing on the rich literature on the global experiences of the First World War published during the centennial years 2014-2018.

Our book, which is also available as an OpenAccess text, prioritises the experiences of neutral and subject communities and argues that it is only by focussing on these experiences that we can fully understand the war as a globally transformative and totalising endeavour. In the process of constructing a different general history of the war, then, we fixate on the experiences that are usually silenced or made peripheral [for more on silencing voices from this war, see Ismee’s blog on the subject]. As a result, our book looks to the trajectories of the war as they played out in imperial spaces – across Africa, Eurasia, the Middle East, Oceania and the Pacific –in neutral spaces – in Europe, across North, South and Central America, in Liberia and Indonesia –  in trans-national spaces – like the commercial ports of Shanghai, Singapore or Port Said – and in belligerent spaces to highlight how transgressive and transformative the war years were for most communities.

Consider, for example, how the Wagogo people of present-day Tanzania describe the First World War years with the moniker Mtunya (the Scramble). In the words of the historian Tim Stapleton, after 1915 the Wagogo suffered the ‘worst famine in the area’s long history of drought’, this one manufactured entire by human activity.[1] [There is excellent talk by Prof. Stapleton on Africa in the war available on this website] The German military authorities in the region confiscated food and cattle and conscripted thousands of Wagogo men as carrier troops to support their military campaigns against the British. When the British subsequently occupied the area in 1917, they commandeered even more men and food, leaving little for locals to consume or replant. Collectively, these acts caused the Wagogo social order to collapse. Once the 1918 global influenza pandemic hit, the Wagogo were devastated.

The Wagogo’s suffering was far from unique. Europe’s historians have long debated the ‘politics of hunger’ that suffused the economic war conducted between Britain and Germany during the war. They’ve expended screeds of pages on explaining the willingness of both governments to control access to essential goods – be it foods or fuelstuffs – to conduct their European war. We know much about the conduct of indiscriminate U-boat warfare and the imposition of extreme blockades. In many ways, the traditional histories of the war in Europe stress how essential the economic contours of the war were to the collapse of the Central Powers at the end of the conflict (be it Germany or Austria-Hungary) and to the onset of the Russian Revolutions in 1917.

What is perhaps surprising, then, is to find how essential experiences of scarcity, rationing and starvation were across the globe. The politics of hunger suffused the politics of global war. In British-ruled Nyasaland and Malawi, the military authorities appropriated entire crops and cattle stocks in 1916 causing starvation, spread of disease and social chaos. That same year, in neutral Spain, a skewed balance of trade (favouring exports to the belligerents over imports) bolstered inflation and occasioned a subsistence crisis, which had enormous political ramifications. Meanwhile in August 1916, when bakers in Chicago (in the neutral United States) doubled bread prices due to the rising cost of wheat, angry delegates of the National Housewives’ League demanded that the White House protect domestic consuption over the profits of selling to the warring powers.

In the Middle East (across the Ottoman Empire, Russian Caucasus and Persia), it is estimated that more than 10 million non-combatants died during the war (including 1 in 7 Syrians) as a result of starvation, military activity, genocide, ecocide and disease. As the Allied blockade prevented the export of local cash crops and the Ottoman government mismanaged the distribution of scarce resources, social norms and laws unravelled. Criminality expanded, cannibalism spread as did the bubonic plague, typhoid and typhus (this all before the Spanish flu pandemic hit in 1918). Social crisis was inevitable. For Middle Eastern communities the First World War registers as a ‘war of civilians’, as war in the words of historian Najwa al-Qattan of ‘near annihilation’ that created a ‘world of beggars and beasts, animals and cannibals’.[2]

But consider, too, how in neutral Liberia – the only African country to remain neutral by the end of 1914 – the inability to obtain imports in 1915 resulted in an 80% decline in government revenue, a freeze on the payment of wages, the introduction of a controversial Hut Tax (on every building in the country) and widespread social upheaval, political strife and police violence. Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, in neutral Colombia, the exigencies of the wartime economic crisis (when Europe removed its investments, reduced its exports and revoked imports on luxury items like bananas) resulted in a desperate financial situation, which was so severe already in 1915 that the state stopped paying out wages to its bureaucrats. Similar stories of economic despair can be told of most other Latin and South American countries, which led the historian Philip Dehne to designate the economic contours of the war across this continent as the war’s ‘far western front’.[3]

The importance of inverting the history of the war in these ways is that it reveals how transformations of wartime global power – be they imperial, economic, military or cultural – influenced the course and conduct of this war for almost everyone. Between 1914 and 1918, the local and the global intersected in a complex web. Writing ‘inverted’ histories like these unsettles those master narratives that assert that this war was primarily a war of Europeans, fought for European concerns. It is only by unmasking the myriad local and global transformations occasioned between 1914 and 1918 that we can truly understand this conflict as a total global war and a total global tragedy.

References: 

[1] Tim Stapleton, ‘The Impact of the First World War on African People’ in John Laband, ed., Daily Lives of Civilians in Wartime Africa: From Slavery Days to Rwandan Genocide Westport, Greenwood Press, 2007, p. 123.

[2] Najwa al-Qattan, ‘Historicising Hunger: The Famine in Wartime Lebanon and Syria’ in T.G. Fraser, ed., The First World War and Its Aftermath: The Shaping of the Modern Middle East Gingko Library, 2015, pp. 111–26.

[3] Philip Dehne, On the Far Western Front: Britain’s First World War in South America Manchester University Press, 2010.


Maartje Abbenhuis is a Professor in History at the University of Auckland. She is an expert in European history, 1815-1918. Her new book Global War, Global Catastrophe: Neutrals, Belligerents and the Transformations of the First World War is out now.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the author’s opinion and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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