Imperial Apocalypse World War I

Imperial Apocalypse

Many thanks for inviting me to participate in this blog discussion. I am delighted to participate in the lively scholarly discussion that Sanborn’s work has already sparked. I should make some excuses for myself before I begin in earnest: I am not a Russianist, I cannot speak authoritatively on the work’s contribution to Russian History; I am only tangentially connected to research on the First World War (being more interested in its aftermath and the ‘shadow’ of the conflict in the interwar period); and I am a novice blogger! Perhaps these shortcomings do not matter too much. Sanborn’s past work on military mobilization in the Russian Civil War has transcended the boundaries of its immediate field, it has found its way into the bibliographies of works on a range of topics. Imperial Apocalypse will not be different. Indeed, the very title could apply to a number of states, for the First World War was also an apocalypse for the Habsburgs, the Hohenzollerns, and, eventually, the Ottomans (although not the British, the French, or the Portuguese). Indeed, the author himself has drawn out the comparative dimensions of his work: he makes very good use of the concept of ‘cultural mobilization’, first used by the contributors in the volume edited by John Horne, State, Society and Mobilization in the First World War to express the ways in which states at war need to imaginatively and culturally – as well as militarily – mobilize their populations towards the prosecution of total war.

Sanborn argues convincingly that this was a decisive failure on the part of the Russia’s imperial rulers, one to set alongside their equally dire failures on the battlefield. The First World War took on the form of a war of Russian decolonization. The problem of the Russian colossus is not per se one of manpower or materiel , but rather the limits of the Russian imperial idea to mobilize its peoples. Perhaps in times of peace these limits would not be exposed, but the frailty of imperial institutions is revealed because the imperial state must impose itself upon its subjects in an unprecedented fashion. As the war stretches on, the more the Russian state needs of its subjects, the more it demands, the less it gets, leading to a fatal breaking point. Historians of France’s First World War have described this as a ‘refusal’, the nexus can be applied throughout the belligerent societies, the critical refusal was never reached in France or in Great Britain, but it was in Russia, and in Austria-Hungary (and, I would argue, in Bulgaria, whose collapse says something about the limits of the Balkan nationalizing state idea). Sanborn’s great comparative insight is that the war was not simply a great gladiatorial battle between states and their leaders, it was also a matter of ideologies and ideas behind which people could rally.

And what a proliferation of ideas we are faced with. I think that anti-imperialism is actually one of a many political impulses to which the war gives birth. The First World War is marked by a great contemporary public discussion about the future, one that broadens as the war goes on…and on. Ideas about how international relations and states should look once the war is over, about how the great empires should reform themselves, dualism, trialism, Mitteleuropa, utopias of the far left and right (and of the liberal centre, too). Look at the would-be decolonizers: people like Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and Edvard Beneš, or anti-Habsburg émigrés of the Yugoslav Committee in London. In retrospect, they look like prophets or messiahs of the coming kingdom, the men of the hour, but this is to read the war backwards: at its outset they looked more like fanatical chiliasts raging and ranting at the edges of reasonable opinion. So, too, for that matter, did Lenin and his fraction. But my point is that these waking dreams were not simply the preserve of those who will for the imperial apocalypse: there is in fact a wide spectrum of ideas about the future, a panoply of voices and opinions about the architecture of post-war Europe. And they are vying with one another. I wonder if such a spectrum exists in Russia, of which decolonization was one, albeit the most significant, of many shades of opinion. If there is an antithesis to this decolonizing impulse, an alter-ego, perhaps one place to look for it would be in the occupation policies employed by the Russian state in those lands it temporarily gained during the war. I am thinking here of Jonathan Gumz’s work on the Habsburg occupation of Serbia, in which the author argues that the occupation was the monarchy’s attempt to boldly re-assert its Staatsidee in the heart of its nationalizing/decolonizing opponent, Serbia. Was something similar happening under Russian occupation?

Finally, this process of mobilization and imposition does not only have implications for states: it shapes the individual, too. This is present in Sanborn’s book, even though his emphasis, as the title suggests, is on the great Russian state cataclysm. We must also make a case for the transformative effect the war had on political and social subjectivity, in Russia certainly, but throughout Europe. As Saonborn notes, the war ruptures traditional ties, it uproots men and women from their homes and hearths, either as soldiers or as refugees. It scatters people across continents, it tears asunder families, it kills and maims. It permanently changes the relationship between state and individual. Even those men and women who, at war’s end, will retreat into ‘private’ spaces and abjure political or public life will likely carry with them an altered outlook on their relationship with the state, their expectations of it, and so on.

The war is a transformative event, its white heat burns away many traditional political and social relationships, but it does not leave merely ashes in their place: the conflict is both destructive and generative, it forges new forces, new phenomena. I’ve always been unsatisfied with George Kennan’s famous remark about the war being the ‘Ur-catastrophe’ of the twentieth century. It was more than that: it cleared the space for the foundations of much of what we still have today: the nation-state system, internationalist movements, international institutions (for the League of Nations, despite its manifest failures, is a crucial precursor to the United Nations). The war is more like the ‘Ur-event’ of the twentieth century, a century in which Fortuna did not smile upon the imperial rulers. Sanborn’s terrific book depicts a portentous early turn of her wheel.

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