Combat and World War I: The Impact of Cultural Identities on Combat Performance and of Combat Experience on Cultural Identities

AHA Session 131
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Room 308 (Hynes Convention Center)
Alan Allport, Princeton University
Charles Maier, Harvard University

Session Abstract

The First World War has been one of the best-studied historical events of modern times. Yet as one of doyens of World War I scholars, Sir Michael Howard, has recently pointed out, the large number of books on the First World War tell us a very great deal about a very small part of it. In recent years, there thus has just been a wave of new research on the Great War that has provided a rich variety of new assessments and debunked older myths. The staple teachings about the war, which had become established ‘truths' by the 1970s, have largely been revised. However, we still know relatively about the degree to which pre-existing cultural identities determined the combat performance of soldiers in World War One. We know equally little about how combat experience has impacted on the cultural identities of soldiers. Most of our understanding to date of these processes has been based on assertions, rather than on empirical research. More generally, we know much less about the German than the British and French war experiences on the Western Front, and about other fronts than the Western Front. This sessions aims to fill this gap. It proposes to look at how national, regional, imperial, class, and political identities interacted with group processes, coercion, and other military institutional factors in determining combat performance in the First World War. It also looks at how combat experience rewrote the cultural identities of the soldiers of the First World War. It will examine the extent to which the war politicized, radicalized, and brutalized combatants and at how it changed national, imperial, and class definitions. It will do so by looking at three case studies: Polish soldiers fighting in the German armed forces, British and colonial troops during the siege of Kut-el-Amara in present-day Iraq, and the case of the combat experience of Adolf Hitler and the men of his military unit, the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment.

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