The Great War, Transnational Experience, and International Migration: Africa, Europe, and North America

AHA Session 258
Sunday, January 10, 2016: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Grand Ballroom B (Hilton Atlanta, Second Floor)
Joshua Sanborn, Lafayette College
War of Movement: Military and Labor Migration in France, 1914–18
Richard S. Fogarty, University at Albany, State University of New York
German Veteran Emigrants and the Long First World War
Erika Kuhlman, Idaho State University
Adam R. Seipp, Texas A&M University

Session Abstract

Commonly understood as a war of stasis and attrition, scholars have more recently uncovered the extent to which the First World War was a conflict of movement, not inertia. Nations and empires moved people and materials from all corners of the world, toindustrialized war zones all across the globe. Historians have documented the extent to which imperial powers such as France, Germany, and Great Britain drafted war workers and fighting men from their colonies, putting them to use in wartime industries and in military units bound for battle. African colonial subjects hoped to gain through their war service higher status in the colonial societies from which they had come. Irish men fighting for the British, on the other hand, faced the wrath of rebels in their homeland who hoped to leverage the conflict to detach Ireland from its neighboring overlord. How did movement during the war—from homeland to battlefront, from colony to mother country, from one battle to another—affect soldiers and societies after the war ended?

The transnational experiences spawned by the conflict continued apace into the postwar years, despite new restrictions placed on emigration. Governments, emboldened by their strengthened wartime authority, began controlling the movement of their citizens in unheard of ways. Restrictive immigration laws meant that people were no longer welcome where they once had been, and could less often choose where they wanted to live. People’s racial and ethnic identities more often interrupted their ability to change their residences. An additional development, the requirement that travelers carry government-issued passports, indicated that citizens’ movements were now being monitored by state bureaucracies. Passport requirements signaled a strengthened tether between citizens and the nation-states to which they belonged. But exactly how strong was that presumed tie? The papers presented in this panel demonstrate the complexities of this question.

In the popular imagination, the Great War and the soldiers that fought in it were (and are) forever linked to the nation they represented in the conflict. Nations went to great lengths after the Armistice to cement that tie by, for example, sponsoring homecoming parades that mirrored flag-waving send-offs and by erecting myriad war memorials and cemeteries in former battlefields. The vast numbers of emigrating veterans indicate that the tether was not as tight as remembrance memorials might suggest. For Irish nationalists, however, transnational wartime experiences had reinforced the ideology of nationalism, which they proceeded to export to places far afield from the crucible of the Irish Revolution. The French government shipped its colonial soldiers back to their homelands as soon as the war ended, severing any potential ties that might have developed between the men and the mother country. For an Italian immigrant already living in the U.S., the war strengthened his allegiance to both the U.S. and his Italian homeland. The papers presented in this panel will consider the effect of the transnational experience on men during the Great War itself and on the international migration of people and ideas that the war set in motion.

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