Girod on Bessel and Wierling, 'Inside World War One? The First World War and Its Witnesses'

Richard Bessel, Dorothee Wierling, eds.
Gary Girod

Richard Bessel, Dorothee Wierling, eds. Inside World War One? The First World War and Its Witnesses. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. Illustrations. ix + 346 pp. $104.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-882059-8

Reviewed by Gary Girod (Chapman University) Published on H-War (January, 2021) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

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This excellent collection of essays examines personal experiences during World War I through the use of “ego documents,” primarily letters, diaries, and memoirs from those involved in the war. The title is a question as each author investigates whether personal documents can capture authentic emotions and experiences, whether said sources can impart these same experiences to their readers, and whether these experiences are reflective of a more general experience. This last point is especially relevant for those authors researching the less-literate non-Western European countries.

The essays are divided into four parts. The first explores civilian experiences of occupation and violence. Robert Blobaum examines government relief papers in Poland during 1916-17. Blobaum argues that these can be used as ego documents since they express their authors’ desperation and outlook during this desperate time. Sophie de Schaepdrijver analyzes the wartime diaries of Belgians under occupation as a form of active resistance and adroitly demonstrates how Belgians formulated their own conceptions of time and events even as the Germans confined them to narrow physical spaces. Alexander Watson recalls German interviews with citizens temporarily under Russian occupation. He questions the validity of these interviews as ego documents because government workers recorded them.

The second section concerns soldiers, doctors, and nurses. Pavlina Bobič contrasts the state narrative of war for God and emperor with soldiers’ diaries, wherein most prayed for peace and divine deliverance. Roberta Pergher details Austrian soldiers’ diaries in the Tyrolean theater. Much like Bobič’s essay, these ego documents recount drudgery and horror, contradicting the later state-backed narrative of jingoistic, sang-froid local fighters. Christa Hämmerle’s novel work on volunteer nurses elucidates the role of oft-overlooked figures, while questioning why they are absent from most popular narratives. Hämmerle concludes that many female nurses upset the gendered nature of war as a masculine endeavor, forcing these women to self-publish just to be heard. Andrea Gräfin von Hohenthal ends the section with an ambitious comparative examination of British and German psychologists’ interview notes with soldiers experiencing shell-shock. She shows how British and German psychologists differed, how these men aimed to establish their practice as a respected profession even while developing it, and finally how these interviews with soldiers function as ego documents. Von Hohenthal’s essay is inspired and well-sourced, though one hopes this essay will be part of a longer work that can more thoroughly expound upon its theses.

The third section contains two essays about the war beyond Europe. Mustafa Aksakal presents the memoirs of two Armenian officers in the Ottoman Empire who ended up serving the very army that deported their families; one officer was forced to convert to Islam. Anna Maguire’s essay highlights how British soldiers deployed across the empire came into contact with the empire’s colonial subjects. This process intimately connected white British soldiers with the “other,” as comrades, friends, and sexual partners, blurring the boundaries of empire.

The final section dissects the uses of ego documents. Gerd Krumeich criticizes the postmodern domination of discussions on ego documents and the failure to contextualize individual experiences. Marco Mondini examines how thousands of Italians published wartime journals, only for the fascist government to censor those that did not fit its narrative aims. John Paul Newman follows the Serbian writer Dragiša Vasić to demonstrate that veterans carried an authority of experience in the interwar period but did not constitute a large caste of political power. Joshua Sanborn discusses the concept of the “Unknown Soldiers,” noting that Soviet Russia was the only major country not to erect a tomb to the faceless fallen. He concludes that the war was decentered in the official historical narrative as a precursor to the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War. Leonard V. Smith ends the book with reflections on Henri Barbusse’s and March Bloch’s narratives. Smith argues that ego documents’ authenticity derives from their form being in opposition to an official narrative. He states that for an experience to have perceived legitimacy it must alter time. Rather than a fixed state, episodes are sped up or slowed down; what makes a soldier’s experience is concentration on select topoi, such as an intense battle, the loss of a friend, or other hardship.

Inside World War One? is a remarkable addition to Great War studies of individual experiences and memory. The essays balance introducing new information with offering cautionary critiques of their biases. While each essay focuses on separate regions, professions, and experiences, the theorizing of ego documents’ authenticity and relevance are applicable across the collection.

Citation: Gary Girod. Review of Bessel, Richard; Wierling, Dorothee, eds., Inside World War One? The First World War and Its Witnesses. H-War, H-Net Reviews. January, 2021. URL:

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