H-Diplo Review Essay 367- "War and Citizenship"

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H-Diplo Review Essay 367

15 September 2021

Daniela L. Caglioti.  War and Citizenship: Enemy Aliens and National Belonging from the French Revolution to the First World War.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020.  ISBN:  9781108489423 (hardback, $39.99).

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Georgios Giannakopoulos | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Alexander Langstaff, New York University

During the First World War, liberal-democratic norms of individual rights and private property dramatically succumbed to new laws that were designed to eliminate enemy “aliens.” Huge numbers of long-term residents and citizens were arrested, interned, and expelled.  Daniela Caglioti’s new book War and Citizenship: Enemy Aliens and National Belonging from the French Revolution to the First World War tells the global story of how the concept of alienhood transformed citizenship and caused more problems than it solved.  Ambitious in scope, it is a brilliant contribution at the historiographical crossroads of migration, political economy, and law.[1]

Caglioti’s book makes three broad claims: first, that anti-alien measures were in place in Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Germany early in the war; second, that empires were forced “to think and behave like nation-states” by enforcing these policies (285); third, that all states closely watched, and often mimicked, each other’s policies, even when they were adversaries.  This last idea, Caglioti’s most novel and compelling, is made possible through her attention to the transnational circulation of legal ideas in wartime.

The book is divided into eleven chapters that move chronologically from the early nineteenth century to the mid-1920s.  The first three chapters constitute a “pre-history” of wartime anti-alien measures.  Chapter 1 shifts from Napoléon Bonaparte to James Madison to chart the transatlantic emergence of enemy alien mass internment.  Chapter 2 traces the civilizational discourse that underlay the codification of international law in the late nineteenth century.  Later in the book, Caglioti notes the perverse irony that international law’s increased prominence as a source of political legitimacy by 1914 catalyzed a breathless search for spies, traitors, francs-tireurs and enemy atrocities during the war, which were subsequently publicized in a multicolor array of White, Yellow, Black or Green Books.

Chapter 3 documents the limits to mobility and citizenship in the prelude to 1914.  One further irony in Caglioti’s story is that the conjuncture of wartime production and émigré disenfranchisement led to a huge demand for foreign labor.  Anti-alienism was increasingly racialized into a formidable platform of xenophobic anti-globalism during the war.  Yet Caglioti notes that 140,000 Chinese were nonetheless being shipped to work at factories and farms across Britain and France, on top of the enormous human matériel drafted from the colonies. 

Chapters 4-9 follow the complex evolution of enemy alien measures from 1914 to 1923.  Chapter 4 details the emergency legislation passed in the war’s first six months.  On August 8, 1914, for example, Britain initiated a state of siege by passing the Defense of the Realm Act, a sweeping curtailment of rights that one lawyer likened to a “bloodless revolution” (109).  Caglioti’s panorama of early emergency legislation across the major players is extremely useful.  Chapter 5 builds upon it to consider the mechanics of how anti-alien policies were enforced during 1914, as well as the role of non-governmental organizations in the emerging humanitarian crisis. 

Chapter 6 continues to the consolidation of these anti-alien policies through 1915 to 1917, and the entry of Italy, Romania, Portugal and Bulgaria into the war.  Chapter 7 looks at the advent of prisoner exchanges, and the more aggressive treatment of enemy property from 1915 onwards.  Chapter 8, covering 1917 to 1918, argues for the parallel “globalization” and “radicalization” of anti-alienism.  Caglioti shifts from anti-alien policies in the U.S. to those in Latin America and east Asia, identifying points of direct convergence.  In Chapter 9, she steps back to take stock of all wartime policies, concentrating on the increase in denaturalization procedures, while Chapter 9 briskly covers the interwar fortunes of enemy alien rights, first during the Paris Peace negotiations, then in abortive attempts at international codification.

War and Citizenship weaves together different national literatures[2] into a global story.  Caglioti shifts attention away from the Western Front to the interconnectedness of wartime alien policies in the polyglot Ottoman, Habsburg, and Romanov empires.  This comes at a particularly exciting time for the historiography of East Central Europe, with new and brilliant scholarship intent on reframing the region from a sclerotic and peripheral backwater of Stefan Zweig novels into what Natasha Wheatley calls “ground zero” for both the postwar international legal order, and far-reaching debates about (de)globalization.[3] Published in the Human Rights in History series co-edited by Samuel Moyn and Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, War and Citizenship is also positioned within a human rights historiography that continues to surpass gloomy predictions of its meteoric ‘burnout,’ through persistently innovative scholarship that carries interdisciplinary appeal outside history.[4]

Caglioti’s principal intervention in the book is to link anti-alienism to the dawn of modern economic warfare between 1914-1919, and specifically, a staggering transatlantic assault on private property.  Surprisingly, the successive radical shift from sequestration to “liquidation” (252) of enemy alien assets took place in Britain and America first.  A. Mitchell Palmer was appointed as Woodrow Wilson’s Alien Property Custodian czar from 1917-9.  Palmer’s “radical interpretation” of the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act shifted government policy from trusteeship to outright confiscation.  Caglioti is quick to note how awkward the flouting of property rights by Britain, Germany, France, and the U.S. would have seemed by early 1918, when the new Bolshevik regime they despised in Moscow was pursuing a similar course.

War and Citizenship functions as an extremely useful bookend to what one scholar has now called the “age of expropriation.”[5] The uncontrolled confiscation of assets raised the specter of ostensibly liberal governments acting uncomfortably similar to Vladimir Il’ich Lenin’s detested new rogue state vis-à-vis property rights.  The International Law Association recognized a grave threat to the global liberal order; property liquidation was a “relic of barbarism worthy of the most severe condemnation” (301).  Caglioti argues that these aggressive wartime policies catalyzed a “major nationalization of economies, in the double sense of expelling foreign capital and foreign presence, but also an increase in state control, strengthening the link between citizenship and property” (328).  This, she contends, paved the way for new models of autarchy, nationalization and collectivization in the following three decades.

Caglioti shows that anti-alien policies in the Russian and Ottoman empires were also entangled in a larger portfolio of new or existing efforts to purposively reshape and ‘modernize’ their economies.  In Istanbul, the Young Turks tied the aggressive hunt for enemy assets to their ongoing program of National Economy (Milli Iktisat), which sought to eliminate foreign ownership and target internal Greek and Armenian “alien exploiters” (169).  Fantasies of economic nationalism- and not simply the exigencies of the planned war economy- swept through the political class of many other states.  As Caglioti notes, the anti-alien rhetoric of “Turkey for the Turks” could also provide useful ideological cover for suspending Ottoman debt payments, cancelling extraterritorial protégée rights (the Capitulations), and unilaterally raising customs duties (170).

Determining who was an alien- and whether they were a ‘friendly’ or ‘enemy’ alien- was never a simple task.  Anti-alienism de-territorialized prewar definitions of citizenship, nudging wartime administrators towards a jus sanguinis or community of descent framework.  But legal provisions were riddled with dozens of loopholes, and constantly evolved on a case-by-case basis.  Moreover, they were hotly contested by creative, and sometimes experienced, petitioners.  Caglioti’s state-centric approach should be read alongside bottom-up social histories that focus on the ways citizenship and national belonging were framed and fought locally, whether through the micropolitics of denunciation, or the retrofitting of prewar municipal legal identities.[6]

Caglioti confirms that anti-alienism displayed strong elective affinities with anti-Semitism.  Threatened with internment or expulsion, many faced huge pressures to ‘prove’ their patriotic nationality over Jewishness.  The consolidation of anti-alien legislation smoothed the way for everything from the unashamed deportation of millions of Jews living in the Russian and Romanian border regions, to something more insidiously covert like a 1915 French government inquiry into the “commitments” of the Russian-Jewish émigré community.  Led by sociologist Emile Durkheim, it actually revealed that almost one fifth had enlisted in the French army (191).

Jews represented ideal wartime scapegoats.  The omnipresent legalistic discourse of alienism recapitulated older anti-Semitic scripts, but now in more respectable circles.  Citizenship was no longer enough.  Eerily anticipating a terrible future, Britain’s new anti-alien laws emboldened one liberal MP to publicly moot the idea of requiring all naturalized citizens to wear an identifying badge in public and prohibit their children from attending school (275).  If standard accounts for the crystallization of fascism’s bio-politics tend to dwell on the postwar rise of paramilitary organizations, Caglioti makes a compelling case for also considering the role played by the wartime normalization of anti-alienism in law courts, trade cartels and government cabinets.

Finally, Caglioti also shines light on an extremely consequential yet understudied legacy of anti-alien measures in the First World War: barbed-wire diplomacy.  Aliens, who were newly disconnected from normal legal rights and procedures, were gradually weaponized into an informal hostage economy.  The first civilian concentration camps in the Boer War were predicated on a strategic logic of waging war through reprisal.  But Caglioti shows how the First World War’s great powers outdid this in global and human scale.  When the Allies pressured China into deporting its enemy aliens in January 1918, for example, Germany retaliated by immediately deporting and interning 30,000 French hostages from the territories it occupied.

The trade and barter with innocent alien civilians was accompanied by a breakdown in the mediation system existing between enemy states.  The beleaguered diplomats of neutral states were quickly swamped by the enormity of their task; the U.S. diplomatic corps was not only responsible for British citizens and assets in Germany, but all Austro-Hungarian and German affairs across Russia.  Caglioti shows how international organizations like the Red Cross and the lesser known AIPG (L’Agence internationale des prisonniers de guerre) stepped into the breach where governments failed, offering a powerful rejoinder to those who dismiss the important contribution made by such international organizations in the early twentieth century.

“It is hard to draw a clear-cut conclusion from this long, complicated and twisted story,” Caglioti muses at the end of her book (325).  Caglioti hedges against making bold claims and leaves open the important cause-and-effect question of whether anti-alien measures were driven by government policy or public pressure to other scholars.  But this is precisely in keeping with the generous spirit of her book.  War and Citizenship succeeds in intelligently piecing together existing scholarship across numerous fields to help build a new one: a conversation that links global histories of migration, law, and political economy in the wake of the First World War.


Alexander Langstaff is a Ph.D. candidate in Modern Europe History at New York University.


[1] Sarah Abrevaya Stein, Extraterritorial Dreams: European Citizenship, Sephardi Jews, and the Ottoman Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016); Tara Zahra, The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World (New York: W.W. Norton, 2016); Claire Zalc, Denaturalized (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020).

[2] Important studies include Eric Lohr, Nationalizing the Russian Empire: The Campaign against enemy aliens during World War I (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003); and Jean-Claude Farcy, Les camps de concentration français de la première guerre mondiale (1914-1920) (Paris: Anthropos, 1995).  For an example of rethinking internment globally, see Mátyás Mervay, "Austro–Hungarian Refugee Soldiers in China," Journal of Modern Chinese History 12:1 (2018): 45-62.

[3] For international law, see Natasha Wheatley, "Central Europe as Ground Zero of the New International Order," Slavic Review 78:4 (2019): 900-911.  For (de)globalization in the postwar period, see: Tara Zahra, forthcoming; and, Quinn Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020).

[4] For example: Heide Fehrenbach and Davide Rodogno, eds. Humanitarian Photography (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[5] Nicholas Mulder, “The Trading with the Enemy Acts in the Age of Expropriation, 1914–49,” Journal of Global History 15:1 (2020): 81-99.

[6] On rumor: Tamara Scheer, “Denunciation and the Decline of the Habsburg Home Front during the First World War,” Revue européenne d'histoire 24:2 (2017): 214-228.  On heimatrecht and “local sovereignty,” see Dominique Reill, The Fiume Crisis (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020), chapters 3 and 4.

Keywords: war, Citizenship