Granato on Wouters and Ypersele, 'Nations, Identities and the First World War: Shifting Loyalties to the Fatherland'

Nico Wouters, Laurence van Ypersele, ed.
Jared M. Granato

Nico Wouters, Laurence van Ypersele, ed. Nations, Identities and the First World War: Shifting Loyalties to the Fatherland. Bloomsbury: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. Illustrations. 320 pp. $114.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-350-03643-7.

Reviewed by Jared M. Granato (University of Kentucky) Published on H-CivWar (July, 2019) Commissioned by Susan N. Deily-Swearingen (University of New Hampshire)

Printable Version:

The First World War has been the subject of robust scholarship for a century, attracting the attention of historians from diverse fields and disciplines. Cultural, feminist, social, military, and intellectual historians have all found the war to be bountiful ground for studying the modern trends of nationalism. Although it originated in the decades prior to the war, nationalism became a distinctly twentieth-century phenomenon after 1914. This well-researched and sweeping volume fittingly commemorates the centenary of the armistice and celebrates decades of productive academic work that has enriched our understanding of how modern national identities were formed. The editors Nico Wouters and Laurence van Ypersele introduce this impressive collection by reflecting on the abundance of historical work on the war with special attention to the commonplace assertion that the war was instrumental in causing the downfalls, or at least decline, of Europe’s empires while simultaneously promoting the rise of modern nation-states. They argue that the ultimate successes of the nation-state model at the end of the war were contingent on the ability of the belligerent states to reshape prewar identities and revive old loyalties in accordance with the demands of modern total war.

Echoing Benedict Anderson’s well-known argument that the foundations of “imagined communities” are rooted in literary culture, the contributors to Nations, Identities and the First World War use propaganda as their primary pool of sources to explore how national identities developed and changed during the war. They combine acute knowledge about how the warring countries disseminated and manipulated information during the war with insightful analyses of how patriotism manifested itself in each area. This illuminates how the war fostered nationalism and conversely how nationalism contributed to the war effort. The result is a book that offers a penetrating glimpse into how the First World War changed the face of Europe. It endorses a highly nuanced concept of nationalism that emphasizes fusing understanding of national with regional, political, and ethnic identities to shed light on the immensely complex, dynamic, and divisive process of identity construction.

The volume pursues three interconnected goals: to break away from long-established and often overly simplistic assumptions about nationalism in the grand narrative of the war; to refine the definition of “nationalism” by proposing nuanced ideas for how nationalism can be understood in action (in other words, “fatherlands,” patriotism, and loyalty to the state); and to integrate new understanding about how the populations of belligerent countries, particularly in South and Central Europe, melded new identities with older ones. To treat these objectives, the editors break up the fourteen body chapters into four parts, which deal with the themes: “fatherlands” and “the other,” the limit of nationalism in various locales, minority experiences, and urban life in war, respectively. Each part is introduced by a chapter that introduces a concept or theme that succeeding contributors use as a framework for more detailed case studies on their given imperial, national, ethnic, or regional foci. Using these frameworks, the authors contextualize the rise of nationalism within spatial dimensions, dissecting the complex relationship between national and local identities as well as offering new lenses, such as urban and minority experiences, to examine how loyalties to the old states of Europe transformed during the Great War.

One of the central objectives of the book is to discard generalizations about the relationship between nationalism and war by presenting concise historiographical essays. These essays draw on an abundance of historical research, especially in regions like Central and Southern Europe that have often garnered less attention than the more famous belligerents, such as France, Germany, and Great Britain. Many of the contributing authors rightly point out that the war was not merely an affair that began in the summer of 1914 and ended on November 11, 1918, but was part of a series of conflicts across Europe that began in the first decade of 1900 and lasted until 1923. Using this extended timeframe allows authors to connect older events with the nationalizing processes of different countries. For example, Emilia Salvanou incorporates the Balkan Wars into her history of the collapse of Austria-Hungary and the emergence of nascent states, such as Serbia. Salvanou demonstrates that the First World War built on nationalization processes that were already in motion. In addition to arguing for a broader periodization of the Great War, the contributors also seek to complicate the teleological narratives about the collapse of the old imperial orders and ascendance of nation-states. Many of the authors, most prominently John Breuilly, point out that the belief that the First World War prompted the rise of the nation-state is deeply rooted in the post-1918 historiography. Although the nation-state succeeded in becoming the most common model for forging connections between person and state after 1918, Breuilly stresses that it was neither inevitable or hegemonic. The desire for nation-states became common in most of Europe only when the collapse of the old empires became a reality in early 1918. Even then, there was not yet a sweeping demand for national sovereignty. Many actors continued to use nationalist ideologies and political movements for different, sometimes opposing, reasons.

The idea of “fatherland” is the common thread that links each chapter. “Fatherland,” like “nation,” is a rather slippery concept with many definitions, but it is most often used by authors to define the space where the ideological commitment to nationalism met geographical, ethnic, lingual, and religious identities. The use of “fatherland” thus emphasizes geographic/spatial understandings of the ways multiple identities were layered and shows how this layering contributed to the shift of loyalties during the war. John Horne suggests that a powerful force in nationalizing during the war was the “othering” of enemy belligerents, a familiar concept to many scholars of wartime nationalism and identity creation. Horne also argues that dissident patriotisms (like Irish nationalism within the United Kingdom or theoretical pan-Islamic loyalty to Ottoman Empire) not only are examples of complex movements within belligerent nations but should also be understood as places where loyalties were challenged and bolstered during the war. Dissident patriotisms and loyalties became the soil (though not necessarily fertile) in which to sow discord among the enemy. This was perhaps best exemplified by the Ottoman declaration of a jihad against the Allied powers. Despite these attempts at sabotage, Horne and other contributors find that older loyalties were typically strong until the last year of the war. New concepts of nationalism really started to take root when the impending collapse of the multiethnic empires kindled a need for alternative states. Peter Gatrell and Jens Boysen deal with minorities’ experiences during the war, finding that these groups were mainly loyal to the sovereigns at the beginning of the war but were marginalized by many actions that sought to unite patriotic sentiments and oppress non-homogenous identity. The “minority problem” then, according to Gatrell, was not as much a cause but more a result of the First World War. The concept of “fatherland” advanced by the book is a useful tool to help historians understand the links between ethnic identities, geography, and the demands for sovereignty among minority populations that the war created.

While this book provides key insights into the recent developments of First World War historiography, it only offers a few suggestions for the direction of future research. It is not unreasonable for readers to hope that this work might suggest some new avenues by which future scholars can study and understand the complexities of the First World War. While all the contributors demonstrate commanding knowledge of both the broader historiographical field and their smaller research fields, few propose useful theoretical frameworks or new ways to approach the field. Breuilly’s, Christian Koller’s, and Pierre Purseigle’s chapters are the three important exceptions. Breuilly’s essay lays out a methodical scheme that divides the belligerents of the war into a matrix of nation-state versus multinational and modern versus non-modern. These classifications allow him to effectively compare the directions of nationalist tendencies in various areas without simplifying the complexities of any given region, area, or movement. Koller’s chapter proposes that the comparative study of race and racism is a productive path to understanding the directions of nationalist movements in Europe. By analyzing the similarities of French and German sources of propaganda about colonial troops, Koller argues that European nations shared a disdain and fear of colonial soldiers that penetrated their seemingly absolute opposition to enemy nations. Purseigle argues that the study of the war’s urban history should be expanded. Instead of just examining the cities and towns of Belgium that were flattened during the war, Purseigle suggests that urban history offers the methods to bridge the gap between operational histories (how the war was actually fought) and social and cultural histories (how the war was understood and thought about on the home front). Along with new methodologies to study the effect of the war on national identity, these chapters offer keen observations on less-developed areas of the historiography. These chapters should be especially useful to young scholars who are interested in the first two decades of the twentieth century.

Graduate students and teachers of the Great War will find this book invaluable. The chapters provide a broad geographical scope and a useful range of theoretical frameworks that should prove indispensable to both burgeoning scholars and veteran academics. Aside from scholars of the conflict, this book may attract a broader audience of historians. Unfortunately, these readers may find the book’s use to be limited, at best because it is so highly focused on the first two decades of the twentieth century. Nationalism can be found at the heart of many wars in the past two centuries, and, indeed, many scholars have posited a close relationship between war and the formation/development of national identity. The tone of this text, however, generally warns against overvaluing this assumed connection because the development of nationalism is highly reliant on geographic and historical contingencies. Nations, Identities and the First World War is a highly historiographical text that draws on cutting-edge research and detailed knowledge about specific regions of Europe, which will likely lessen its value to historians of other periods or regions. Nevertheless, Wouters and Ypersele’s book is a superb work that demonstrates how comparative and transnational methodologies can furnish rich insights into the character of early twentieth-century nationalism, the complex nature of wartime loyalty, and the powerful forces that drive people to redefine their identities.

Citation: Jared M. Granato. Review of Wouters, Nico; Ypersele, Laurence van, ed., Nations, Identities and the First World War: Shifting Loyalties to the Fatherland. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. July, 2019. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.