Boundaries of patriotism. Geography and ethics of mobilization in WWI France

“Patriotic Cultures during the First World War.” 

European University, St. Petersburg, June 11-13, 2014

This is a long summary of the paper I gave at the above conference. Please do not cite without permission.

At the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, France was still coming to terms with the political, social and economic transformations which had defined the history of Modern Europe since the late eighteenth-century. “Children of the Revolution” (R. Gildea), the French were first dealing with a host of institutional and ideological questions that the establishment of the Third Republic in 1871 had not settled. In particular, the relationship between the state, the Catholic Church and the army still crystallized a fraught and divisive debate over national identity and political loyalty that the Dreyfus Affair had dramatically illustrated. In the meantime, economic modernization and internal migration were slowly but surely transforming the country’s rural society. Finally, French leaders and commentators were still bemoaning demographic trends which underpinned heated discussions of national decline in the challenging european context created by German unification and the defeat of 1871. Across the political spectrum, many doubted that France had the material, institutional and cultural strengths to withstand the trials of war. Thus, in his wartime memoirs, one Parisian engineer, Louis Suquet, could write that patriotism evoked little more than skepticism in 1914.

Yet the national mobilization for war in 1914 was an indisputable success that surprised military planners and political leaders alike. Despite the inauspicious beginnings and the unprecedented material and human costs of war, France overcame a series of crises that culminated in the 1917 mutinies. France held out and saw the conflict through and the Republican nation-state emerged victorious and to a large extent reinforced by the war. However in view of the polarization of French political and social life in the interwar years and of the subsequent failure to enact another victorious mobilization in 1939-1940, one may legitimately wonder about the nature and transformations of French patriotism in the First World War.

To a large extent the renewal of First World War studies in France since the late 1970s was spurred by the necessity and difficulty to understand the resilience of French society in the face of industrial warfare. While the French historiography of the Great War remains particularly dynamic, a long-lasting academic controversy has unfortunately constrained the discussion of wartime patriotism within a misleading alternative between consent and coercion. A legitimate and most-needed debate about the respective importance of patriotic mobilization and state-enforced discipline degenerated into a full-blown dispute back in 1998. Pitting two schools of interpretation that respectively stress the popular consent to the war and the coercive power of the state apparatus, this debate is often framed as a conventional opposition between cultural and social historians. As a result however, it has hindered further understanding of French patriotism in the ear of the First World War. This paper will take issue with what I would call – for a lack of a better term – the “consensual” view of wartime mobilization both sides of the argument paradoxically share. I will refer here to the surprisingly prevalent idea that wartime mobilization stemmed from the “Union Sacrée” and from a rather improbable national consensus. For S. Audoin-Rouzeau and A. Becker, national mobilization was the effect and product of a patriotic consensus crystallized by war violence; for F. Rousseau, N. Offenstadt, and A. Loez, strikes and mutinies demonstrate that national mobilization was only made possible and maintained by the exercise of state coercion and propaganda. Though they draw opposite conclusions from the French war experience, both interpretations therefore seem to share the same premise. They also -surprisingly and unwittingly perhaps – collude in neglecting patriotism as a category of political analysis. On the one hand, some authors stress the symbolic and emotional dimensions of “national sentiment”, while others seem reluctant to evoke patriotism, for fear perhaps of finding evidence of it.

This paper will argue the need to locate patriotism by considering its valence in the particular social and geographic contexts that determined the war experience at the front or at home. It will also suggest we ought to re-politicize national sentiment while maintaining the necessary distinction between patriotism and nationalism. This is not simply of relevance to the continuing historiographical debate. In the current commemorative context, this is also critical if historians are to successfully challenge the growing assertion of regionalist and essentialist definitions of social identities that threaten to undermine the public understanding of the conflict.

To do so, this paper will investigate the French experience of the war from its meridional periphery and specifically from the perspective of a mediterranean town, Béziers (Hérault). Initially conceived as part of a broader comparative project, this urban history of national mobilization critically engages with social sciences, including human geography, to think “through the Nation” (A. Burton) in wartime.

This approach first allows to explore the interplay between local identities and the cultural dynamics of wartime national mobilization.  This question emerged out of a reflection on the experience of Béziers, where the strong local identity had traditionally been seen as a challenge to the centralization process and to the national state. In June 1907, the mutiny of the 17th Infantry Regiment in protest against the suppression of the local winegrowers’ revolt had illustrated in a spectacular fashion the allegedly unreliable nature of the southern regions, whose local identity was deemed to threaten the integrity of the French Nation-State. The challenge these soldiers so dramatically issued to the military authorities underlines the problematic nature of the articulation between local and national identities in France at the turn of the twentieth century. Yet, when the First World War broke out in August 1914, Béziers responded unreservedly to the call to arms. In this particular urban context, the indisputable success of national mobilization questions conventional interpretations of the process of nationalization.

Historians of the First World War have long assumed that the process of nationalization of the French polity had reached its apex in August 1914. In recent years, however, a string of works have demonstrated that nation-making and centralization had not systematically entailed the gradual withering of local identities and senses of belonging.  Historians have also demonstrated that the outbreak of war in 1914 did not lead to an eruption of nationalist enthusiasm.  The conflict was nonetheless to be a protracted trial of the nations as it challenged the very fabric of the belligerent societies. To analyse the modalities of urban mobilization, I looked into a range of practices elicited by the war effort: the raising and support of local military units, the assistance to war victims, various charitable initiatives, and the commemoration of military and patriotic service. Wartime mobilization ran across and along the boundaries of multiple social and cultural spheres. It revealed the plurality of urban identities and the complex set of concomitant senses of belonging that affected and hallmarked the commitment to the national war effort. Furthermore, this renewed attention to political cultures and to the political mobilization of local identities invites us to reconsider the operations of the State at the local level and its interactions with communal forms of organization.

This paper will also stress the importance of contention in the urban experience of the war; for social movements and conflicts did not merely demonstrate the frailty of the consensus stipulated by the prescriptions of nationalism. In fact, urban contention constituted a critical mediation of the war experience, whereby national and infra-national identities were asserted, mobilized, and played out on the urban stage. Urban civil societies thus ensured, to a large extent, the success of national mobilization in WWI France. It is also perhaps at that level that the contingent, ongoing, and contested nature of these mobilizations appears most clearly.

It is hoped that such approach will help us delineate the geography of French patriotism in 1914-1918 and highlight the relevance of multiple territories of wartime mobilization. It will also underline the contingent redefinition in ethical terms of patriotism and national loyalty forced by the experience of the conflict and the unprecedented demands of industrial warfare.

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