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 Please do not cite without permission.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.

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