The unquiet Eastern Front: New work on the Great War
History and Philosophy
Contemporary European History
In the introduction to their excellent survey of the First World War in Central Europe, Our War (Nasza wojna), Polish historians Włodzimierz Borodziej and Maciej Górny begin by wondering why the name of Przasnysz, a small Polish town north of Warsaw, carries today no connotations of misery or horror. In late 1914 and early 1915, they note, the Germans and Russians fought several ferocious battles in its vicinity, battles that ultimately claimed hundreds of thousands of casualties. And yet its name never became a part of the shared historical memory of the First World War. Przasnysz and its battles are long forgotten, not only, as might be expected, in Belgium, France and Great Britain, but also in Germany, Russia and the rest of Poland. This, Borodziej and Górny note, is symptomatic of the hold that the war's Western Front has exercised for generations on the imaginations of scholars and the wider public alike - even within the states that now occupy the territory on which the titanic clashes of the Russian, Austrian and German empires claimed millions of lives. To schoolchildren in Warsaw no less than to scholars in Great Britain and the United States, the First World War is synonymous with the trenches of Belgium and France, and with the haunted names of Ypres, Passchendaele and Verdun. But the evidence of Nasza wojna and the other three books under review here suggests that the Eastern Front is finally emerging as a subject of scholarly and popular interest. Moreover, these books illustrate that careful study of that Front has the potential to deepen our understanding of the war's complex dynamics and their impact on the states and societies that grappled with them. The sweeping conquests and extended occupations of ethnically, linguistically and religiously diverse populations; the migration of ethnic hostilities from the front lines to the home fronts of multinational states; the profound divide between urban and rural experiences of the war; the ways in which military institutions adapted to the industrialised brutality of modern warfare and the ways that venerable but sprawling imperial state systems tried to come to grips with the war's demands are just a few of the themes addressed by the books under review here. The history of the period, and of modern European history in general, stands to be greatly enriched by a renewed interest in 'the forgotten Great War'.
Link to Published Version
Kauffman, J. (2017). The unquiet Eastern Front: New work on the Great War. Contemporary European History, 26(3), 509–521. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0960777317000194