Forschungs- & Entwicklungsinformationsdienst der Gemeinschaft - CORDIS

Final Report Summary - POLMIN-1418 (National Minorities at War: Integration, Identity and Combat Motivation among Poles in German and Austro-Hungarian Society, 1914-18)

Executive Summary:

‘National Minorities at War: Integration, Identity and Combat Motivation among Poles in German and Austro-Hungarian Society, 1914-18’ (PIEF-GA-2010-274914) addressed three important interdisciplinary issues. The project’s key aim was to advance understanding of minority integration, a subject which has recently attracted both intense scholarly interest and public debate across Europe. Sociologists and political scientists have dominated the field, and much of the popular coverage treats the issue as a modern dilemma, created by globalisation and post-Second World War immigration. The project was designed to highlight that dilemmas about how to integrate minorities have a long history in Europe and, by assessing the success of past practices, to gain insights for modern policy-making. Additionally, the research provided the opportunity to further knowledge in two other areas. The project explored how war, specifically the First World War, contributed to the formation and spread of national identity, a key driver of twentieth century history, in East Central Europe. It also provided new analysis of the influence of ideology, and especially nationalism, on modern combat motivation.

The project focused on the Poles of Germany and Austria-Hungary in the early twentieth century, above all during the First World War. These people were, as one minority divided between two states which in the forty years before 1914 pursued polar opposite integration policies, uniquely well-suited for the investigation. While Germany had applied increasingly obtrusive assimilationist policies, Austria had implemented a more multicultural approach, guaranteeing language rights as well as granting significant cultural and political autonomy. The project assessed the effectiveness of these policies by examining Poles’ conduct during the First World War. ‘Total war’ compelled people to decide and declare their identities and allegiances in far more pronounced and public ways than in peace. No less important, it also tested whether past integration policies had effectively promoted social cohesion: multiethnic societies were placed under immense strain by wartime hardship and food shortages. By examining their resilience, and the fault lines (class or ethnic) along which they fragmented, it was possible to evaluate the success of peacetime minority integration. Additionally, examining the minorities at war allowed the project’s other questions on combat motivation and the spread of national consciousness to be addressed. Finally, the project focused on wartime because the surviving source material was much richer than that for peace. Official documentation and personal correspondence between minority men on military service and their families at home offer a wealth of information on the development of minority identities.

The funding from the Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship programme was crucial in permitting a wide range of archives to be visited for the project. During the two-year Fellowship, material was gathered from archives and libraries in Warsaw and Cracow, as well as Berlin, Vienna and Jerusalem. Other archives in Poland had been visited earlier in preparation for the project. Police reports, military documentation and a wide range of municipal files were examined. So too were newspapers and soldiers' and civilians' diaries, letters and memoirs. These new sources were interpreted in the light of modern historiography on Poland and recent sociological and political scientific literature on minority integration and national identity formation. The project reached a number of conclusions. First, it showed national identities had hardened under the demands of war, and often much earlier than had previously been assumed. Second, it demonstrated that minorities recruited into national or imperial armies could, in the presence of the right military institutional incentives, fight effectively even if they lacked an ideological investment in the states that they served. Finally, the project’s analysis of Poles’ conduct under invasion, in the armies and on the home fronts highlighted the limited success of both German and Austrian pre-war integration policies. In the Reich, compulsory German language education and religious division and discrimination in peacetime had caused enduring resentment which deterred Poles from active engagement with the war effort. Austria’s more liberal policies fostered at best a highly conditional loyalism, while also encouraging separatism. In war, nationalist politics became increasingly independence-orientated and undermined the imperial state.

In order to deepen these findings, two focused regional studies were carried out. The first was on East Prussia, home of the Masurian people, who have long attracted the interest of scholars of nationalism as an illuminating anomaly. In a continent which in the modern period was reorganising on national lines, with language as the key marker of national belonging, this Polish dialect-speaking minority lacked any Polish identity. Close investigation revealed that Masurians’ protestant and political affinities for Prussia were probably strengthened by pre-war assimilation policies to result in a much higher identification with the German war effort than elsewhere in the Polish-speaking East. War experiences also promoted closer identification with Germany; the view, often expressed in Polish-language historiography, of Poland’s experience of the First World War as a tragedy of one people forced by three occupying powers to fight itself does not apply in Masuria. This part of the study also contributed significantly to the historiography of the First World War by exploring the neglected Russian invasion in 1914-15. Challenging historiographical claims of German exceptionalism, it uncovered proof of extensive ‘atrocities’ perpetrated by the Tsar’s army in the region. The evidence pointed to violence against civilians being a European way of war in 1914.

The second regional study focused on Cracow, a city offering an extremely fertile subject of investigation due to its ethnically mixed population and multiple national and imperial identities. Unlike in the surrounding region, relations between the city’s Christian and Jewish communities had functioned exceptionally smoothly during the pre-war period. Through a close investigation of the city’s experiences, the project illuminated two important wartime phenomena. First, it tracked the rise and changing politics of Polish nationalism in Cracow, demonstrating how a national upsurge at the start of hostilities first assisted and then undermined Austria’s war effort. Second, the project analysed how wartime conditions affected interethnic relations in Cracow. It traced how shortages of food and other basic necessities caused citizens to retreat into national groups for security and brought about rising tension and, in 1918, violence between the Jewish and Christian populations. These are significant findings for the historiography on the First World War and Poland, and for the multidisciplinary literature on nation-building. They raise understanding of how the First World War sharpened both national consciousnesses and antagonisms and go far to explain the disastrous breakdown of race relations in East Central Europe during the early twentieth century.

The project’s socioeconomic impact is intended to come about through the circulation of its findings on minority integration. It was conceived as a response to the Commission of the European Communities’ 2005 communication ‘A Common Agenda for Integration Framework for the Integration of Third-Country Nationals in the European Union’, which appealed for research ‘providing [a] broader evidence base for integration policies’ and ‘supporting improved knowledge of integration, including analysis of the impact of compulsory elements in national integration policies’. The project makes two contributions in this field. First, by revealing that policy-makers were tackling similar issues a century ago, it offers the possibility to shift public debate. Ethnic and religious diversity is not, contrary to much received opinion, a new and unfamiliar phenomenon replacing a past of more homogeneous and stabile societies. The project aims to encourage more realistic and informed discussion by highlighting that multicultural conflicts and the dilemmas of integration have been a perennial and central part of modern European history. Second, the project provides a model for how lessons for today can be drawn from this long experience. By analysing the German and Austro-Hungarian states’ policies towards their Polish minorities in the early twentieth century, the study raises understanding of the limitations and problems of both assimilationist and multicultural integration strategies.

Alexander Watson (

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