By Glenda Sluga
Historians have long argued that in contrast to the impetus of nation and empire in the First World War, internationalism was insignificant. Yet it’s the damage wreaked by thoughts and actions in the name of 'nationalism' that leaps to mind when we reflect on the 'history wars' provoked by the centenary of World War One: Serbian academics, prompted by their government are boycotting a Sarajevo conference on the centenary organized by Bosnians; French and British governments are taking irritated issue with versions of the war's history that want to spread blame equally among the great powers, and not just point the finger at Germany.
The centenary of the war should also be turning our attention to the perspective offered by the war's end, when the Allied peacemakers confirmed national self-determination and the creation of a League of Nations. Looking at both nationalism and internationalism brings into focus the history of how a future after the war was imagined, even during the war itself. It offers us a perspective on the horizon of expectations that shaped twentieth century political debate and institutions.
For example, historians of Britain are less inhibited by the idea that internationalism is not worth remembering, and thus revisiting the history of wartime League of Nation associations. Their evidence is opening up the social history of political engagement with the idea that peace was dependent on new international architecture, and the balancing of the interests of patriotism and humanity.
Academics played a key role in the wartime discussions of a League of Nations as a necessary foundation for a postwar peace, thanks to their close connections with key male political figures. In 1915, for example, Sydney-born Gilbert Murray, the Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford University, established the League of Free Nations Association in cahoots with Edward Grey, the Liberal politician and former Foreign Secretary. During the war, classicists and historians, and some geographers, were the favoured recruits of the Great Power governments, especially Britain, France, and the US, as advisers on the terms of an anticipated peace.
While women were less likely to be the academics or politicians in this mix because of gender discrimination, middle-class women were also crucial to this story through their place in these League networks and the extent of their activities on the fringes of academia and politics.
There is no doubt that during the war, as before, the visions of internationalism that fed interest in a League marked the simultaneous ascent of the principle of nationality. The idea of a League, however, also provoked questions about the limits of national sovereignty and the expanses of international society. The wartime discussions that took place in print, in public meeting rooms and in correspondence, held nationalism and internationalism in constant, even precarious tension: the state as the political entity that protected nations, and an international union of member states as necessary to a viable international community and gesture toward humanity, with and empires as fundamental to both.
At the end of the war, the principle of nationality and the League of Nations, and empire in between, framed wartime discussions of what peace should look like, and became the mainstream political solutions to the challenge of permanent peace in liberal democratic societies. This was the antithesis of competing working-class-based claims to the representation of those same ideas. Across the range of league associations in Britain and eventually Australia, there it was a fundamental premise that a more international future would be built out of the blocks of national life.
The postwar supporters of the League of Nations associations took root on the Australian east coast (1921 in Sydney, 1926 in Hobart) worked through local networks, always capitalising on the momentum of social horizons within their reach. They ran membership campaigns, gave out badges, encouraged international pen friends, organised car treasure hunts and international balls, sponsored singing, set off fireworks, or sent members to the Brussels World Peace Congress. They also targeted a younger generation through schools. Children were invited to dress in national costumes expressive of the world’s cultural diversity and to “imagine Geneva.”
Seen from the perspective of the postwar, and even the end of the twentieth century, the First World War was a crucible in which the characteristic relationship between nationalism, and internationalism was forged, shaping how the world after the war was imagined, and the lessons that needed to be learnt if future wars were to be avoided. The lesson was not that internationalism was more important than nationalism as a legacy of the war, (or separate from imperialism or racism), nor that it was less influential. In the minds of contemporaries it was not possible to separate these ideas.
From the perspective of the intersecting histories of nationalism and internationalism, the war’s legacy was the institutionalisation of an architecture of internationalism that helped imagine a different twentieth century, both the international and national limits of that century, and its radical difference as a century of war and peace, from what had gone before, and what has become the much more global but less international 21st century. Another reason to remember.
This article is adapted from a lecture given in March, as part of the Sydney Ideas public talks, titled Nationalism, Internationalism and the legacies of the First World War.