Citizenship is the theme of a multi-year series at OSU commemorating World War I with the goal of thinking through the lessons of the period as well as the horror of the trenches. On Wednesday, November 4, a panel of four OSU scholars—three historians and a philosopher—shared their reflections on different aspects of the Great War. What did WWI mean for the concept of citizenship and for citizens as they experienced and later commemorated the sacrifices made?


Professor Christopher Nichols opened with the image of the ubiquitous red poppy that is worn in honor of WWI veterans and victims particularly in Canada and the UK. This was a tradition started in the United States but is no longer observed here as much as it is in other places in the world. The poppy reminds one of poetic lines such as “Age shall not weary them” from the ode to WWI fallen soldiers by Robert Lawrence Binyon (1869-1943) or images of “poppies …between the crosses, row on row” as described in John McCrae’s, “In Flanders Fields”. However, Professor Nichols also pointed to the way the decorative red lapel flower was used to lobby for veteran benefits such as claims for higher pensions. Such “poppy appeals,” as they were called, kept the war cause visible. Nichols asked, “Does this reify war-making? or does it commemorate a collective sacrifice?” He urged the audience to remember the global nature of WWI. The war did not take place just in Europe. Hollywood films such as On the Western Front seem to ignore the fighting that happened in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. Ten percent of the population of the world died, and many millions who came home did so with injuries that could never heal. Many did not have homes to return to. The cost of “total war” for human life, as well as other impacts of “maximizing death”,  was unprecedented for both soldiers and civilians. Nichols pointed out that while it was in many ways a war fought with traditional weapons, there were many innovations—bombing with tear gas first so that soldiers would remove their gas masks, then applying chlorine gas which could then penetrate the lungs of the unmasked soldiers—was just one of the more nefarious new techniques used on the battlefield.


From the philosophy department, Professor Joseph Orosco discussed the Anarchist movement during the period of the WWI through the lens of a leading anarchist, Russian Prince Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921). In 1914 Kropotkin exchanged a letter arguing with a Swedish anarchist Stephan concerning the importance of the anarchist stance against Germany in WWI. Kropotkin considered a German victory a defeat for the cause, one that would result in militarism and absolutist power (he outlined this in his Manifesto of the 16, in which he refers to Germany as a threat to human evolution itself). The Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta (1853-1932) replied to Kropotkin’s assertions by arguing that the war in Germany was fueled by ‘the war state’ (what we might term now the military industrial complex) and it was a trans-European, even Eurasian, problem, not one local to Germany. The real challenge, Malatesta claimed, was to foster revolution against the system itself: by reconfiguring power structures between industry, state, and workers. In contrast to Kropotkin’s optimism that harmony would eventually prevail, Malatesta predicted that another war would follow the end of what many were calling ‘the war to end all wars’. Orosco emphasized the unpopularity of WWI. Governments had to hide the extent of lives lost to keep up the war effort and morale. Anarchists faced long sentences simply for distributing leaflets against the war.


History professor, Jake Hamblin, emphasized the disillusionment provoked by WWI. Science, which through the nineteenth century had been increasingly associated with progress and hope, became seen as disturbingly implicated in maximizing death. Killing became an end in itself more than a means to win the war. Even seemingly innocuous scientific pursuits such as the study of weather became of strategic importance, as scientists learned to predict wind speed and direction to aid dispersal of poisonous gases on the front lines. WWI was widely perceived as a failure of civilization. Part of this was due to its wedding of science and warfare, and yet, we as a global society – perhaps particularly in the United States and the former Soviet Union – have shown a remarkable willingness to accept science’s role in warfare without questioning the ethical, moral, and rational dilemmas this poses. The scientist J. B. S. Haldane (1892-1964), for example, defended the use of chemical warfare on the grounds that “war is wrong, not a certain kind of war.” Thus, the basic principles of total warfare were in place long before the 1940s. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) once said that science is not, ‘a drift towards something better’. Indeed, in the specialization, mobilization, and deadly effect of science in WWI, Whitehead’s worst fears were realized with the key role that science played in developing weapons of mass destruction. Hamblin concluded with a question: Is our disillusionment in the wake of WWI due to the failure of science, or the failure of humanity to question our actions? Perhaps the real failure is that we continue to expect lethal advancements in science to be treated with restraint.


The final panelist, Professor Kara Ritzheimer, analyzed WWI’s effects on the home front. Ritzheimer convincingly argued that the war effort had significant repercussions for notions of citizenship, increasing the expectations that citizens had about the rights to which they were entitled in exchange for the sacrifices they had made for their countries. Voting rights for women followed the war in many countries as a consequence of the important supporting role many women had played on the home front. Government benefits also increased as a result of WWI. In Germany, where one third of soldiers were husbands and/or fathers, up to half of German families received some sort of direct compensation from the government. For wives and children without husbands at home, this government paycheck was essential. Likewise, for those widows and orphans who would never see their loved one again, government death benefits were crucial to their survival. These government benefits were a continuation of voting reforms and policies from the mid-nineteenth century that had extended rights and amplified the role of the central government in individual, political, and social spheres during increasing industrialization. During WWI, Germans required welfare as never before– to aid businesses losing employees to the front, and in disability payments to wounded soldiers. However, as these social rights were granted, a reciprocal shrinkage in individual rights occurred. The Weimar Republic’s progressive programs begin this process, but the war played a fundamental role.

-Tamara Caulkins and Matt McConnell

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