Cultural Exchange in a Time of Global Conflict: Colonials, Neutrals and Belligerents during the First World War (CEGC)

Project Participants

How did the First World War create new spaces for as well as put new pressures on encounters between peoples and cultures from belligerent, colonised and politically neutral countries and what were the lasting consequences (in terms of social, cultural and literary memory) for Europe? This research project brings to- gether a cross-disciplinary and multilingual team of researchers and a number of cultural institutions across Europe to illuminate and examine this question during the centennial years of the war’s commemoration.

The First World War has often been defined as the ‘clash of empires’ but we argue that it could equally be defined as a watershed event in the history of cultural encounters. Between 1914 and 1918, on French soil alone – in its trenches, fields, farms and factories – there were over 1 million Asian (Indian, Pakistani, Nepalese, Chinese, Vietnamese) and African (Senegalese, Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian) men, in addition to soldiers from Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Europe would never be the same again not just in terms of the war’s wreckage but in terms of people, ethnicities and cultures encountered, manipulated, studied, be- friended – in battlefields, boardrooms, billets, brothels, towns, villages, hospitals, prisoner-of-war camps. ‘My French mother is teaching me her language’ wrote an Indian sepoy billeted in France while in the trenches the English war poet Wilfred Owen avidly read the Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore’s collection of po- ems Gitanjali which had won the Nobel Prize in 1913. Simultaneously, a different kind of ‘cultural encounter’ was being engineered within Europe: the belligerent states were each trying to win over the neutral na- tions by funding cultural institutions and trying to influence artists, writers and opinion makers such as Georg Brandes from Denmark and Albert Verwey fromthe Netherlands. The cultural sphere of the neutral countries became much more a zone of international cultural encounter in 1918 than it was in 1914. What is the relation between the personal, ‘direct’ encounters in wartime and these state-sponsored, ideologically moti- vated ‘indirect’ encounters? Do encounters necessarily involve exchange and what were the structures of power – asymmetries and hierarchies – in these processes? How did exchanges occur across linguistic, national, legal, religious, ethnic and social barriers and what are their traces and legacies in today’s Europe? This project seeks to explore these questions by investigating a complex range of material – archival documents, news- papers, journals, literary texts, book trade practices, films, photographs, paintings, and sound-recordings. Our activities will include workshops, conferences, publications, lectures as well as a travelling exhibition.

Associated Partners: 

AP-1: Mr Rommy Albers, EYE Film Institute Netherlands, NL,

AP-2: Dr Suzanne Bardgett, Imperial War Museum, UK,

AP-3: Professor Dr Wolfgang Schäffner, Humboldt Universität Berlin, DE,

AP-4: Mr Dominiek Dendooven, In Flanders Fields Museum, BE,

AP-5: Mr Frank Herrebout, Stichting De Jazz Van Het Bankroet, NL,

AP-6: Ms Anna Kinder, Deutsches literatur archiv Marbach, DE,

AP-7: Dr Elisabeth Tietmeyer, Museum Europaeische Kulturen, DE,

AP-8: Mr Dorian Van Der Brempt, deBuren Vlaams Nederlands Huis, BE,