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


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, and befriended – in battlefields, boardrooms, billets, brothels, towns, villages, hospitals, and 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 poems 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 nations by funding cultural institutions and trying to influence artists, writers and opinion makers such as Georg Brandes from Denmark and Albert Verwey from the 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 motivated, ‘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 this complex area through two strands: the colonial and the neutral. The war experiences of the colonies/dominions are being investigated by the research teams in London and Berlin, while research on the experiences of the neutral nations is being undertaken by the teams at Utrecht and Poznań. Researchers will then engage in dialogue, comparing and contrasting their findings through a set of common conceptual and methodological questions. This project closely involves our Associated Partners: the Imperial War Museum in London; the Lautarchiv at Humboldt University, Berlin; Museum Europäischer Kulturen, also in Berlin; the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach; the EYE Film Museum in Amsterdam; Stichting de Jazz van het Bankroet in Belgium; In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, Belgium; and the Dutch-Flemish House deBuren.

As a team, we draw on a broadly interdisciplinary and culturally mobile methodology. We investigate a diverse range of material, including archival documents, newspapers, journals, literary texts, films, photographs, paintings, book trade practices, and sound-recordings.

Our activities will include workshops, conferences, publications, and public lectures, as well as a travelling exhibition.