Trenches and rigid fronts – these two metaphors still shape our perception of the First World War today. Historian Wolfram Dornik knows that this perspective is too one-sided: "These images originate primarily from what at that time was the Western Front – the focus of the German-, French- and English-speaking view of the First World War before and after 1918. Through our multi-year FWF project, we were able to significantly expand this one-sided view", he says. One of the key conclusions of this comprehensive study is that the war on the Eastern Front was less dehumanised and industrialised, and more dynamic.
A vast area
Even just the external circumstances alone caused these differences: the Eastern Front was considerably longer than those against France or Italy, and thus also much more difficult to secure. Combat operations often occurred much closer to or at a few heavily protected locations. Sections of the front shifted regularly. At the same time, in contrast to the Western Front, there were long breaks in the fighting, which often gave the soldiers the impression of a "quieter" front, especially among those coming from the Isonzo or the Alpine Front. There was, however, no lack of great battles with hundreds of thousands of dead, wounded or prisoners of war in Eastern Europe, either. This military dynamic resulted in enormous occupied regions of enemy nations in which multilingualism and differing expressions of religion led to violent reactions amongst those involved. "Especially soldiers who came from a homogeneous society in the western part of the Habsburg Monarchy reacted very sensitively to this. The result was mistrust, incomprehension and violence against civilians", says Dornik. The research team discovered increasing anti-Semitism, anti-Slavism and other radical models of discourse. "This did indeed," says Wolfram Dornik, "have a decisive impact on the public discussion regarding the 'East' in the years between the world wars. For this reason, the influence that Eastern European wartime experiences of Habsburg soldiers had on Central European societies mustn't be underestimated."
Unfavourable weather conditions & harsh environment
Apart from interpersonal experiences, nature, too, left the soldiers with dramatic memories. The region was dominated by long winters with heavy snowfalls, mud-choked or underdeveloped roads, vast plains and endless forests, huge marshes and high mountains. Organisational talent in army leadership was no less required than soldiers' physical and mental endurance. At the same time, says Dornik, the practically endless-seeming expanse of the Eastern Front awakened colonial fantasies even in foot soldiers.
The project's findings were based on written and photographic sources produced by soldiers themselves: photos, diaries and notes as well as memoirs. This approach made special efforts necessary, as Dornik explains: "Both the Russian and the Habsburg Empire were multilingual societies. Our sources were thus produced in many languages – we were able to cope with this variety by involving more than 20 experts from Central and Eastern Europe." The research team also had to bridge the fragmented history traditions and remembrance cultures of nearly a century in order to create a common field of discussion. After all, following the collapse of the great empires after 1917/18, the new nation founding myth became dominant. The fight against the previous empire and the even greater following catastrophe – the Second World War and the Shoah – superimposed the memory on the "great seminal catastrophe" of the 20th century. Half-way through the project, the team was already able to show just how worthwhile the efforts of this basic research were when it published the anthology "Beyond the Trenches". This volume, widely respected internationally, summarised initial findings of the project. For Dornik, this was a worthy and important intermediate step in a now completed project that also produced further publications.
Personal details Historian Wolfram Dornik conducts research at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Research on the Consequences of War. He is a co-initiator of the "Forum on Austria-Hungary in the First World War" and, from 2011 to 2015, academic director of the Museum in Tabor in Feldbach; up from September 2015 he will be head of the Graz City Archives. Some of his numerous research interests include aspects of the First World War, war captivity, memory and remembrance, museology and the history of Styria.
Publication (in German)