“First write, then shoot. East Central European Intellectuals and the Great War”

The third key-note lecture will be delivered by Professor Maciej Górny (The Tadeusz Manteuffel Institute of History, Polish Academy of Sciences)

“First write, then shoot. East Central European Intellectuals and the Great War”

gornyThe engagement of East Central European intellectuals in the Great War is certainly not a blank spot in historiography, even if it is rarely accorded more than a marginal position in national narratives. This is partially due to the dominance of political history. I aim to show that the significance of this phenomenon can only be measured if it is viewed in the right context. First of all, the bulk of writings of intellectuals from the region subscribed to the tradition of ‘national characterology’ (which is a term wider than ethno-psychology). In effect they form a widely varied, and yet consistent whole. The different camps engaged in a lively exchange of views as well as invectives, while showing exceptional determination in the pursuit of patronage from German, French, and British elites. Hence, brochures and other publications did not solely reflect the current political conjunction, but also represented a part of a broader, international debate. Second, the intellectual exchange concurrent with the events in the East parallels the phenomenon of patriotic exaltation of the intellectuals in the West which the historiography of World War I dubbed ‘the war of the spirits’ (“Krieg der Geister” as it was originally baptized in 1914) in structure, participation, argumentation, and the ethno-psychological generalizations it relied on. There seem to be no sufficient causes for treating East Central Europe as an exceptional front of the war. Neither in intellectual standing of the authors involved, nor in the discursive strategies they used, did ‘Krieg der Geister’ in the East deviate from its counterpart on the Western front. A geographically broader approach to the phenomenon necessitates a revision in the chronology of the European conflict. In the West, as well as in Russia, the ‘war of the spirits’ erupted suddenly in the final weeks of Summer 1914 and continued at a slowly declining pace until the Russian Revolution and the German capitulation. The inclusion of East Central Europe to this narrative necessitates a shift in the time-line. In this region, war – both actual and intellectual – continued beyond 1918. Its life-span was extended by the persistent threat of Bolshevik invasion, the smoldering internal conflicts, unresolved territorial disputes, and finally the vivid revisionist propaganda in Germany and Hungary. What British and French intellectuals perceived as a passing phase became a chronic problem in Germany and countries further to the East. In some cases, the intellectual mobilization for the war never really ended.


Maciej Górny is assistant professor at the Historical Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences since 2006 (extraordinary professor since 2015). Currently he is also professor at the German Historical Institute in Warsaw. He was a research associate at the Centre for Historical Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Berlin from 2006 to 2010. Górny research interests are Central-Eastern Europe in the 19th and 20th century, history of historiography, discourses on race and the First World War. Among his publications are “The Nation Should Come First: Marxism and Historiography in East Central Europe” (2013, Polish edition 2007, German edition 2011), “Wielka Wojna profesorów.Nauki o człowieku 1912-1923” (2014, Russian and English editions forthcoming) and “Nasza wojna”, vol. 1: Imperia (together with Włodzimierz Borodziej, 2014, English edition forthcoming). He co-authored and co-edited multivolume editions “Discourses of Collective Identity in Central and Southeast Europe, 1770-1945” (2006-2014) and “Polsko-niemieckie miejsca pamięci / Deutsch-polnische Erinnerungsorte” (2012-2016).

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