Geurre mondiale

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Colloque organisé par l’Historial de la Grande Guerre
Conference organized by the Historial de la Grande Guerre.

Péronne, 7-9 novembre 2008

The dichotomy between ‘consent’ and ‘coercion’ has acquired a certain importance in recent debates on the experience of societiesduring the First World War. This conference hopes to reformulate the problem of the popular involvement in the conflict with a different approach. The intention is to avoid an overly rigid opposition between consensus and rejection. This is all the more important in that people during the war, whether soldiers or civilians, were never reduced to passive cyphers but kept their ability to makeindependent responses. Thus a terminology in three parts is proposed in order to explore the experiences of contemporaries faced with the war – acceptance, endurance, refusal. The median term, endurance, allows the complexity to be investigated of a conflict that defied predictions and whose heavy price in terms of suffering and loss of life called into question the connection between ends and means.‘Endurance’ describes the reactions of many inside the war in relation to a phenomenon that seemed to engulf their temporal and spatial horizons.

However, there was no consecutive evolution of the three terms – from acceptance through endurance to refusal. For everything turns on the multiple senses of the three terms and on the possible overlap of each with the others. The near universal acceptanceof the war in August 1914 was followed rapidly in the Russian and Austrian cases by a certain refusal on the part of ethnic minorities or reservists who had never imagined that they could be called up for war. Similarly, the refusal of the majority of mutineers in the French army in 1917 consisted of a clear rejection of the High Command’s inability to resolve the tactical impasse on the westernfront together with continued acceptance of the need to defend the nation. Enduring the war as a man or woman, civilian or soldier, under occupation or in free territory, meant above all the need to survive. Survival included a large measure of acceptance – but an acceptance that was often qualified in terms of the aims of the war, the price paid, or the length of the conflict. Endurance also meantcertain kinds of refusal – if only of the discourse of heroic acceptance at the beginning of the conflict or the failure to transform society or the world in proportion to the sacrifices made for the war.

The three terms offer several advantages conceptually. First of all, they allow the exploration of the reactions of the various peoples on a scale that goes from the individual to thecollective. Refusal, for example, spans a gamut of comportments from self-mutilation, desertion and collective revolt to revolution. As for acceptance, it may be collective – a locality or regiment in August 1914 - or individual – that of the death of a loved-one – or oneself – in the name a belief, whether it be patriotic, religious, ideological or merely a sense of duty.

Acceptance, endurance,refusal also lend themselves to an investigation of the domaine of the imaginary and of the multiple languages of wartime. For example, the fear that part of the population might refuse military service haunted the general staffs in 1914, without good reason in most cases. But it prepared a disproportionate reaction subsequently to the soldiers’ refusal to fight under impossible conditions (the Frenchmutinies, the rupture of the Italian front at Caporetto), refusals which were often imagined by the generals to be pacifist ‘plots’. Another example: the vocabulary of ‘endurance’ (‘tenir’, ‘hold fast’, ‘durchhalten’) and its iconographic equivalents – which became omnipresent in the second half of the conflict – provide a good means of exploring the importance of endurance. Finally, the...