Observing the First World War from the ‚Periphery’: Knowledge Transfer and the Transformation of Societies

Freie Universität Berlin
Dr. des. Jan Schmidt (Sektion Geschichte Japans, Fakultät Ostasienwissenschaften, Ruhr-Universität Bochum; derzeit Visiting Associate Professor, Universität Kyōto, Research Institute for Humanities); Dr. Katja Schmidtpott (Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge; ab 1. April 2014: Institut für Japanologie, Fachbereich Geschichts- und Kulturwissenschaften, Freie Universität Berlin)
08.11.2014 - 09.11.2014
Jan Schmidt

Venue: Freie Universitaet Berlin, Department of History and Cultural Studies, Seminar of East Asian Studies, Institute of Japanese Studies


The impact of the First World War on transformations of political, social and economic structures of the combatant nations has been extensively discussed in the existing literature.

With an objective of introducing new perspectives, this workshop will raise the question of the ways in which the war contributed to transforming the ‘peripheral nations’. By ‘peripheral nations’ we mean nations which were only marginally involved in military action (e.g., Japan) or nations that entered the war only at a very late stage or not at all (e.g., the United States, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Spain, Scandinavian and Latin American nations, China, Thailand). Colonial societies under the rule of these nations will also be included.

The ‘peripheral nations’ not only observed the progress of military action in the theatres of war, but were interested in collecting information about large-scale civilian mobilisation schemes introduced by the major belligerent nations such as Britain, Germany, France, and to a lesser extent Russia, Italy, and the United States. These included the reorganisation of industrial production according to the principle of rationalisation, the development of substitute raw materials and substitute foodstuff. Together, they kept the economy going after the collapse of international trade relations, evened out food shortages, gained popular moral support through wartime propaganda mobilised women, and contributed to educational and political reforms.

Wartime mobilisation was based on and accompanied by the generation of a vast body of new knowledge, especially on social engineering techniques and economic policies. A wide range of think tanks and research institutes was established, producing new forms of knowledge in various disciplinary fields, much of which was soon put into practice. The accuracy of statistical methods, for instance, increased, and statistics were used on a much larger scale in the sciences, in business management and public administration.

To the political, economic and academic elites in the ‘peripheral nations’, wartime Europe represented a laboratory from which various lessons could be learned. They considered some of the new techniques useful even when applied to peacetime society, as they aimed at increasing industrial productivity, rallying public support generally for the government, or simply helping to prepare for future wars. In addition, numerous reform schemes that had been designed before 1914, either blocked for various reasons or pursued only at a slow pace, were now put into effect or accelerated. Also, the reassessment of one’s own allegedly ‘peripheral’ status vis-à-vis war-torn Europe contributed to the emergence of a new kind of intellectual freedom with regards to all kinds of internal reform.

Knowledge was transferred from belligerent to ‘peripheral nations’ in different ways. Large quantities of documents pertaining to mobilisation efforts were procured in order to have them translated. Also, official missions staffed by military and bureaucratic as well as academic experts or newspaper journalists were sent to the combatant nations to report home about how the war changed the societies and economies of Europe and later the United States. The same was done by numerous foreign nationals who happened to be in Europe when the war began or who were sent there during or shortly after the war, in some cases by big companies, in other cases by semi-civil intermediary organisations of various kinds including women’s rights groups, the various national branches of the Red Cross as far as, for instance, national librarians’ associations.

Knowledge gained through these ways was presented to the general public by means of major newspapers and magazines, exhibitions, newsreels and other media Whereas other types of information were designated for exclusive use by government officials, semi-official think tanks, and or the bureaucracy. Therefore, we need to take into account both public debates and internal discussions, as well as policy measures when examining the impact which the First World War had on the transformation of peripheral societies.

Aim of the workshop:

The workshop will look at the First World War from a global perspective, focusing on ‘peripheral nations’ and the lessons they learned from wartime mobilisation in combatant nations.

The workshop aims to explore how knowledge gained about the transformation of societies under wartime conditions was made use of in ‘peripheral nations’. We seek to test the hypothesis that the First World War can be seen as a catalyst for processes related to rationalisation or social management in nations that were hardly, or not at all, involved in the war.

Research questions addressed in the workshop will include the following:

- Which ‘peripheral nations’ were interested in which types of knowledge for what specific reasons?
- Were there any belligerent nations that became more accepted as ‘models’ than others, and if so, for what reasons?
- How were the processes of knowledge transfer organised? How was the knowledge selected, transferred to and disseminated?
- Which agents in ‘peripheral nations’ made use of what particular types of knowledge for what purposes?
- Which types of knowledge were put into practice? Which were not? And why? To which extent were they combined with pre-existing tendencies in knowledge or practices? Did the war lead to paradigmatic shifts in some fields of knowledge?
- To what extent did new forms of knowledge accelerate processes of transformation in ‘peripheral nation’ societies in the interwar period?

This conference is multidisciplinary. Scholars both established and advanced graduate students are invited to submit proposals. Conference participants are expected to be currently engaged in research on one of the topics mentioned above. Papers should be previously unpublished and contain original research. The papers of the selected participants will be pre-circulated one month in advance. Organisers intend to publish a selection of papers from the workshop.

If you would like to present a paper at this workshop, please contact the organisers:

Dr des. Jan Schmidt
Lecturer, Faculty of East Asian Studies, Department of Japanese History,
Ruhr-University, Bochum
(currently: Visiting Associate Professor, Kyoto University, Institute for Research in Humanities, research project: ’Trans-disciplinary Studies of the First World War’)

Dr Katja Schmidtpott
Gerda Henkel Research Fellow
Affiliated Researcher, University of Cambridge, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies
(from 1 April 2014: Freie Universitaet Berlin, Department of History and Cultural Studies, Seminar of East Asian Studies, Institute of Japanese Studies)

Deadline for submitting paper proposals: 15 December 2013
Successful applicants will be notified by the end of January 2014.

Submissions should include (1) name of the applicant, institutional
affiliation, postal and electronic addresses; (2) a short CV; (3) a one-page outline of
the paper.

We will apply for funding to cover expenses for travel or accommodation.


Jan Schmidt

Sektion Geschichte Japans, Fakultät für Ostasienwissenschaften, Ruhr-Universität Bochum
GB 1/41, Universitätsstr. 150, 44780 Bochum

Katja Schmidtpott

Observing the First World War from the ‚Periphery’: Knowledge Transfer and the Transformation of Societies, 08.11.2014 – 09.11.2014 Berlin, in: H-Soz-Kult, 25.10.2013, <www.hsozkult.de/event/id/termine-23258>.