Autonomy in the Great War: the experience of the German soldier on the Eastern Front
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From 1914 to 1919, the German military established an occupation zone in the territory of present day Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Cultural historians have generally focused on the role of German soldiers as psychological and physical victims trapped in total war that was out of their control. Military historians have maintained that these ordinary German soldiers acted not as victims but as perpetrators causing atrocities in the occupied lands of the Eastern Front. This paper seeks to build on the existing scholarship on the soldier's experience during the Great War by moving beyond this dichotomy of victim vs. perpetrator in order to describe the everyday existence of soldiers. Through the lens of individual selfhood, this approach will explore the gray areas that saturated the experience of war. In order to gain a better understanding of how ordinary soldiers appropriated individual autonomy in total war, this master's thesis plans to use an everyday-life approach by looking at individual soldiers' behaviors underneath the canopy of military hegemony. I will also employ a micro-historical analysis specifically to delve into the experience of the German front-line soldier stationed in Vilnius, Lithuania. My research will focus on the letters of ordinary German soldiers stationed near Vilnius as well as the etchings, poems and musings by ordinary soldiers in the Tenth Army's trench newspapers, which were also produced near Vilnius. I will argue that ordinary German soldiers cultivated their identities through everyday behaviors and they were individual actors shaping military history, not only as a part of a larger military structure. From looking at the soldier experience at the grassroots level I intend to provide a better understanding of how ordinary soldiers individually contributed, passively and actively, to the military history of the Great War. The ordinary soldier's behaviors at the front have altered the extraordinary history of World War I, and have contributed to a nuanced social, cultural, and everyday-life history of the war.
Table of Contents
Introduction -- Letter writing in the First World War -- Soldiers' newspapers on the Eastern Front -- Representations of loss in visual culture -- Conclusion