References to the “war of the spirits” or “Krieg der Geister” would baffle most historians, including the most recent generation of scholars of the Great War. In the 1990s, however, an entire historiographical sub-genre among French and German historians of the First World War had emerged to critically examine early twentieth-century conflicts between intellectuals representing their respective belligerent states. Following its meteoric rise, “war of the spirits” scholarship declined just as quickly, leaving behind its most symbolic interpretive moments, the competing manifestos that followed in the wake of German atrocities in Belgium and the duel between French Civilisation and German Kultur.1
Maciej Górny’s new book, “Science Embattled”, is an attempt to remove the dust from these old disputes and polish them with new cloth made of Eastern European and Southeastern European thread. This follows from the territorial expansion of Great War scholarship over the last two decades, from the iconic Western front to the “forgotten” Eastern and Balkan sites. Even if the similarities admittedly outweigh the differences in the way the “war of the spirits” played out between East and West, not only is Górny able to fill in a gap in the existing historiography by including the Balkan and Eastern European perspectives, but also to broaden its chronological parameters from 1914–1918 to 1912–1923. The latter dates are completely consistent with larger trends in Great War scholarship in the new millennium, though some like Robert Gerwarth would see the Treaty of Lausanne a more significant marker of the 1923 end date than Górny’s choice of Western diplomatic recognition of Polish sovereignty over Eastern Galicja.2 Despite the book’s subtitle, Górny is not solely focused on the East. He also attempts to challenge the consensus of French and German intellectual historians that those involved in the “war of the spirits” had been part of a “temporary nationalist confusion of exceptional minds” (p. 6). For Górny these minds had long been predisposed toward engagement in nationalized culture wars.
“Science Embattled” consists of five chapters, a short conclusion, a lengthy appendix which could have been an additional chapter, and an afterword which should have been incorporated into the conclusion. This awkwardness in organization, however, is more than compensated by the depth of Górny’s research and analysis. The first chapter introduces readers to the “national science” and “science-cum-characterology” hybrids developed in the newly emerging fin-de-siècle “humanistic sciences” of geography, anthropology, and psychology/psychiatry. Layered and fluid stereotypes and auto-stereotypes based largely on gender, race and antisemitism attended the marriage of national science and racial anthropology, especially in German universities. These universities in turn attracted foreign students, 70 percent of whom came from the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires and the Balkan states as if in preparation for their subsequent participation in the “war of the spirits.”
Górny’s second chapter begins with a general summary of the main features of the “war of the spirits” highlighted in the historiography of the 1990s. Górny then brings into this discussion the Eastern and Balkan fronts, where the two major narratives of wartime propaganda—those of barbaric violence and treason—had “a solid grounding in the events of the war,” even if “the viability of propaganda in the region was far lower than in the most developed countries of the West” (p. 78). The Bulgarian-Serbian “characterological conflict,” he argues, was most similar to that recognizable in the West (p. 95). Elsewhere, the conflicts were confined at first to magazine articles in the absence of independent East European states, which then transformed into actual wars as those states emerged after 1918. His main examples here come from the German press in relation to Poles. Placed on the cultural defensive by their German counterparts, Polish intellectuals responded by disassociation from Russia and with representations of Poles as defenders of Western Civilization and panegyrics to Polish national character. Polish claims to being bearers of Western culture to the East were in turn challenged by Ukrainian as well as Lithuanian scholars and publicists. Górny’s main point here is that even if they acted autonomously, “[n]either in the intellectual standing of the authors involved, nor in the discursive strategies they used, did the ‘Krieg der Geister’ in the East deviate from its counterpart in the West” (p. 117).
The third chapter, “Space (Geography)” is the book’s strongest. Here we see the ebb and flow in the influence of Central Powers and especially German scholars on their East European and Balkan counterparts and vice versa. Geography was already oriented to the nation before the war, and the expansion of German and Austrian-Hungarian power eastward during its course led to an unparalleled rise of interest in the lands of the newly conquered regions. The rejection by German geographers of mountains and rivers as natural borders and their notion of a link between natural phenomena and the psychology of the people inhabiting the lands was developed even further by scholars such as the Serb Jovan Cvijić, the Pole Eugeniusz Romer, and the Ukrainian Stepan Rudnytskyi, who created a new standard of politically inspired geography through a combination of ethnic statistics and anthrogeography. More significant was the “enormous” role of East European scholars at the Paris peace conference (p. 152). Their political impact produced a backlash among their counterparts in the postwar revisionist states as well as successor states whose territories had been the subject of their work. In Germany, the concept of borderlands as “areas of unavoidable struggle for survival” became the dominant geopolitical construct in the early 1920s and was weaponized in the German struggle for “just borders” (p. 155). At the same time the Eastern Europeans’ fusion of anthrogeography with history, linguistics, and ethnography clearly influenced the rise of the new discipline of Ostforschung in the German academy.
The fourth chapter, “The Body (Anthropology),” focuses mainly on the racial anthropology developed in German and Austro-Hungarian studies of prisoners of war and the key role of “mongolization” in wartime debates about race in Eastern Europe. Here we see Polish, Ukrainian and, oddly, Hungarian anthropologists primarily on the defensive, though the latter would come to claim the Magyars’ Asiatic roots as a badge of postwar identity.
The fifth chapter, “The Mind (Psychology and Psychiatry),” though interesting in and of itself, nevertheless seems superfluous in the absence of any Eastern European or Balkan actors of note. More valuable is the appendix in which Górny raises the question about the origins of the “war of the spirits,” which he traces to the Franco-Prussian war in the West and the 1863 Polish uprising in the East. Regarding the latter, the “Turanian identity” ascribed to the Russians by the Polish ethnographer Franciszek Henryk Duchiński made its way to the French intellectual milieu, marking in this case the transfer of stereotypes from East to West. Górny argues not for an unbroken line between 1863 and 1923, but for “an irregular cycle of eruptions of nationalism in science, in each case connected to a separate traumatic experience of war, defeat and violence” (p. 277).
Such sober conclusions, even as Górny strays into unexplored terrains, characterize his entire book. In his rethinking of the history of the “war of the spirits” by pushing its geographical and chronological boundaries, Górny has not so much provided a revisionist interpretation but a more comprehensive one that demonstrates the close kinship of ideas of Eastern European intellectuals with the “racial theories, the Nordic thesis, the idea of Lebensraum, or the concept of degeneration” of their German-speaking counterparts (p. 286). That itself is a significant contribution to the intellectual history of the early twentieth century.
1 For a sampling of German perspectives, see Uwe Schneider / Andreas Schumann (eds.), Krieg der Geister. Erster Weltkrieg und literarische Moderne, Würzburg 2000.
2 Robert Gerwarth, The Vanquished. Why the First World War Failed to End, New York 2016.