A Kaleidoscope of the First World War – Impressions from the Second WeberWorldCafé
By Helena Kaschel & Luisa Pischtschan
This September, scholars from around the world met an interested public at the Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM) Berlin to find new ways of approaching a global calamity that took its course exactly one hundred years ago. Organized by the Max Weber Stiftung and the Forum Transregionale Studien and promoted as the “WeberWorldCafé: Narrating the First World War – Experiences and Reports from Transregional Perspectives”, this event was the second of its kind. The first WeberWorldCafé, held in Bonn six months ago and themed “Citizens, Bloggers, Ambassadors: New Media and Players in 21st Century Diplomacy”, had successfully connected experts, students and other interested participants by introducing an innovative discussion format.
Tweets and objects – approaching a difficult subject
The second WeberWorldCafé started with a guided tour through DHM’s current temporary exhibition “1914-1918. DER ERSTE WELTKRIEG”. This part of the event soon turned into a spontaneous tweetup, with many of the participants using the hashtag #1wwc to share their thoughts on the exhibition, which is presented in a chronological, geographical and thematic order. The museum was extremely well-attended and the WWC participants had to split into small groups, each with an English or German speaking tour guide. In this video, curator Andreas Mix talks about the popular exhibition, which is open until November 30th.
Global perspectives, micro history & transregional narratives
After the guided tour, the participants and experts gathered in a separate hall to begin with the first round of discussions, the eight tables were arranged according to geographical locations connected to the First World War. At the sound of the gong, the room filled with the voices of people from around the world introducing themselves to their fellow attendants.
At a table covering the regions of North America and Oceania, Sebastian Jobs from the Freie Universität Berlin and Christina Spittel from the University of New South Wales Canberra invited the participants to discuss anti-war campaigns from the early 20th century, the scepticism of Americans of European heritage towards the First World War, and the remembrance culture in Australia. At the ‘Near and Middle East’ table, the discussion focused on the commemoration of the war in the Arab states, while Valeska Huber, staff member of the Deutsches Historisches Institut London, pleaded for a shift of perspective in favor of different actors and settings than soldiers and the western front – for instance the history of Egyptian and Indian construction workers during the construction of the railroad on the Suez canal.
The historian Nazan Maksudyan and the participants at the table focusing on the situation in Western Asia during the First World War discussed the relevance of social history in historical science. Maksudyan’s research focuses on children from the Ottoman Empire who became orphans during the World War. She wants to integrate individual perspectives in her work as a historian. Especially the historiography does not contain aspects of people who ‘didn’t have a voice’ during history and Maksudyan wants to chance that – for example, the Turkish historian talked about her work as a researcher in the official archive in Istanbul where she just found out that orphans from the Ottoman Empire were sent to Berlin to work during the First World War.
The experts and participants engaging with Central Europe compared and analyzed German and British propaganda surrounding military service. Elisa Marcobelli and Juliane Haubold-Stolle, who also curated the temporary exhibition in die DHM, talked about the effects on the civil society in Western Europe. Especially for women and their social roles, the First World War generated new options. Women wanted to help during the conflicts, for example by working as a nurse in a military hospital. In some countries, like Great Britain and Germany, the First World War played an important role in the establishment of voting rights for women.
Many answers, even more questions
Obviously, these aspects do not cover the great variety of perspectives, questions and narratives that were discussed at the eight tables – after all, the event went on for four rounds. Many questions were answered during the afternoon, but even more were raised – a typical phenomenon of the format. Due to the extremely vast and complex subject, it is impossible to summarize the discussions. However, the organizers were able to observe a general interest in the impact of the First World War on the daily life of individuals.
Especially the diverse perspectives on the war in regions like Western Asia or the Near and Middle East proved to be a great possibility for all participants to enlarge their knowledge about a war which too often is interpreted merely from a European view point. If scholars were to learn something from the experience of the second WeberWorldCafé, it might be that focusing on everyday life and transnational perspectives is an exciting approach to this fascinating and significant episode of the 20th century.
A new platform for academic interaction
The basic idea of the WeberWorldCafé is to provide an alternative to conventional academic panels and symposia. Selected experts on a chosen topic act as ‘hosts’ at different tables. The participants move from table to table, discussing multiple aspects and perspectives concerning the main subject. After a certain amount of time, for instance after 20-25 minutes, the debate is interrupted by an audio signal and the participants move on to the next discussion. During each round, everyone is invited to write down their questions and results on paper tablecloths which are presented at the very end of the event. The goal of this format is to create a dialogue between science, society and culture, and to give all sides an opportunity to learn from each other.
Information about all the WeberWorldCafés, previous and upcoming, topics and guests and other details are available on the WWC-Blog.
Citation: Helena Kaschel & Luisa Pischtschan, A Kaleidoscope of the First World War – Impressions from the Second WeberWorldCafé, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 03.11.2015 https://trafo.hypotheses.org/1388.