Violence, Population Politics, and Total War in the East European Borderlands: World War I and Its Aftermath

Dec, 2019

Course Scope:

The course should be taught within the MA program “Geopolitics and Socio-Cultural Transfers in Eastern Europe”. It specifically targets 2nd-year (advanced) MA students. The duration of the course is one semester (14 weeks).

Disciplinary Scope:

  • Modern History of Western Europe and the US (core discipline, BA level);
  • Modern History of Eastern Europe (core discipline, BA level);
  • Modern Historiography (core discipline, BA level);
  • The Evolution of the Concept of Borderland / Frontier in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe (core discipline, MA level, 1st year);
  • The Black Sea Space in European Geopolitics (core discipline, MA level, 1st year).



violence; population politics; World War I; East European borderlands; entangled history; mobilization; ethnicity; modernity.

Course Aims, Main Questions, and Methodology:

Recent historiography has increasingly turned to the East European dimension of World War I, highlighting the topics of imperial collapse, widespread social disruption, radical population politics and de-colonization as the major consequences of the conflict. This MA-level university course aims to transfer the debates focusing on these processes of (geo)political, social, ethno-national, and cultural transformation into the university curriculum. Keeping in mind the need for transcending the national framework and the entrenched disciplinary boundaries, this course discussеs the East European borderlands from a comparative, regional and pan-European perspective. This approach is based on the assumption that the East European experience was far from marginal for the overall transformation engendered by World War I. The war led to a peculiar kind of “synchronicity” between Eastern and Western Europe, accelerating processes of nation-building, ethnic and political mobilization, economic interventionism, social upheaval and revolutionary change. Even if this meant an immersion into the “dark side of modernity”, it nevertheless signaled a momentous shift. This was especially true of the contested borderlands, where the unraveling of the imperial order led to the apparent triumph of nation-states, but also to the emergence of a radically new and militant Communist project within the former space of the Russian Empire. The war profoundly changed the rules of the game in Eastern Europe, perhaps more so than in the West. The subsequent political radicalization of the interwar period cannot be explained without tracing its roots to the imperial borderlands in Eastern Europe, which became fields of ambitious experiments in state-building (and collapse), social transformation, radical cultural policies, ethnic cleansing, and geopolitical fantasies. The course aims at providing a novel perspective on East European modernity and the ways in which it was shaped by wartime and the postwar crisis. This region, while peripheral in many other respects, was central to the unfolding of the story of European modernity during the war and its aftermath.

Among the questions to be tackled during the course, the following are especially relevant: To what extent, and in what way, was the major upheaval known as the “Great War” different on the Eastern Front in comparison with the Western Front? How did the main belligerents of the region – the German, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian Empires – mobilize societies, transform economies and, most importantly, deal with diverse, unruly and often dubiously loyal populations? How were modern “technologies of rule” and the corresponding visions of societal mobilization and radical transformation transferred, borrowed, adapted, appropriated and applied by the war adversaries in the East? What role did ethnicity in general – and trans-border ethnic ties in particular – play in the radically new and unprecedented context of total war? How did ethnic hierarchies shift and change under the strains of war and under the pressures of increasingly interventionist and assertive state apparatuses? In what ways were populations classified, categorized, repressed, moved, displaced and transferred (most often violently) by governments questioning their group status and loyalties? Finally, what role did ideology play in this process? The course specifically deals not only with the wartime developments but also with the consequences of the war on different levels. Thus, it seeks to deconstruct the “empire vs nation” dichotomy by discussing the nature of the new nation-states that emerged on the ruins of old empires and the endemic conflicts that plagued these ostensibly homogeneous, but actually multi-ethnic, political formations. One major preoccupation is to contrast and compare the East European “peripheral” postwar order with the developments at the “centre”, i.e., in Western Europe, but also with the Soviet experiment. The implications and repercussions of wartime developments in the (distorted) “mirror” of the centre vs the borderlands will be the main focus of analysis. The course goes beyond World War I itself, partially covering the first postwar decade in an attempt to account for the synchronic and diachronic elements of the “East-West” dynamics during and after World War I.

The wartime historical experience of the Russian-Romanian borderlands, which is placed at the centre of the course materials, can be interpreted in terms of various entanglements, followed by violent and brutal processes of disentanglement. An entangled-history approach could serve as a fruitful framework for the comparative analysis of the East European experience during and immediately after World War I. However, given its inherent limits, this approach is supplemented by a wider preoccupation with various transfers and borrowings that need not necessarily be described in terms of “entanglements”. The varying rhythms and agents of modernity should not obscure the importance of emulation, transfers and entanglements, be these institutional, ideological, practical, interpretative, or (more often than not) a combination of the above. The methodology of the course is based on insights from the fields of empire studies, comparative and entangled history, discourse analysis, and symbolic geography, coupled with an explicit emphasis on the link between modernity, mass mobilization, and violence that defined the transition from the imperial to the post-imperial order. Students are to be confronted with the issue of how radical visions and practices of modernity were imposed from above and received/adapted/rejected by the local populations. Thus, this course strives to familiarize students with the most recent trends in historiography, but also to apply them to concrete case studies. By so doing, it directly addresses the wider debate on the connection between total war, modernity, strategies of governance, state-building, and state collapse.

Objectives / Learning Outcomes:

At the end of course, students should be able to:

  • Explain the specificity of the war experience on the Eastern Front and highlight the shifts of the imperial policies in the borderlands during the war;
  • Describe and construct a coherent narrative of the main processes linked to the transformation of the borderlands in wartime and their consequences;
  • Apply the conceptual framework discussed during the first part of the course to the case studies and correlate the primary sources with the secondary literature;
  • Compare and assess the role of different actors (on the state, regional, local, and individual/biographical levels) and emphasize the relevant connections at various scales;
  • Differentiate the wartime experiences of various social strata and groups and highlight the short- and long-term social consequences of the war, including on the everyday level;
  • Place the developments in the East European borderlands within the wider framework of competing visions of European modernity during the war and its aftermath.

Course Structure and Evaluation:

The course is structured into three parts/sections. The first part (Weeks 1–4) deals with general processes of radical societal and political transformation during World War I, highlighting the topics of violence, total war, entangled history vs various wartime disentanglements, population politics, “de-colonization” and ethnic mobilization in the whole region and placing these issues in a comparative European context. The second part (Weeks 5–9) focuses on five case studies (Bessarabia, Bukovina, Galicia, Russian Ukraine, and Lithuania) and discusses them in depth (with a special emphasis on primary sources). Particular attention is devoted to competing visions and technologies of rule applied by the belligerents in the borderlands, both during the periods of occupation and intensive experimentation at the peripheries and during the ostensibly “normal” pace of mobilization for the war effort. The main emphasis is on various strategies of ethnic mobilization and on shifting ethnic hierarchies, which would allow a glimpse into the broader visions of modernity articulated during the world conflagration. The third part (Weeks 10–14) deals with the establishment of the post-imperial order in the borderlands and attempts to provide a wider comparative framework. This is to be done by juxtaposing the cases of the newly emerging nation-states in Eastern Europe with alternative state-building projects resulting from the maelstrom of World War I and developing to the west or east of this region (mainly in Germany – through various instantiations of the “conservative revolution” ultimately leading to Nazism; and in Soviet Russia – through the creation of the “Affirmative Action Empire” and the new model of Soviet nationalities policy). This course seeks to bridge the long-standing “East-West” divide that is still dominant in current curricula and to offer an integrated and entangled vision of European history during World War I and its aftermath. Aside from recent secondary literature, the course also extensively uses a comprehensive selection of primary sources, mostly pertaining to the five case studies examined in some detail (Bessarabia, Bukovina, Galicia, Russian Ukraine, and Lithuania), and a number of innovative teaching aids (including interactive maps, visual materials – film footage, propaganda posters, etc. – and digital technology).

The evaluation and grading of students’ academic performance is organized according to the scheme presented below. The course is held in the form of two weekly sessions, one of which consists of a lecture (in which the instructor gives an overview of the topic and introduces the students to the relevant scholarly debates), while the other is a discussion section devoted to an in-depth analysis of the readings and to students’ questions and presentations. The final grade is determined on the basis of three criteria:

  • active participation in the seminar discussions held during the second part of the course sessions (20%);
  • two shorter papers (5–10 pages), to be submitted, respectively, in the middle (at the end of Week 7) and at the end of the semester, after the last lecture during Week 14 (each paper counts for 20% of the overall grade; the first paper should discuss a theoretically relevant issue analyzed during the first module, while the second paper should be devoted to a concrete case chosen by students individually, with the provision that they should produce an original text and apply the theoretical background acquired during the course in the process) – 40% overall;
  • the final examination (40%), consisting of two parts: a) an oral evaluation of the students’ familiarity with the issues previously discussed; and b) a written paper on a fixed topic determined by the instructor (according to the course syllabus).

Course Content

Total learning: 15 lessons Time: 1 semester

Browse topics by week:  0/0

Andrei Cusco

Department of History and Geography, “Ion Creangă” State Pedagogical University, Chisinau