Course Content

Total learning: 15 lessons Time: 1 semester

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Week 4. Nationalizing Empires, Mobilization of Ethnicity, and “Enemy Aliens” during World War I: Variations and Trajectories of Imperial Collapse

This class will follow the trajectories of the mobilization of ethnicity during wartime as they unfolded in the rival ‘nationalizing empires’ of Eastern Europe. Although privileging the Russian case (probably the most complex of the region), we will also examine the Habsburg and German variations on the topic. During this class, we will look at the connection between ethnic mobilization at the peripheries (e.g., in the front zone) and imperial collapse. Specifically, following Eric Lohr’s argument, we will discuss the concept of enemy aliens and its radical transformation during the war. Particular attention will be devoted to the specificity of the Russian war nationalism, including its three main dimensions: ‘economic nationalism’ and the ‘liquidation’ of foreign capital; ‘agrarian nationalism’ and the confiscation of landed property in the case of foreign colonists; and the forced population transfers in the front zone and beyond (displacements, expulsions, deportations, and forced migrations). We will examine the role of the army (specifically, of the Russian High Command) in the radicalization of population politics, the shifting hierarchies of ethnicity in the borderlands, and the role of personalities in the mobilization of ethnicity. Finally, we will tackle the unforeseen consequences of the war, notably the destruction of the imperial social balance and the role of soldiers as the main agents of the unraveling and disaggregation of the “body social.” Based on Joshua Sanborn’s thesis, we will critically review his assessment of the collapse of the Russian Empire as a three-stage process of “de-colonization” successively unfolding as: 1) imperial challenge; 2) state failure and 3) social disaster. The last part of the class will analyze the reverberations of these processes in the aftermath of WWI and their impact of the state-building projects of the successor nation-states.


  • Lohr, Nationalizing the Russian Empire, chapters 1 (“Nationalist Challenges, Imperial Dilemmas”, 10-30) and 5 (“Forced Migrations,” 121-165).
  • Sanborn, Imperial Apocalypse, chapters 1 (“The Outbreak of War and the Transformation of the Borderlands, 21-64, and 6 (“Decolonization”, 205-238) + Conclusion, 239-262.
  • Baron and Gatrell, Homelands, chapter 1 (Peter Gatrell, “War, Population Displacement, and State Formation in the Russian Borderlands, 1914-1924”), 10-34.