Two years ago, after attending a conference about the impact of the ‘Spatial Turn’ on historical analysis, I started to rethink my research through the lens of geographical concepts and methodologies. The results, some of which I discuss below, have been encouraging. Incorporating geographical thought into the humanities has led to the recognition that rather than being absolute and given, spaces are socially constructed and in turn shape the social and political processes which unfold in them. As cultural geographers have stated, where things happen is critical to how and why they happen. Consequently, scholars argued that the definition, organisation and representation of spaces, whether they are social, political or military, have been crucial means for both maintaining and challenging power relations. A key historical strategy identified in this respect, through which rival forces can establish their authority, is the re-mapping of contested areas. This interpretation sees maps not simply as records of physical conditions, but as claims to power through which competing social, political and national groups redefine and order imagined and real spaces according to their interests. With their obvious significance for military events, maps and re-mapping provide suitable starting points for thinking about the First World War in a spatial context.
We are all familiar with the maps created by the 1919-1923 peace treaties which aimed to recast European power relations after the war. Less well-known are the maps produced before and after the peace negotiations, pointing towards or protesting against these decisions. Wartime examples include a series of satirical maps published in 1914-1915 which depict the combatant nations and the desired outcomes of the fighting. Careful analysis of these images and their captions can enhance our understanding of how national, allied and enemy war aims and efforts were popularly perceived in the initial stages of the conflict. More significantly, several of these maps indicate that the idea of ensuring postwar security by the radical redrawing of the European map existed long before the peace negotiations. A 1914 satirical drawing published in France represented the Austro-Hungarian Empire with a fallen crown on a land of war graves, while Louis Raemaekers’ 1915 satirical image depicted Austria-Hungary being pulled apart by Italy, Serbia and Russia and showed Turkey severing its own head with a sword made in Germany. The most explicit illustration of this idea was provided by a French map of ‘Reconstructed Europe’ published in 1916. This divided Austria-Hungary into four national states and dissolved Germany into its main constituent parts and a neutral zone on the French border. There may be other maps illustrating how the idea of securing peace through the re-mapping of Europe developed during the war.
The postwar examples are drawn from Hungarian memorials protesting against the Trianon peace treaty which, along with the treaty of Saint-Germain, abolished the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Having lost 2/3 of their territory and 1/3 of their ethnic population to neighbouring states, Hungarians erected hundreds of monuments to resist what they saw as a humiliating and unjust ‘diktátum’. A frequent symbol featured on these monuments is the map of historical (pre-Trianon) Hungary. Depicted as crucified or placed against the rising sun, these compared the suffering of the nation to that of Christ and expressed hope for its resurrection. Such memorials and similar propaganda material seeking the revision of historical borders reveal how the collective memory of a lost war could shape national identity. It would be interesting to explore whether similar memorials were erected in Weimar Germany to protest against the Versailles Treaty.
Ironically for the defeated countries, one could argue that it was their military action in 1914 which started the extensive re-mapping of Europe. The invasion and defence of Belgium and northern France turned these regions into the militarised Western Front, where much of the local population was replaced by troops, medics and labourers from around the globe, whose camps, depots and hospitals formed new military towns and villages alongside destroyed civilian settlements. National borders were superseded by new boundaries dividing the region into lines of communications, army areas and the fighting zone, while the landscape was transformed by a network of trenches, shell holes, barbed wire and destroyed vegetation. This new land was administered by military authorities on both sides of the front line, who imposed order on the continually shifting fighting lines through the endless production of front and trench maps. Although prewar conditions were restored after the conflict, permanent reminders of these wartime settlements survived in the form of military cemeteries and monuments which commemorate the dead of combatant countries according to their national traditions and styles. These and similar developments in other theatres of war probably facilitated the radical redrawing of European borders at the Paris peace conference.