Masters of Their Own Destiny

Asians in the First World War and its Aftermath

Chamchuri 10 Bldg., 7th Floor - Chulalongkorn University
November 9th - 10th 2018

The idea of such a conference emerged in Paris at the beginning of the commemoration process of the First World War centenary. While the Asian soldiers and workers were mentioned as a mass of colonized people engaged to serve their masters, the voices of around 1 723 000 Asians (more than 70% of the non-Western people participating in the war), who came from 1914 to 1920 to Europe to fight and work on the front or on the home front, still remain a large unexplored field of research. The cultural history—which take into account the global community of culture between the home front and the front, and the history from below which attempts to account the perspective of common people, have still to question the daily life, the exceptional encounter with the European societies, and the cohabitation with Western common people, that these individuals experienced. Not to mention the discovering of other battlefields in the colonized regions in the Middle East.

Organizing the conference together in Bangkok to approach the war from an Asian perspective seems to us particularly relevant. From the perspective of the elite of the three Asian countries who engaged in the war (Japan, China and Thailand) as from the perspective of these hundred thousands of Asians people who committed themselves to fight or to work so far from their home, the narrative of this experience by Asian individuals lead us to deal with their vision of their own destiny. Thus, this conference considers this exceptional mobility to Europe of these numerous individual experiences of the First World War as a major step of the collective and individual trend in Asia, to become “masters of their own destiny” and had left noticeable political and social legacies in Asian countries during the twenties and thirties, to begin with the peace treaties at the Versailles with their expectations and disillusions.

Several works have been published in recent years on the First World War from an Asian perspective: Nicholas Tarling, Asia and the First World War (The University of Auckland 2014); Guoqi Xu, Asia and the Great War: A Shared History (The Greater War), (Oxford University Press, 2017); Heather Streets-Salter, World War One in Southeast Asia: Colonialism and Anticolonialism in an Era of Global Conflict (Cambridge University Press, 2017). The perspective of this conference is to consider the First World War as a key moment which permitted, for the first time in history, important migrations of people and circulations of ideas, objects, and technics between Asia and Europe in both ways. The aim of this conference is to highlight the Asian individual and collective trajectories, marked by their desire to become the “masters of their own destiny” in the colonial and total war context. It is the matter of joining together the perspectives of global history, micro history, and history from below. A biographical approach with the illustration of the individuals’ “non-standard” experiences could allow us to measure the impact of particular experiences of war and of Europe on their lives as well as on their family circle.

It is the question of analyzing their experience of war, their conditions of life and states of mind in Europe as well as the return to their homeland from diverse sources (the army’s postal censorship commission, intimate letters, press, photographs, memoires, diaries and literary work, and many more). How did Asian workers or soldiers seize that exceptional opportunity to “take charge of their own destiny” at both the individual and national level? How did the Asians apply that “exceptional” experience of the First World War and expatriation to their personal and social life? What was the impact of these individuals on the political, economic, social, and cultural destiny of the Asian people under colonial rules? The transition from individual aspirations by using experiences from Europe to political aspirations in coming back to their homeland, in other words their capacity to become “masters of their own destiny” will be particularly explored.

We hope that this conference will provide better understanding of the role of Asians in the First World War and the legacies of the war in Asia, thereby contributing to the writing of a World History of the First World War. Far from being a very peripheral event for Asians, this issue occurring at the beginning of the previous century marked a key stage on the long Asian March to Modernity, which had started at the end of the nineteenth century and is still a major issue today.

Download the program and the booklet.

Read the article published on the site CNRS News.