A second guest post in our series on The Global Colonial 1914-18 from Dušan I. Bjelić. Dušan received both his B.A. (1976) and M.A. (1981) in Sociology from the University of Belgrade and then earned his Ph.D in Sociology from Boston University in 1989, joining the University of Southern Maine Department of Sociology and Criminology in 1990. His area of interest is the colonizing application of psychoanalysis and psychiatry to the Balkans. Professor Bjelić co-edited Balkan as Metaphor: Between Globalization and Fragmentation with Obrad Savić (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002). He has also published two books of his own: Galileo’s Pendulum: Science, Sexuality and the Body-Instrument Link, (SUNY Press, 2003) and Normalizing the Balkans: Geopolitics of Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis (Ashgate, 2011). His published works can be accessed at Academia.edu.
“Just as there is no wedding dinner without meat so there is no war without slaves.”
–Serb soldier on the Balkan Front.
A man was looking for something he had lost under the street lights; another man, the joke goes, approached and asked him what he was looking for. “I am looking for my lost keys,” “Did you lose them here?” “No,” the first man responded, “I lost them on the dark side of the street.” “But, why are you looking here?” “Because this is where the light is.” This joke illustrates well the paradox of the national paradigm in European historiography of the Great War. The assumption that the European sovereign nation is the sole agent of modern history naturally motivates European historiography to frame the Great War within a national paradigm and foreclose its colonial dimension. A related trope to the above joke pertains to race and its relation to the national histories of Europe; the black face of a slave, according to Frantz Fanon, can be seen during the night only under the porch light of the master, but when the slave goes into the dark his face becomes invisible. The deployment of colonial soldiers in the Great War as “warrior races” or, “martial races” to fight on behalf of their masters, and the absence of the Black history of slavery from the history of the Great War is in fact the history written from the master’s porch. While the invisibility of the black face foreclosed Black history from the national paradigm of the Great War, it was nonetheless useful as a racial weapon in the war.
By deploying almost a million non-white troops in the European theater of war—France’s 500,000 Africans and Asians, Britain’s 200,000 Indians and Africans, America 200,000 black soldiers, Germany’s 11,000 Africans (only in East Africa)—race was used as a “weapon of war” to advance an unprecedented slaughter among the white nations.  R. J. Vincent socked it to the revisionist historians when he wrote, “not only were the whites laying to rest the notion of their instinctive comity by butchering each other in such unprecedented numbers, but they were also showing their neglect of race in favour of nation in using non-white troops to advance the slaughter.” Those historians committed to the national paradigm acknowledge the contribution of colonial solders in the Great War only as an auxillary force rather than as the point of the return of race as the constitutive violence of European Modernity. Many of the former slaves forcefully recruited and disciplined as racial instruments of forced labour, punishment and extermination became the site of colonial violence and operated as a microcosm for the War. The colonial soldier was the cause and the consequence of the Great War. Continue reading