So the XXII Biennial Australasian Association for European History Conference is over, and I must say it's the best conference I've been to, for a number of reasons. It was well-organised, despite some added difficulties such as being jointly hosted by and held at two universities, the University of Western Australia and Murdoch University. That's easy to gloss over but some conferences don't manage to rise to the occasion. The locations were pretty, both the campuses and the city (though it was rainy on the first day, it would probably be unfair to blame the organisers for that). And the food provided at the session breaks was scrumptious.
Oh yes, the history! Two parallel sessions running over four days, so there was a lot of history to be had. The talks were excellent, and the conference theme — 'War and Peace, Barbarism and Civilisation in Modern Europe and its Empires' — came through strongly. Because I rather shamefully didn't livetweet the conference, I'll note here some of the papers which interested me for one reason or another. (Any errors are my own.)
Giuseppe Finaldi's (UWA) paper was entitled 'The Italian conquest of Libya one hundred years on', and by way of introduction he discussed Italy's pioneering use of bombing in 1911! That was a nice way for an aviation to slip into the first session of a conference. But there were other aviation links too. Lee Kersten (Adelaide) delved into the University of Adelaide's archives and one of the gems she came up with was a 1916 letter from Sir Douglas Mawson, the Antarctic explorer, to Adelaide's Registrar. It included Mawson's thoughts after experiencing a Zeppelin raid:
I was in London for the two big air raids when Zepellins [sic] were destroyed. There was really very little damage at all and the German stories were ludicrously untrue. It is certain that that class of craft will never compete with the aeroplane.
Can't argue with him there, really. James Curry (UWA) examined the Wehrmacht's legacy in the US Army (at least up until the 1990s), in the form of air-land battle doctrine (a blitzkrieg by any other name…). Anne Matters (Flinders) didn't mention airpower, but I found her discussion of Britain's Mesopotamia policy in 1915-21 illuminating: as War Minister, Churchill wanted to withdraw the Army from outlying regions of Iraq (but was vetoed by the Foreign Office for reasons of prestige) well before Trenchard came along with his air control idea. Reto Hofmann's (Columbia) talk on Japanese views of the Abyssinian War (at first sympathising with Abyssinia due to a shared status as non-European empires, then swinging towards Italy for reasons of realpolitik) was most interesting to me for the concern shown by the Japanese public over the Italian use of gas against Abyssinians. And finally, I'm not even sure if Andrew Webster (Murdoch) spoke about aviation in his talk entitled 'Towards a new history of the League of Nations', as I sadly decided to go to the other session; but as he's written on France and the international air force idea, he deserves a shout-out here!
To other topics. Omer Bartov's (Brown) paper used the experiences of a small town in Galicia during the First World War as a way to examine the role of violence in ethnically-mixed communities; hopefully the prelude to a book. Iva Glisic (UWA) was fascinating on Futurists in the Russian Civil War: unlike in their Italian homeland where they were associated with Fascism, in Russia Futurists were committed to the Bolsheviks. Robert Gerwarth (University College, Dublin) gave an overview of a big project project he's running examining paramilitary violence in Europe after the First World War (it's not just the Freikorps!). Elizabeth Roberts (Western Sydney) examined Second World War debates within the British psychiatric and medical professions about the effects of war on military personnel, still a surprisingly under-researched topic compared with the First World War. And John Dickie (University College, London) offered an entertaining examination of 'the origins of the ‘ndrangheta, the mafia of Calabria', in his view influenced by revolutionary freemasons in Italian prisons.
Some of the papers addressed big questions. William Mulligan (University College, Dublin) asked if the traditional view of a militarised Europe permanently on the brink of war needs revising. Jan Rueger (Birkbeck) asked if the revision of the traditional view of an Anglo-German antagonism needs revising. And Maartje Abbenhuis (Auckland) proposed that 19th century neutrality needs to be recognised as a great-power tactic and a normal one, rather than the outlier it seems to be from the perspective of the 20th century.
My own paper (sandwiched between James Curry's, noted above, and Patrick Major (Reading), who looked at the representation of German, particularly soldiers, in the Second World War) passed off okay, I think. I didn't have a chance at a run-through beforehand, which I needed. But on the other hand I largely spoke off the cuff, which I'm not much chop at, and yet it seems that the audience understood me — or at least so I gather from the questions after the talk and discussions later in the conference. Now to write it up for publication.
And so, to the future. There was some disquiet about the prospects for European history in Australia (and those of us hailing from Melbourne did not help). Our host, the renowned Italian historian Richard Bosworth, marked his retirement from UWA with this conference (attendees Dick Geary from Nottingham and John MacKenzie from Lancaster, both AAEH stalwarts, also retired recently). But on the strength of the papers presented here — with more than a little help from our overseas friends! — I think we'll do okay. The breadth of intellectual endeavour on display was inspiring, and reminded me of all the good things academia still has to offer. Roll on AAEH XXIII, Wellington 2013!
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