Diversity and its Discontents

by Cole Gessner

Russian Troops in Flight

Russian Troops in Flight

The common solider is the backbone of every military on the planet. While commanders make the plans and officers the on-the-ground decisions, when it comes down to it, the everyday soldier is the one who executes the plan, who follows the orders, and does what is necessary to accomplish the task at hand. The experiences of these common men are often horrific, full of loss and pain, but they are fascinating examples of what was like in times of great duress. The lack of perspective of soldiers on the eastern front of the First World War is the starting point for my narrative. Lots of people have at least a slight idea of the horror of trench warfare on the western front, but what about the open spaces to the east? What was it like to fight in a military where the soldiers beside you might speak a different native language? Or worship at a different church? On top of the horrors of war, soldiers on the eastern front had to face the difficulties that resulted from the region’s multiethnic background, including prejudices based on their ethnic or religious backgrounds.

Through my research I sought to explore what life on the eastern front was like for these soliders, often fighting for a large multinational empire for which the soldiers had loose political loyalties.  I have chosen to create three case studies, one for each of the major empires on the eastern front, and examine the experiences of their soldiers. I pay particular attention to their experiences with diversity in their respective militaries, as diversity has long been an important historical determinant in the region.

I decided to title my project “Diversity and its Discontents” because as each source I found shows, the diversity in Eastern Europe only lead to headaches for those who experienced it. Divisions within the ranks, mistreatment, blame and discontent all resulted from the various issues that the militaries of these multi-ethnic empires faced as a result of this diversity, and only added to the horrors of war that come along with any mass military conflict.

Historical Diversity

In order to understand the importance of diversity in Eastern Europe, the reader needs to understand the historical background of the region and just how prevalent of an issue diversity would be throughout the region’s history. Two books that we read at the beginning of our class do a fantastic job of giving not only an overview of the history of the region, but also the important role that diversity played. The first of these books is Andrew Wachtel’s The Balkans in World History. [1] A brief read; Wachtel compacts a huge amount of history into a small and well-written book that gives excellent insight into the history of the Balkans and its people. The second book is Piotr Wandycz’s The Price of Freedom,[2] which focuses on, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary. Much like Wachtel, Wandycz gives a great insight into the general history of Eastern Europe with a focus on the political history of the different states in the region.  These books give a great look into the historical value of diversity and is an important first step in the discussion of my narrative.

Case Study #1: The Russian Empire

A procession of voluntary Kosak soldiers. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A procession of voluntary Kosak soldiers. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Its appropriate to start the narrative of the experiences of soldiers on the eastern front with the article that initially lead to the deepening of my research. When I began researching my topic of the common soldiers on the eastern front, I found a very interesting article written by Igor Narskii.[3]  It discussed the experiences of Russian soldiers from all parts of the empire during the war. A particularly interesting section focused on the division of soldiers into first and second tier citizens of the empire, and how first tier citizens, from the heartland of Russia, were shown preferential treatment when it came to assignments and other logistical elements of life in the Russian army.  Second tier members of the military were resentful of their status, and the very nature of being forced to fight a war for an empire that classified them as second tier citizens in the first place. We will see this as a recurring theme throughout each of the case studies.

Another article, written by Svetlana Solntseva,[4] offers further insight to the preferential treatment that Russians from the heartland of the empire received. She discusses how during the war, the Russian military created “Forlorn Hope” battalions recruited almost entirely from outlying ethnic groups within the Russian empire . This reflects the desire to use these soldiers and their noble sacrifice as a representative of the unity of the Russian people. This assignment was exceptionally dangerous and while the commanders of the military treated better than some other groups; they were essentially used as suicidal battering rams to break through enemy positions so the rest of the military could rush forward.

The final article I found actually has to do with the Russian military after the revolution in 1917.[5] Written by Matthew Rendle, it focuses on the attempts at integration of the different social groups in the Russian military in order to promote national unity. I found this to be a very interesting aspect of military life in eastern Europe during the time period. The commanders of these militaries knew that the diversity of the region created complications not found in more homogenous societies, and sought to unify the multinational identities found within the old Russian Empire into a new entity, literally embodying this concept by naming itself the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Case Study #2: The German Empire

German Propaganda Poster

German Propaganda Poster

For the experiences of soldiers from the German empire I also found several excellent articles and book chapters that discuss the life of soldiers on the Eastern front, and particularly the often-negative experiences of minorities in the ranks of the German military. The first such article, written by Dennis Showalter, titled “The East Gives Nothing Back: The Great War and the German Army in Russia” made for fascinating reading.[6] Included in the stories of the hardships faced by the German soldiers during the war, was a discussion of the misery of Polish conscripts in the army, who were often the butt of their comrades’ stereotypical jokes. These conscripts had the highest suicide rate of any other group in the German army during the war. The diversity of the region commonly only added to the incredible hardships the soldiers faced during the conflict.

The book chapter I used for this case study was actually one assigned to us in class. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius’s book gave tremendous insight into how the German soldier experienced the war, and included the struggles of minority groups fighting for the Germans as they often fought in territories with large populations of their ethnicities.[7] In particular he describes the awkward situation for Polish conscripted soldiers in the German army acting as conquerors of other Polish towns, and the confusion they met by townspeople whose towns were being occupied by their country men, who spoke the same language and followed the same sect as they did.

Case Study #3: The Austro-Hungarian Empire

During my research for the experiences of soldiers from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, I found a plethora of primary and secondary sources about the subject, and nearly every one of them included some discussion of the diversity within the ranks of the Austro-Hungarian military. This is likely a result of Austria-Hungary’s incredibly diverse multinational identity. In a region full of multi-ethnic empires, Austria-Hungary took the crown for most diverse, demonstrated by its name representing two different kingdoms and subsequent ethnicities.

The crown jewel of sources for this narrative features an article describing the letters sent home by Polish soldiers to their village in Galicia during the war. [8]  The article, written by Andriy Zayarnyuk, gives great insight into the experience of Polish soliders fighting for Austria-Hungary during the First World War, including their experiences in such an ethnically and religiously diverse military and how that effected their experience of the war. Included in one such letter was how each ethnic group tended to hang out with itself, with very little mixing within the ranks of the military. Another discussed how odd it was to see the orthodox soldiers attending their religious ceremonies, and how they would refuse to participate in these ceremonies even if it was the only religion available to them before going into combat.

Another primary source I found on the subject was another article describing the correspondence of Austro-Hungarian POWs in Russia,[9] they often complained about the different treatment they received based on several factors, including ethnic background and military rank. They often believed that this difference in treatment resulted from the lack of action from the Austro-Hungarian government for their cause, which caused resentment within the ranks of these prisoners towards not only their government, but each other as well.

A Typical Czech Regiment

A Typical Czech Regiment

An interesting secondary source I found discussed the woes of Czech soldiers fighting for the Austro-Hungarians.[10] Their commanders often treated Czech soldiers incredibly unfairly during the war.While the failures of the military were often in reality the fault of the commanding officers, the officers used the Czech and other Slavic soliders in the Austro-Hungarian military as scapegoats for their failures, leading to resentment and a lack of faith in the greater Austro-Hungarian political system.



The eastern front of the First World War is a largely forgotten piece of history. The soldiers in the east suffered just as greatly as those in the trenches on the western front, but there are few documentaries or books written about them in western media. Through my research, I discovered that the historic diversity of the Eastern European empires fighting in this brutal conflict only added to the misery of war experienced by these men. Prejudice and favoritism was rampant in all three of the case studies examined, and while soldiers on both fronts suffered, those on the eastern front faced the added complication of dealing with these issues while fighting for their lives.



[1] Andrew Baruch Wachtel, The Balkans in World History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[2] Piotr S Wandycz, The Price of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 2001).

[3] Igor V. Narskii. “The Frontline Experience of Russian Soldiers in 1914-1916,” Russian Studies in History 51 (2013): 31-49.  Accessed October 25th, 2014. DOI: 10.2753/RSH1061-1983510402

[4] Svetlana A. Solntseva. “The Russian Army’s Shock Formations in 1917.” Russian Studies In History 51, no. 4 (Spring2013 2013): 50-73. DOI: 10.2753/RSH1061-1983510403 (Accessed November 12, 2014).

[5] Matthew Rendle. “Forging a Revolutionary Army: The All-Russian Military Union in 1917,” War in History 19 (2012): 49-71. Accessed October 26th, 2014. DOI: 10.1177/0968344511433731

[6] Dennis E. Showalter. “’The East Gives Nothing Back’: The Great War and the German Army in Russia,” The Journal of the Historical Society 11 (2002): 1-19. Accessed October 25th, 2014.

[7] Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, “War Land on the Eastern Front: Culture, National Identity, and German Occupation in World War I,” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[8] Andriy Zayarnyuk. “The War is as Usual”: World War I Letters to a Galician Village.” Ab Imperio no. 4 (October 2010): 197-224. (Accessed October 27, 2014).

[9] Alon Rachamimov. “Imperial Loyalties and Private Concerns: Nation, Class, and State in the Correspondence of Austro-Hungarian POWs in Russia, 1916-1918,” Austrian History Yearbook 31 (2000): 87-105.

[10] Richard Lein. “The Military Conduct of the Austro-Hungarian Czechs in the First World War,” The Historian (2014): 518-549. 10.1111/hisn.12046 Accessed October 27th, 2014