Great War and Anthropocene: Empire and Environment in Eastern Europe

Until now, war has often been perceived as a trigger for humanitarian catastrophes. But military conflicts also stimulated the development of new technologies and infrastructures, the transformation of new models of production management, and the testing of new methods for controlling social groups and asserting dominance over the environment. In this trend, World War I appears as a decisive caesura: Its front lines cut through vast territories on land and sea, the use of chemical weapons and other destructive technologies changed the appearance of the militarized landscapes of the countries involved, and the areas near and behind the front experienced a strong push toward modernization. Whereas in modern times the changes were still directly linked to the battlefields and their consequences were local and short-term, the totalization of military operations now made these consequences global and irreversible.
The term "Anthropocene," borrowed from geochronology, refers to a geologic age with a high degree of human influence on ecosystems. The goal is to understand the role of the "Great War" as one of the crucial caesuras of the Anthropocene, when the nature of warfare and the collapse of empires reinforced the destructive character of human-environment interaction and influenced the geological form of landscapes in Central and Eastern Europe.
For a variety of reasons, the Austro-Russian front of World War I has not long received as active a research interest as the Western Front. The project aims to analyze the impact of military actions on the environment and lifeworlds of the population, on the way of dealing with natural resources and on the industrial transformation of territories and landscapes, with a special focus on Galicia and the region of Tarnow, Lviv and Przemysl. The study of processes of deconstruction and reconstruction of the environment at the end of the existence of the multinational empires of Russia and Austria-Hungary illustrates the difficult relationship between man and nature in the twentieth century and will make an important contribution to the discourse on the development of the concept of scorched earth.

Overarching all projects, the team addresses conceptual questions about the epoch of empire collapse, building on Ann Stoler's theories of "imperial debris," and in doing so, rather than asking about ruins as evidence of the past, focuses on "ruination" as those processes through which imperial power occupies the present.  The hypothesis of the project is that the First World War on the Eastern Front established the decisive trends in the development of environmental discourses and practices in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe: the desire to annex nature and conquer it through gigantic technological projects (such as giant dams), attempts to ensure resource security through environmental politics.

Specifically, the Austrian and Russian project partners are dealing with issues of environmental destruction through military artillery and fortifications, waterway and railroad development, and civilian predation of nature; with issues of sanitation and military medicine, especially dealing with death through military hospitals and construction of temporary burial grounds, and dealing with epidemics.