Esperanto and the First World War

To open the memorable centenary year, we are very pleased to host Javier Alcalde’s post on Esperanto, a language which belonged to all nations and none, and which thus embraces our subject thoroughly.



At the beginning of the 20th century, the rise of nationalism among European powers on the one hand and the need for the internationalization of scientific research on the other had situated the debate about the auxiliary language among the main issues of the international agenda. It was a debate related to the intellectual dilemmas of the time that went from scientific to spiritual issues, from national or ethnic identity to the so-called Jewish problem and, especially, the possibility of peace in international relations.

But war broke out and Esperantists had to adapt to the new situation and perform various tasks either through the press, through humanitarian actions or in pacifist organizations. Additionally, many of them were conscripted and many died in the conflict. In fact, the war dealt a severe blow to universalist ideals such as those of Esperanto, although it also presented multiple opportunities for new people to learn the language in the front or in prison, where a number of its passionate advocates diffused it and its values. Subsequently, the interwar period will provide new prosperity to them.


The World Esperanto Congress planned for 1914. Because of the war, it never took place, although when the war began most of the participants, more than 3,000, were already in Paris.


Most of these issues are tackled in a collective book that has just been published: Antaŭ unu jarcento. Esperanto kaj la granda milito [One century ago. Esperanto and the Great War], which I have had the pleasure to coordinate, together with José Salguero Rodríguez. This collection of texts reproduces contemporary documents and articles, unpublished diaries and familiar memories related to the war, but it also offers original essays covering different countries and different perspectives. Written in the so-called international language Esperanto, it shows the potential of addressing issues of history and memory from a transnational way.

In agreement with its author Brigid O’Keeffe, we include in this post the English version of the book’s prologue, probably one of the best texts that the reader will find in the whole book.

Antaŭ unu jarcento. Esperanto kaj la granda milito – Prologue

Brigid O’Keeffe

A deafening clamor, a violent convulsion of the earth below one’s feet, a world ceasing to make any reassuring sense – the reader of Antaŭ unu jarcento:  La granda milito kaj Esperanto cannot help but feel transported to the grim realities of day-to-day life during the earth-shattering and faith-shattering years of World War I.  Throughout these pages, soldiers trudge in disorientation and even in awe, marching through villages that are not their own, among people who do not speak their tongue or wave the same flag.  Reading this volume’s accounts, one better appreciates the small mercies of a bed of straw on which to lay one’s aching body and to fall into a mercifully numbing sleep.  One imagines the smell of burning villages and the unrelenting violence of bullets raining down in the night.  The sludge and varied miseries of rat-infested trench life are vividly brought to life.  One can almost feel the shocking vibrations of bombardment, the nausea in the face of shrapnel’s carnage, and the dizzying euphoria of surviving yet another stunning close call on the battlefield.  One empathizes with the soldier who greedily consumes decaying food scraps in the feral conditions of his prisoner-of-war camp.  The many-hued humanity of wartime experience shows through these pages.  So, too, does the deadly pallor of millions of lives wasted, the dull blinker of young men’s futures squandered in the name of the emptied slogans of nation and empire.

“Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected.  Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends,” writes Paul Fussell in his classic study, The Great War and Modern Memory.  “But the Great War was more ironic than any before or since.  It was a hideous embarrassment to the prevailing Meliorist myth which had dominated the public consciousness for a century.  It reversed the idea of Progress.”[1]  The war shattered the lives of a generation.  It brought down empires that had been presumed unshakeable and permanent.  And – for many of its participants and observers – it violently destroyed their faith in humankind’s capacity for reason, progress, and common commitment to a shared pursuit of the good.

For some, however, the so-called Great War served nonetheless to reinvigorate a search for solutions to humankind’s ongoing dilemmas of a palpably felt modernity.  These men and women lived in a world that felt to them both dangerously large and intractable, but also small and tightly bound by international networks of commerce, communication, ideas, and geopolitics.  Theirs was a world that reeled from the horrors that human hands had wrought.  Yet they variously sought a sober, yet still hopeful path toward a better, more humane global future.

In all of these ways, World War I and its aftermath profoundly impacted the trajectory of Esperanto and Esperantism in world history.  Although this is a rather banal statement on its own, it deserves historical explication.  After all, the world that made possible the hubris, the carnage, and the disillusionment of World War I was the very same that gave rise to Esperantism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Among the globally minded seekers of creative, yet varied paths forward for humanity in the interwar period, Esperantists occupy both a prominent and vibrant place.

Among students of Esperanto, few origins stories are as well known as the one L.L. Zamenhof used to explain his inspiration for devising his ingenious international auxiliary language.  Zamenhof was born and raised into an inescapably multiethnic, multiconfessional, and multilingual milieu.  Coming of age in imperial Russia’s pogrom-ridden Pale of Settlement, Zamenhof came to the conclusion that language diversity was “one of the great misfortunes of humanity.”[2]  Nearly twenty years after the Unua Libro’s publication, he reflected on his childhood and lamented, “I was taught that all people were brothers, and, meanwhile, in the street, in the square, everything at every step made me feel that people did not exist, only Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews, and so on.”  As Esther Schor has recently argued in her book, Bridge of Words, Zamenhof’s experience of his own Jewishness was pivotal to the creation of Esperanto and the movement Zamenhof launched.  In an age of anguished “Jewish questions” and shocking anti-Semitic violence, Zamenhof agonized over the precarity and indignities suffered by his fellow Jews.  While searching for a solution to European Jews’ plight, Zamenhof ended up pursuing a linguistic vehicle of achieving international brotherhood most broadly defined.[3]

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Esperanto ignited the imagination of pacifists, Catholics, occultists, engineers, freethinkers, vegetarians, scientists, businesspeople, feminists, ramblers, teachers, anti-nationalists, nationalists, and all manner of socialists.[4] These diverse Esperantists were not alone in their global-mindedness. Whether they were drawn to Esperanto or not, so-called “ordinary people” increasingly felt themselves to be citizens of the world in all manner of ways.  The variety of global encounters these “ordinary” internationalists experienced inevitably ran the gamut from traumatic to awkward to mundane to euphoric.  No doubt, these encounters shaped an array of globally-minded worldviews and lifestyles – some of them quite novel and many of which have been overlooked by historians.

The first “total war” of the twentieth century, World War I drove home for its contemporaries the realities of global interconnectedness ever more tangibly and painfully.  The pursuit of a universal science had resulted in novel technologies and commodities – among them the machine gun and the gas mask.  Young men who had never dreamed of leaving their native villages found themselves marching, and often dying, in foreign lands.  Generations of exploitative and violent empire-building gave rise, for example, to an army of French and Senegalese soldiers alike.  Marx’s ideas didn’t merely circulate the globe in multiple translations; in 1917 they inspired the Bolsheviks to seize power in what they would subsequently glorify as the Great October Socialist Revolution.  The international proletariat dreamed of making “Worldwide October” a reality. Meanwhile, more traditional statesmen would embark in 1920 on the new League of Nations, an international endeavor designed, ostensibly, to guarantee a peaceful future.  While plans for this new League of Nations were still being drafted in the immediate shadow of the war itself, the 1918 influenza pandemic felled ordinary people all over the world.  The conditions of global warfare proved quite conducive to the rapid and diffuse transmission of deadly virus.  All combined, the miles upon miles of trenches dug in the war were, in the end, enough to circle the globe at the equator.

And while Zamenhof himself died of heart failure in Warsaw in April 1917, Esperanto and Esperantism in some ways enjoyed a renewed life in the postwar period.  Antaŭ unu jarcento:  La granda milito kaj Esperanto drives home in ways both implicit and explicit why the war served to breathe new life into Esperanto.  The diary of Marius Paulet tells how he confronted the cries of women, children, and enemy combatants alike.  Paulet walked past countless dead bodies and was left, like so many of his generation, to contemplate the humanity of the manifold suffering that was being endured on all sides of the conflict – and for what purpose, to what end?   Robert Murray, meanwhile, managed not only to survive military service in the war, but also to later reflect on some of his wartime travels as days of beauty and pleasure, of horizons broadened and even enjoyed.  One finds in Murray’s descriptions of his “adventures in the Great War” a seemingly natural-born globalist – a young man who finds pleasure in travel and coin collecting and who is driven by a curiosity about other cultures, climates, and landscapes.

Picture2Internacia Bulteno, an official bulletin produced by the German government. At the time many governments used the language for propaganda purposes; the Germans’ efforts are the most well-known.


For those who survived the war, there was much to be learned from it.  As Humphrey Tonkin reminds us, war and revolution were the circumstances from which Tivadar Soros first fashioned himself into a plucky “moderna Robinzono.”  Fatefully, Soros emerged from his travails as a prisoner of war in Siberia as a man profoundly shaped by the survival instincts he honed under the desperate conditions of the Great War’s chaos and his personal triumph over it.  These survival instincts would make it possible not only for Soros to attend the founding meeting of the Union of Soviet Esperantists in Petrograd in 1921 and to support the flourishing of a new Esperanto literature in the interwar period, but also to survive the Nazi occupation of Hungary in World War II.

For many, the inequities of wartime service and wartime suffering only drove home more sharply the class hierarchies and class antagonisms that had already been deeply resented before the war.  The war inspired disillusionment not only with Enlightenment-inspired conceits about human rationality and History’s realization as Progress, but also with the capacity of monarchs, markets, or parliaments to protect, let alone uplift humanity in all its shapes, sizes, classes, and races. Many of those disillusioned by the war were thus at one and the same time compelled to give up on the “old world” and to embrace a new one – a different future for humankind that promised to dignify all men (and women), and not just the privileged few.

Fatefully, Eugene Lanti – then still Eugene Adam – would spend four years during the war serving as an ambulance driver and learning Esperanto.  As Ed Borsboom explains in his biography of Lanti, excerpted in this volume:  “Revenante de la fronto fine de novembro 1918, Eŭgeno Adam kunportis en sia valizo ankaŭ novajn spiritajn akiraĵojn.”[5]  Lanti was but one of millions worldwide whose faiths had been shaken during the war and who, in the face of the war’s shocking cataclysms, traded in their old beliefs and replaced them with new ones.  In writing the history of Esperanto, one cannot overestimate the importance of Lanti’s experience during the war. It inspired his relatively short-lived sympathy for the Bolsheviks, his much more enduring anti-nationalism, and ultimately the establishment, in 1921, of the Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda under his lead.


An ambulance donated by the British esperantists to the Belgian Red Cross. It shows the close and intense relationships between the Esperanto movement and the Red Cross during the war.


For still others, the horrors of the war painfully underscored why they had been ideologically attracted to Esperanto long before the outbreak of hostilities in 1914.  International solidarity and fraternity – not to mention an avowed commitment to pacifism – had inspired many Esperantists in the decades prior to the launch of the Great War.  While many Esperantists themselves were sent to the front, the Universal Esperanto Association (UEA) in Geneva quickly stepped in to provide practical services in the aid of the worldwide Esperantist community.  As Miroslav Malovec shows, the UEA energetically managed the transfer of letters and parcels during the war.  In this way, it sought in the wartime context to uphold the humanitarian ideals of Esperanto that had attracted many to the movement in the first place.  Likewise, Javier Alcalde’s research highlights the wide range of ways that Esperantist associations – of all ideological stripes – sought to make practical humanitarian use of the international auxiliary language during the war.  Alcalde reminds us of Esperantists who deserve far more historical attention than has been afforded them so far – the feminist Esperantists in particular.  He also reminds us that many pacifist Esperantists struggled all throughout the war to continue their campaigns for peace.  They remained ideologically faithful to their cause even, in the early months of the war especially, when this was a cause that earned them society’s condemnation or, in the case of Esperantist conscientious objectors, jail terms.

As several of the contributors to Antaŭ unu jarcento:  La granda milito kaj Esperanto explicitly note, Esperantism enjoyed a renewed energy – or to be more precise, renewed energies – after the astonishingly senseless bloodshed of the Great War was brought to a close.  A historian could be forgiven for being tempted to ask, “how could this not be so?” instead of the more professional query, “why was this so?”  While reading this collection of essays and testimonies, I was reminded of a simple poster I found in the archives of the former Soviet Union.  Dated September 1919, the austere poster – all text and printed on cheap paper – declared:

“CITIZENS!  Study the international language ‘Esperanto.’ Every person must know the auxiliary international language ‘Esperanto’ in addition to his native language….. [Esperanto] will lead humanity to brotherhood and peace.  Having studied Esperanto, you will be able to communicate… with the whole world! …All hail Esperanto, the path to brotherhood and peace!”[6]

No doubt this document gives us an entrée for thinking about Esperanto’s new horizons in revolutionary Russia.  Yet it is also a part of the history of the aftermath of World War I, which more than a century ago ravaged millions of lives and revolutionized empires, nations, and the everyday people who lived, struggled, and hoped within (and across) their borders.


A meeting at the League of Nations to discuss the teaching of Esperanto at schools. The interwar period is often presented as the Golden Age of Esperanto.


Brigid O’Keeffe is an associate professor of history at Brooklyn College (CUNY) where she teaches modern Russian and Soviet history. She is the author of New Soviet Gypsies: Nationality, Performance, and Selfhood in the Early Soviet Union (University of Toronto Press, 2013). O’Keeffe is currently at work on a second book, Comrades Without Borders.  This book project explores Esperanto and internationalism in late imperial Russia and the interwar Soviet Union.  Its primary focus is on how, in an era of simultaneously anguished and hopeful globalization, ordinary people in tsarist Russia and the early Soviet Union used Esperanto to participate in global communities of varied ideological stripes.

[1] Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1975), 7-8.

[2] Ulrich Lins, Dangerous Language – Esperanto Under Hitler and Stalin, translated by Humphrey Tonkin (London:  Palgrave MacMillan, 2016), 6 fn 12.

[3] Esther Schor, Bridge of Words:  Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language (New York:  Metropolitan Books, 2016), quote on 63.

[4] Roberto Garvia captures well the sheer diversity of early twentieth-century Europe’s Esperanto communities in his Esperanto and its Rivals: The Struggle for an International Language (Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), esp. chapters 12-15.

[5] Page 124 of the digital file Javier gave me.

[6] Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Rossiiskoi Federatsii [State Archive of the Russian Federation] f. 9550 o. 14 d. 19 l. 1.


4 thoughts on “Esperanto and the First World War”

    1. Wonderful article and with my love language politics lovely blog to have found! I am especially interested in this subject, and have read some good books on the subject, to include La danĝera lingvo and more recently Mi stelojn jungis al revado.
      I am particularly thankful for your post due to the biographic note about Dr. O’Keeffe’s next book, Comrades without borders.
      Oh, and I’ve just ordered Antaŭ unu jarcento. Esperanto kaj la granda milito. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for your comment. It has certainly been an encouragement to see how many people have read this blog-post. The role of Esperanto during the First World War is a subject we hope to hear more about.

        The Editors


        Liked by 1 person

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