Read an Excerpt
It is commonly assumed, at least in the West, that the glorification of war is a thing of the past. Even more prevalent is the assumption that such war-related phenomena as expulsions and deportations, ethnic cleansing and mass rape, massacre and genocide would be universally condemned in any civilized country. Indeed, such condemnation is viewed as a mark of civilization, and groups or nations that still conduct policies of this nature are considered to be, by definition, beyond the pale. And yet, only a few decades ago, war was seen by most Europeans as a glorious undertaking, and many of the actions we would describe today as war crimes were celebrated as an inherent part of the conduct of war and the consolidation of victory or, at the very least, were perceived as regrettable but unavoidable features of modern warfare.
That non-Western nations, countries that straddle the ill-defined line between Europe and Asia, and a variety of despicable regimes, have engaged in the recent past or are still engaged today in widespread crimes and abuses of human rights is, of course, readily conceded. Yet such crimes have rarely led to their expulsion from the international community. Since the end of World War II, the collapse or disintegration of such regimes was more often the result of their own incompetence or self-destructive dynamics, and at best of indirect international pressure. Hence the main difference between the first and the second parts of this century is not so much that war has lost its potential to inspireself-glorification, and certainly not that war has been any less murderous. Indeed, the ratio of innocent civilians killed in war has grown progressively since 1914. The difference is that following the devastation of World War II, Western nations have had both less inclination and less need to fight each other; when they did go to war, it was against non-Western lands, and it was the latter that took the main brunt of human and material destruction.
The Spirit of 1914
Thoughts of war throughout history and in many civilizations have revolved around two contradictory, though not perforce mutually exclusive, sets of images. The first postulated war as an elevating, heroic experience. The second described war as a site of destruction and desolation. This polarity between the portrayal of war as an occasion for humanity to express its nobility and its perception as providing the opportunity for human savagery is thus deeply embedded in culture and civilization.
During the last two centuries, however, major transformations in demographic patterns and social organization, in politics and industry, and in science and technology have had an immense impact on the practice and theory of war, as well as on its imagery and mythology. The availability of unprecedented quantities of ever more effective weapons, along with seemingly unlimited and increasingly pliable human reserves, and the growing capacity to mobilize these resources by the modern industrialized nation-state, greatly enhanced war's destructive potential. This was a prospect both terrifying and exhilarating, repulsive and fascinating. It has evoked the wildest fantasies and the most nightmarish visions. Characteristically for an age of rapid changes, the reality of total war and genocide consistently remained one step ahead of its image. Ours is a century in which man's imagination has been conducting a desperate race with the practice of humanity. And precisely because the mind could no longer catch up with man-made reality, it conjured up visions of the future that surpassed all known forms and dimensions of destruction and thereby created the preconditions for even greater suffering, pain, and depravity.
What is most crucial about Europe's first industrial war in 1914-18 is not the enthusiasm with which its outbreak was greeted in the major combatant nations. To be sure, even if the extent of what has come to be called "the spirit of 1914" has been somewhat exaggerated, one cannot ignore the fact that youthful volunteerism, mass industrial mobilization, intellectual and academic propagandistic engagement, and political consensus all combined to provide the early phases of the war with a bizarre mixture of anxiety and elation, a festive atmosphere permeated with premonitions of disaster. However much disillusionment was to set in during the latter parts of the war, this was still an extraordinary expression of devotion not merely to the nation but also to the notion of war itself as a noble, purifying, and elevating experience. Yet in some ways, this early phenomenon harks back to the past; what makes World War I into the true baptism by fire of the twentieth century is not the high spirits of 1914 but the grim reality that followed.
If World War I is remembered primarily for the continuous front of trenches that stretched all the way from the Swiss border to the Atlantic, another crucial factor of the fighting was, in fact, the growing porousness of the boundaries between soldiers and civilians both as combatants and as targets of destruction. Civilians had been the main victims of war often in the past, but none of the great cataclysms of destruction in previous centuries could compare in sheer scale and lasting impact to 1914-18. For while vast numbers of men were transformed into soldiers, all other civilians became exposed to the human, economic, and psychological cost of total war. The war invaded the most remote corners of the land, and the huge conscript armies at the front contained members of every social stratum and region of the country. This was truly a war of nations, and for this reason none of the major participants was spared its consequences.
The enthusiasm of the first months of the war was rooted in an imagery of military glory that bore no relationship to the reality of the battlefield. The splendid bayonet charge over a field of flowers that so many soldiers had been taught to expect did not materialize. Instead, green fields were transformed into oceans of mud, frontal attacks ended up as massacres, great offensives rapidly ground to a bloody halt, and heroic gestures were soon replaced by grim determination and a desperate will to survive. Yet as the huge, arrogant armies burrowed underground into a maze of trenches filled with slime and excrement, rats and rotting body parts, the soldiers began to construct their own vision of glory, distinct both from the romantic images of the past and from the discredited chauvinistic eyewash of the propagandists in the rear. This new vision, unique to the age of total war, has become part of the manner in which we imagine destruction; aestheticized and cherished, it motivated another generation of young men to fight and die, and enabled the veterans of previous wars to make a kind of peace with their memories of massacre. Given the right political and cultural context, however, this vision has also come to serve as a crucial component of our century's genocidal predilections, facilitating a metamorphosis of values and perspectives in which the annihilatory energy of modern war was portrayed as generating great creative powers, and the phenomenon of industrial killing was perceived as a historical necessity of awesome beauty. The Great War's new fields of glory were the breeding ground of fascism and Nazism, of human degradation and extermination, and from them sprang the storm troops of dictatorships and the demagogues of racial purity and exclusion. In a tragic process of inversion, the true comradeship and sacrifice of millions of young men was perverted into hate and destruction. The new vision of war that emanated from the trenches of 1914-18 ensured that our century's fields of glory would be sown with the corpses of innocent victims and the distorted fragments of shattered ideals.
Contemptuous of the idealized images of war that bore no relationship to the fighting as they knew it, resentful of the staff officers' sheltered lives behind the front and the civilians in the rear, the troops developed a complex subculture all of their own making. Exemplified in frontline journals for their own consumption, a vocabulary that only they could understand, and a new kind of sarcasm and black humor, this was a state of mind that combined a good measure of self-pity with immense pride in their ability to endure in-human conditions for the sake of a nation seemingly ignorant of and indifferent to their terrible sacrifice. This camaraderie of the combat troops was shared by soldiers on both sides of the line, and while it had some common features with the mentality of all armies in history, the crucial difference was that most of these men were conscripts who would return to civilian life as soon as the fighting endedif they were lucky enough to survive. The first months of the war had decimated the professional formations and the traditional officer corps of all combatant nations, not least because they could not adapt to the new conditions on the battlefield without fundamentally changing those very attitudes that had previously ensured their elite social status. Soon they were replaced by a new breed of combat officers who shared the emerging ethos of the battle-hardened conscripts and were socially less remote from them.
Patriotism at the front differed from the rhetoric of the rear, and no one was more aware of this than the soldiers themselves. They had gone to war to serve and save their country, but not only was this nothing like the war they had expected, the country too seemed to take a very different shape when seen from the perspective of the trenches. The camaraderie that helped them endure the front also created and made a virtue of the difference between them and that part of the nation that had stayed behind. Theirs was not the naive heroism extolled by the propagandists, but one born of suffering and pain, horror and death. To be sure, most soldiers had but the vaguest notion of how the nation should be transformed once they returned from the front, but they increasingly felt that it was their right and duty to bring about far-reaching changes, rooted, first and foremost, in the trench experience.
By now we have become used to thinking of World War I as the moment in which innocence was forever shattered. We are haunted by the image of millions of devoted, unquestioning, patriotic, young men being led to senseless slaughter, betrayed by their elders. The Western Front has come to epitomize the notion of war as a vast arena of victimhood. That all this sacrifice was in vain is underlined by the aftermath of the war. We recall the broken promises and despair, the soldiers who instead of returning to a "land fit for heroes" were abandoned to unemployment, destitution, and physical and mental decay. Hence, it is argued, both the apathy and the extremism, the conformism and the violence that were characteristics of the postwar era. But the very attitudes toward violence and the perceptions of destruction that emerged among the soldiers during the war as a means to endure it were ultimately at the root of the even greater horror and devastation of the next war. The images of violence and fantasies of destruction that became so prevalent during the interwar period were directly related to the reality and trauma of the front experience in 1914-18. It was these fantasies that played such a major role in the enactment of genocide two decades later. Ironically, the same mechanism that helped soldiers survive one war created the necessary mind-set for mass murder. A crucial component of this mechanism was the frontline notion of soldiers' glory.
Glory at the front meant enduring the most degrading, inhuman conditions, under constant threat of death and while regularly killing others, without losing one's good humor, composure, and humanity. It meant discovering the ability to switch between being a helpless prey and a professional killer, and acting as a loving son, father, and husband, radically separating the atrocity at the front from the normality of the rear, indeed making this very separation into a badge of honor and a key for survival. For one had to survive not only the fighting but also the homecoming. The true accomplishment of the frontline troops was not merely to tolerate this unbearable, schizophrenic condition but to glorify it, to perceive it as a higher existence rather than a horrifying state of affairs that could not be evaded. To be sure, many soldiers were incapable of this transformation of perception. But such World War I mussulmen (originating in the German word for Moslem, this term was commonly used by Nazi-concentration camp inmates to describe the most emaciated among them), walking dead who had lost all desire to survive, were normally doomed if they were not taken out of the line in time. To be saved from drowning, soldiers had to rely on the glory they had fabricated of which the essence was to construe atrocity as an elevating experience, one which was to be simultaneously celebrated, kept apart from personal relationships in the rear, and used as a tool to change the universe that had made it possible. And because such notions of wholesale future transformation were entertained within a context of vast devastation, they were inevitably permeated by an imagery of destruction.
When the war finally ended, the veterans felt an even greater urge to endow it with meaning. This does not mean that all of them glorified the war, but by and large most seem to have glorified their own and their comrades' experience even when they rejected the war itself. Here was a paradox of significant import, since opposition to war, even pacifism, shared one important element with extremism and militarism, namely, the glorification of the individual soldier, whether as a ruthless fighter or as a hapless victim. Some hoped that the shared fate of the veterans would become a formula for unity, for domestic and international peace. But as we know, precisely the opposite happened, not least because what all these soldiers had in common more than anything else was years of fear and atrocity, killing and mutilation. This was a treacherous foundation for peace.
During the interwar period all political and ideological trends drew on the legacy of World War I for their own, often wholly contradictory purposes, since this rich source of violent images and metaphors of destruction proved to be highly malleable. But the fact that the memory of mass killing was widely employed by such divergent interests introduced a violent dimension to postwar political discourse, channeling it toward a constant preoccupation with human and material devastation. To be sure, the glorification of war after 1918 took many forms. The most visible and emotionally most potent was the commemoration of fallen soldiers. Significantly, even when such public symbols of mourning expressed implicit or, less frequently, explicit criticism of the war, they simultaneously strove to endow the death of the soldiers with a higher meaning and thereby ended up obscuring that the war had largely been an affair of senseless slaughter. Sacrifice was thus glorified while its context was refashioned in a manner that would enhance the nobility of its victims. Since commemoration is more about instilling the past with sense and purpose than with simply remembering it, the official remembrance of millions of fallen young men could not help but provide the war, in which their lives were squandered, with a retrospective meaning for the benefit of the living.
The investment of death in war with meaning can be accomplished by both generalizing and individualizing it. In giving war a unique moral significance, the fallen soldier can be presented as having sacrificed himself for a greater cause: death is glorified by the context in which it occurred, abstract principles and entities are valued higher than individual lives. Hence mourning will focus on the service rendered by the dead for the nation's historical mission and future; rather than being deprived of its sons, the nation is enriched by those who die for it. Conversely, by concentrating on individual devotion, suffering, and sacrifice, the fallen glorify the cause and endow it with deeper meaning because they had given their lives for it. Here mourning will focus on individual qualities as an example to be followed by others. Put differently, in the former case the soldier is an extension of the nation, in the latter the nation is an extension of the soldier who embodies its very best essence. Rhetorically, one might either say that great nations produce heroic sons or that heroic soldiers deserve a nation fit for their sacrifice.
In the wake of World War I, both modes of mourning and ascribing meaning to death were common features of the vast and unprecedented wave of commemoration that swept through Europe, although the balance between the two varied from one nation to the next. Yet even while public commemoration naturally tended to emphasize collective sacrifice for the national cause, it seemed to be increasingly informed by a quest for a new type of individual heroism. This synthesis between the collective and the particular was directly related to the emergence of mass society, vast conscript armies, and total war, a context in which there was no more room for the traditional hero, whose ultimate sacrifice was inscribed on his fate and inherent to his existence. World War I ushered in the glorification of the rank and file, expressed in such countries as Britain and France in the erection of national memorials for the unknown soldier. Here was a figure that represented both the individual and the mass: glorified by the nation, he also stood for the multitudes sent out to die and quickly forgotten. He thus gave a face to anonymity, personifying and glorifying precisely those masses that had no place in public memory; in other words, in being remembered, the unknown soldier legitimized forgetting.
The figure of the unknown soldier thus made possible a shift from the inflated and largely discredited rhetoric of the abstract nation to the individual, yet presented the individual as a soldier who by definition had no specific traits and features, and who consequently embodied the nation after all. For all that was known about this "unknown" figure was his status as soldier, his gender, and his nationality (or "race"). Through him the nation could represent itself as a site of resurrection, returning from the Valley of Death thanks to the sacrifice of its sons. It was this identification of the living nation with its anonymous but glorified fallen soldiers that provided a means to come to terms with the trauma of war, and normalized the haunting images of the dead returning from the endless cemeteries in which they now resided, because the longing for the return of the fallen was mixed with a good deal of shame and trepidation. At the end of the war, people wanted to return to normality as soon as possible, to bury the dead and then to go on with life. Yet the presence of so much death and mourning also gave rise to a wave of mysticism, spiritualism, and occultism. The unknown soldier fulfilled the requirement of both focusing on the suffering and sacrifice of the individual, for which a powerful need existed, and of distancing oneself from any particular fallen member of family or community. The final death of the soldier was thus acknowledged through this familiar yet unknown figure safely and irrevocably locked in a national sepulcher.
Significantly, Germany did not erect a tomb for the unknown soldier; unlike France and Britain, Germany could not come to terms with the trauma of war through a symbol of final and irredeemable death. Rather, many Germans hoped to overcome defeat by continuing the struggle; for this purpose, the dead could not be locked away, since they still had a role to play in urging the living to win back victory. In France and Britain, the glory of the unknown soldier, confined as he was to his tomb, was a matter of the past, and thereby helped the rest of the nation to get on with the present. In Germany, the unburied unknown soldier continued to roam the old battlefields and to march in the cities, reminding those who might have forgotten that his mission must still be accomplished. In France and Britain, especially the former, the specter of the fallen served as a warning that such slaughter should never be allowed again. But in Germany, the pain and sorrow of mourning was increasingly oriented to the future, and loss could not be accepted precisely because of the refusal to come to terms with the past. Ultimately, it was one of those surviving unknown soldiers who claimed to embody the nation and persuaded increasing numbers of Germans that he indeed personified its fate and would mold its future.
Adolf Hitler was one of millions of unknown veterans, who, unlike their fallen comrades, had urgent material and psychological needs. Glorifying the dead came more cheaply than caring for the living, many of whom had been physically and mentally mutilated at the front. Interwar European politics, society, and culture were deeply influenced by the massive presence of former soldiers, who often felt abandoned and misunderstood by the civilian environment to which they returned. Indeed, it was precisely the difficulties of social and economic reintegration in countries still reeling from the human and material costs of total war that stimulated the urge among the veterans to realize those vague but powerful aspirations they had forged during the war, and to translate their discovery of comradeship and sacrifice in the trenches to the realities of life after the disaster. The story of post-1918 Europe is thus largely about the cleavage between those who "had been there" and those who had not; it is a tale of rage and frustration, resentment and disillusionment.
If most soldiers returning from the war wanted to pick up their lives where they had left them before they marched off to the trenches, this was rarely possible. Both they and their societies had been irreversibly transformed during the war years, and the idealized prewar world was as far from the present as the front had been from the rear. Postwar Europe had neither the resources nor the skills to deal with the mental needs of men exposed to the horrors of sustained industrial warfare. Hence the tendency of veterans to organize their own associations, which provided them with psychological support and served as pressure groups on governments to meet the economic and the political demands of those whose sacrifice for the nation endowed them with a moral weight well beyond their numbers. Here the veterans could rekindle the comradeship that had sustained them at the front, mourn their fallen comrades and celebrate their sacrifice, and shelter from what they deemed to be an alienated society, impatient to put the war behind it, and unwilling to heed its lessons. In contradistinction to the state's glorification of the dead, the veterans associations glorified their war experience, which they both represented as incommunicable and as having tremendous political import for postwar society. Beyond this vague but powerful notion that society had to be radically transformed, these associations often embraced very different political stances, ranging from pacifism to Communism and fascism, and depending largely on the national, political, and economic context in which they functioned. But what they all had in common was the sense that they had learned something in war that could not be grasped by those who had not been there. Hence their effort not only to endow the war with meaning but to employ their shared experience as a tool to mold the future.