Lessons from World War I

The history of World War I is reviewed, starting with a discussion of the development of nationalist movements in Europe. It is pointed out that the global disaster started with a seemingly small operation by Austria, which escalated uncontrollably into an all-destroying conflagration. A striking feature of the war was that none of the people who started it had any idea of what it would be like. Technology had changed the character of war, but old patterns of thought remained in place. We also examine the roots of the war in industrial and colonial competition, and in an arms race. Finally, parallels with current events, and the important lessons for today’s world are discussed.

1. The Rise of Nationalism in Europe
There is no doubt that the founders of nationalism in Europe were idealists; but the movement that they created has already killed more than sixty million people in two world wars, and today it contributes to the threat of a catastrophic third world war.

Nationalism in Europe is an outgrowth of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the Romantic Movement. According to the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the ideas of the French Revolution, no government is legitimate unless it derives its power from the will of the people. Speaking to the Convention of 1792, Georges-Jacques Danton proclaimed that “by sending us here as deputies, the French Nation has brought into being a grand committee for the general insurrection of peoples.”

Since all political power was then believed to be vested in the “nation”, the question of national identity suddenly became acutely important. France itself was a conglomeration of peoples – Normans, Bretons, Provencaux, Burgundians, Flemings, Germans, Basques, and Catalans – but these peoples had been united under a strong central government since the Middle Ages, and by the time of the French Revolution it was easy for them to think of themselves as a “nation”. However, what we now call Germany did not exist. There was only a collection of small feudal principalities, in some of which the most common language was German.

The early political unity of France enabled French culture to dominate Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. Frederick the Great of Prussia and his court spoke and wrote in French. Frederick himself regarded German as a language of ignorant peasants, and on the rare occasions when he tried to speak or write in German, the result was almost incomprehensible. The same was true in the courts of Brandenburg, Saxony, Pomerania, etc. Each of them was a small-scale Versailles. Below the French-speaking aristocracy was a German-speaking middle class and a German or Slavic-speaking peasantry.

The creators of the nationalist movement in Germany were young middle-class German-speaking students and theologians who felt frustrated and stifled by the narrow kleinstädtisch provincial atmosphere of the small principalities in which they lived. They also felt frustrated because their talents were completely ignored by the French-speaking aristocracy.

This was the situation when the armies of Napoleon marched across Europe, easily defeat­ing and humiliating both Prussia and Austria. The young German-speaking students asked themselves what it was that the French had that they did not have. The answer was not hard to find. What the French had was a sense of national identity. In fact, the French Revolution had unleashed long-dormant tribal instincts in the common people of France. It was the fanatical support of the Marseillaise-singing masses that made the French armies invincible.

The founders of the German nationalist movement concluded that if they were ever to have a chance of defeating France, they would have to inspire the same fanaticism in their own people. They would have to touch the same almost-forgotten cord of human nature that the French Revolution had touched. The common soldiers who fought in the wars of Europe in the first part of the 18th century were not emotionally involved. They were recruited from the lowest ranks of society, and they joined the army of a king or prince for the sake of money.

2. Nationalism, a False Religion
All this was changed by the French Revolution. In June 1792, the French Legislative Assembly decreed that a Fatherland Alter be erected in each commune with the inscription, “The citizen is born, lives and dies for la patrie.” The idea of a “Fatherland Alter” clearly demonstrates the quasi-religious nature of French nationalism.

The soldiers in Napoleon’s army were not fighting for the sake of money, but for an ideal that they felt to be larger and more important than themselves – Republicanism and the glory of France. The masses, who for so long had been outside of the politics of a larger world, and who had been emotionally involved only in the affairs of their own village, were now fully aroused to large-scale political action. The surge of nationalist feeling in France was tribalism on an enormous scale – tribalism amplified and orchestrated by new means of mass communication.

This was the phenomenon with which the German nationalists felt they had to contend. One of the founders of the German nationalist movement was Johan Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814), a follower of the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Besides rejecting objective criteria for morality, Fichte denied the value of the individual. According to him, the individual is nothing and the state is everything. Denying the value of the individual, Fichte compared the state to an organism of which the individual is a part:

“In a product of nature”, Fichte wrote, “no part is what it is but through its relation to the whole, and it would absolutely not be what it is apart from this relation; more, if it had no organic relation at all, it would be absolutely nothing, since without reciprocity in action between organic forces maintaining one another in equilibrium, no form would subsist… Similarly, man obtains a determinate position in the scheme of things and a fixity in nature only through his civil association… Between the isolated man and the citizen there is the same relation as between raw and organized matter… In an organized body, each part continuously maintains the whole, and in maintaining it, maintains itself also. Similarly the citizen with regard to the State.”

Another post-Kantian, Adam Müller (1779-1829) wrote that “the state is the intimate association of all physical and spiritual needs of the whole nation into one great, energetic, infinitely active and living whole… the totality of human affairs… If we exclude for ever from this association even the most unimportant part of a human being, if we separate private life from public life even at only one point, then we no longer perceive the State as a phenomenon of life and as an idea.”

The doctrine that Adam Müller sets forth in this passage is what we now call Totalitarianism, i.e. the belief that the state ought to encompass “the totality of human affairs”. This doctrine is the opposite of the Liberal belief that the individual is all-important and that the role of the state ought to be as small as possible.

Fichte maintains that “a State which constantly seeks to increase its internal strength is forced to desire the gradual abolition of all favoritisms, and the establishment of equal rights for all citizens, in order that it, the State itself, may enter upon its own true right – to apply the whole surplus power of all its citizens without exception to the furtherance of its own purposes… Internal peace, and the condition of affairs in which everyone may by diligence earn his daily bread… is only a means, a condition and framework for what love of Fatherland really wants to bring about, namely that the Eternal and the Divine may blossom in the world and never cease to become more pure, perfect and excellent.”

Fichte proposed a new system of education which would abolish the individual will and teach individuals to become subservient to the will of the state. “The new education must consist essentially in this”, Fichte wrote, “that it completely destroys the will in the soil that it undertakes to cultivate… If you want to influence a man at all, you must do more than merely talk to him; you must fashion him, and fashion him, and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than you wish him to will.”

Fichte and Herder (1744-1803) developed the idea that language is the key to national identity. They believed that the German language is superior to French because it is an “original” language, not derived from Latin. In a poem that is obviously a protest against the French culture of Frederick’s court in Prussia, Herder wrote:

“Look at other nationalities!
Do they wander about
So that nowhere in the world they are strangers
Except to themselves?
They regard foreign countries with proud disdain.
And you, German, alone, returning from abroad,
Wouldst greet your mother in French?
Oh spew it out before your door!
Spew out the ugly slime of the Seine!
Speak German, O you German!”

Another poem, “The German Fatherland”, by Ernst Moritz Arndt (1769-1860), expresses a similar sentiment:

“What is the Fatherland of the German?
Name me the great country!
Where the German tongue sounds
And sings Lieder in God’s praise,
That’s what it ought to be
Call that thine, valiant German!
That is the Fatherland of the German,
Where anger roots out foreign nonsense,
Where every Frenchman is called enemy,
Where every German is called friend,
That’s what it ought to be!
It ought to be the whole of Germany!”

It must be remembered that when these poems were written, the German nation did not exist except in the minds of the nationalists. Groups of people speaking various dialects of German were scattered throughout central and eastern Europe. In many places, the German-speaking population was a minority. To bring together these scattered German-speaking groups would require, in many cases, the conquest and subjugation of Slavic majorities; but the quasi-religious fervor of the nationalists was such that aggression took on the appearance of a “holy war”. Fichte believed that war between states introduces “a living and progressive principle into history”. By war he did not mean a decorous limited war of the type fought in the 18th century, but “…a true and proper war – a war of subjugation!”

The German nationalist movement was not only quasi-religious in its tone; it also borrowed psychological techniques from religion. It aroused the emotions of the masses to large-scale political activity by the use of semi-religious political liturgy, involving myth, symbolism, and festivals. In his book German Society (1814), Arndt advocated the celebration of “holy festivals”. For example, he thought that the celebration of the pagan festival of the summer solstice could be combined with a celebration of the victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig.

Arndt believed that special attention should be given to commemoration of the “noble dead” of Germany’s wars for, as he said, “…here history enters life, and life becomes part of history”. He advocated a combination of Christian and pagan symbolism. The festivals should begin with prayers and a church service; but in addition, the oak leaf and the sacred flame of ancient pagan tradition were to play a part.

In 1815, many of Arndt’s suggestions were followed in the celebration of the anniversary of the Battle of Leipzig. This festival clearly exhibited a mixing of secular and Christian elements to form a national cult. Men and women decorated with oak leaves made pilgrim­ages to the tops of mountains, where they were addressed by priests speaking in front of alters on which burned “the sacred flame of Germany’s salvation”. This borrowing of psychological techniques from religion was deliberate, and it was retained by the Nazi Party when the latter adopted the methods of the early German nationalists. The Nazi mass rallies retained the order and form of Protestant liturgy, including hymns, confessions of faith, and responses between the leader and the congregation.

In 1832, the first mass meeting in German history took place, when 32,000 men and women gathered to celebrate the “German May”. Singing songs, wearing black, red, and gold emblems, and carrying flags, they marched to Hambach Castle, where they were addressed by their leaders. By the 1860s the festivals celebrating the cult of nationalism had ac­quired a definite form. Processions through a town, involving elaborate national symbolism, were followed by unison singing by men’s choirs, patriotic plays, displays by gymnasts and sharp-shooters, and sporting events. The male choirs, gymnasts and sharp-shooters were required to wear uniforms; and the others attending the festivals wore oak leaves in their caps.

The cohesion of the crowd was achieved not only by uniformity of dress, but also by the space in which the crowd was contained. Arndt advocated the use of a “sacred space” for mass meetings. The idea of the “sacred space” was taken from Stonehenge, which was seen by the nationalists as a typical ancient Germanic meeting place. The Nazi art historian Hubert Schrade wrote: “The space which urges us to join the community of the Volk is of greater importance than the figure which is meant to represent the Fatherland.”

Dramas were also used to promote a feeling of cohesion and national identity. An example of this type of propagandist drama is Kleist’s play Hermann’s Battle (1808). The play deals with a Germanic chieftain who, in order to rally the tribes against the Romans, sends his own men, disguised as Roman soldiers, to commit atrocities in the neighboring German vil­­lages. At one point in the play, Hermann is told of a Roman soldier who risked his own life to save a German child in a burning house. Hearing this report, Hermann exclaims, “May he be cursed if he has done this! He has for a moment made my heart disloyal; he has made me for a moment betray the august cause of Germany!… I was counting, by all the gods of revenge, on fire, loot, violence, murder, and all the horrors of unbridled war! What need have I of Latins who use me well?”

At another point in the play, Hermann’s wife, Thusnelda, tempts a Roman Legate into a romantic meeting in a garden. Instead of finding Thusnelda, the Legate finds himself locked in the garden with a starved and savage she-bear. Standing outside the gate, Thusnelda urges the Legate to make love to the she-bear, and, as the bear tears him to pieces, she faints with pleasure.

Richard Wagner’s dramas were also part of the nationalist movement. They were designed to create “an unending dream of sacred volkisch revelation”. No applause was permitted, since this would disturb the reverential atmosphere of the cult. A new type of choral theater was developed which “…no longer represented the fate of the individual to the audience, but that which concerns the community, the Volk… Thus, in contrast to the bourgeois theater, private persons are no longer represented, but only types.”

We have primarily been discussing the growth of German nationalism, but very similar movements developed in other countries throughout Europe and throughout the world. Characteristic of all these movements was the growth of state power, and the development of a reverential, quasi-religious attitude towards the state. Patriotism became “a sacred duty.” According to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, “The existence of the State is the movement of God in the world. It is the ultimate power on earth; it is its own end and object. It is an ultimate end that has absolute rights against the individual.”

Nationalism in England (as in Germany) was to a large extent a defensive response against French nationalism. At the end of the 18th century, the liberal ideas of the Enlightenment were widespread in England. There was much sympathy in England with the aims of the French Revolution, and a similar revolution almost took place in England. However, when Napoleon landed an army in Ireland and threatened to invade England, there was a strong reaction towards national self-defense. The war against France gave impetus to nationalism in England, and military heroes like Wellington and Nelson became objects of quasi-religious worship. British nationalism later found an outlet in colonialism.

Italy, like Germany, had been a collection of small principalities, but as a reaction to the other nationalist movements sweeping across Europe, a movement for a united Italy developed. The conflicts between the various nationalist movements of Europe produced the frightful world wars of the 20th century. Indeed, the shot that signaled the outbreak of World War I was fired by a Serbian nationalist.

War did not seem especially evil to the 18th and 19th century nationalists because technol­ogy had not yet given humanity the terrible weapons of the 20th century. In the 19th century, the fatal combination of space-age science and stone-age politics still lay in the future. However, even in 1834, the German writer Heinrich Heine was perceptive enough to see the threat: “There will be”, Heine wrote, “Kantians forthcoming who, in the world to come, will know nothing of reverence for aught, and who will ravage without mercy, and riot with sword and axe through the soil of all European life to dig out the last root of the past. There will be well-weaponed Fichtians upon the ground, who in the fanaticism of the Will are not restrained by fear or self-advantage, for they live in the Spirit.”

Pages: 1 2 3