Friday, April 03, 2015

They called it the "Great War"

What remained when the shelling stopped. Somewhere on the Western Front, 1917.
The amateur photographer was a German enlisted soldier, Walter Kleinfeldt.

Historian of religions Karen Armstrong in Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence describes how the sacred and the national merged in the European belligerent populations in the first days of that global catastrophe.

The First World War (I914-18) destroyed a generation of young men, yet many Europeans initially embraced it with an enthusiasm that shows how difficult it is to resist those emotions long activated by religion and now by nationalism, the new faith of the secular age. In August I9I4 the cities of Europe were swept up in a festival atmosphere that, like the rituals of the French Revolution, made the "imaginary community" of the nation an incarnate reality. Total strangers gazed enraptured into each other's eyes; estranged friends embraced, feeling a luminous cohesion that defied rational explanation.

The euphoria has been dismissed as an outbreak of communal madness, but those who experienced it said that it was the "most deeply lived" event of their lives. It has also been called an "escape from modernity" since it sprang from a profound discontent with industrialized society, in which people were defined and classified by their function and everything was subordinated to a purely material end. The declaration of war seemed a summons to the nobility of altruism and self-sacrifice that gave life meaning.

All differences of class, rank and language were flooded over at that moment by the rushing feeling of fraternity," the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig recalled. Everyone "had been incorporated into the mass, he was a part of the people, and his person, his hitherto unnoticed person, had been given meaning. . . . Each one was called upon to cast his infinitesimal self into the glowing mass and there to be purified of all selfishness." There was a yearning to cast aside an identity that felt too lonely, narrow, and confining and to escape from the privacy imposed by modernity. An individual "was no longer the isolated person of former times," said Zweig.

"No more are we what we had been so long: alone," declared Marianne Weber. A new era seemed to have begun. "People realized that they were equal," remembered Rudolf Binding. "No one wished to count for more than anyone else. . . . It was like a rebirth." It "transported the body as well as the soul into a trance-like, enormously enhanced, love of life and existence," recalled Carl Zuckmayer, "a joy of participation, of living-along-with, a feeling, even, of grace." The triviality of the "petty, aimless lounging life of peacetime is done with," Franz Schauwecker exulted. For the first time, said Konrad Haenisch, a lifelong critic of German capitalism, he could join "with a full heart, a clean conscience, and without a sense of treason in the sweeping, stormy song: Deutschland, Deutschland uber allies."

We want meaning. We want to belong. We want to feel that we matter. War is seductive.


Michael Strickland said...

This is partly why the official reaction to 9/11 was so disturbing at the time, with all its echoes of those same essential longings to belong to a larger group. "Finally, we're all Americans together, united," was the official media mantra for years, even though quite a few of us were not buying that narrative, particularly after Afghanistan and Iraq were invaded under such obvious lying pretenses.

Hattie said...

I'm reading Zweig's World of Yesterday and Kraus's Last Days of Mankind. Kraus gives such a picture of the excitement in Vienna. People were so bored and so ready for war. This was history on the march again! They lived for the latest news and gathered in the streets and cafes to discuss all these new and exciting events. Ugh.

janinsanfran said...

Mike: Exactly about the climate after 9/11. One of the worst bits of it was that some in the Black community, where I had more ties in those days, seemed to grasp momentarily at the straw that suggested, just perhaps, they could expect to be part of the national whole after the attacks. Didn't last long.

Hattie: Zweig is central to Margaret MacMillan's new WWI book.

I can imagine relief that something feared had finally come, but not the exhileration.

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