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Turning Points in the History of War: Criteria for the Meaning of Violence in the Great War of 1914–1918

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The focus of this paper is to discuss the criteria for the meaning of violence in the context of the history of war. To be able to classify the instances of violence during the First World War, the following paper will attempt to present the relationship between different levels of war, and thus to determine the criteria for the meaning of violence. The Great War of 1914–1918 was characterized by the transformation of how war was waged, as well as an unlimited awareness of violence (1./2.). Here we have in mind the most comprehensive of all images of violence: the totalitarian image of man. This begs the question of how we can generate an acceptable relationship between the mechanism of violence and violence awareness and thus bring about the renunciation of violence. This pivotal question can only be answered in the wider context of the history of violence. To understand the failure of reason in the battlefields of the Great War we need fundamental anthropological reflections (3./4.), which encompasses the essential significance of the site (5.).


It is generally recognized that history does not boil down to reconstruction of actual life and experience. It also constitutes a process of interpreting which occurs in the minds of the subjects who create it. When looking at historical figures, historians demand that each person takes full responsibility for their own story. In the context of the history of violence and war such a perspective first requires the formulation of rough definitions. A solemn speech about the solid foundation of war, about the father of all things (Ger. Vater aller Dinge) or just about history as a set of rational rules and regulations, expires in the trenches of war. A glimpse at the inter-existential dimension is a look at the everyday reality of war, including the moments of mass killing. “The annihilation of a man as an individual forces us to perceive people as a mass. This is a totalitarian moment. Lenin recognized it, as did Mussolini, Hitler, and others. They perceived war as a powerful fatality in which everything sweeps away, as an uncontrollable torrent and a total power, which ends in nihilism.” (Metz 2010, 191)

John Keegan, an eminent war theorist, also focuses on such an existential perspective, when he embarks on a journey to find The Face of Battle (Keegan 1978). To his mind, the classical military history records create a picture of war which leaves many questions unanswered. They delve into genre scenes and spectacle and create an atmosphere in which bravery, heroism, defeat, and attacks are described from a ruthless point of view. A traditional military historian can find words to describe great military moves and maneuvers, but not the individual deaths and individual lives of soldiers. Keegan, however, is intensely interested in the inconspicuous individuals and events behind the great wars. He sees the efforts to create a historical narrative as entwined with the commitment to comprehend the fundamental position and the existential condition of an individual in a battle. The difference between victory and defeat, which is the main way in which historians, commanders, and chroniclers approach the battle, fades away when we take a closer look at the reality. A soldier has no well-defined picture of a battle in his mind. Enormous danger is a more urgent concern, and therefore his fundamental position is different from the commander’s. If in this way we grant an individual the right to veto, we treat everything less as a revolution in the historiography then, to put it mildly, a glance at the core situation, the bare existence and the image of war.

As we well know, the First World War meant the collapse of civil society. The reasons for this are varied, but they include the negation of what civil society essentially represented: the idea of a free individual who takes responsibility for his actions. Given the mass executions, the mud of the trenches, and the mechanized nature of war, this idea came to an abrupt end. Verdun and the Somme have shaped the face of battle. They represent a turning point in the history of violence as instances of theretofore unseen forms of battle of matériel and massive battles in the death zones of trenches. In the century of violence, war became an independent entity. It became ubiquitous anonymity and omnipresent death; the very essence of war was exposed. Ernst Jünger (1982) formulated a famous and apt description of this turning point: it was not soldiers, but laborers who kept the battle running. They were characterized by their willingness to accept a subordinate role in the anonymous, mechanized, and technological operations, rather than adopting the warrior tradition. The workers who lost their lives in the hail of grenades and machine guns usually could not see their opponents; the enemies remained mostly invisible and beyond reach.


Do we have to present the face of battle in all its hideousness, as evidenced here, and in many other historical examples? No; we are aware of the horrors of war, the suffering of soldiers and civilians, the fury of violence, and we do not want to increase our knowledge of it. Nevertheless, we must attempt to remember and to grasp the meaning of the horrors of war; a meaning which is difficult for us to decipher and which is overshadowed by constant doubt concerning our existence. For Theodor Lessing, for example, history in the face of war was an arduous process of making meaning of meaninglessness. Deeply affected by the First World War, he opposed the religious delusion by which history reflects reason and significance, progress and justice (Lessing 1983, 12). He doubted both the idealist and the materialist delusions in history. Hence, he tried not to present history with all its glorifying embellishments, but as an attempt to make meaning out of something which is inherently meaningless. Lessing’s writing was controversial, but the way in which he posed questions was convincing. His aim was not only to demolish the solid foundations of war, but also to explicitly inquire into the criteria for potential meaning – criteria for meaning in the context of the history of war. This fundamental question is still valid as a question. How can sociology and historiography contribute to the understanding of the notions of peace and war in our day? It seems that this question may be answered off the cuff: one should forbid war, avert violence, and protect rights. This may serve as a starting point for the following reflections. To be able to classify the instances of violence and the totalitarian logic of the First World War, the following paper will attempt to present the relationship between different levels of war, and thus to determine criteria for the meaning of violence. The Great War of 1914–1918 was characterized by (1.) the transformation of war which, as we have mentioned, became totalitarian. It also showed (2.) an unlimited awareness of violence, which was not restricted to the mechanism of violence. The distance which was shaped during mass executions was subject to the abstraction of new proportions and it also pointed to the most comprehensive of all violence abstractions: the totalitarian image of a man. How can we can generate an acceptable relationship between the mechanism of violence and violence awareness and thus bring about the renunciation of violence? This pivotal question can only be answered in the wider context of the history of violence. To understand the failure of reason in the battlefields of the Great War we need a fundamental anthropological reflection (3./4.), which encompasses the essential significance of the site (5.). In this context, the role of historiography is far from insignificant.

1. Military capability: The transformation of war

The historical notion of violence can be discussed from various points of view. On the one hand, in the mechanized form of battle we have evidence of the radical, technically-oriented alienation of man: as many as 2.96 million bullets of a total weight of 21,000 tons were prepared to attack the British troops at the Somme. The use of chlorine gas made a new form of nervous impairment of the enemy possible. The massive annihilations of soldiers in June 1916 marked a tragic climax in the history of war. All these factors point to a radicalized, unrestricted, and industrialized form of violence. Hordes of people waiting in the trenches in order to trudge through destroyed devastated area and barbed wire towards certain death: at this point such an image recalls a form of totalitarian destruction which was to become a reality in the war yet to come (Metz 2010, 192; Keegan 1978, 304). Nevertheless, insight into the terrible events of the war also requires the wider perspective of the historian. We can therefore describe the history of the First World War as a process which was characterized by the transformation of war, in terms of a political, as well as material and technological change. After the relatively peaceful period of one hundred years before the First World War, when the five major European powers followed the policy of balance, the German Wars of Unification again raised the question of power. With the emergence of the German Empire a new power also emerged. The developing economic and military power resulted in a new form of imbalance (hereinafter Kennedy 1996; Neitzel 2008; Craig 1989). International relations fell into a trap which they managed to avoid throughout the comparatively peaceful nineteenth century.

Sobering, as these reflections may seem, the nearly ten millions casualties were nothing new when we consider the total population of Europe. The novelty was not in the number of the casualties. The global dimension was not striking either, as it had already come into play during the Seven Years’ War. The novelty was rather in the method, in the way decisions concerning human lives were made, and in the technological dimension of elimination. In the First World War armed countries clashed in a battle between man and machine. Thus we can identify the new military capability as the first “criterion for meaning” in violence analysis. The mechanization of war brought lethal innovations: poison gas, tanks, submarines, but also machine guns, which were invented a long time before, but were now being used on a massive scale. Compared to the war of 1870, over 58 per cent of the soldiers died of artillery fire. Hundreds of thousands of opponents lost their lives as a result of machine gun fire, which, in a symbolic way, marks a turning point in the history of violence. However, let me go back to discuss a distinct military capability of the great powers. When we ask how this “great seminal catastrophe” could occur in this form in the twentieth century, we must not turn a blind eye to the relationship between the production forces and the effective military capabilities. The main factors which promoted, extended, and shaped the war are well known. These were: an early stalemate, Italy’s rather ineffectual entry into the war, apparent exhaustion, and the Russian inability to wage war, as well as America’s crucial decision to join the war. The final collapse of the Central Powers must be perceived as closely correlated with the economic and industrial resources available to the Allies. We assess the actual capability in terms of absolute superiority of the productive forces rather than the quality of leadership and the generals’ aptitude. By way of example, Kennedy (1989, 389 ff.) analyzes the Great War from the point of view of the relationship between economic changes and the military conflict. He perceives the Austro-German coalition at the beginning of the war as a military force with the superior military capability as its front troops operated efficiently and were supported by an increasing number of recruits. Russia and France, on the other hand, had difficulty in coordinating a military strategy. We are able to answer why the Allies did not manage to gain significance three years after the beginning of the war when we take a closer look at the notion of military capability. The Coalition was strong in the areas which could hardly contribute to a quick and decisive victory. For instance, the closing of the German overseas trade caused major damage, but was not as significant as British representatives expected. German export industry focused on military production and the Central Powers were self-sufficient in food supply as long as the transport system could be properly maintained. The Allies outnumbered their enemies, but this did not contribute to their rapid victory, which was partly due to the type of war itself. Both parties used forces which were deployed over hundreds of kilometers. Major operations which were methodically and strategically prepared well in advance and aimed at a decisive blow were in fact split into hundreds of smaller operations on the battlefield. The events on the Western Front clearly show that the fronts on both sides could not achieve a real breakthrough and thus expand short-term territorial gains. Each side was able to make up for its losses through reservists, grenade supply, barbed wire, and artillery, and to minimize the advantage of the assailant. The major image inscribed in the memory of the war is that of prevented offensives and destructive crossfire. The role of the individual in the war is well understood: a growing number of new waves of recruits were mobilized at various sites to compensate for the loss incurred on the battlefields.

Hence, in order to assess the properties of the violence in the First World War, an analysis of the battlefields is insufficient. There is no doubt that the Great War electrified national economies and led to a significant increase in armor volume. Before 1914 armor generated less than four percent of the national income. Since the total war led to the increase of this number up to more than 30 per cent, it was inevitable that the overall production volume of the defense industry grew by leaps and bounds. The wartime governments grew to be in charge of the industry, workforce, and finances. The long-lasting complaints about the chronic shortage of ammunition on both sides ultimately led to the cooperation of politics with business and employment, the aim of which was to provide the necessary supplies. “Given the powers of the modern bureaucratic state to float loans and raise taxes, there were no longer the fiscal impediments to sustaining a lengthy war that had crippled eighteenth-century states. Inevitably, then, after an early period of readjustment to these new conditions, armaments production soared in all countries.” (Kennedy 1989, 389)

2. The mechanism of violence, ideology and war

It appears that the main distinction used to analyze the Great War is therefore the organization of the state system – the separation between the countries’ domestic and foreign affairs. In order to understand the role of separation of politics and economy in all matters directly relating to the war, one needs some additional background information (hereinafter Münkler 2006, 51 ff.). The so-called “Westphalian sovereignty,” which had shaped international relations since 1648, must not be overlooked here. People waged wars for a long time to achieve economic goals, but war itself was less an economic than a political goal. The Westphalian sovereignty was an attempt to place the state in the center of the war on a permanent basis, also with a view to separate religious or economic influences from political ones. The war between the cabinets and the war between the nations are the two classical types of war. For the next 150 years, when war was a matter of cabinets, it constituted a political tool, “which had never been this way before or afterwards” (Münkler 2006, p. 52). In this period the general public was completely excluded from the war events, at least they were not systematically used for defense purposes. The war was a matter of the governments which had manageable and limited purposes. The war was also to a large extent “tamed” so that the civil population in the war zone was as little involved in the action as possible. Opposing forces changed their positions, tried to cut off the enemies from the supplies or to confront them in a decisive battle. The population waited in the background and was responsible for financing the war and yet the costs incurred due to armed conflicts could often be extremely burdensome. (Kant’s plea for republican forms of government addresses this issue). Overall, it can be argued that the war of this period did not acquire an existential dimension. To some degree it remained calculable and, significantly, it was consistent with the justified renunciation of the use of force when the balance of forces was observed.

We recognize a significant turning point in the history of war when both mechanical calculability and moral factors gained significance in the course of battle. When the population, ready to take action and make sacrifices, was put in the balance in the course of revolutions, social power relations were renewed. As regards the form of battle, the era of strategic maneuvers had ended. In the re-defined ideological battles it was important whether “in due time and in the right place one had superior forces at one’s disposal and used them with absolute determination to win here and now” (ibid., 55). War was based on the requirements of the concentration of forces in a specific time and space. This meant a battle set-up which depended on the physical and moral exhaustion. In the early twentieth century this state of affairs was marked by specific military forces and forms of the organization of violence, especially the ability to use fossil fuels for the mobilization and deployment of forces, thereby affecting the speed of the troops’ advancement in the area and going beyond the logistical limits of the war. Civil infrastructure became a central element of modern military capability, leading to a long-lasting merge of civil economy and military establishment. The unreasonable alliance between the state and war became visible (Krippendorff 1985). Its ideological aspect, however, should not be neglected. The “levèe en masse” and the people who constituted the nation contributed to the fact that politics was no longer limited by the national borders. The violence mechanism that we observe in the age of extremes (Hobsbawm) goes back to the moral factor, in a sense that the nationalist fervor of the people became the resources of military capability. The turning point that we can observe here is complex and contradictory. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there was the idea that a republican society, unlike an aristocratic one, would avoid and tame war, since it corresponded to the common sense of the citizens concerned, and it could now decide on questions of life and death. This idea was inextricably linked to the notion of political freedom, but it did not obtain the desired confirmation during the revolutionary wars. The war of modern times was a civilization war which was waged as an ideological and moral battle by those with the “right” attitude. The revolution engaged civil society again in the war. Out of the ideologization of war there emerged a new form of military force which, in turn, severely affected the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In this broader sense, the military capability and the violence mechanism encompass an expanded notion of violence awareness. The new army was a mass army characterized by unlimited recruitment possibilities. As a result, it could afford much heavier losses, provided that war was perceived as an existential notion (Metz 2010, 80 ff.). The total war of the nineteenth century became a totality, insofar as it introduced the possibility of exhausting human resources on the battlefield.

This form of a mass, total warfare was formed in the nineteenth century on the condition that the psychological mobilization of the masses was a consequence of revolutionary nationalism. Such a mobilization was then extended by means of technological and infrastructural resources. Factors such as crowd, technology and ideology formed the face of total war and, as a result, created the experience of physical and mental exhaustion which, in turn, resulted in the horrors of war. It is common knowledge that the economic performance of the countries involved in the war decreased throughout the war, and that the moral exhaustion of the entire population was also visible. The long war was also a battle against the enemy’s flow of resources and supplies: England took advantage of its superior navy to build a long blockade against the Central Powers. Germany to some extent relied on submarine warfare in order to cut off the enemy from essential supplies by sinking merchant ships. Toward the end of the war one could see the signs of the future air warfare, when the infrastructure of the enemy was destroyed by bomber fleets (Münkler 2006, 57). Is it possible to summarize the “meaning” of the war, in terms of the organization and transformation of violence, in the way presented above? Ultimately, we are talking about a war whose aim was to let the enemy bleed to death at the risk of one’s own heavy losses. The only conceivable way to gain victory would be by means of mass slaughter in the form of subsequent attacks at the death zones – which were not militarily successful but certainly stemmed from the “reasonable” calculations. This is clearly visible in the German attack at Verdun, which cost 700,000 casualties in the period of ten months; an event where the war turned into “a blood pump, attached to a human material used for military purposes” (Metz 2010, 93). As early as this instance of senseless battle and rational military leadership we observe a turning point in the history of war, for which there are no compelling definitions.

3. Political existentialism: The failure of reason

Having discussed the criteria of violence organization, we can look at the First World War as an attempt to penetrate into the heart of the enemy country in a battle. After 1866 and 1870 it was certain that such a war was feasible. August 1914 marked the beginning of a war in which a seemingly unbearable tension culminated and was defused. To many people it seemed a liberation from existential emptiness. The ecstatic celebration of the August events was apparently followed by apathetic killing and anonymous deaths in the trenches. The longing for the existential human illumination and purification during the war were followed by dirt, stench, and death. When the following sections inquire into the causes which led to the failure of reason, and when we further inquire into the possibility of remembering the horrors of war, it is to be understood in a specific way. It is not simply about drawing “lessons” from history, but rather about gathering criteria for meaning from the history of war, criteria which appear to be fundamentally political notions.

Quite reasonably, the political explanations for the outbreak of war turn attention to the threat resulting from the Franco-Russian Alliance (1894), which Great Britain joined in 1904. The idea of preventive war was virulent, not least due to the fact that the progressive development of infrastructure made it technologically possible to use mass transport. Beyond this, however, we must ask why the failure of reason occurred, and to what extent politics and diplomacy prioritized the logic of military confrontation. We must ask how the limits of diplomacy could be reconciled with the unleashing of violence. Also, we must not forget that there were definite attempts to let the leap in the dark (Bethmann-Hollweg) follow solutions involving the limited renunciation of the use of force. When in November 1914 there was no hope left for a quick military success, Falkenhayn asked Bethmann-Hollweg to negotiate a separate peace with Russia, then with France, in order to be able to confront England, the opponent, on an equal footing (Neitzel 2003, 136). This initiative was based on the notion of adhering to the policy of escaping from the war as soon as all the military resources had been used. The political leadership could not take a firm stand on this matter, as there was disagreement early on in defining Germany as the main war opponent. Although some models of freedom through victory were devised based on Germany’s central geographical position, they still lacked a clear goal orientation. There was a policy that prioritized geo-strategic interests over reason. While the negotiation of a separate peace with Russia was postulated, at the same time Germany was trying to maintain influence in South-East Europe and the Middle East. Although the Foreign Office initially rejected the idea of freedom through renunciation, there were still Danish mediation attempts to explore the theoretical possibility of a separate peace with the Tsar. These “peace negotiations,” as a result of which Danish State Council Hans Niels Andersen travelled to Saint Petersburg in 1915, did not go beyond exploratory talks. The successes on the Eastern Front boosted hopes for the “status quo ante” peace. There was hope to build bridges for Russia on which it could walk with its head held high. Although the Russian army suffered heavy losses, this did not have an impact on its determination to wage war. Russia adhered to the treaty of 1915 and avoided the exclusion from the War Coalition. In retrospect, one could definitely say that the path toward peace was obstructed by many parties. The Tsar and his political advisers were unable to define the load limits of the country. The Central Powers, on the other hand, probably due the understanding of their limited military capability, offered a push for peace but rejected the serious general Peace Congress vehemently (ibid., 137).

In this context it is worth asking why the only serious and genuine proposal of Pope Benedict X suggesting a solution to the exhausted Europeans was rejected, or why the policy of balance and a temporary limited peace never had a real chance of victory. Why could moral clarity be created only through a one-sided victory, by the “peace of defeat” (Metz 2010, 96)? At the beginning of the war there was euphoria which there was hope of preserving for domestic policy and which also, to some extent, led to absurd expectations concerning the aim of the war. There appeared, for instance, memoranda of Pan-Germanism which called for far-reaching annexations and assumed an imperious and hegemonic role of Germany in Europe. The war and its supposed first “successes” awakened desires, fantasies of power, and a lust to establish the German Reich as global power which, together with the United States, Great Britain, and Russia, would form the core of world powers (hereinafter Neitzel 2003, 132 ff.). The tentative and ambivalent attempts to walk the path of non-violence in the face of imminent defeat were therefore problematized. In early September 1914 Bethmann-Hollweg, for example, established guidelines for a potential preliminary peace. According to the Chancellor, the main purpose of the peace dictated by Germany should have been to secure its own country from the eastern and western side for good, i.e., if possible, France was to be weakened so that it could not regain its status as a superpower and Russia was to be pushed away from the German border. Based on these symptomatic points we can see the core demands of the German policy concerning the aim of the war, extensive territorial claims and grandiose plans which, from the beginning, rejected the idea of returning to the status quo ante. The focus on a clear victory through peace was indeed strong and visible in all warring parties. The adviser of the U. S. president had to realize in 1914–1915 that there was no readiness in Berlin, London, and Paris to agree to a temporary renunciation of violence. In terms of the areas of influence and territorial borders, the warring parties, politicians, and military officers focused on improving the status quo. It seemed impossible at any time that a lasting peace could be established without moral clarity, and that the negotiated solutions could be taken into account, considering the military force of the enemy. This was clearly reflected in the German foreign policy since the spring of 1917. When, after an unsuccessful mediation attempt, President Wilson made an appeal to negotiate peace without victory on the basis of the nations’ right to self-determination, the German Reich communicated the peace conditions in order to show trust, but at the same time, engaged in the submarine warfare again with equal commitment. This political move led to the demolition of political relations, the entrance of the USA into the war in April 1917, and to the escalation of the long-term war which, with hindsight, was not an objective inevitability. More specifically, in order to understand why the path to a tentative renunciation of violence remained blocked, one has to consider the perception of reality of the German leadership, as well as the increasing powerlessness of politics against the independent military forces. Politics at this time could no longer be regarded as “a possible chance for peace” (ibid., 157). Until 1918 people were led by the conviction that one could achieve peace through force. This may be illustrated in the peace treaties of Brest-Litowsk and Bucharest, which sort of reflected the aim to extend power at the expense of others and, even more, the degree of the denial of reality which was determined by the strategies used by military forces until the final shedding of blood. The forces which did not strive for settlement and the post-war order, but attempted to reach what appeared enforceable by means of their own military capability were key.

The fundamental notion of the turning points and the aspects of violence can be fragmented into various intertwined issues. From a historical point of view, it is crucial to realize that the extreme severity and relentlessness of the war was rooted in the unconditional desire to gain power. Is it sufficient for the purpose of this paper to point out the alleged lust of the decision-making elites, the circulating ideas of Social Darwinism, the excessive desire to gain prestige, or the overwhelming nationalism? Or is there be some other criteria for meaning that could be included in the summation? Nevertheless, the failure of reason remains enigmatic: nine million soldiers were killed before the end of the war, probably around the same number of civilians lost their lives as a result of hunger and disease. Is it estimated that, in Germany, around 800,000 people died of hunger due to the British naval blockade – all this apparently could not change the internal logic of politics. The War of the Nations headed for the “peace of defeat,” and for four years a fixation on one-sided victory precluded the conclusion of separate tentative peace, which was still conceivable in the wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. What remains worth mentioning is the a priori enmity which apparently constituted the approval of the senseless suffering. Even millions of deaths could not break the iron will of the governments. In a fight without a real winner, those who had greater military capability and power at their disposal determined the victory morale. As such, the meaning criterion of violence is not only technological, but also ideological. The willingness to wage war can ultimately be explained by the absoluteness of evil embodied in the enemy. Real redemption of the world through war could only be achieved by defeating evil, an obviously blind mechanism, which continued even after the horrors of Verdun. In this respect it is necessary to pose fundamental anthropological questions from the quagmire of political and state regulations and to disclose the criteria for the meaning of violence and non-violence in the context of historical experience.

In other words, how to explain the discrepancy between the civilizational accomplishments of the war between the nations and the historical evolution toward universal condemnation of the concept of war? The unrestricted nature of both world wars raises a legitimate question of why there were wars even after the consolidation of the modern statehood. Let us keep the devastating effects of war in mind. Then the question needs to be posed: How did it happen that an idea of war remained so firmly anchored as a signifier of meaning: as a means to an end, as apparently legitimate continuation of politics, as a guiding principle which nations adhere to? To understand this, it does not suffice to steer clear of the axiom of war as a political means (see Clausewitz), since this is anachronistic. Quite on the contrary, it requires insight into the political existentialism of a given time. A glimpse at the philosophical concepts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reveals an additional moral aspect. Fichte, for example, based his reflections in the Address to the German Nation (Ger. Reden an die deutsche Nation, 1808) on the civilizational existential crisis in Prussia. He aimed at the concept of the true war of his times, which was no longer a dynastic war of a sovereign, but a legitimate war that had to be a total, so that the people could be formed into a national unity. We can see how discrepant – or how similar – the nineteenth century was in relation to the beginning of the twentieth century, in the conviction that the war was no longer interpreted as an isolated political or military action, but rather that it embraced all of life. In the people’s war “people fight for their own definition of a purpose, not for the conceived interest of a person who is born and dies in separation from them, and is certainly not one of them. But the real purpose is infinite, one can approach it but not reach it” (Fichte 1813, as quoted by Stadler 2009, 94). It is not easy for us today to comprehend the depth of political existentialism where the terms death, victory, country, and eternity are used in the same context without hesitation. In the history of war, however, it indicates the focus on the moral dimension necessary to understand total war: Fichte discusses the notion of war as a moral effort of the whole nation in its struggle to survive as a free community. If we are talking here about the philosophical struggle to overcome the anti-Napoleonic wars, then we pose a question which goes beyond the narrow historical context, i.e. how a group of people can form a nation.

During a war, a continuous collective battle, people become a nation. This marks a threshold of the national and moral awakening of the nineteenth century, which is important to the understanding of a modern total war of the nations. The ambivalence becomes evident: if we no longer perceive war as a means to an end, or as a calculation used to achieve our clearly defined objectives, but rather as a non-material means of self-constitution, then a totalized meaning dimension becomes tangible. It is no longer simply a matter of rational interests but the existential relationship within large groups. It is necessary to overcome one’s own humiliation and powerlessness, to increase power, glory, and one’s own honor and, hence, to assert one’s own national identity in the fight against what is foreign. The aspect of hostility becomes existential. The aim of a group of people fighting for their existence is to defend their own existence and to preserve one’s own being (Schmitt 1932; ibid. 1963). One’s own being becomes a “fundamentum incomcussum” (Waldenfels 1997, 46), an opinion and decision-making body that defines a case of emergency. One’s own being does not require an external entity to satisfy its own interests in itself, it is a categorical entity which disposes of the external being. These philosophical reflections express the depth of the existential hostility which we noticed in the lasting failure of reason during the long war. We can comprehend the political situation of the early twentieth century only when we consider the criteria for the meaning of violence over an extended period of time. The development extending from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries was marked by the sign of a promising replacement, the essence of which is reflected in the conversion of eschatology into utopia. One set hope for salvation not in transcendence, but in worldliness. The focus was on the question of who or what would occupy the vacant position of metaphysics, who or what ought to serve as the highest and safest reality and, therefore, the final legitimate point of historical reality. It is known that there appeared at least two new worldly realities. The demiurges of “humanity” and “history” changed the legitimacy of the old policy and would manifest its historical-anthropological categoriality: the drastic destruction of a given reality, mediated by religious, political, or ideological stipulations is a contradiction to pure and autonomous self-disposal. The tragic climax lies in the fact that, in principle, a man cannot lead an ex nihilo life. This terrible freedom pertains to a type of historicity that may be based only on something which is predetermined existentially. The general meaning criteria may stem only from this “perplexity.” This leads to a theory of history which results from the immediate functionality for a pragmatic and cooperative action but which aims at a more radical obligation: war as an act of political self-constitution.

4. On the role of historiography

Corpses with arms ripped off, parts of skulls, blood and carcass could be found everywhere. In this way a Bavarian soldier described the battlefield of Sedan on the day after the fight. The image of the bursting grenades, which literally tore victims into pieces, was “horrible.” The Battle of Sedan lasted only one day, but it surpassed anything “that anyone has ever seen” (Lorenzen 2006, 143). The Prussian-German army stored their entire artillery under a central command and aimed their fire not only at the enemy’s artillery posts, but also at the enemy soldiers. The trenches which characterized the First World War did not yet exist. However, Sedan anticipated some elements of the following world wars: the totality of the war in which all human values are lost. What, then, is the role of history if it does not include an element of superficial morality or a politically manageable “meaning”? In order to answer this question we also need to take a wider perspective and inquire into the criteria for the meaning of reason and non-violence as reflected in the human ability to create meaning. One of such creation of meaning is visible in the still-relevant idea of war removal which was pointed out at the beginning of the twentieth century as a possibility. The First World War brought an end to the bourgeois era in Europe (Mommsen 2004); despite growing discrepancies, it was a period of economic prosperity and thus growing wealth. Slowly, democratic structures emerged in the European structure, but this process found no reflection in constitutional norms. All these factors – the idea of peace, increasing prosperity, vague democratization – could not, of course, prevent the acrimonious struggle of the European powers. There emerges a pivotal question which has been discussed in history studies to this today, i.e. that the narrative of non-violence could not gain acceptance, even though it was theoretically possible. It is important to emphasize one thing here: the explication of the meaning of political violence should include different aspects, i.e. political criteria for the meaning of the key functions of government, the sociological and technological dimension of the specific military capability of the rival powers, but also some fundamental anthropological criteria. Only in combining these aspects can we approach a profound sense of the understanding of violence.

Was the war inevitable? In 1899 and 1907 the Hague Peace Conferences were organized, with a view to creating an international legal framework for the prevention of war. Their effects were short-lived. Bourgeois pacifism, which now acted in public independent of church and religion, as well as of the state and its logic, remained abrupt. The international peace societies in London in 1843, in Paris in 1889, and later in Germany and Austria, agreed on nothing other than the idea of the global peace. Their operations were far-sighted and visionary. The International Mediation Institute, the formation of an international court of justice and the establishment of a league of nations were the requirements which became reality as late as at the end of the following century. International successes such as Lay Down Your Arms (Ger. Die Waffen nieder 1891) by B. v. Suttner or the establishment of the Army Medical Services were possible at that time. Inspired by the battle of Solferino in the Franco-Sardinian war against Austria, Henry Dunant wrote A Memory of Solferino and sent it to the leading political and military figures. Under the impression of 40,000 casualties and the injured, he stimulated the formation of voluntary aid organizations. A conference in Geneva took place as early as the year of the report’s publication. During the conference such proposals were discussed. The “Geneva Conference” created the framework which was later followed by European countries forming the first landmark agreement of international law. In other words, humanitarian ideas and the possibility of the renunciation of violence and peace as a bourgeois principle of reason were more than just lofty ideas.

All the possibilities of the renunciation violence beg the question of how the European, and especially German elites could engage in the nationalist transformation of politics and the world war, which surpassed the radicalism of previous conflicts. The vast majority of European societies were in a transitional phase, characterized by sensitivity and fragility. The key functions of the government were in the hands of a few elites, all this taking place in spite of voting rights, which were becoming widespread. It was simple to appeal to nationalist sentiments during political upheavals. Nationalist movements gained momentum. Under the influence of the zeitgeist, they developed into imperialist ideologies, which culminated in the demanding attitude of world empires. Only those with great military capabilities were capable of surviving. Only those who had to face the war for a long period of time could survive in the rings of power. These ideas, as we know, survived throughout the extreme twentieth century. The development of mass armies, the pillarisation of powers systems, the development of warfare technologies, the arms race, but also the general consent to the emerging war – all this contributes to explaining this ideological viewpoint. The “leap in the dark” was “inevitable,” as it was politically desirable, but also because it reflected a general mentality of the time (Mommsen 2004, 21–35). European societies of the late nineteenth century were walking a “slippery slope” (ibid., 23) and they were in the atmosphere of thrall until the events of August 1914. In Germany these days were perceived as an “incomparable shared social experience” (Fest 1973, 99). This traditionally deeply divided nation, which suffered for a long time due to its internal conflicts, overcame this discrepancy by means of commitment to the war conflict. Even if this was true for only part of the population, the virtually religious character, expressed in national excitement about the future and war-related hopefulness, was evident. The general consciousness perceived the war as a welcome opportunity to escape from the misery of normality, to succumb to the process of rebellion and to submit to the hegemonic objectives. There were days of solemn deceptions that were ended in September 1918 by the hastily appointed political leadership.

Finally, we will attempt to draw conclusions and describe the turning point of the war. If we do so, we are left with an irritating reflection. It was not reasonable to assume that the masses of republican citizens would join the war. According to Kant, history was no longer about the actions of the minority, but was supposed to reflect the actions of all the people. It was a transition from unconsciousness to consciousness of purposeful action that inspired the political progress of modernity, a form of history, “in which people had only themselves as a goal” (Metz 2010, 189). This “new” meaning was formed as a collective sense, as basic concepts of humanity, nation and proletariat. But, as we know, this future fell apart during the First World War. Which criteria for meaning can we finally gather from this tragic turning point in history?

5. The significance of the site

In 1914 death was looking for a new venue. With its tens of thousands of graves, Verdun is perceived symbolically as a “graveyard of Europe” (Schlögel 2008, 435). This is an inconsistent picture, since it encompasses both orderly arrangement of cemeteries as well as the radical devaluation of human life. It is important to ask how one can now shape the memory of the Great War. The meaning of history is based on the collective perception which is reflected in the notions of the “culture of memory” and “sites of commemoration.” Since the establishment of historiography as a “pure” science, it has been considered essential to separate myth from reality and to narrate the story as it was. One of the most basic views here is that, despite thorough examination and unbiased assessment, history is continuously shaped and reinterpreted, and therefore it is susceptible to political interpretation. This, of course, particularly applies to the history of war: the well-known events of a war, the turning points and battlefields, are more than just space for what is accidental and possible. They are more than nodes of individual memories; they turn into events in the culture of remembrance, in which the battle for sovereignty in interpreting events is ignited and memory takes cultural and political shape. There are a plethora of examples, e.g. Magdeburg (1631), Leipzig (1813) and Sedan (1870), which need not be discussed in great detail here. Nevertheless, the criticism of the form of memory culture, in which “only” the interests of a political formation or calculations are manifested, should be discussed thoroughly in some respects.

Is it possible to preserve the essential moment of a site before it becomes a political instrument? This is an interesting twist in modern historiography. As opposed to the classical way of presenting events in a chronological order, as a temporal sequence, it points to the spatiality of all human beings’ stories. The idea to perceive each historical process as spatial, in which history is expressed by means of an endless effort to control space, is of the utmost importance for the present considerations. It means less political instrumentalization than existential and political reflection. The location-oriented approach may oppose long-lasting deconstruction, the fragmentation of objects, as far as it maintains the mental reproduction of coexistence and allows the retelling of the history of the twentieth century with all its horrors, discontinuities, and fractures. To perceive a site as a historical moment is nothing less than to establish a reference to a single totality of historical formations and to focus more on spatial aspects of political matters.

Let us take a look at one such historical site: the Somme, July 1916. Between Noye and the Somme there is a strip of land which grows the most traditional product of the region – sugar beet. Plowing becomes arduous when, on closer inspection, there appear strange objects, i.e. remnants of the war. Mortars, howitzer grenades, aerial torpedoes and smoke shells have been found on this site up to the present day. The Somme was not the densest battlefield of the Western Front. When compared to other gruesome statistics concerning the use of grenades and the duration of shelling, the Somme did not rank first on the list, but still, for various reasons, the majority of blind shells have been found at the Somme. The region was an extensive attack front, where as many as twenty divisions could meet and use their resources. Here, endless suffering was mixed with impressive short-term triumphs. On 16 September 1916 Great Britain first entered the ruins of the village of Flers in their tanks. 1918 was marked by the success of the first major armored breakthrough in modern military history, whereas earlier the most critical offensive of Hindenburg was brought to a halt. John Keegan presents an image of endless battles, characterized by violent confrontations and miserable terrain: “Between Ypres and Armenteirs, water is found everywhere close beneath the surface and much of the line had to be constructed of sandbag barricades instead of trenches. Almost everywhere, too, the Germans occupied what commanding heights there were: near Ypres, the Passchendaele and Messines ridges; in the coalfields, most of the slag-heaps and, until they were destroyed, the pithead towers. Compelled to struggle for possession of the higher, drier ground, the British had driven their lines in many places almost to within conversational distance of the Germans” (Keegan 1978, 245).

In this place, as in many others, we experience everyday death, but we also recognize the criteria such as proximity and distance. Despite heavy losses incurred by the British troops Flanders became their homeland. Behind the lines the troops often left the trenches and looked around in the villages for a feeling of closeness, a roof to sleep under, a bed of straw, some beer, or even a place to play football. The farmers of the region learned how to make a profit during the war. They opened canteens and cafés, which offered a welcome change. The British troops “conquered” not only geographical areas, but also some attractive places nearby. One can see this from the peculiar way in which some places were named, e.g. “Armenteers” (Armentières), “Wiper”, (Ypern) and “Plugstreet Wood” (Ploegsteert). These terms do not relate to the great battles, but to inconspicuous events occurring in the background of the war. This point of view opens the possibility of commemorating the war in a special way: essential to the orientation of the human world is the inescapable spatial character of experience, the irrevocability, the slope leading to death, the finality of the existential and historical events (Rentsch 1999). Historical acquisition also includes the aspect of vulnerability, powerlessness, and other criteria, such as responsibility and guilt. The relationships which orient us in the human world do not fall to pieces, then to create a form of memory, but rather we recognize the primary forms of meaning. We recognize basic historical facts in the finite totality of the existentially structured orientation space. We can neglect the finite totality of the existential space, conceal it, and keep it from ourselves. However, in this way historical time will never become an objectively defined world history, from which one can distance oneself. There is a basic difference between the unique ability to create meaning for the primary world, the experience that we gain in the world of inter-existentially constituted practice, and the type of experience which is scientifically plausible. Historical experience ends when the existentially political vision of the primary world begins. At that point, all attempts to learn superficial “lessons” from history fail, for the technology available to the community culture during the war does not leave the autonomy of the primary world unscathed (ibid., 110 ff.). The military and technological possibilities penetrate deep into the experience of the common world and thus violate the principles of a singular totality. Therefore, insight into the comprehensive totality of the common life is essential to create historical memory. If ethical principles are to show themselves in the face of war, they must demand nothing less than a fundamental relationship between fragility and the claim for non-violence. In our shared world we can experience practices in which there is always risk of failure; practices characterized by uncertainty and vulnerability, which constitute meaning. The meaning which can be created in this context is secured by a negative. It reflects our groundlessness and elusiveness. We can objectify neither a single totality of life as a whole nor individual outstanding events in the history. We are not able to functionalize historical events in a sense that we perceive them as examples of a greater design. In other words, we can imagine the human experience as neither individually nor politically and instrumentally goal-oriented. The shape of the meaningful life emerges only in fragmentariness, and in the experience of poverty and paucity.


Christian Wevelsiep. Studied educational theory, philosophy, and political science. He finished his Ph.D in special educational theory in Dortmund as well as political sociology in Flensburg, Germany. He is cureently working as teacher in Bochum and as external “Privatdozent” at the University of Flensburg. His main focuses of research are: theory of society, anthropology and ethics, and the history of modern violence. At the moment he is working on a monograph about the history of the war from basic anthropological view.

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