Each of the two World Wars not only changed the political, social, economic, and ideological structure of the world in a very practical way; they also left behind symbols that have continued to haunt us. These may be place names—Verdun, Gallipoli, Auschwitz, Hiroshima; they may be types—the Unknown Soldier, poilu or Tommy, the Aviator, the War Profiteer (“hard-faced men who looked as if they have done very well out of the war”), the Collaborator or “Quisling,” the Resistance Hero. The wars also seemed to represent symbolic values, both positive and negative—national solidarity (“the Spirit of 1914”), courage, comradeship, sacrifice, but also mass destruction, often for futile ends.
In the case of the First World War several books, notably Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford, 1975) and Eric Leed’s No Man’s Land (Cambridge, 1979), have shown how the war experience entered the language and modified men’s conceptions of themselves. Now Modris Eksteins in an imaginative and ambitious book has set out to show how our modern consciousness, the whole complex of moral, aesthetic, and social attitudes we label as “modernism,” was born out of the Great War, and how, parallel with the war itself, the art of the twentieth century was not only expressing aspects of the war experience but actually, Eksteins seems to suggest, contributing to the creation of that experience. Symbols have prophetic as well as a retrospective force. They suggest the way in which men will act when they perform the roles that history assigns to them.
Professor Eksteins suspends the web of his argument between two symbolic events which he describes in detail: the first performance of Stravinsky’s ballet Le Sacre du printemps in Paris on May 29, 1913, and the arrival, also in Paris, of Charles Lindbergh on May 21, 1927, after his solo crossing of the Atlantic in an airplane. At first sight the juxtaposition of these two apparently quite dissimilar events seems somewhat strained, but the author sees them as aspects of the same phenomenon.
But if we look beyond the immediate excitement, we see a motif that recurs again and again,…a motif that no one discussed at the time, but that runs through the cultural landscape like a black thread. The war.
The first night of the Rite of Spring is an episode of which one seems to have read so many accounts that one wonders whether another is really needed; but Eksteins skillfully uses it to illustrate many themes that he develops later in his book—the challenge of modernism (not just in Stravinsky’s score but in the architecture of Auguste Perret who built the Théatre des Champs Elysées where the Sacre was performed), sexual emancipation, and, above all, a violence and intensity that seemed to some observers a symptom of impending cataclysm. “It was,” one critic wrote, “a Dionysian orgy dreamed of by Nietzsche and called forth by his prophetic wish to be the beacon of a world hurtling towards death.”
No one claims that Stravinsky wrote with an impending war in mind. But the feeling that the war when it came was indeed a “rite of spring,” a ritual both of renewal and violent sacrifice, was at first widespread. Eksteins quotes the German Expressionist poet Ernst Blass:
Wir werden solchen Frühling, bald verschattet,
Nie wieder auf der weiten Welt erleben.
(Such a spring, soon in shadows, never shall we experience in the entire world.)
And the great German historian Friedrich Meinecke wrote,
On the Yser Canal, where the young reserve regiments of volunteers attacked, there now lies our ver sacrum…. Their sacrifice for us signifies a sacred spring for all of Germany.
There are a number of other examples in an interesting international anthology of work by writers killed in the Great War, The Lost Voices of World War I, edited by Tim Cross and with an excellent introduction and conclusion by Robert Wohl. Among the poems quoted are lines such as Wilfred Owen’s “But not / for us vile winter and the need / Of sowings for new Spring and blood for seed.” The Breton poet Jean-Pierre Calloc’h, in a poem that links French victory with freedom for Brittany, wrote, “New Year, year of war! Be blessed, even should you bring, wrapped in the folds of your cloak, alongside springtime, for the world, death for me.” (The editor and publishers of The Lost Voices must be congratulated for printing the original texts, even when they are in Breton or Armenian, opposite the translation.) Perhaps it is not as far-fetched as it at first may seem to regard Stravinsky’s Sacre as a symbol of the war to come.
But the war soon came to symbolize many other things, good and bad. The reason for the extraordinary welcome given to Lindbergh nine years after the end of the war—he was, Eksteins writes, “revered more openly in 1927 than were the astronauts who walked on the moon in 1969″—was that he symbolized an aspect of the war which somehow transcended the horror of the trenches.
The air ace was the object of limitless envy among infantry, mired in mud and seeming helplessness. Soldiers looked up from their trenches and saw in the air a purity of combat that the ground war had lost. The “knights of the sky” were engaged in a conflict in which individual effort still counted, romantic notions of honor, glory, heroism and chivalry were still intact…. The most significant technological achievement of the modern world was thus also seen as a means of affirming traditional values.
The symbols created by the war were, that is to say, politically ambivalent, just as the poets in The Lost Voices were both “modernist” and traditional. The Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci wrote,
The spiritual conquests achieved during the war, the communistic experiences accumulated in four years of bloodshed undergone collectively, standing shoulder to shoulder in the trenches, would be in vain if we do not succeed in placing each individual in the framework of a new collective life.
But the war experience as symbol of social solidarity was much the same for the Nazi who told an American sociologist, “The war had taught us one lesson, the great community of the front. All class differences, staunchly entrenched before the war, disappeared under its spell. Out there it was what a person was, not what he seemed, that counted.”
And the great French painter Fernand Léger was not the only artist for whom the war symbolized a new populism: “The war enabled me to discover the people. It completely changed me.”
Even people such as the poet Siegfried Sassoon who had emerged from the war most convinced of its futility could all the same remember moments when “everyone suddenly burst out singing.” Moreover, even if the memory of the fraternization between British and German troops facing each other in the trenches at Christmas 1914 (vividly described by Eksteins) was soon overlaid by systematic hate propaganda from the authorities at home, it was never wholly forgotten and was revived when, some years after the armistice, a new generation was coming of age who were very aware of the horrors and slaughter of the war.
It is notable that this new interest in the war and the revival of some of its symbols, as exemplified by the adulation of Lindbergh, coincided with the onset of the Great Depression. As George L. Mosse has put it, “Was it that the cumulative disappointment of the peace, now confirmed by the Great Depression, led to a revival of the War Experience, and in a few cases, such as that of Erich Maria Remarque, to a reconstruction of the war as ultimately responsible for the present crisis?”1 Professor Eksteins in his discussion of the flood of war book that appeared in 1929–1930, of which the most famous was Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, writes, in a most interesting chapter analyzing the novel and its reception, “The war boom of the late twenties and early thirties was a product of [a] mixture of aspiration, anxiety, and doubt.” It came at a moment when movements for international understanding were flourishing—the Briand-Kellogg Pact for the Renunciation of War, for example; and Aristide Briand himself described Remarque’s novel as “a beautiful and true book. It has four millions of readers in all countries. Why? Because men have had enough of war.”2 But it also came at a moment when a new strident nationalism, especially in Germany, was deliberately reviving the symbolism of the Great War in its political propaganda.
Remarque’s book, coarse as it now seems, in its vivid and sometimes moving evocation of the humdrum and the horrible typical of life in the trenches or the hospital wards seemed to symbolize the pointlessness of the war experience. As such, it was welcomed by pacifists and denounced by militarists or even simple patriots, so that, as Eksteins tells us, it was banned from military libraries by the Czechoslovak Ministry of War. Its significance lies not so much in what it actually tells us about the war (and in this connection it is worth comparing it with another famous realist novel published while the war was still going on, Henri Barbusse’s Le Feu) as in what it tells us about the state of mind of people some ten years after the armistice. “All Quiet can be seen not as an explanation but as a symptom of the confusion and disorientation of the postwar world.” Eksteins also sees in the book not only revolt against the war and the society that produced it but also the expression of a certain fascination with death and destruction:
Like the Dadaists, [Remarque] was spellbound by war and its horror, by the act of destruction to the point where death becomes not the antithesis of life but the ultimate expression of life, where death becomes a creative force, a source of art and vitality.
Perhaps Professor Eksteins pushes his point beyond what Remarque’s text will actually take, but he brings out clearly the ambiguity of the war experience and of the symbols in which it lived on.
They were symbols that another exsoldier, Adolf Hitler, whose war experience was, Eksteins points out, more genuine than that of Remarque, extrapolating “several months’ experience into a general account of the war,” knew how to exploit effectively. Robert Wohl in his conclusion to The Lost Voices of World War I writes of Hitler,
One cannot help being struck by the fact that the man who plunged Europe into war in 1939 and carried her to the verge of self-destruction…was a veteran of the trenches and a member of the generation of 1914. Hitler liked to say that he was an artist who worked on history, recalling paradoxically the modernists’ pre-war vision of a cultural revolution. But the revolution Hitler had in mind and set out to realize was far from the one that the modernists had dreamed of during the heady years of “intellectual intoxications” before 1914.
The war was by now a symbol as much as a reality, and one that could be used for many different purposes or, as Eksteins puts it, “The war was a matter of individual experience rather than collective interpretation. It had become a matter of art, not history. Art had become more important than history.” The frequent references to the Russian Ballet in Rites of Spring are in fact more than just metaphors. Many twentieth-century Europeans came to see themselves as actors in a ghastly charade, performing roles assigned to them by some crazy director, participating in a “carnival of death,” as one French soldier described the masked troops in a gas attack.
The culmination of this confusion of art and life, role and reality, Eksteins argues, was National Socialism. Hitler imposed on the Germans a narcissistic mirror image:
The reflection in the mirror, the image the Nazis had of themselves—blond, blue-eyed, strong as Krupp steel, eternally youthful, with a Nietzschean will to power—that was the myth…. Walter Benjamin pointed in this direction when he said that fascism was the “aestheticizing of politics.” But fascism was more than just an aestheticizing of politics: it was an aestheticizing of existence as a whole…. The Third Reich was the creation of “kitsch men,” people who confused the relationship between life and art, reality and myth…. They took the ideals, though not the form, of the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century avant-garde, and of the German nation in the Great War, and by means of technology—the mirror—they suited these ideals to their own purpose.
Somehow the Rite of Spring had ended in Auschwitz.
It is in Germany that the threads of Modris Ekstein’s tapestry come together.
If central to the self-image of the European avant-garde before 1914 was the idea of spirit at war; and if central to an emergent modern aesthetic was a questioning of what were perceived to be the prevailing standards of the nineteenth-century, Germany best represented that revolt.
This is not perhaps a generally accepted view of prewar Germany. Certainly Germany represented the idea of “spirit and war”; and this was not limited to the avant-garde. But whether the questioning of nineteenth-century standards and the emergence of a modern aesthetic had gone further in Germany than in, say, France perhaps depends on one’s subjective evaluation of whether the Fauves were more modern than the artists of Die Brücke or the Cubists than the Blaue Reiter group, Guillaume Apollinaire and Paul Valéry more modern than Stefan George and Frank Wedekind. If the Bohemian life of Munich seemed a symbol of social, sexual, and artistic emancipation, perhaps this was largely because the general tone of German life was unrelentingly stuffy and repressive. (Perhaps too if, as Eksteins states, Germany had the largest homosexual emancipation movement in Europe on the eve of the First World War, this was partly because homosexual acts were forbidden under the German penal code, whereas they were not under the French Code Napoléon.)
Still, there is no doubt that Germany in 1914 was both an advanced and a backward nation. Technological and scientific progress, the largest socialist party in the world, the most “advanced” ideas, were combined with a political and social structure left over from an earlier near-feudal age, and this was bound to lead to trouble. “In Germany before the war,” Eksteins writes, “a substantial gulf existed between the social, economic, and political reality and cultural ideals. The German attempt to resolve this duality led to a Drang nach vorne.” This “push forward,” this Griff nach der Weltmacht to use Fritz Fischer’s famous phrase for a grab for world power, was an essential factor among the multifarious causes of the First World War.
After the war the gap between the Germans’ idea of themselves and the reality of their political life was even greater; and one of the reasons for the failure of the Weimar Republic was that its supporters never provided the Germans with the symbols they needed, and were unable to suggest roles that they would consider worthy of their idea of the German nation and the German past. A new collection of essays on German Expressionism, Passion and Rebellion, uneven but wideranging and stimulating, throws some light on the gap between the ideal and the real in Weimar Germany. It also suggests some clues to help us answer the question raised by Barbara Drygulski Wright in this book when she asks “why expressionist ‘politics’—in sharp contrast to expressionist art—was such a resounding failure.” Nietzsche once wrote, “We Germans want something from ourselves that others have not yet wanted of us—we want something more.” Much of Expressionist art seems to have embodied this desire for “something more,” and when applied to politics it becomes a desire for the Erneuerung des Menschen, the total regeneration of man, a desire that brought the Expressionist writers such as Hans Franck or Ernst Toller close to the Anarchists with their all-or-nothing view of political change.
But as Douglas Kellner writes in his article “Expressionism and Rebellion,” which considers painters as different as Kandinsky, Klee, Nolde, Marc, and Macke, as well as writers such as Georg Kaiser and Georg Heym,
most Expressionists did not really understand economics or politics. Their attacks on bourgeois society included violent diatribes against liberalism, trade unionism, the working class movements and the “masses,” but they failed to see any even relatively progressive forces in bourgeois society and tended to reject the liberal tradition of democracy, human rights, and equality as part of the facade of the hated bourgeois society. Hence, the total revolt of many Expressionists tended toward nihilism. Not all Expressionists were nihilists or anti-liberal, but the contradictions in the movement made impossible any unitary activity that would provide genuine political alternatives, thus leading to the ultimate failure of expressionist politics and the eventual collapse of the movement as a whole.
When we look at the actual political history of postwar Germany, we can see that it was not just the Expressionists who had an image of the world that was impossible of realization. One of the difficulties for the republican politicians was that they were unable to provide symbols as potent as those of the old imperial regime. Most Germans still looked back to their image of what Germany once was, so that it was with relief that in 1925 they voted for the seventy-eight-year-old Field Marshal Hindenburg as president in succession to the socialist Friedrich Ebert. The old symbols of the monarchy and the Prussian army still had more appeal than anything the new republic could provide. Two recent very detailed studies of German party political history—one in German, Frieden für Europa by Wilhelm Ribhegge, the other in English, German Liberalism and the Dissolution of the Weimar Party System 1918–1933 by Larry Eugene Jones—show clearly how the liberal politicians on whom the survival of the republic depended were often just not talking about the things that many Germans were worrying about; and when they were they were usually powerless to do anything about it.
In the summer of 1917 the German Reichstag passed by 214 to 116 votes a resolution calling for “peace without annexations or indemnities.” The resolution was full of ambiguities; the call for peace was accompanied by the usual rhetoric proclaiming national solidarity and the determination of the German people “to hold out unshaken and fight till the right to life and development of Germany and her allies are assured.” Moreover, the resolution was weakened still further by the fact that the newly appointed chancellor, a dim Prussian civil servant called Michaelis who didn’t last long in the office, in accepting the resolution added the words “as I understand it.” The result was that neither the high command nor the chancellor took any notice of the resolution; and for the next year Germany was ruled by what was in effect a military dictatorship. However, the peace resolution did bring together the political parties that had supported it in a loose interparty committee aiming not just at a negotiated peace and a relaxation of censorship but also at a move toward constitutional reform eventually leading to a government responsible to the Reichstag, something that did not exist under the Bismarckian constitution.
Wilhelm Ribhegge’s book is a detailed and, it must be admitted, rather dry account of this interparty committee down to the elections of January 1919 for the National Assembly which was to draft a new constitution. It proved very hard for the parties involved—socialists, two groups of liberals, the Catholic Center party—to find a common program. In any case until the final weeks of the war when the parties of the majority were able to provide a basis for the last-minute attempt to install a government responsible to parliament (though even then under a chancellor, Prince Max of Baden, who was not himself a member of the Reichstag), they were working in a near vacuum, so that their discussions and the role in which they cast themselves seem to have little relation to the realities of the war. It was the army leaders who decided about war and peace—negotiating peace with the Bolsheviks at Brest-Litovsk in the early months of 1918 and in September taking the decision to ask for an armistice on the western front. One socialist deputy complained that “the military are professional and habitual liars”: and the result was that when the politicians were finally informed of the desperate military situation, they were deeply shocked. Even then it was the army command that called the tune; and the parliamentarians found themselves with the unwelcome task of signing the armistice so as to absolve Field Marshal Ludendorff and the other military leaders of the responsibility for surrender.
Professor Ribhegge adds much new detail about the discussions on domestic politics among the party leaders and shows clearly the steps that led to the appointment of Max of Baden as chancellor and the almost accidental way in which the Social Democrat leaders Ebert and Scheidemann found themselves making a revolution. Throughout these last months of the war one can’t avoid the impression that the liberal, socialist, and Catholic parliamentarians, many of them intelligent and high-minded men, were acting roles in a play with quite a different plot from what was really going on, speaking lines that had very little relevance to the hunger at home and the continuing slaughter on the western front.
This lack of experience in actually running anything was to be one of the disadvantages under which the politicians of the Weimar Republic were to suffer. The other was of course the circumstances of its birth which made the government the embodiment of a variety of unpopular symbols: the civilians who were said to have stabbed the army in the back (the image of a stricken Siegfried recurs often in nationalist propaganda), and who were responsible for the Treaty of Versailles, which itself becomes a symbol of Germany’s defeat and humiliation. The power of the myths of the glorious days of Bismarck and the Kaiser, of German greatness and military strength, was all the greater in a Germany full of self-pity because of territorial losses, economic distress, and the humiliation of the “War Guilt” clause of the peace treaty which labeled Germany as responsible for the war.
Larry Eugene Jones’s long, somewhat cumbrous, but definitive study describes in detail the relations between the various liberal parties and groups in the Weimar Republic, their differences and their interminable wrangles over policies and personalities. It is a sad story: in 1919 the newly founded German Democratic party seemed to embody all that was best in prewar liberalism and to confirm the hopes that had been held just before 1914 that German liberalism was really going to recover some of the ground it had lost under Bismarck in the 1870s and 1880s. The party had done very well in the elections to the National Assembly in 1919; it included some of the best-known liberal names from business, journalism, industry, and academic life, as well as distinguished politicians from the prewar parliamentary liberals. But, as Professor Jones points out, the very diversity of talent and experience seemed to exemplify the distinction made by Max Weber (himself briefly an uneasy member of the new party in which his brother Alfred was prominent) between “ethics of intention” and “ethics of responsibility,” so that there was an irreconcilable difference between the doctrinaire moralists represented by Alfred Weber and the pragmatism of the old political hands “to whom politics was the art of the possible and not of the impossible dream.”
This was the dilemma of liberalism in the Weimar Republic: if the Germans were to have some confidence in their future, some compensation for the vanished dreams of German greatness, they needed some sort of impossible dream; but they also needed practical policies to mitigate the hardships under which the middle classes, the natural supporters of the liberal parties, were suffering in the postwar world. The tragedy was that both the impossible dream and the practical policies were eventually provided by Hitler.
The most effective of the pragmatic liberal politicians was Gustav Stresemann, whose German People’s party was to the right of the Democratic party and divided from it by bitter memories of the wartime controversies over territorial annexations and unrestricted submarine warfare. Stresemann had a vision of a Germany restored to the rank of a European great power, but he also saw that this could be achieved only in an atmosphere of appeasement (in the 1920s a term of praise rather than of abuse). He had been the advocate of extensive annexation of territory by Germany during the war; and it must have demanded a considerable psychological adjustment for him to devise a new Realpolitik based on the fact of Germany’s defeat, in order to put Germany in a position in which it could eventually hope to revise the terms of the peace treaties of 1919. He was hampered at every turn by the myths of the past to which he himself had once subscribed as a monarchist and nationalist; and his alternative vision of a peaceful Europe was not strong enough to win real support in Germany. But it was largely owing to Stresemann that there was in the late 1920s a short period of stability which Larry Eugene Jones describes as follows:
Even in the culture arena, where the millenarian impulse so characteristic of early German Expressionism had given way to the stark realism of the “New Objectivity” [a movement that included George Grosz and Otto Dix], it was possible to detect a shift in aesthetic sensibilities that was directly related to the stabilization of Germany’s bourgeois capitalist order.
It did not last. Stresemann, whose foreign policy had been largely responsible for encouraging the foreign confidence in the German economy that had made its recovery possible, died, literally of overwork, at the moment when the Wall Street crash of 1929 started the crisis which destroyed such international and domestic stability as Germany had achieved, and with it the hopes of German liberalism. When one reads in Jones’s book the account of the splits and bickerings of the liberal parties in the last years of the Weimar Republic, one begins to see why democratic parliamentary government seemed futile to many Germans, so that they turned to extremes both of the right and left in their search for a new set of symbols and ideals. And one cannot help agreeing with Jones’s conclusion:
At the heart of the electoral collapse of the two liberal parties in the spring of 1932 lay an intangible factor that all but defies careful historical analysis, namely the spiritual and moral exhaustion of the German bourgeoisie.
But does it really defy historical analysis? The books discussed here suggest that it doesn’t, but they also suggest that we need several different kinds of analysis if we are to understand the moral, cultural, and political effects of the First World War. For some of the wider questions about the mentalities of twentieth-century Europe, its Zeitgeist, the painstaking political narratives of Ribhegge and Jones, though indispensable from many points of view, will not give the answer; and we must return to the broad historical and cultural perspective of a work like Eksteins’s (who incidentally showed in his earlier study of the German liberal press, The Limits of Reason, Oxford, 1975, considerable insight into the political dilemmas of German liberalism), or to the analysis of the attitudes conveyed in the art of the Expressionists.
Such a various approach may provide insight into the tensions that led to the tragedies of the mid-twentieth century and help to explain a period of which another recent historian of the Weimar Republic, Eberhard Kolb, has written:
The typical feature is seen to be the split between modernism and the fear of modernity, between radicalism and resistance, between sober, factual rationality and the attraction of a profound irrationalism of a mystical, contemplative or chiliastic kind.3
This could perhaps still serve as a description of the 1980s. The artists of the post-Wagnerian age have repeatedly been haunted by the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, and so have many historians; and even if none of them has wholly achieved it, it is right that they should go on trying.
April 27, 1989
“Two World Wars and the Myth of the War Experience,” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 21 (1986), p. 502. ↩
F. Siebert, Aristide Briand (Zurich and Stuttgart, 1973), p. 508. ↩
The Weimar Republic (English translation, London, 1988, of Die Weimarer Republik, Munich and Vienna, 1984), p. 95. ↩