Understanding the Great War
Understanding the Great War

Understanding the Great War – Part II

We have closed our review with the list of taboos from World War I, like homosexual relations or the suicide of front soldiers. Authors of the book entitled 1914-1918, Understanding the Great War, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker also pointed out how violence against civilians was ousted from the memory of the First World War: “The memory of the Great War kept almost exclusively the violence where the victims were soldiers, and forgot violent acts against the unarmed population. And almost completely the opposite happened with World War II.”

Although the civilian population in the way of invading troops became victims of particularly cruel acts from the very first days of World War I (e.g. mass rape of women). Overall, cruelties of Germans in Belgium, Serbian atrocities of Austrian-Hungarian troops and the Armenian genocide demanded the most civilian casualties. Serbian cruelties – raping, cutting of the ear or the nose – were summarized in a publication already in 1915, edited by a Swiss professor of criminology entitled Report upon the atrocities committed by the Austrian-Hungarian army during the first invasion of Serbia, which was also used in Entente propaganda. Though the book’s credibility is reduced by the fact that it is based on the testimonies of captured Austrian-Hungarian prisoners of war – Austrians often testified against the Hungarians, since they considered the Hungarians to be inferior, i.e. capable of barbaric acts.

Authors of 1914-1918, Understanding the Great War used the results of anthropologists of violence when they strived to find an answer to why violence was committed by people who were fathers and probably quite mild-tempered in their private life. The answer is that “tortured and raped bodies prove the power of the winner”, that’s why violence began already at the moment of conquest. The desire for quick victory and the revenge for fear and ambush also played a significant role. Violent behaviour was legitimized by the dehumanization of the enemy and the social Darwinist interpretation stating that there is not much to be regretted about inferiors.

However, historians shall be cautious with resources on violent acts since a lot of rumours were spread on alleged cruelties already at the same time with the events. Rumours on acts of the invading German, news on the alleged destruction of churches, the execution of priests and the cutting of breasts of nuns proved for the inhabitants of Entente states that Germans were pagans (Protestants, i.e. “heretic”), barbarians, who are in a crusade even against God – which they obviously cannot win. From now on, the “Patriotic” war aimed at expelling Germans could be set as a crusade, which the Germans often made easier. For example, when a shell from the giant howitzer of the imperial army, “Big Bertha” hit the Saint-Gervais church in Paris in 1918, anti-German sentiment flared up again: “Alleged or real attacks against spiritual structures of France prove to everyone that the civilization itself is at stake, the world of God fights against that of the devil.”

However, if we are interested in the “reality” behind rumours, we have to admit how small we know about the life of residents of Northern France during the invasion, though it holds a lot of interesting facts (e.g. the locals had to live according to German time, documents were required for the smallest movements, hostages were taken, etc.). “Though it took four years, it is less known and researched than the three-month invasion in 1914” – as Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker highlighted. It was the German measures taken in the occupied territories that show how the “world war” nature of the war was realized in everyday life: there was even a case when compensation was collected in French cities for the attack on the German Consulate in Haifa.

One of the greatest novelties of World War I was the emergence of warfare against the civilian population after crossing the technical threshold, from which moment terror bombings were possible (German airships bombed London and English aircrafts bombed Cologne). Just as the First World War provided the framework for the first modern genocide – the Armenian genocide. This was also the first time internment camps were widely used to collect prisoners of war and “re-concentrate” civilians in occupied territories. German invaders also introduced the institution of forced labour in Belgium in 1916: the urban youth was called up for forced labour – not only to make them work, but also to relieve the burden of supplying towns by removing a part of the consumers. Labour service workers working for Germany received much less food than German soldiers, while having to face the fact that their compatriots look at them as traitors.

Research has not revealed the situation of prisoners of war during the world war, though given that mass capitulation was very rare on the Western front, we can assume that captivity was thought to be the worst by soldiers. They could fear from being in captivity due to executions or medical reasons, or for being sent as prisoners of war to the most dangerous work: to strengthen the trenches, to the firing line.

Presenting the contemporary representations of World War I, the publication examines what sense was attributed to the war by men and women of the early years of the century: Why did European societies accept war and why did they stick to it? In August, 1914, the feeling and necessity of “self-defence” has overwritten every international – e.g. labour movement or church – solidarity, even in the case of Great Britain and its dominions, the territory of which was the least threatened. (It is no coincidence that the number of volunteers reached the peak after the arrival of the first loss lists.)

Demonizing the enemy helped to ensure that World War I would remain the “war of consensus”. Suffered atrocities were enlarged by publishing witness testimonies and their propagandistic use. For example, British society was aroused by the publication of German “barbaric” acts in Belgium.

All warring countries were characterised by setting the world war as the fight between civilization and barbarism, which gave a true description of the “culture of war”. The “culture of war” was the system of world war representations between 1914 and 1918 that united with the hatred of the enemy and defined the deeper meaning of war and permeated society. Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker stressed that it were not only so-called propaganda texts that belonged to the “culture of war”. According to the authors, discourse on the enemy cannot simply be considered a product of political propaganda, but the expression of profound social aversion, which was mainly built upon the outcry caused by the atrocities committed. Dr. Bérillon was very much serious about his research results when, in his work entitled The fetid bromidrosis of the German race, published in 1915, he discussed the strange stink of Germans, stating “the abnormal amount of faeces can be explained by the inherent wickedness of the enemy”, and his scholar colleagues listened to his lecture gravely.

Though World War I was accompanied throughout by repugnance against the enemy, a breakpoint can be identified in 1916. It is well proven by the movie entitled The Battle of the Somme, which – though regarded as a patriotic piece – lacks the demonization of the enemy, and it displays in length a large number of wounded English dragging themselves along to the aid areas. The film was yet a huge success, since, after more than two years, the “need to recognize brutality” emerged in English society. Nevertheless, on the Western front, the story of the 1917 rebels is the only real example of “open break”, but latest research (e.g. of Leonard Smith) pointed out that French soldiers did not rebel due to pacifism but due to patriotic dissatisfaction, since commanders did not lead them well, therefore they suffered particularly great losses. As a reason for the lack of significant rebellions, soldiers embraced the official propaganda about self-defence and duties: the word “duty” (devoir, Pflicht) is present everywhere in contemporary military writings.

Moreover, after the temporary and limited break in “war enthusiasm”, 1918 became the year of “re-engagement”. War propaganda played a significant role here, since “the first widespread and successful application of mass manipulation tools” took place during World War I. War propaganda appeared not only in posters promoting war loans and publications demonizing the enemy, but also in the world of everyday household objects. Researchers emphasited, based on the then low prices, the massive amounts of propagandistic ornaments (e.g. German tableware decorated with Iron Cross).

We shall highlight that the above objects were often not “propaganda objects” ordered and produced from above, but “patriotic objects” created by citizens: “what we name »propaganda« was as much a horizontal process as a vertical one, moreover, to a certain extent, a huge pressure from below, behind which we shall imagine huge masses of individuals (…) Drawers of children’s books, journalists, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists who prepared posters, postcards, and especially illustrations of books and newspapers, teachers in elementary classrooms and grammar schools, »intellectuals« and university teachers, priests in churches, pastors in the pulpit, rabbis in synagogues, and in general, the cult elite, both in the hinterland and the firing line: they all, or almost all participated in the many-faced, decentralized, largely uncontrollable, mostly spontaneous rather than organized or forced war »propaganda«.”

Analysing children’s books and toys made during World War I informative since war discourse and representation “for” children was the “toughest seed” of the various cultures of war. The most significant frameworks of childhood socialisation, the family, the school and the churches all led the children toward war during the fights, as a result of which many of them began to find themselves the embodiment of “heroic children”. As an example, Anais Nin writer wrote her first and last patriotic poem in New York at the age of 12 upon hearing about the events in France, and began to imagine herself Jeanne D’Arc, liberating her home.

The emergence of “children’s war” is a symptom of the concept of “crusade”, closely attached to the re-emergence of religiousness – and superstition – in a previously secularizing society. Meanwhile in France the cult of Jeanne D’Arc and Virgin Mary began to bloom as never before – and let’s add to the list the newly deceased Little St. Therese of Lisieux –, and in Germany, in 1917, the 400th anniversary of reformation, the religious upswing reached its peak, the popularity of free thinking diminished during the world war. The reason for this was anxiety about death, and the “front spirituality” also played a significant role: “The catalysing effect achieved elsewhere and at other times by awakening or missionary preachers by pointing out the fear from hell and the guilt leading there, was now evoked by the war.” Since religiousness has traditionally been attached to patriotism (see the saying “God is with us”), during the patriotic upheaval, religiousness necessarily increased. As a perfect example for the mixture of religion, nationalism and superstition, postcards sent home from the French camp displayed together a Catholic priest, a four-leaf clover and Marianne, the female figure symbolizing France.

Of course, religiousness during the war also had its specific objects: men on the front found practices that had been previously attached mostly to women. Prayers, coins, religious books, images accompanied soldiers leaving to the front, mostly received from female family relatives. They then looked at the Bible they took with them as an amulet, the miraculous significance of which were attested by stories telling how it stopped the bullet in their breast pocket (in other narratives, this role was played by wallet filled with love letters). Altogether, World War I evoked two religious attitudes: on the one hand, war was perceived as a punishment for sins, on the other hand, the war created a great need for consolation for misery, but almost all believers were convinced that the descent to hell is followed by resurrection.

In the last, third part of our summary, we will examine the “grief roots” of the world war and will look at its memory.



Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau – Annette Becker: 1914–1918, az újraírt háború. Budapest, 2006.

Balázs Eszter: A „sakktáblától” a lövészárkok mikrovilágáig: az elso világháború régi és új történeti megközelítései = Múltunk, 2010/3., 109-131.


Written by: Csunderlik Péter