The monument of Hindenburg in Berlin
The monument of Hindenburg in Berlin

Understanding the Great War – Part III

We have closed the second part of our review with the description of the religious upheaval during the First World War. As a strange contradiction, the Pope’s prestige diminished simultaneously. It was due to the fact that Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922) tried to stay neutral, but as the only result, in the absence of statements supporting one or the other side, neither power block felt the support of the Holy Father: the French called him the “German” Pope, while the German called him the “French” Pope.

It was similar to the view of the activities of Red Cross, awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1917: the fighting parties could not believe that the aid organization was truly neutral. They always attributed some hidden motives to the organization, for example accused its workers with spying. One could say that everyone started from themselves, since after 1914, “engaging” behaviour became dominant in the warring countries. As written by Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker, the authors of 1914-1918, Understanding the Great War: “no one could run away from the war and their own camp, even though they claimed they had succeeded”.

This “engagement” led to the most absurd examples in the world of science, since according to the traditional concept, it was this impartiality that guaranteed “objectivity” during a scientific research and examination (even if today this statement may be found quite problematic from the perspective of epistemology). The disappearance of the impartiality of science – for example, that the anthropologist of a particular warring country must necessarily declare the enemy depraved and less valuable – was already criticized by Sigmund Freud in his 1915 work entitled Thoughts for the Times on War and Death.

But do not think that all “great spirits” resisted the pressure of “engagement”. One of the most significant philosophers of his time, Henri Bergson also formulated the “engagement” obligation of science in the name of the French academy: “The committed war against Germany was the war of civilization against barbarism, per se. It is felt by everyone, but our Academy might say so with a special authority.”

However, the emblematic document of the intellectuals’ engagement during the war was born in Germany, when 93 German intellectuals published the manifesto entitled Call for Civilized Nations, followed by a number of counter-manifestos in French, England and Russia. In the above manifesto, German intellectuals reversed their accusation of “barbarism”: they argued in favour of the superiority of German culture, and accused their enemies, who also used colonial troops recruited from colour-skinned indigenous people, with barbarism.

In July 1915, the German government published On the breach of human rights by England and France through the application of coloured troops on the European battlefield. In this publication, the German claimed that the unprecedented brutalities of war and the downfall of warfare are the responsibilities of French and English colonial troops. The Germans listed toposes to prove it like black soldiers allegedly made necklaces from the cut off ears of Germans. The response of the Entente’s intellectuals was not delayed: in response to the accusations regarding the recruit of colonial soldiers, they compared Hindenburg’s cult, objectivized in his huge wooden statue in Berlin, and they compared the rite of driving nails to African fetishism.

The emergence of the committed “race science”, establishing a hierarchy of the various races, during the First World War was already the predecessor of the National Socialist racial theory. Camps – like the one in Munich – where the Germans took the captive colonial and Russian soldiers, became real “race research” workshops during the world war. Here they typified the ethnic groups based on their facial structure and organized them into a hierarchy.

According to this “deep representation”, the war was not about the fight o cultures, but that of opposing “races”, and this interpretation went even beyond the “war of civilizations” concept, since it indicated the biological reasons of the opposition between the French and the German. For example, Edgar Bérillon, the French scientist writing The fetid bromidrosis of the German race in 1915, mentioned before, brought up as the main argument for the impossibility of assimilating Alsatian French that the smell of Germans scare them away from mixing.

Regarding the popularization of racial theory interpretations, we have arrived at the cultural afterlife of the war: the intertwining of racist and anti-Semite interpretations with the “stab-in-the-back” theory in loser states had especially severe consequences. The emergence of the latter is explained by the fact that the defeat was unexpected for – primarily conservative and new conservative – opinion leaders, relativizing the severity of hinterland problems and enlarging front victories throughout the war, open to anti-Semite explanations, who were shocked by the outbreak of revolutions. The “stab-in-the-back” theory proved to be an ideal tool for former military leaders – like Erich Ludendorff, who ended up with Hitler and the National Socialist Party – to relieve themselves. Since German propaganda talked about self defence from the outbreak of war, and they finally managed to keep the enemy away, after the armistice on November 11, 1918, the majority of the population welcomed the returning German troops as winners. When defeat became clear with the peace settlement in Versailles in 1919, they tried to cover it up in German education: Weimar Germany history books about the First World War ended with the last successful German offensive in the spring of 1918.

However, the collective suppression of the catastrophe was not only typical in Germany, but also in France: they never talked about defeat during commemorations, but always about the heroes, who lost only due to numerical disadvantage or betrayal. When the “responsible persons” were named – liberalism, Jews, Freemasons, etc. –, it had severe political and cultural consequences.

Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker raised the attention to the fact that though the number of victims was summed up after the world war, they did not account for the extent of grief evoked by the loss: „as if determining the number of deceased people, their division by age group, year, unit would replace determining the extent of the catastrophe”. After 1918, they approached the losses in a demographic dimension rather than from the perspective of collective pain. It can be explained by the fact that 20th century Western societies surpressed death and grief so much – named by Geoffrey Gorer and Philippe Ariès as “denial of death” that they became almost invisible on a social level.

Yet the history of First World War “grief” and “grief communities” – a concept of Jay Winter – can and should be written, as it holds many interesting things: for example, in 1915 so many women wore black mourning clothes on the streets that they were almost unidentifiable, but by 1917-1918, mourning clothes became increasingly rare – here is a problem to be explored. However, in spite of the disappearance of mourning clothes, other mourning techniques remained popular: for example, newly born children were named after the deceased ones.

After 1918, each war dead was summoned by the family, the village, the parish and the workplace – and the state. Commemorative committees were set up and monuments were erected in the places of fights. Different types of commemorations were widespread in the various countries: while in French, only “sacred places” and engraving the soldiers’ name into stone were among commemorative techniques, in England, commemorations like the establishment of scholarships got popular.

Though some memorials were erected after the American Civil War that ended in 1865 and the Prussian-French war fought in 1870-71, erecting monuments became commonplace after the world war, and it gave rise to a serious debate. For example, if only the names of the dead should be displayed on the monuments or of all soldiers enlisted? (In Austria, where enlisting was not introduced until the end of war either, i.e. only volunteers took part in the fights, all soldiers were displayed.) A large number of memorials were erected especially in territories occupied during the war – e.g. northern France: as if they wished to declare that regions previously under foreign rule regained their place in the nation’s body.

It should be emphasized that openly pacifist memorials were erected only in small numbers: instead, world war soldiers were illustrated in brave and bragging poses. They were depicted as fighting heroes – even if they lost the war –, and almost condemned them to continue fighting forever. Sometimes heroic monuments also illustrated dead people, but in this case, mothers were also included in the statue group, holding their killed children in their arms almost like Virgin Mary, making the memorial a secular Pieta. In addition to memorials, ossuaries were also established, where the remains of soldiers were transported who could not be identified: „While the memorials are empty tombs, the ossuaries hide the remains of thousands or even tens of thousands of men, whose identity was soaked into the ground and was devoured by fire” – wrote Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker.

Former warring states often devoted national holidays to the memory of the world war. In France, two noteworthy celebrations were held after the world war: On July 14, 1919 and November 11, 1920. While in 1919 they celebrated victory with a parade at the Arc de Triomphe (though the losses left their mark on the celebration), in 1920, those killed could join the heroes through the funeral of the unknown soldier – who was accompanied in his final journey with a selected “fictive family”. This was the beginning of the cult of the “unknown soldier”, which became widespread in almost all countries with the exception of Germany, where in 1925, the call of Konrad Adenauer – the Mayor of Cologne, later a Chancellor of the FRG – to bury the body of an unidentified soldier in a ceremony on the banks of the Rhine was refused. In Germany, the cult of the “unknown soldier” of the First World War changed only after 1933 – with Adolf Hitler.



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

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


Written by: Csunderlik Péter


Previous parts are available in the following links:
Understanding the Great War – Part I.


Understanding the Great War – Part II