How do modern Germans see the First World War?

The First World War

Wolfgang Kruse

Apl. Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Kruse, born in 1957, is an academic senior counselor and adjunct professor in the field of Modern German and European History at the Historical Institute of the Distance University in Hagen. His main research interests include the history of the First World War, the history of the French Revolution, the history of the German and international labor movement and the history of the political cult of the dead. Among other things, von Kruse has published: Wolfgang Kruse: The First World War, Darmstadt 2009 (history compact of the WBG).

The idea that nations are social constructs would hardly have met with approval in the German Empire. Especially in times of war, the nation was considered the noblest incarnation of the "German essence". The German Reich saw itself quite consciously as a representative of Prussian "virtues". The First World War was therefore also seen as a clash of ideas.

Propaganda march for war bonds

The First World War not only took place on the battlefields, it was also fought in people's minds. Parallel to the real war, a "war of the spirits" or a "culture war" developed, in which a war for opposing political, social and cultural principles was propagated. Leading poets and thinkers on all sides endeavored to determine the meaning of the war, to establish the primacy of their own nation and to disparage those who opposed the war. A frightening chauvinism often emerged, which not least led to the "collapse of the international republic of scholars". While the universal struggle of civilization, democracy, self-determination and human rights against autocracy and Prussian-German militarism was invoked on the western side, the German endowments of war had a more self-centered character. They propagated the struggle for the preservation and dissemination of "German freedom" and "German culture" through German militarism, to which leading German intellectuals such as Gerhart Hauptmann, Friedrich Naumann and Ernst Haeckel solemnly declared themselves in their 1914 appeal "An die Kulturwelt" , which aroused great international outrage.

Source text

Call of 93 "To the world of culture!"

Written in September 1914 by Ludwig Fulda as secretary, signed by 93 scientists, artists and writers in Germany and published in October 1914.

As representatives of German science and art, we protest against the lies and slander with which our enemies of Germany try to defile their cause in the difficult struggle for existence that has been forced upon them. [...] It is not true that Germany is responsible for this war Has. Neither the people wanted him, nor the government, nor the emperor. On the German side, the extreme has been done to avert it. […] It is not true that we have violently violated Belgium's neutrality. […] It is not true that the life and property of a single Belgian citizen was touched by our soldiers without the bitterest self-defense requiring it. [...] It is not true that our warfare disregards the laws of international law. She does not know indecent cruelty. In the east, however, the blood of women and children slaughtered by Russian hordes soaks the earth, and in the west dumdum bullets tear the chests of our warriors. Those who ally themselves with Russians and Serbs and offer the world the shameful spectacle of inciting Mongols and Negroes on the white race have the least right to act as defenders of European civilization.
It is not true that the struggle against our so-called militarism is not a struggle against our culture, as our enemies hypocritically pretend. Without German militarism, German culture would long ago have been erased from the face of the earth. For her protection he emerged from her in a country that for centuries has been plagued by raids like no other. The German army and the German people are one. [...]

From: Klaus Böhme (ed.), Appeals and Speeches by German Professors in the First World War, Stuttgart 1975.

Unfold

Close

Increasingly, however, the governments were also trying more and more intensively to propagate the legitimacy of their own cause through active propaganda measures, to maintain the war morale of the population and to further mobilize the people to participate in war. However, this was not always well received. The longer the war dragged on, the more, to the horror of national virtue guards, many people sought distraction and diversion from the horrors of war.

The "August experience" and the "ideas of 1914"

The beginning of the war was politically and socially marked by a surprising national unity, which was quickly mythicized under the ciphers "August experience" and "Geist von 1914" and provided an essential basis for the German ideologization of the war. After the educated bourgeois masterminds in the "cultural pessimism" of the pre-war period, such as Paul de Lagarde, Julius Langbehn or Stefan George, diagnosed the inner turmoil and cultural decline of the German people, many people were now often overwhelmed by the national unity and national commitment of large sections of the population that had arisen at the beginning of the war . The "August experience" of national unity seemed to spawn a new German "spirit" in which all the problems of the pre-war period were suddenly "swept away". Under the influence of the war, the German people and the German nation seemed to find their way back to their true essence and to bring them to bear in the war.

Source text

Hermann Bahr: The German being appeared to us!

[...] And if I were a hundred years old, I will not forget these days!
It's the greatest thing we've seen. We didn't know that something so great could be experienced. (...) We finally saw each other. We now know for the first time what we really are. That is the indescribable gift of this great time. All of these hearts beat so fast in this difficult hour. We have never been more serious, but never so happy either. We stand together in a believing piety that we never knew each other. Because the German essence appeared to us. We have each other again, now we are nothing but German; it is quite enough for us, we can now see that demit can be managed completely, for life and for dying. (...) The same holy anger now beats in all German hearts. (...) All German wounds are closing. We have recovered. Praise be to this war, which on the first day redeemed us from all German hereditary evils! And when there is only peace again, then we want to earn it to have lived through this holy German war. [...]


From: The Iron Book. The leading men and women to the World War 1914/15, Hamburg 1915, p. 76f.

Unfold

Close

This "German being" was ideologized very quickly and lastingly. The contrast to the Western understanding of politics and society, which became the real enemy of the German war ideology, played a central role. The depth of the "German culture" of a superficial Western "civilization", the "community" of the German people of the turmoil of Western "society", the bondage of "German freedom" was contrasted with the destructive concept of freedom of the individualistic-revolutionary West and created meaning by the War processed. No less a person than Thomas Mann summed up the contrast in his 1918 “Considerations of a non-political”, when he defined Germanism as “culture, soul, freedom, art”, which it faced from the threat of the western connection of “civilization, society” "Voting rights and literature" should be preserved.

Source text

Ernst Troeltsch: The Ideas of 1914 - Speech given in the German Society of 1914 on March 20, 1916

[...] The militarily and economically strongly organized national unity will for a long time be the idea that determines our inner life and calls up the real and spiritual forces that correspond to it.
[…] In this self-reflection, however, we came up with the idea of ​​a freedom which is in fact different from that of the Western peoples, which is just as different from the individualism of the English master man as from the enthusiastic idea of ​​equality of human rights, which is not in puritanism and not is rooted in Rousseau, but in a peculiarly German spirit. It is the idea of ​​an independent and conscious affirmation of the supra-individual common spirit, connected with the lively participation in it, the freedom of a voluntary commitment to the whole and a personally living originality of the individual within the whole, the freedom of common sense and discipline, both together based on the self-surrender to the ideas and therefore closely connected with our whole ethical-religious nature, which is so deeply different from the English and the French. [...] A German imperialism in the manner of English, Russian, American and Japanese, the type of which the sinking France is striving for with the last mobilization of all forces, is not possible for us for many reasons [...]. But it is possible for us to form a Central European bloc to which we can hope to join all those threatened and swallowed up, and which is under the substantial influence of the German politico-military, scientific-technical and ethical-intellectual culture [...] Such a bloc means then of course a German leadership in a certain sense, but not German rule, and the leadership in turn must be based above all on intellectual achievement and political-moral strength [...]


From: Ernst Troeltsch: German Spirit and Western Europe. Collected cultural-philosophical essays and speeches, Tübingen 1925, pp. 31-58.

Unfold

Close

The "German Ideas of 1914" was an alternative to the "Ideas of 1789", which were considered historically obsolete and were supposed to be overcome in the war. At the same time, the previously rather conservative, but in some cases also apolitical, culturally pessimistic ideas of the prewar period experienced a clear politicization through their connection with the conditions of the war and at the same time acquired a future-oriented form. The organization of the war economy was transfigured into a "German common economy", even a typical German "war socialism", in which the German people as a "people of organizers" develop the organized society of the future - the "national cooperative of national socialism" - and in the Help war through the victory of Germany to a breakthrough. "For the second time an emperor is traveling the world as the leader of a people with the tremendous world-determining feeling of power of the highest unity", this is how the economist Johann Plenge interpreted Wilhelm II as the new Napoleon. "And one can claim that the 'Ideas of 1914', the ideas of the German organization, are destined for such a lasting triumph over the world as the 'Ideas of 1789".

Source text

Johann Plenge: The ideas from 1914

Organization or the necessary “concentration” of all national forces has been spoken of a thousand times!
The German unification of freedom and order has been taught and defended a thousand times over as that which alone has made possible for us inner victory and the preservation of our economic life threatened by annihilation. Everyone knew immediately: get involved, integrate yourself, live as a whole. Never before has a word been on everyone's lips so quickly and so naturally as the most important term for general activity in the service of the common cause, as in 1914: "Organization". [...] The vital whole of the state and economy, which takes the individual in with his voluntary work and makes his integration into the larger life, in which he comes to the fore as a participating part, to his own pleasure and pleasure: that is the idea of ​​1914. It does not start from the individual as isolated atoms of will, who are held up to demands which they recognize for themselves and whose pursuit they may join together. Rather, it is the actual coexistence of the national body of the state, grasped by everyone as their greater self, which each individual experiences in his own special way, in which the individual can grow beyond himself and in which he has this growth as his strengthened strength and his strengthened inner life Enjoys security. [...] But if one accordingly emphasizes the basic consciousness of 1914 as the consciously wanted attitude of integration into the whole, it is also clear that in it, although it is the opposite of 1789, it is the spirit of 1789, the Spirit of freedom, live on. Because the real contradiction in development must include both: opposition and preservation. Freedom! Equality! Fraternity! “Create with” is the freedom of action! "Integrate" the equality of service! “Live as a whole” the brotherhood of genuine socialism!


From: Johann Plenge: 1789 and 1914. The symbolic years in the history of the political spirit, Berlin 1916, pp. 85ff.

Unfold

Close

In the context of the German world war ideology, however, there were quite different political manifestations, ranging from right to left. With the anti-Western lines of attack, however, there were mostly tendencies that were negative to the pluralism of competing interests and the liberal-individualistic tendencies of modern society and opposed to authoritarian concepts of the people's community. And the more clearly the internal contradictions of German war society became apparent over time, the more sharply emerged not only the external but also the internal enemy images of the "Spirit of 1914". Its initially inclusive character, integrating all groups of German society, was increasingly replaced by the turn against the "enemy within", against pacifists, socialists and Jews. The stigmatization and suppression of anti-war organizations, but also the "Jewish census" in the German army, which was supposed to examine the accusation that the Jews were withdrawing from military service (which was de facto wrong), were a clear expression of this. With the "Spirit of 1914", as the historian Reinhard Rürup has judged, it became clear "to what extent society was already prepared for fascist crisis solutions in the final phase of the empire". This was also reflected in the German war propaganda.

From censorship to propaganda

"The last blow is the 8th war loan" - historical poster. (& copy Federal Archives: Plak 001-005-044)
At the beginning of the war there was hardly any talk of active state propaganda. At first, the military authorities in charge were primarily concerned with controlling public opinion. As a supplement to the censorship, the newly created war press office organized and propagated the official news and announcements, and the "German war" was to be justified in neutral foreign countries with the distribution of war pamphlets by famous German writers and scholars. But other, more modern forms were soon added. Advertising for the subscription of war bonds was increasingly based on modern propaganda posters, and school children were also mobilized for advertising campaigns and fundraising activities. The program of "pre-military youth training", which is compulsory for all boys, did not go beyond voluntary approaches, however. On the other hand, the pressure to save for young workers was enforced, the income from which flowed into war bonds.
"Through work to victory! Through victory to peace!" - Historical poster. (& copy Federal Archives: Plak 001-003-045)
Particularly after the 3rd Supreme Army Command came to power in the summer of 1916, active "popular enlightenment" and the mobilization of the population moved more and more into the focus of state propaganda activities. In January 1917 the "Bild-und-Film-Amt" (Bufa) was founded, from which the famous UFA film factory later emerged. Modern media, photography and film now moved more and more into the focus of propaganda. Three months later the "Patriotic Education" program was launched, in which the population should be "informed" about the causes and necessities of the war. This was followed by the formation of a press department of the Reich government, the establishment of the Central Office for Homeland Reconnaissance and other reconnaissance organizations in the individual federal states. After all, the whole of Germany, like the other countries involved in the war, was permeated by propaganda organizations and propaganda activities. Its successes are difficult to gauge, however, and in view of the realities of war society, it was not just the collapse of 1918 that made it clear that modern propaganda had developed in a clear tension between the reality of the war and the needs of the people.

Source text

Guidelines for reconnaissance and propaganda activities in the area of ​​the Deputy General Command of the X. AK, May 10, 1917

Under the unconditional exclusion of political issues, the intelligence agency of the General Command wants to use all means: press, leaflets, pamphlets, lectures, church, school, clubs, theater, cinema, etc., in order to spread clarity about the cause and purpose of the war, the incitement and annoyance of some To work against circles with success, to strengthen the confidence and willingness to sacrifice the population and to increase the understanding of the war events.
Every German must learn to recognize the reasons that led to this war against Germany, that it is a matter of being or not of the German people, and that we must hold out in the coming months in order to win the prize for three years of sacrifice and privation. [...]


From: Wilhelm Deist (ed.), Military and domestic policy in the World War 1914-1918, 2 vols., Düsseldorf 1970, here vol. 2, p. 816 f.

Unfold

Close

Mass culture in war society

"Thunderstorm - impeccable!" - Historical postcard, stamped 1916.
The population was not just an externally determined victim of the propaganda apparatus. Rather, people tried in a variety of ways to escape the reach of propaganda and mobilization and to gain some joy from their lives. Instead of national and military edification, the attempt to distract oneself from the horrors and unreasonable demands of war, at least for a short time, became the focus of popular mass culture. Variété and cinema, entertainment literature, sport and dance enjoyment therefore experienced a sometimes stormy development during the First World War, despite all the hardship or precisely because of this, which also shaped the post-war period. The soldiers were also involved. Spontaneous trench magazines and "front theaters", which were soon formally organized by the military authorities, attempted to inform and entertain the soldiers during breaks in combat, with a slapstick like "Charley's Aunt" becoming the most popular play. And the soldiers began en masse to capture their war experiences in photos. They literally triggered a boom in the photography industry that continued in amateur photography during the Weimar Republic. A similar development was recorded for the record and the gramophone, technical innovations that broadened the musical experience beyond traditional performances. But the cinema increasingly came first. While obvious propaganda films found little favor here, more or less realistic depictions of war were far more popular. Above all, however, people were interested in entertainment films, just as they read dime novels and went to dance halls in large numbers - to the horror of conservative observers, who complained louder and louder about the rule of a "trash culture" and public decay.
"Deutscher Sieg" - historical newspaper clipping, from: Die Woche, No. 47, November 21, 1914.



Selected literature:

Martin Baumeister, theater of war. Big city, front and mass culture 1914-1918, Essen 2005.

Steffen Bruendel, Volksgemeinschaft or Volksstaat. The "Ideas of 1914" and the reorganization of Germany in the First World War, Berlin 2003.

Martin Creutz, The Press Policy of the Imperial Government during the First World War. The executive, the journalists and the vicious circle of reporting, Frankf./M. 1996.

Kurt Flasch, The Spiritual Mobilization. The German intellectuals and the First World War. An attempt, Berlin 2000.

Helmut Fries, The great catharsis. The First World War from the perspective of German poets and scholars, 2 vols., Konstanz 1994/96.

Bernd Hüppauf (ed.), Views of the War. Comparative studies on World War I in literature and society, Königstrein Ts. 1984.

Anne Lipp, opinion control in the war. War experiences of German soldiers and their interpretation 1914-1918, Göttingen 2003.

Wolfgang J. Mommsen, Civil culture and artistic avant-garde 1870-1918, Munich 1994.

Sven Oliver Müller, The nation as a weapon and concept. Nationalism in Germany and England during World War I, Göttingen 2003.

Ulrike Oppelt, film and propaganda in the First World War. Propaganda as media reality in topical and documentary films, Stuttgart 2002.

Aribert Reimann. The great war of languages. Studies on political semantics in Germany and England during the First World War, Essen 2000.

Anne Schmidt, instruction - propaganda - trust work. On the change in official communication policy in Germany 1914-1918, Essen 2006.

Jürgen and Wolfgang von Ungern-Sternberg, The appeal "To the cultural world!" The Manifesto of the 93 and the beginnings of war propaganda in the First World War, Stuttgart 1996.