“If war becomes a myth, victory and loss become one. The victors and defeated will together fulfil the destiny that fell upon them.”
History is viewed as a constant source of lessons—for politics, warfare and culture. World War I, the centenary of whose outbreak was marked recently, is no exception, as nobody questions its impact on world history. What kind of impact did the war really have? How did it influence culture?
In trying to answer the latter question, one should first define culture itself. That, however, is not at all easy. Very broadly put, culture is “an inherent way of existence for a human (the human kind), on the basis of which humans differentiate from all other biological life forms and create an artificial living environment for themselves”.1 According to a narrower and quite popular view in modern use, “culture” is often identified with “high culture”.2 Then, of course, there are different philosophers who have defined the term according to their own liking. The first who comes to mind is Oswald Spengler (1880–1936), who saw culture as a level of development in the history of humankind. In his mind this reached its peak in 18th-century Europe and was replaced with “civilisation”—according to Spengler, the “age of Caesarism”, which is the era of authoritarian “mass nations”.3
He describes all this is his main work The Decline of the West, which is closely connected to World War I. Spengler wrote the book during the war, and when the first volume was published in September 1918 he still believed in a German victory. “He wrote his book with the expectation that the military and political elite of the country could use it to find their way in the new Europe and to prepare for future conflicts that Spengler found inevitable. Loss and collapse hit him unexpectedly, but did not change his prognosis for the future: the economy and the democracy that accompanied it would rise to a governing factor on the internal political scene, democracy would face a gradual erosion, class society and nations would collapse, while new empires would develop and start great wars.”4
Although the quote actually evokes an image of the post–World War I period of instability and pivotal events, which all led to the devastation of World War II, even Spengler’s words do not help us get closer to understanding which culture should we be talking about to even delineate the changes that World War I brought.
There is another possibility. If we agree, broadly speaking, that World War I changed Europe and the world— changed them so much more than any other conflict in the previous centuries since the French revolutionary wars and Napoleonic wars, which also altered the world for better and worse—the reason must at least partly lie in war itself. Not in the social changes that made the war possible—the development of mass society had already begun, with the industrial revolution and acceleration of urbanisation. There were also new political ideas and ideologies that attempted to serve the needs of that modern mass society prior to the war, and a number of technical innovations that the contemporary man takes for granted existed before the war (telephone, cinematography, motor transport and, for example, the use of reefer ships to satisfy the growing European demand for tropical fruit). The reason lies in war itself.
That is, the culture of war. It might sound bizarre—and I truly have not heard such a term used anywhere else—but clearly, we can talk about the culture of war. It should never be confused with the art of war, which is a collection of theories and practices developed to achieve one’s own politico-military goals and foil the attempts of rivals. What I have in mind when using the unfamiliar expression “the culture of war” is the question of how, culturally or un-culturally (I am deliberately employing colloquial language without providing detailed explanations), the war was waged. How comrades were treated and prisoners regarded, how domestic and foreign civilians were dealt with, what was considered chivalrous and worthy of a soldier, and what was not. Therefore, this is actually the same old broad definition of culture, according to which culture is everything that people do or do not do.
Perhaps while contemplating the essence of the culture of war during World War I, we get a little closer to identifying the changes to which the post-war world had to adapt. Changed men came back from the trenches after four and a half years—they had somehow to adjust to civilian life and build a new world. A world which we know to have tried and pretended a return to some sort of previous normality but which was, in reality, new in every sense—it had been renewed by the war. On the one hand, it had been made new by the men in the trenches and on the front, while on the other it had been renewed by women who had done the men’s work in their absence, and had started to enjoy the privileges that previously had belonged mostly to men along with this. And it had been made new by the sole fact that many people belonging to the previous world had simply perished. New, young people, who in many cases did not think much of traditions, had to step into their place.
Every war can probably be considered revolutionary and seen as different when compared to some previous conflict. This is often explained by the fact that, on the one hand, commanders prepare for new wars on the basis of experience, while on the other, technological innovation makes such preparatory work atavistic in advance. If such fundamental innovations in technology and science fail to materialise, everything from the weather to specific people in specific circumstances inevitably changes—which already makes it impossible to fight the same battles again. Despite all this, World War I possessed characteristics that distinguish it from all previous wars.
I am not going to delve into these characteristics. The only thing that should be said here is that, although Europe’s generals were already thrilled about modern technology, the destructive force of new weaponry and its great range before the war, they could not imagine exactly how to use such unprecedentedly large manpower equipped with the unprecedentedly powerful weapons. This led only to a single result—unprecedented large-scale slaughter.
The real breakthrough in this war remained notional. While in 1914 men entered a rather chivalrous war where the line between combatants and non-combatants—i.e. civilians—was still fairly clear, by the end of the war people did not delude themselves any longer. The individual soldier had lost his face, the enemy had become a grey mass, civilians living in occupied regions had become, at best, taxpayers and tributaries, and at worst, potential partisans and saboteurs, who should be executed immediately to prevent trouble. The industrial-scale war and the increasingly industrial propaganda that exploited the full potential of the mass media had done their job. And, naturally, the very same weapons—if you truly cannot see your enemy, and death rains down from the sky in the form of bombshells fired from 20–30 kilometres away or sneaks closer by land in the form of invisible gas, all sorts of ancient chivalrous ethics meet their end.
Naturally, this was also reflected in the final result of World War I, where we truly see the immense ideological impact of the war on people and international law. The Peace Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed on 3 March 1918 between Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey on one side and Soviet Russia on the other, still contained a conventional clause common to previous peace treaties in which parties mutually forgave all that was done to each other during the war. Article 9 of the Treaty states: “The contracting parties mutually renounce repayment of their war costs, that is to say, their State expenditure for the prosecution of the war, as well as payment for war damages, that is to say, damages sustained by them and their nationals in the war areas through military measures, including all requisitions made in enemy territory.”
There is no such clause in the treaties of Versailles, Saint-Germain, Neuilly, Trianon and Sèvres. These treaties, concluded by the Allied powers—with Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary and Turkey respectively—did not forgive anything. On the contrary, they unilaterally demanded bringing all war criminals to justice, the payment of economic reparations and the official acceptance of responsibility for starting the war from the governments of the above-mentioned countries. While in Turkey this one-sided blame game led immediately to the outbreak of a new armed conflict that lasted until 1923 and ended with the Treaty of Lausanne, which was favourable to Turkey, other Central Powers were subjugated by these one-sided “guilt treaties” through violence and at the expense of destabilising the countries economically, politically and socially.
The renouncement of chivalry and magnanimity by one side led to a similar renouncement from the other. Emerging totalitarian ideologies rushed to take advantage of this and soon managed to dehumanise the opposition, on either a national or a social level. If that did not affect culture in any way, then what did?
Yes, one could argue that the roots of the viciousness of World War I lie elsewhere than in the development of science and technology alone, and in the pre-war reality. Michael Haneke has shown that with superbly conveyed angst in his 2009 movie The White Ribbon, which tells a story about life in a northern German village just before World War I. If, however, we look at the literature that depicts World War I and compare different authors such as Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894–1961) and Ernst Jünger (1895–1998), and their works Journey to the End of the Night (1932, Estonian 2010) and Storm of Steel (1920), Céline depicts the absurdity and nonsense of World War I, while the narrator in Jünger’s work sees himself as an ancient hero amidst a battle of titans; we see that the experience of war was something so large and unfathomable that it is extremely difficult to find a common denominator. At most, it could be the survivor’s guilt (I thank Tiit Aleksejev for this observation), which is the inspiration behind T. S. Eliot’s (1888–1965) legendary poem The Waste Land (1922, Estonian 1999), in which the protagonist walks on the streets of London and sees his friends who died in the war.
Although daylight saving time, universal suffrage or functionalism in architecture can be viewed as the immediate influences of World War I on our culture, it can be said that none of the people who participated in the war and tried to put their experiences into words were able to formulate any kind of lesson for future generations, some guidelines for life, or a new type of sensibility, which might have been helpful. This war, with its absolute and absurd essence, already became a legend in the lifetime of those who participated in it. “Because when war becomes a myth, victory and loss are the same. The victors and defeated will together fulfil the destiny that fell upon them”5 is how literary critic Jörg Magenau summarises the experience of World War I. Notwithstanding the fact that he was talking about two brothers, two writers—Friedrich Georg and Ernst Jünger—this statement serves to generalise the whole of World War I that fulfilled Europe’s destiny. Not for better, but for worse.
1 Väike Entsüklopeedia. Eesti Entsüklopeediakirjastus, (Tallinn, 2006), p. 471.
2 cf. Alvar Loog, Anakronistlik vastus anakronistlikule küsimusele – Sirp, 25 July 2014
3 Lexikon des Konservatismus. Leopold Stocker Verlag (Graz, 1996), p. 521.
4 Karlheinz Weissmann, Spengler und die Konservative Revolution – Sezession – Oswald Spengler (May 2005), p. 20.
5Jörg Magenau. Brüder unterm Sternenzelt. Friedrich Georg und Ernst Jünger (Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart, 2012), p. 57.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.