n a New York Times article of December 13, 2013, British historian Margaret MacMillan writes that, nearly a hundred years after its start, World War I still haunts us because we continue to disagree about what caused it. Among the possible explanations she lists are: the ambitions of men in power, nationalist rivalries, militarism, and the tragedy of human error. She discusses prewar economic and political trends, and draws chilling parallels between present-day global conflict and the pre-1914 world. She concludes by writing that “with different leadership, World War I might have been avoided,” and she calls for a new commitment from today’s decision makers to building a stable international order that will avoid future conflagrations. The problem with her perspective, from my point of view as a social historian of modern Europe, is that it ignores how many millions of Europeans outside the halls of political power—novelists, workers, peasants—regarded the war in positive terms that had little to do with this or any other explanatory schema.
It’s easy to forget the enthusiasm with which Europeans greeted war in August 1914 because in ensuing decades there was much nostalgia for the world Europeans felt they’d left behind. The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, one of the most famous novelists of his time, remembered the prewar era as a “Golden Age of Security.” The “world of yesterday,” the title of Zweig’s posthumously published autobiography of 1943, was for Zweig shaped by culture with a capital “C,” international travel, and the surety of living in an Empire that had lasted for a millennium. From a very different angle, Boris Pasternak, twenty-four years old at the outbreak of war, came to similar conclusions. In Doctor Zhivago, first published in the West in 1957, the Russian Nobel Prize winner wrote that World War I transformed European culture from a “calm, innocent, measured way of living to blood and tears, to mass insanity and to savagery of daily, hourly, legalized, rewarded slaughter.” It’s extraordinary to see how this image of pre-1914 grace persists. In PBS’s “Downton Abbey,” memory of a lost antebellum paradise hovers over the entertaining series like smoke from a burst mortar shell.
How different, in contrast, was the attitude of the British writer Robert Roberts, whose memoir The Classic Slum recalled his life growing up in Salford, one of Manchester’s most blighted industrial ghettos. Born in 1905, Roberts wrote decades later of the daily struggle he saw working-class people wage as they tottered on the edge of destitution and feared the greatest catastrophe of all: loss of social respectability. Roberts recalled many good times, and he saw humor even in painful situations. But his overall impression of the era was so gritty it makes the reader wonder how anyone could have looked to the period before 1914 with anything but highly qualified affection.
Roberts’ overall impression was so gritty it makes the reader wonder how anyone could have looked to the period before 1914 with anything but highly qualified affection.
In a chapter titled “The Great Release,” Roberts recalled that World War I, despite a mounting number of casualties, had a liberating effect because it “cracked the form of English lower-class life, and began an erosion of socio-economic layers that has continued.” Roberts remembered that after 1914 Salford women gained more self-confidence. His older sister, making good money in a war-related job, began to wear newly available cosmetics despite her father’s angry opposition to young ladies’ use of such “muck.” Economic opportunity expanded, especially for semi-skilled and unskilled workers who’d had a rough go of it in prewar labor markets, while the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 gave many locals hope that their future would be different. He describes a movement not from some far-off golden age to a time of blood and tears, but from one regime of hardship to another—the first desperate and seemingly written in the natural order of things, the second made more manageable by a sense of possibility.
A sense of possibility was also prevalent among those whose experiences the young Roberts could only imagine from word of mouth and newspaper accounts: soldiers in the trenches. Like the middle-class German writer Ernst Jünger, whose memoir Storm of Steel remains a staple of World War I literature, many Europeans anticipated war as a heroic escape from the “feminized” world of comfort and security that Europe allegedly had become. Jünger felt that war’s emotional pull affected his entire generation. “A long period of law and order…produces a craving for the abnormal,” he wrote. “Among other questions that occupied us was this: what does it look like when there are dead lying about?” He found out in due time, but in the three hundred pages of his memoir, one finds, chillingly, not a single passage condemning war as unnecessary or immoral.
The prewar generation’s craving for something extraordinary goes only part of the way in explaining why tumultuous scenes of celebration erupted in many European cities when war was announced in the summer of 1914. One celebrant in Munich, a down-and-out Adolf Hitler, would find military order a welcome alternative to the drifting pointlessness of his life as a failed art student. We now know that such festive scenes were not only short-lived but also rather less widespread than first impressions suggested. The vaunted “spirit of 1914” was a mile wide and an inch deep. Even so, for many across the social spectrum, “war was like Christmas,” to quote a newly commissioned German lieutenant who would die of an accidental gunshot wound on the way to the front in Liège.
Soldiers saw parts of Europe they might never have experienced were it not for war. In effect, they made up vast armies of part-time tourists.
Anticipation was heightened by soldiers’ new opportunities for travel. For countless men and small numbers of women, the Great War was a chance to move beyond the stifling barriers of class, neighborhood, town, region, religion, and family. A part of this appeal stemmed from military propaganda. A World War I recruiting poster in the US in 1917 told young men they should “See the World. Serve Your Country.” It’s difficult to quantify, but evidence suggests that many read the first sentence more closely than the second. Soldiers didn’t spend their entire time at the front but were rotated between periods of fighting, support, rest, and leave. Such opportunities could be hit or miss. The Germans organized troop rotations quite well, the French less so, the Austro-Hungarian army almost not at all—with the expected results for morale, psychological well-being, and killing efficiency. Regardless of whether armies gave men proper leave time or not, soldiers took advantage of their chance to see parts of Europe they might never have experienced were it not for war. In effect, they made up vast armies of part-time tourists.
Not only travel, but also rugged interaction with nature was an element of the experience. World War I was an epistolary war, despite censors’ hard-hearted editorial interventions, and soldiers’ letters reveal a sense of vigorous physical accomplishment in addition to their fear and homesickness. Soldiers lucky enough to return home without serious injury were often tan, had gained weight, and had the general appearance of health. It wasn’t only nationalist right-wing militants who would recall their military service as a moment of manly exertion experienced in common with fellow warriors. Even the novelist Henri Barbusse, who later joined the French Communist party and wrote an adoring biography of Stalin, saw war as an opportunity to build a virile masculine cadre of proletarian soldiers who could potentially revolutionize the world. His novel Under Fire, published in 1916 and one of the most important works of fiction to emerge from World War I, still amazes contemporary readers who wonder how his realistic portrayals of soldiers’ daily struggles ever passed muster with French authorities.
However, positive or inspiring memories of social change, travel, and comradeship cannot obliterate the horrific realities of trench warfare. The German Supreme Command’s Schlieffen Plan was to end the war quickly in a breathtaking two-pronged attack against France and Russia. Its failure transformed the Western front into a vast wasteland of stationary warfare with a complex trench system girded by barbed wire and a complicated maze of fortifications, reinforced dugouts, and communications trenches. Within that system, hundreds of thousands of young men could be killed in a single day over a mere hundred yards of territory. Historians debate when the war of attrition began in earnest, but precise dating is finally less important than the fate of soldiers themselves. Soldiers going “over the top” would be mowed down by machine gun fire or debilitated by poison gas, which was first employed by the French but then perfected by the German military. An incautious peep over a trench line could mean a bullet in the head. Artillery killed untold numbers; in the early days of the war, the French alone fired 120,000 shells a day. Boredom, lice, cold, and mud were even more enduring threats than enemy gunfire. Trench warfare was less the norm on the Eastern Front, but it is the Western experience that later generations regarded as the epitome of the war’s dark brutality.
And yet, the most fearsome thing about war, any war, is that human beings, even the most cultured and ethical, can—and will—find in war some benefit that’s inassimilable to explanations of power politics, ideology, religion, greed, psychology, necessity, or any other “one-size-fits-all” theory we can devise. It’s finally this that should haunt us more than anything about a war that took nearly ten million lives and opened the way to even greater slaughter in decades to come.