How to Think About the Great War

The historical rupture marked by the Great War of 1914-1918 and its traces throughout the twentieth century have been more controversial in Germany than elsewhere. At the beginning of the century the German nation, recently unified under Bismarck, had rapidly adapted to modernity in every arena. Material progress underpinned by scientific creativity was quickly translated into technology; the new industries in turn favored the emergence of a new middle class while the state took responsibility for the well-being of those in need and those who worked in the giant new factories. National self-affirmation was evident also in the growing power of the army and especially its professional officer corps (its “General Staff”), as well as in the growth of sea power and accompanying colonial ambitions. Reflecting on what had been, the distinguished American historian Fritz Stern recently recalled the observation of Raymond Aron, who foresaw the birth of “a German Century.”[2] Alas, the four grinding years of the Great War transformed the dream into a nightmare, and the history of the war lent itself to a politicization that became the incubator of ideologies. Today, in a reunified Germany that has become once again a power in the middle of a Europe, caught up between East and West, and still seeking its self-definition, it is rewarding to rethink to the origins of the accidents and errors of a twentieth century searching in vain for a stable and democratic political order. Germany, the regime in the middle of the continent, was and remains an axial point.

German Ideologies in the Twentieth Century

Just as the French revolution gave rise to continual conflicts of interpretation and to the birth of aggressive ideologies during the nineteenth century whose effect, as François Furet demonstrated in Imagining the French Revolution (1981[3]), was to occlude the political foundations of the revolution, so too was the Great War at the center of ideological controversies in Germany. However, since 1978, no German historian has published a synthetic history that desperate conflict. In the meanwhile, the Wall has fallen. Herfried Münkler’s “global history,” published twenty-five years after German reunification, represents an attempt to synthesize not only Germany’s geo-political past but also its potential future. At the same time, it is at once a synthetic history and a broader reflection on the nature of politics in what is perhaps a not-so-new-World-Order.

Herfried Münkler is a historian who works at the borders of political science and philosophy. His first book was a provocative and wide-ranging study of Machiavelli in the context of his own Florence and his legacy.[4] In the following years, Münkler worked with the distinguished Frankfurt professor of Politics, Iring Fetscher, as co-editor of a five volume history of political thought.[5] With this, he had done, so to speak, his homework and his spadework; his imagination was freed while his repertoire was nourished. As the post-Cold War appeared ever less irenic. Münkler began to examine how transformations of the state resulted from different types of warfare, beginning with the Peasant Wars unleashed in the context of the Reformation in Germany. That historical study, including a serious reflection on the work of Clausewitz, suggested that the post-Cold War opened to a framework marked by what he called “new wars,” of which September 11th was perhaps the ultimate avatar but not the unique model. Not content with the simple idea that our era is confronted with what many call an “asymmetrical war,” he returned once again to a comparative historical argument. The contrasting strategy to the new asymmetrical wars was the imperial political project. Münkler reached wide and deep in his next volume, which traced the different political structures of imperial power, and the source of their dangerous temptation ( itself a sort of asymmetry) to extend their power beyond their structural capacities.[6] However fascinated by the logic and illogic of military-political strategy, Münkler doubted the premises of the generals and the geo-strategists; he seemed to feel the need to test his historical hypothesis by embedding it in the mythic-political context that constitutes the German imaginary. That was the project of his fascinating, brilliantly written and historically innovative study of the cultural foundations of the German self-representation. In this brilliantly written volume, each of whose chapters can be read with pleasure for itself, Münkler presents an archeology of the early national myths of Germania (Barbarossa, the Nibelungen…) which find an echo in the image of a pure savage race struggling against imperial Rome (Tacitus, Canossa…); a new thickness is added to this cultural vision with the rise of Prussia, which however was contemporaneous with the mythology of isolated fortresses on the Rhine or the image of small cities of great cultural creativity (the Wartburg, Weimar…).

It is not without significance in the present context that the inventory of this contradictory and self nourishing mythology culminates with the study of “political myths” that were born after the second World War (the antifascist resistance on the GDR in the East, and the economic miracle of the FRG in the East…).[7] This “cultural” detour away from the apparent realities of the front bears fruits in the analysis of the Great War, which was on its surface not defined by ideological divisions.   That does not mean that ideology played no role; it means that ideology emerged from the war rather than defining the reasons for its outbreak. Indeed, it is not false to say that (whatever the intellectual historians may say) ideology was born from the Great War!

The Shared Assumptions of the post-war German Right and Left

Politicians of course had to fit the events of the Great War into their political interpretation of German history. Although each worked within the framework of their own presuppositions, their conclusions converged surprisingly, in Bonn as in Berlin. The doxa of the right presented the Germany of 1914 as a victim of hostile forces just at the moment that it had finally found its national unity. Germany was, from this point of view, the victim of its virtues. This increasing national prosperity fostered both fear and jealousy in the neighboring nations which sought to limit the success of a potential rival. Then, once the war broke out, as the nation in the middle, Germany was surrounded by the greater military strength of the Entente (France, England, Russia); its army fought valiantly, its people supported serious sacrifices, but even these real or imagined national virtues could not have insure victory. Ideologues after the war had to ask how to explain the defeat. Their first temptation was to find internal scapegoats, to purge and defeat them, in order to recreate the unity of the Nation. This accusation was posed already just before the end of the war by the ostentatious retirement of the military leaders, Hindenburg and Ludendorff, after the failed offensive at the second battle of the Somme. It meant that the Parliament, under the leadership of the Socialist Party, that had to sign the surrender of the German armies.[8] As a result, the first ideological doxa of the right became the legend of a “knife in the back” (Dolchstosslegende) wielded by the traitors who lost the war. And of course the “traitors” could include many diverse categories depending on who defined the “Fatherland.”

The knife-in-the-back legend applied to the democrats of Weimar, or to the Socialists in its Parliament, was only the beginning of right-wing demonizing. The accusation deepened. Germany was seen as a victim subjected first to the jealousy and then to the “revanche” of its enemies who imposed the famous “Clause 321” of the Versailles treaty that stipulated that Germany was responsible for starting the war. Added to this moral stigma were the heavy reparations that in turn gave rise to a growing inflation whose political importance was that it destroyed what remained of the propertied upper classes. The experience of the Weimar republic was thus, for an emerging right-wing, characterized as the reign of rootless financial interests, as well as the domination of a republican political system that proved incapable of restoring the health of the nation. In these conditions, almost as a sort of fatality, Hitler and the Nazis took power, with the support of the heroic general and guarantor of unity, Hindenburg.

The right-wing narrative doesn’t end here. The right that emerged from the defeat after 1945 of course disapproved of the excesses of the Hitler regime (and, at least after the fact, of its anti-Semitism). But it is striking that it once again saw Germany as the victim of the war both insofar as it suffered terribly from the allied bombardments during the war, and was forcibly divided in its aftermath. Of course it couldn’t quite say this publicly, and seemed to assume with a sometimes masochistic pleasure its guilt. This, and its role once it rearmed and joined NATO are questions for another discussion.

Meanwhile, in the West, the post-war Federal Republic saw a further mutation of right-wing ideology that now took the form of an irenic world view where the (real or imagined) affirmation of national power lost all legitimacy. The Bismarckian self-affirmation under the “Iron Chancellor” was now subordinated to a pacified and democratic Europe. This new German self-understanding was most strikingly manifested in the ways, against ideology, in which Helmut Kohl, of the CDU, and François Mitterrand, of the Parti Socialist, negotiated the grand event of the Fall of the Wall!

How was this to unnatural alliance to be understood? The now pacified right-wing ideology (within the CDU under the leadership of Kohl) fit quite well with the doxa of the reformed left that had emerged from the Social Democrats 1959 Congress of Bad Godesberg which bid a final farewell to Marxist ideology. In spite of the attraction by the irenic preachers of an “internationalism” which was in fact a guise for Soviet policy aims, the West German left found its roots in the Great War of 1914-1918.   It based its identity on an inherited “anti-imperialist politics” freed from Marxist schemas. This self-identification found an apparent justification with the publication in 1961 of Fritz Fischer’s best-selling archival research, the Griff nach Weltmacht.[9] The West-German historian wanted to demonstrate that the aggressive political choices of imperial Germany had explicitly led to a war from which its military leaders expected to benefit. As one can imagine, the book was met by polemical replies, often those of wear veterans who still bore its wounds— but it supported the claims of the communists in Eastern Germany’s GDR who claimed to incarnate the “good” Germany, finally healed from the scares of an imperialist past.

Both sides seemed to say that Germany had recognized the folly of the imperial will to dominate, that it had accepted the guilt of its past, and that its vision of the future was based on an apolitical modesty. But curiously—as Münkler notes— this assumption of guilt was also an act of hubris” insofar as it assumed that Germany was possessed of (or was possessed by) a quasi-demonic power.[10]   It is good to reflect on this implicit self-valuation even by those who challenged the refusal to accept the status of a normal member of the international community.

The Mechanics of The War

This brief sketch makes clear that the doxa of the left could easily become compatible with that of the irenic, pacifist right of the post-war.   This apolitical consensus is challenged by Herfried Münkler’s Der Grosse Krieg. This historical study doesn’t claim to offer lessons for today.[11] It is first of all a lively and astute historical narrative that takes account of the multiple histories that exploded in 1914 and were transformed in its mighty wake. Münkler builds into his narrative the conflict of the imaginary expectations and the real situations of the combatants. He describes the experience of civilians and soldiers, officers and common troupes, politicians and intellectuals as they overlapped, interfered and often contradicted one another. If the central actor is of course Germany, Münkler nonetheless insists in his subtitle that he is describing “The World 1914-1918”. Beyond the five Powers that opened the war (joined in 1915 by Italy), he describes the changing fortunes of the battles in the territories of the dying Ottoman empire, first in the Balkans— after Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria— which then were extended to the Arab Middle East and beyond to the African and Asian colonies that were part of the “world” at war. Beyond this familiar geography, he adds fascinating pages analyzing the war at sea and the evolution of naval military war.[12]

Der Grosse Krieg is of course also a military history that not only explains the evolution of tactical choices but especially the impact of these tactical moves on the longer term strategies that were imposed by the rapid introduction of new weapons such as the use of gas, which was first a tactical choice that had, for technical reasons, a boomerang effect that forced those who first used it to task their scientists to change the chemical composition of the gases, and their generals to find a way to invent a more strategic use. Similarly, the rudimentary airplanes that were first used for reconnaissance in the place of the cavalry would become the fighter warplanes skirmishing with heroic pilots before being supplemented by the first bombers which were militarily more destructive against massed armies. Another irony emerges here. If these armaments became increasingly heavy in the mass warfare, they could become too heavy, as in the case of the giant tanks used first by the English in the Flanders fields that sunk into the sodden soil whereas the light-weight tanks invented by Renault came to play a crucial role in the last months of the war. [13]

In a word, technology moved more rapidly than tactics, and the results led first to improvised (and costly) responses that were finally translated into strategic reforms. But the results could be devastating. On the seas, the unlimited submarine war against commercial ships had the inevitable result of drawing the US into the war in 1917 (as Max Weber and a minority of intellectuals feared). In addition, the fact that a submarine could not confront directly the enemy and could not save the drowning sailors led to transformations in the laws of maritime warfare. Similarly on land, the unimaginable (unexpected and unprepared) trench warfare, with its periods of boredom, slime and filth alternating between freezing cold and suffocating heat that were interrupted periodically by intense bombardments that were followed by deathly mass infantry attacks across barbed wire no-mans-lands against dug-in enemies wielding newly updated machine guns.[14]

But as the years went on, there was no new strategy. Advances of a few hundred meters continued to be paid for by thousands upon thousands of deaths. At Verdun, the French lost 315,000 men, the Germans 280,000. What was this victory? Beyond the cold statistics, Herfried Münkler’s reflections look to images, for example that barbed wire stretched between enemy trenches where the wounded and the dead lay unattended, blasted corpses, bones whitening in the pale sun… The images are well-known; their deeper significance, notes the cultural historian, is that this was the first war in history in which the dead were not buried at the conclusion of the battles.[15]   It was truly the end of an era, of a civilization.

How to think about the End and the Ends of the Great War

Münkler’s reflection on the cruel vanity of the war that ended an era points to some broader considerations about the nature of the political. We have seen how his historical reconstruction challenges the ideological visions that both the right and the left drew from the experience of the Great War. That does not, however, lead him to accept the paradoxical liberal view that sees the outbreak of the war as accidental but yet in the long-term inevitable and in the end fatal. It is of course true that accident and the unexpected played a role. A minor example illustrates the point. A German spy in the Russian embassy in London had informed Berlin of secret Russian-British negotiations that could have lead to a new alliance: this reinforced the German belief that a preventive attack was needed. The month of July 1914 was rich with this kind of misunderstandings, based on chance, on missed opportunities and on conflicts within the national governments. This accumulation of accidents leads to the question whether there was some determinant cause. How indeed could the assassination of the Archduke in the provincial town of Sarajevo lead to the end of a world? If the historian has to interpret the attitudes of the people and to explain the choices of the politicians, he has also to think the globalized panorama which shapes the significance of the facts that he describes .

Herfried Münkler’s thesis is that the outbreak of the war demonstrates the failure of the political. After all, the great powers had previously faced up to similar threats, many of them more serious, in the territories that had formerly belonged to the Ottoman empire. The Morocco Crisis of 1906 and its recurrence at Agadir in 1911 had been resolved in spite of their gravity; and the great powers had been able to limit the costs and impact of the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. But suddenly, in the summer of 1914, the political framework broke down. Historians, most recently Christopher Clark, have described the stages of the breakdown step by step and day by day.[16] The thesis of Der Grosse Krieg is broader and in a sense more simple; its concern is the framework of the political rather than the everyday calculations of politics. Everyone in every country involved knew, says Münkler, that war was coming; and the effect of this assumed knowledge was that a preventive war was legitimate and even necessary. As a result, the prospect of an immanent war whose date remained undetermined ultimately made its outbreak necessary— made it a self-realizing prophecy! Each nation hoped to prevent an attack by the other by mobilizing its forces in order to have the advantage of striking the first blow. But this only forced the others to mobilize their own military might, setting into play a diabolical machinery.

Why did Germany strike first? Several factors played a role. The weight of the military in domestic politics led it to think that it could abandon the logic of the political settlement that had prevented earlier outbreaks of war. By striking first, the powerful German army would open a window of opportunity. Its professional leadership had been preparing for this moment since the 1880s, when its General Staff had elaborated the Schlieffen Plan. With supposed scientific certainty, the Plan sought to avoid the disadvantages of the geopolitical situation of Germany which, situated between its two enemies, had to avoid a simultaneous two-front war. The idea was to wage a lightning war in the West, ignoring the existence of the Belgian border to create a fait accompli as the Germans raced forward to the doors of Paris, which would be forced to sue for peace. The speed of this conquest would permit the transfer of large parts of the German army to the East before the backward Russians had time to complete the mobilization of their massive but slow-moving and badly led conscript army. On paper, the Plan was brilliant; and in a sense, it was put into practice as it was intended, as German forces arrived at the doors of Paris at the beginning of September. There, however, military science proved insufficient; the weight of the political made itself felt as the offensive was brought to a halt by a counteroffensive whose popular political spirit was conveyed by the mobilization of the Parisian taxis which ferried new forces to the battle of the Marne. The front was stabilized, and trench warfare took hold.

The best of all imaginable scientific war plans obviously could not have expected this “miracle of the Marne.”   The German failure was not due alone to such luck; Münkler underlines another political weakness of the Schlieffen Plan. The generals had forgotten one of the principle lessons of their master, Carl von Clausewitz, who insisted that in war there will always exist “friction” that interferes with the apparently clear logic of the best of all possible plans. In the present case, that friction was not only the French popular mobilization; it was also the Belgian national spirit which, against all expectations, took the form of a strong resistance to the invaders. Although the Germans overcame this opposition, the fury of their counter-attacks against the resistance came at the cost of civilian lives and civil damages which then served as propaganda that helped to convince the British to mobilize their own forces in support of “little Belgium.”[17]   Worse still, the Schlieffen Plan had been developed with such precision, and the German officers were so rigidly faithful in its execution, that they neglected a second lesson of Clausewitz: the need for flexibility in order to cope with the unexpected. Thus, once the advance toward Paris had been stopped, a war that was supposed to be short became a war of position that would last for years where the advantage was always with the defense. The German forces that were supposed to be transferred to the East had to remain on French soil; and the Russian mobilization, which was more rapid and better organized than expected, prevented the transfer of reinforcements from the East to break the bloody stalemate on the Western front.

When the early enthusiasm based on the expectation that a short war would clear the horizon of an always awaited, feared and hoped for war, had disappeared, a new sense of the political had to be invented in order to present a legitimating meaning for what became an endless butchery (if there could be a sense for such a slaughter[18]). The political entered the discussion at several levels. First of all came the types of self-justification based on the devaluation of the other. This was the first reflex on both sides at the outset of the war, which each claimed to wage in the name of civilization. Intellectuals opened a “war of the pen” to defend the “values” of their nation. On the French side, at the very outbreak of hostilities, on August 8, 1914, Henri Bergson delivered a speech at the Académie Française opposing “French civilization” to the militarist barbarism of Germany. The German reply came quickly, in an “Erklärung der Kulturwelt” published on October 4 by 93 intellectuals and professors which accused those nationalist French of refusing to admit that their critique of the supposed German militarism was in fact a hypocritical pretense for an attack on German culture itself.

But it wasn’t enough to criticize the other; each side had to present itself as a value. Anti-capitalism could play a role in such a positive self-definition in Germany, where the progress of industry and the development of urban life went together with the growth of Social Democracy. The sociologist Geog Simmel— who had finally been named to a professorship at the University of Strasburg at age 57—delivered a speech in November 1914 on the “Internal Transformation of Germany” which sought to encourage the “birth of a New Man.” In the same vein, the economist Werner Sombart developed an idea borrowed from the philosopher Max Scheler in a pamphlet bearing the significant title “Merchants and Heros (Händler und Helden). As opposed to the capitalist merchant who asks crudely what Life can offer to him the Hero, is ready to sacrifice his very Life to save the world. Alas, such spiritual visions had no influence on the calculations of the leaders of the warring Entente who insisted that their battle was confirmed by the “barbarism” manifested by the violation of Belgian neutrality and the repression of the Belgian resistance.[19]

On the German side, as the war continued and the stalemate persisted, the “heroic” values were superimposed on the cruel daily reality. The myth defined the meaning of the cruel struggle. These sacrifices in battle affected relations on the home front; enthusiasm of the first days diminished. The meaning of the war itself disappeared; in its place remained only the stupid evidence that the honor of the nation depended on continuing the battle, upholding the sacrifice of those who had suffered so that their trials were not in vain. This changed the definition of the “heroes,” who were now simply those who held on, who continued the battle in spite of all, showing themselves worthy of those who died for the cause. This paradoxical form of stubborn heroism as an end in itself was reflected in civilian society as well as in the army. The “cause” became an end in itself, with no content, without ends and without an end. As a result, no political solution was possible.

Nonetheless a change emerged : the “hero” was democratized as the war and its human losses affected all of society. One result of this leveling democratization was an implicit redefinition of the goals and the significance of the war. Unlike the earlier phases of the war, this redefinition was not the work of intellectuals; it was society in all its dimensions that sought the meaning of its suffering. The “hero” was present in everyday life; the heroes were those who persisted, who were ready to continue to suffer until the victory. These “heroes” were not any longer the canon fodder of trench warfare; however quiet and inarticulate, their questions could not be ignored. They wanted peace and the end of suffering, but they were not ready to win it at any price.   As a result, attempts at negotiation (which did occur) were doomed to failure because the democratic “hero” had become a determined nationalist: he wanted peace, but could accept nothing less than a victorious peace achieved by the strength of his arms: a Siegfrieden.   Herfried Münkler, the author of those wonderful tales of Die Deutschen und ihren Mythen, of course sees in this attitude an echo of a national mythology that served to justify claims to annex lands conquered by the Reich. But, as noted at the outset of these remarks, the peace that was finally accepted by the German Parliament after the resignation of the leaders of its army led to the antipolitical legend of the “knife in the back” and the fears of democratic debate that would ultimately condemn the Weimar republic. One can ask whether this was necessary? Or was it contingent on the relation of forces in 1919? Or was it an unintended perverse result of the idealism of Woodrow Wilson forced to compromise with the supposed realists at Versailles?

Another Political Analogy

Münkler’s wide-ranging study of a foundational moment in German history suggests comparisons with French interpretations of the revolution of 1789. The impetuous path inaugurated that year opened a series of events, challenges and questions that seemed impossible to master as the revolution became an end in itself.[20]   Behind them was one simple question: How could the revolution come to an end? This was the question that tormented French historians in the nineteenth century, wherever they stood on the political spectrum. In the analogous case of Germany, the trench warfare continued beyond what anyone could have imagined, and a similar question arose: How could the war come to an end? When faced with events that are indefinable because there was no way to understand the goal they sought, diplomats as well as the newly empowered populations are powerless. There could be no end because the battles and the heroism sought no end; they were without limits; they became an end in themselves. It is not surprising that in France as in Imperial Germany at war there emerged a new nationalism based on the glorification of the people.

This Franco-German analogy is mine. Herfried Münkler’s history of the war suggests a different point of comparison that also has political echoes. He recalls the debate of 1916, when a minority of German intellectuals opposed the expansion of unlimited submarine war. They knew that this would make the conflict a “world” war that would draw the United States out of its neutrality.   A professor of classics, Eduard Schwartz, turned to Greek history in order to suggest a political justification for a war which seemed to have become an end in itself. He recalled Thucydides’ account of the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, comparing Germany’s condition in 1914 to that of Athens. This analogy came easily to a bourgeois professor who identified himself with the classical image of Weimar, the city of Dicthter und Denker that was the spiritual heir of Athens.[21]   Schwartz’s argument was that, like Athens, Germany was surrounded by jealous neighbors, envious of its domination and the wealth that it had won. They also feared its culture, the refinement that it brought to their social relations and the proud self-assurance of the people whom Pericles had so elegantly praised in his “Funeral Discourse.” This mixture of jealousy and fear explained why Athens feared an attack by a coalition of its enemies. Rather than let them choose the hour and the place of the attack, the Athenians had to seek an occasion for a preventive attack. This is where the political point of the analogy becomes clear: the accidental occasion for the war should not be confused with the cause of the war. The cause of the war was its neighbors’ fear of the growing hegemony of Athens. Athens, therefore, was not guilty. And by analogy, in 1916, Germany could not be declared responsible for the terrible war.

Analogies can be misleading. In the present case, Herfried Münkler points out that “the analogy becomes an apology” that blames the jealousy and the aggressive intentions of the others for the war. Münkler himself is no apologist; his argument goes a step further. After all, the analogy comparing Germany to Athens was proposed during the debate in 1916 concerning the extension of the war; and it was Germany that would be responsible for that choice. Unlimited naval warfare would entail the abolition of the political limits on the goals of the war. Eduard Schwartz himself recalled in this context the advice of Pericles once the war had broken out. Because of the superiority of their civilization, the Athenians should adopt a defensive posture which would give its enemies the time to exhaust themselves and recognize the vanity of their claims. Unfortunately, after Pericles death the Athenians did not follow his wise advice. They became caught up in a long war marked by the emergence of what I (not Schwartz) have called the “democratic hero.” Athens gave in to the temptation of an expansionist war whose conclusion was the disastrous (but notably quite popular) invasion of Sicily. The catastrophic defeat that concluded this adventure left the city defenseless during the chaotic years in which a dictatorship emerged at home, followed by the return of a democracy that was so little certain of its legitimacy that it voted the death penalty for Socrates before it finally disappeared under the might of the Macedonians. Was this the message of Eduard Schwartz? Was its goal to recall that the political has to know how to admit its limits if it is not to perish as the victim of its own madness? Was the fate of the Weimar Republic in some ways similar to the sad story of the restored democracy of Athens? There are limits to analogies, but they also pose questions that can be worth reflection by future generations.

Herfried Münkler returns to the argument of Eduard Schwartz in his conclusion; but this time he draws another lesson from the little-known professor of classics. The professor reread Thucydides before publishing his arguments in 1919 under the very academic title of Das Geschichtswerk des Thukydides. According to the professor, Thucydides returned to the distinction between the causes of the war and the occasions that brought its outbreak. His rereading insisted that the war was necessary, even predestined, although its hour and its date were tot predetermined nor the result of a determinant cause. The same consideration, it seems, would hold for the Great War. This lack of determination seems to imply that the politicians were responsible for the choices that led to a war that was fated to come although no one could say when and how it would break out. But, Münkler argues, that would mean that these political choices were in fact not political, and that the politicians were not responsible for the results of their actions. If war was inevitable, political intervention or political abstention would change only the date and the hour of its execution. That was the so-called liberal interpretation that Münkler refused.

What then is the implication of Eduard Schwartz’s analogy that Herfried Münkler has excavated from the many debates of the times? In the conclusion to his book, Münkler asserts that right-wing Germans who believed (and still believe) in the idea of an inevitable conflict rooted in history are appealing to a vision of history that, in the last analysis, is logically no different from that of the left-wing historian Fritz Fischer whose critique of German imperial policy presupposed another kind of inevitability, namely that left-free of self-seeking imperial politicians, Germany was called by destiny to be a (peaceful, cultured and flourishing) model for others.   Neither political vision leaves room for the autonomy of the political since for both politics is simply the realization of the inevitable. Both would do well to recognize the lesson of Hegel’s “Preface” to Philosophy of Right which insists that philosophy can only paint the political world “in grey on grey” ; it cannot pretend to renew that world, which is why “the owl of Minerva” spreads its wings only at dusk. At the end of his “global investigation” of the Great War, Münkler is telling his reader that there is no political “lesson” to be drawn from that first modern war and applied to our own modernity. The Great War remains— particularly for German thought—both the origin of and the challenge to the political theories that have been inherited from the twentieth-century. It testifies to the need for politics in order to avoid the raw outbreak of conflict but it warns also against the dissolution of the limits of politics that are imposed precisely by the presence of conflict.

It stands in this centenary year, when politicians of every color want to use the somber anniversary for their own goals, as a mute reminder that the political will remain contested territory even while politics continues its vain attempts to drain what it might call the swamp of political thought. Better the eternal question than the endless heroism that stained the trenches and infected the home front and its history. We did it; how can we avoid it?


[1] I base these remarks particularly on Herfried Münkler’s magnificent study, Der Grosse Krieg. Die Welt 1914-1918 (Berlin: Rowohlt, 2013). Münkler, who teaches at the Humboldt University is one of the most creative public intellectuals in Germany. It is surprising, and regrettable, that the only one of his books translated into English is The New Wars (Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 2005; German edition 2002).

[2] C.f., Fritz Stern, Einstein’s German World (1999) for the citation. C.f. also Fritz Stern’s autobiography, Five Germanys I have known (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2006).

[3] The French edition was published in 1978 under the title Penser la revolution française (Paris: Gallimard). The idea of “thinking” the revolution is a French historian’s clin d’oeil to the dominance of the philosophers, as I have argued in several essays, starting in 1983 when I published “The Origins of Revolution” in the Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology (Vol. 14, Nr. 1, January 1983), which is republished in The Politics of Critique (University of Minnesota Press, 1988).

[4] C.f. Machiavelli. Die Begründung des politischen Denkens der Neuzeit aus der Krise der Repulik Florence (Frankfurt: Fischer Verlag, 1984). Apposite citations from the Florentine, well-known to the combatants, appear frequently in Der Grosse Krieg; Machiavelli is not just a classic.

[5] Pipers Handbuch der politischen Ideen (München: Piper Verlag, 1985ff).

[6] C.f., Imperien. Die Logik der Weltherrschaft— vom Alten Rom bis zu den Vereinigten Staaten (Berlin: Rowohlt, 2005).

[7] C.f., Die Deutschen und ihre Mythen (Berlin: Rowohlt, 2009).

[8] The immense reputation of these two generals was won at the outset of the war on the Eastern front at the battle of Tannenberg at the end of August 1914— shortly before the German advance was stopped at the Marne, the doorway to Paris. This historical victory on the Eastern front compensated for the failure at the doors of Paris.   The author of Die Deutschen und ihre Mythen notes that Hindenberg’s War Memoires show that he knew quite well that this “mythical” battlefield would serve to create his heroic image because it wiped away the traces of the defeat of the Teutonic Knights by the Polish and Lithuanian armies in 1410!   Hindenberg became the incarnation of a German unity to be recreated and, in 1933, his prestige sufficed to insure the nomination of Hitler as Prime Minister.

[9] The sub-title of this massive volume (896 pages, documented by data from the German Imperial Archives) made clear the author’s intentions: Die Kriegszielpolitik des kaiserlichen Deutschland (translated into English as “Germany’s Aims in the First World War, 1968). As Herfried Münkler notes, it can hardly be claimed that the goals of a single nation determined the international constellation that resulted, however powerful that nation might be.

[10] Critics of Fritz Fischer wondered whether the fact that he had been a member of the Nazi party between 1938 and 1943 had influenced his reading of the documents? Was his book an attempt to compensate for his past? For a recent reading of the controversy, c.f., Stephen Pezoldt, “the Social Making of a Historian: Fritz Fischer’s Distancing From Bourgeois-Conservative Historiography, 1930-1960) in Journal of Contemporary History, Vol 489., Nr. 2, April 2013.

[11] Münkler did make such political suggestions, again on the basis of an historical and doxagraphic analysis, in Mitte und Mass. Der Kampf un die richtige Ordnung (2010). The ambiguity of the geopolitical position of the “middle” returns at the beginning of his analysis of the Great War (why did it occur?) and at its conclusion (what now, in the united Germany after the Wall?). Whereas Bismarck was able to avoid being encircled by maintaining the ability of the Reich to intervene in peripheral quarrels, his successors proved to be unable to avoid the outbreak of war in the wake of Sarajevo. What can be expected of his successors today? The interventions of Russia on the periphery of the former Soviet empire pose anew the challenge of avoiding an explosion in those regions.

[12] I very much appreciated his use of photographs of ships in battle formation accompanied by diagrammatic demonstrations of the maneuvers during the crucial Jutland battle in the summer of 1916 (p. 499). I should note here that the book includes 12 maps and 80 photographs which are accompanied by brief and always perspicacious commentaries.

[13] C.f. the photos on pages 648 and 717, for example. Münkler might have drawn here a comparison to the improvised “taxis de la Marne” that saved Paris in the first months of the war.

[14] Münkler spends nine rich pages describing life in the trenches, reminding us of the questions of hygiene that had to be confronted under the heading “Latrines and Bordellos” (pp. 377ff). In this context, his account usefully brings to bear examples from French and English experience as well. Photos make clear that there were officer-class and common-soldier bordellos; one can imagine that the same held for the latrines!

[15] C.f. the photo on page 454, and the other on p. 365, where Münkler notes this unprecedented fact. From another point of view, the uniqueness of this Great War is analyzed and illustrated by the art historian (and critic for Le Monde), Philip Dagen, Le silence des peintres. Les artistes face à la Grande Guerre (Paris, Hazan, 2012). Dagen asks the very real question that echoes today as war becomes ever-more impersonal: why did this new form of warfare prove to be immune to the classical practice of painterly representation. More pertinent still: why did it prove opaque to the painters of the classical modernity of the early twentieth century whose inventions (such as cubism and its offshoots) were clearly aware of the weight of the new technological world?

[16] C.f. Christopher Clark’s best-selling The Sleepwalkers. How Europe went to War in 1914 (New York: HarperCollins, 2013).

[17] Although the British belonged to the Entente, their military doctrine was based on their sea power; the idea of a continental land war was something to be avoided if at all possible (which is why the German spy’s report had such weight). But once again military logic had to make way for political motives in a democratic nation.

[18] I added this parenthesis after reading the remarkable pages in which Albert Camus describes the blind and unquestioning acceptance by his mother of the military mobilization of his French-Algerian father, whose silent death in the first days of the war became the dull but burning question that motivated Camus’s last, incomplete, and quasi-autobiographical posthumous manuscript, Le premier homme (Paris: Folio, 19994; c.f., especially the dumbly moving pages 78-84). Another variant of this problem is reflected by the reaction of avant-garde artists to the war as described in Dagen, Le silence des peintres, op. cit.

[19] C.f. the photograph of the remarkable Medieval library at Louvain that was destroyed in order to fight against “imaginary or real franc-tireurs” during the Belgian resistance, p. 254. Münkler notes that liberal Germans justified the war as a battle against czarist barbarism whereas other Germans adopted the position of Sombart for whom capitalist England was the principal enemy.

[20] C.f., the brilliant biography, Bonaparte, by Patrice Gueniffey (Gallimard, 2013). The thesis of this study of the Bonaparte who would become the emperor Napoleon (a promised second volume) is that the Corsican whose first appearance within the revolution came only after Thermidor was the actor capable of carrying to an end the rupture inaugurated by the revolution. Fascinating in this regard is the long concluding chapter that explains why and how Bonaparte insisted on concluding a Concordat with the Vatican.

[21] C.f., Herfried Münkler’s description of this mentality, and its reality, as presented in Die Deutschen und ihren Mythen, op. cit.


  • Dick Howard

    Dick Howard is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Stony Brook University. He divides his time between New York and Paris. He has published 17 books, of which 12 are in English (including three editions of The Marxian Legacy), as well as volumes in French, most recently, Les ombres de l’Amérique. De Kennedy à Trump (Editions Francois Bourin, 2018).

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1