History 10b – Spring 2007 Week 10: The Crucible of War Study Questions

Kathleen Fitzgerald April 16, 2007 Helena—T.F.

Zuckmayer writes that, “in 1914, we still believed that a war would bring about the true blossoming of the nation. Instead, everything withered.” Why was there such optimism, and why did it wither away? “Some embraced [World War I] as a test of greatness, a purification of a society that had become lazy and complacent. When war did come in 1914, it was a choice, not an accident.”1 During the political battles of the early 20th century, many European nations believed a few quick skirmishes could be enough to trounce segments of their populations which contradicted nationalist sensibilities. This brief war method had been used successfully throughout the nineteenth century, and it was thought to remain a reliable resource during the first years of the 20th century. In fact, by analyzing a cross-section of those countries which first entered WWI (unlike those which entered later as a result of the ‘alliance domino effect’), one understands how much nationalism fueled the flame of war. For instance, Austria-Hungary went to war in the Balkans because it hoped to destroy subversive Serbian sub-populations in that region, thereby strengthening its own nation-state.2 Similarly, Germany viewed World War I as a chance to permanently weaken its enemy, France, in order to ensure that Germany would not face a two-front war in the event that Russia ever attacked from the East; the German Kaiser believed world war would permanently strengthen Germany’s geographic and geopolitical situation. After all, how bad could a war be if it were quick, decisive, and “over by Christmas,” yet still managed to solidify national security and identity?3 As a result of this hope for blossoming nationalism, “mass decisions” were made within each WWI-fighting nation, and myriad young boys, like Germany’s Zuckmayer, flocked to
1 2

Kishlansky, “Civilization in the West: Volume II Since 1555,” p. 802. Ibid., p. 805. 3 Ibid., p. 802.


volunteer for the front lines in order to free nations from threats to their existence.4 With leaders like Germany’s Kaiser claiming the state no longer recognized political parties, only Germans, the nationalist fervor reached a fever pitch all across Europe.5 Unlike the war of 1870, which had brought unity to Germany, “the war of 1914 would bring her justice and freedom… [and would unite Europe] culturally and politically under the aegis of the Germany spirit.”6 In the beginning, every warring nation strongly believed that it was only acting against the enemy in self-defense and not for purely material ends or power-mongering.7 Despite the initial optimism about blossoming of nations and nationalism, WWI was stationary and long-lasting, unlike anything military strategists had planned for. A race to the sea resulted in fixed positions and trench warfare. “Ten million men were killed in the bizarre and deadly combination of old and new warfare8 Ironically, technological advancement with weapons like mustard gas was often followed by the invention of antidotes like gas masks, thereby perpetuating a continued stalemate.9 “The war that Europe experienced differed from all previous experiences and expectations of armed conflict. Technological advances, equally matched on both sides, introduced a war of attrition, defensive and prolonged.”10 Unlike the sixto-eight week wars of the nineteenth century, which often had low mortality rates, World War I marked the first time that entire populations worked together (and masses of soldiers died together) in order for long-term military victory to be attained.11 As history’s first “total war,” WWI involved not only armies but entire peoples. As the war stretched onward, stoppages, strikes, and hording food during requisitioning became quite
4 5

Zuckmayer,“A Part of Myself: 1914-1918 I Had a Comrade” (HBJ, Inc., 1966), p. 148. Ibid., p. 149. 6 Ibid., p. 149. 7 Ibid., p. 153. 8 Kishlansky, p. 806-807. 9 Ibid., p. 808. 10 Ibid., p. 814. 11 Ibid., p. 815.


common.12 Because it was a “total war,” government leaders knew that unrest at home weakened their barely surviving nations, and as a result, these leaders cracked down on any war opposition; censorship and propaganda became commonplace.13 Toward the end of the war, soldiers like poet Wilfred Owen bitterly mocked the wastefulness of war and doubted the old Latin proverb that “It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country.”14 Corpses covered battlefields, and soldiers like Zuckmayer returned home shell shocked, remembering stories of their young comrades dying from bullet wounds to the head. As soon as the masses understood that this “total war” was going to last for years and result in the massacre of generations of youths, the jingoistic propaganda which had previously bolstered the nationalist war cries lost its allure. In the trenches (and soon thereafter, in the European cities and towns), hatred for the ‘enemy’ subsided. “For all [Europeans], the enemy [became] the war.”15

12 13

Ibid., p. 816. Ibid., p. 817. 14 Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum Est” (1918), from Wilfred Owen: The Complete Poems and Fragments, ed. Jon Stallworthy (London: Chatto and Windus, 1963 and 1983). 15 Zuckmayer, p. 161.


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