Politics & Policy

War, Culture, and the Minds of Nations

Did Germany’s cultural avant-garde cause World War I? Or vice versa?

We are accustomed to thinking that such real-world physical experiences as war, defeat, and economic ruin produce such psychological, cultural, artistic, and social responses as disillusionment, frenzy (including frenzied enjoyments), and despair in the collective mind. The First World War — which, exactly 100 years later, we are now remembering, and whose lessons we are still pondering — seems to confirm and illustrate this belief.

It was an event whose magnitude and impact we find hard to grasp even today. Though it began in the Balkans, it spread across the world to all continents — in part because it was a war between European states that controlled worldwide empires. Indian soldiers in the British Army fought on the Western Front in France and won a very high proportion of Victoria Crosses. Little New Zealand sent about a quarter of its male population to France and the Middle East. When touring through the small, tranquil towns on the plateau behind Australia’s Great Ocean Road, I was moved to see monuments listing the names of local men above the modest statement “They Answered the Empire’s Call.”

Germany had fewer imperial possessions in 1914; that was one of its grievances. But the “scramble for Africa” of the 1880s had given it colonies of major geographical extent on both sides of the continent. The result was clashes between the local German forces and Britain and France, which were generally lost quite swiftly by Berlin, though a guerrilla war for control of British Kenya and German East Africa continued until 1918. (It was a small war given a powerful evocation in William Boyd’s novel An Ice-Cream War.)

When the Ottoman Empire entered the war, moreover, it spread throughout the Middle East; the resulting peace settlement created the states and frontiers that only today the Islamic State is seeking to replace with its own caliphate. In the end, the war brought down the Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian monarchies, midwifed Bolshevism, and gravely weakened all the Allies except the United States, which entered the war in 1917, fought well but briefly and perhaps decisively, and returned home to find itself almost the only solvent world power. The total number of casualties on both sides was something on the order of 9 million killed, 22 million wounded, and 8 million missing or taken prisoner, for a grand total of almost 39 million.

Carnage on that scale was bound to inflict all kinds of social, cultural, and psychological damage on societies that, though modern, were only just becoming conscious, through the phenomenon of “shell shock,” of what mental impact extreme and horrific experiences might have on the mind. It does not seem too much to say that over the next 20 years whole societies seemed to suffer from shell shock, which took the most varied and even contradictory forms.

One understandable response was hedonism: The high living of the Twenties, with syncopated music, wild parties, speakeasies, bright young things, sophisticated comedies from Coward and Lonsdale, bitter satirical musicals from Brecht and Weill, the art of Weimar, which mingled sex with corruption, and the poetry of Eliot, with its fragmented representation of a cracking culture. Even within the gaiety, however, distinctions existed: America’s high-jinks lacked the despairing undertones of those in London or, still more, Berlin. As for the “disillusionment” that later spread though the post-war world, that too went deeper in Europe (again, especially in Germany) than in the U.S.

There were other responses that we have largely forgotten. England saw a revival of the spiritualism that had emerged in late-Victorian days among post-Christian intellectuals. James M. Barrie had a huge West End success with his syrupy mystical play Mary Rose, in which a bride disappears on her honeymoon on a Scottish isle only to reappear there completely unchanged 30 years later. It was said that when the line “Mary Rose is coming across the fields” was spoken, a gasp went through the audience. But a London theater audience in the 1920s was likely to contain several hundred people whose sons, nephews, and older brothers had perished on the Western Front. However absurdly, they were hoping that death could somehow be denied.

That passionate desire, translated into sober policy, explains why the British fought a very different war — one depending on economic strength, technological innovation, logistics, and transport of all kinds — after 1939 and as a result, like America, had very low casualties compared with Germany and Russia. (See David Edgerton’s ground-breaking books, notably Britain’s War Machine, for strong evidence of this thesis.)

Much the strongest psychological response, however, was the feeling of guilt for the war, and for the subsequent “Carthaginian Peace” of Versailles, that was felt by the French and the British, especially the latter, and that led ultimately to the policy of appeasement and Munich. This sense of guilt was not reciprocated in Germany, which, on the contrary, felt itself to be a victim — of the war, of a betrayal disguised as defeat, and of Versailles.

That sense of victimhood presumably has a psychological explanation, since it certainly lacks a historical one. Historians still argue about the causes of the war, but none of them acquit Germany of considerable responsibility. As Clemenceau said when told by a young historian in the 1920s that future scholars would judge the Great War from a different perspective than that of the “Tiger”: “Yes, they will say many different things. But one thing they will not say. They will not say that Belgium invaded Germany.” The “stab in the back” legend explaining the defeat of 1918 was similarly a myth. And though Germany certainly felt itself to be a victim of an unusually unjust peace at Versailles, that peace was far less onerous than the Brest-Litovsk pact it had imposed on a reeling revolutionary Russia in 1917. In short, Germany felt itself to be a victim because the Allies acted as if they were guilty of something.

So why did the Allies feel guilty? And of what?

Roger Kimball set out to answer these questions at a recent Melbourne-Oxford-Vancouver Conversazione on the Great War, in Melbourne. His speech, reconsidered and reworked in response to criticism, is published in the current issue of The New Criterion and is available online here. His answer to the questions is that the Allies were in large measure persuaded to feel guilty about Versailles by John Maynard Keynes, who, in The Economic Consequences of the Peace, indicted them for imposing savage reparations on Germany that would lead its economic collapse and subsequently to a second world war.

There can be no doubt that Keynes had the kind of influence that Kimball describes. His book sold 11 million copies, was distributed throughout Europe, and, if diaries are to be trusted, left an imprint on the minds of many European statesmen and cultural figures. Nor can there be doubt that he used that influence to push the argument that the Allies’ perfidy and foolishness at Versailles had imperiled their own prosperity and peace as well as that of Germany and the other Central Powers.

Yet, drawing on the work of, among others, a little-remembered French writer and economist, Etienne Mantoux (who died fighting for the Free French a week before the end of the Second World War), Kimball undermines every canon in the Keynesian dogma, not excluding the renewal of the war: The reparations in the treaty were not particularly severe, given the destruction that German wartime occupation had inflicted on France, and they were not all paid in any event. The German economy had recovered well by the late 1920s, contrary to Keynes’s forecasts, and its later troubles were due mainly to the Depression, starting in 1929. These later troubles contributed to the drift to war, of course, but Hitler must be allowed some independent credit too.

Above all, the loss of 13 percent of German territory, besides not differing greatly from Germany’s annexation of Alsace-Lorraine in 1871, was far more indulgent than the provisions of the simultaneous Trianon Treaty, which deprived Hungary of 70 percent of its territory in the course of carving up Central Europe with Woodrow Wilson’s blunt knife. Keynes would have been on better ground stressing that Versailles had left an almost-intact Germany as the only Central European great power facing a gaggle of mutually suspicious small powers made incapable of uniting to resist Berlin by irredentist disputes. That was a much stronger cause of the second war, but it diverged very far from Keynes’s main lines of argument.

This is an audacious thesis, and Keynes’s book has a religious standing with many historians, so Kimball will certainly get some vigorous opposition to it. Yet in addition to being well supported with his own and Mantoux’s arguments, it is perhaps slightly less audacious than the second half of his argument, which reverses the conventional wisdom with which I began this short essay. Kimball raises the question of whether cultural, psychological, artistic, and social movements were, not the consequences of the Great War, but instead among its causes. Without going overboard on this — since the upsetting of Europe’s balance of power by Bismarck’s creation of the German Empire in 1871 and then by Kaiser Wilhelm’s bid for world power outside Europe were plainly important non-cultural causes of 1914 — Kimball makes a persuasive case that 1914 emerged in part from the explosion of radical cultural modernism that was symbolized especially by the riots of enthusiasm and rejection that greeted Diaghilev’s 1913 production of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring ballet.

The earliest signs of this cultural revolution appeared in the late 1880s, but they gathered force and speed in the decade leading to the Great War with the Futurist movement in Italy, vitalism in French philosophy, Vorticism in Britain, Freud and Freudianism in Vienna, the emergence of Picasso and James Joyce, the huge enthusiasm that greeted Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes throughout Western Europe, and much else. Though these are very different phenomena — some self-consciously primitivist, others self-consciously complex and obscure — they all share a common sensibility: a rejection of the traditions, restraints, values, and standards that characterized the Victorian age in favor of spontaneity, instinct, and the breaking of barriers. “We want no part of the past,” said Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, whose “Futurist Manifesto” was inspired in 1909 by a night of reckless driving that ended with the car in a ditch and the poet calling ecstatically for the triumph of speed and machinery and the closing of museums.

This rebelliousness did not long confine itself to aesthetics. It soon manifested itself in a more general rejection of restraints and standards in morality, law, politics, business, and other aspects of life that had previously been regarded as distinct from the cultural realm. And though this sensibility and its accompanying movement spread throughout Europe, it found its most receptive audience in the cultural, bureaucratic, and even military classes of the new German Empire, which, since its foundation in 1871, had shown extraordinary progress both in industrial power and in technical innovation. One of the oddest expressions of this receptiveness was the death by heart attack of the deputy head of the German General Staff while — clad in a tutu — he performed a ballet routine before an audience that, for earlier performances, had sometimes included the Kaiser. Odd though it was, this performance symbolized the marriage of technical brilliance and cultural rebellion that characterized the apparently traditional regime and society of Wilhelmine Germany.

In retrospect, the absurdist moment actually symbolized the brevity and death of this combination. But when it first came into being, this marriage produced a vivid and powerful national egotism in the German mind, which under its influence saw Germany as a new and revolutionary power with a right, even a duty, to break through existing orders in everything from economics to international law. Some of the expressions of ecstatic revolutionary nationalism by German academic institutions and prominent intellectuals welcoming the outbreak of war are scarcely credible. Here, for instance, is a statement from the Rectors and Senates of Bavarian Universities on August 13, 1914:

Students! The muses are silent. The issue is battle, the battle forced on us for German Kultur, which is threatened by the barbarians from the east, and for German values, which the enemy in the west envies us. And so the furor teutonicus bursts into flame once again.

Kimball acknowledges an important guide in his exploration of the rise and fall of this extravagant cultural nationalism both before and after the Great War:

In a remarkable book called Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, the historian Modris Eksteins . . . shows how sentimentality and a species of extravagant mythmaking mark the points of contact between avant-garde culture and burgeoning totalitarianism. This was especially true in Germany, the country that had advanced the radical program of the avant-garde most enthusiastically. England, by contrast, was a conservative power. Where Germany started the war to transform the world, England fought the war to preserve a world and the culture that defined it.

If England won the military war, Germany won the cultural conflict. Its revolutionary spirit transformed all the combatants and, as we have seen, midwifed a world in which states and governments increasingly disregarded conventions, rules, treaties, and whatever else restrained their immediate interests. Within Germany, defeat meant that the cultural nationalism of 1914 revived in even more poisonous form. As Eksteins’s superb book shows, and as Kimball’s important article underlines, the traditional liberal confidence in rationality, moral law, and progress was further undermined by political movements that mistook art for morality and politics. As a result, in the words of Carl Schorske (quoted by Kimball), “art became transformed from an ornament to an essence, from an expression of value to a source of value.” Germany told itself lies about the past and the future and then tried to live the lies in history. At the bottom of that slippery slope lay the kitsch of Nazi cultural propaganda and, behind that stage curtain, Götterdämmerung.

Nations sometimes go mad. Today we don’t like to acknowledge that, or the concept of national personality that underpins it, because we think it might open the door to racism. But all the major combatant nations in the Great War are today still suffering from some sort of post-conflict trauma. Russia is the maddest; having gone through a Weimar collapse, it is now living in the same kind of aggressive paranoid schizophrenia imposed through postmodern media that Hitler inflicted on Germany. Despite a sharp fall in its living standards and social standing, France has retained a much healthier sense of its worth and interests than other European countries. Once it learns to budget effectively, it will play a constructive role in international society. Britain is living in the real world in most respects but is suffering from several identity crises simultaneously. These crises are likely to be resolved in the next few years, however, after which the country should be able to function normally, which in the case of this patient means returning to his position as the secretary of Neighborhood Watch. That leaves Germany, which, having endured the most extreme experiences in the last hundred years, is now risk-averse, agoraphobic, reluctant to exercise responsibility, neurotically attached to certain cultural symbols (peace doves, currencies), in denial over its cross-dressing fetishes, exhibiting passive-aggressive strategies towards its neighbors, and, as a result of these different neuroses, showing a desire to remain in the sanatorium indefinitely.

And America? America is slowly recovering from a personality disorder induced by a conflict between the therapies of its last psychiatrist, who overprescribed “uppers,” and its current one, who overprescribed “downers.” Despite continuing iatrogenic disorders, America is gradually returning to its normal state of exceptionalism. But with Russia and Germany both still seriously disturbed, that may not be enough to secure the European peace in a world of empty standards and collapsing values.

— John O’Sullivan is an editor-at-large at National Review.

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