Best Publications on World War I

From among hundreds of books and papers, Library of Social Science editors have selected just a few. Please read the summaries below, then click through any title to access excerpts from the book or the complete paper.

We are rebuilding our Ideologies of War Website from the ground up: identifying the most significant writings illuminating the sources and meanings of collective forms of violence. We now turn to World War I, the “mother of all wars.”

It is by now clear that the Second World War followed directly as a function of the First: Hitler demanded—and enacted—a “replay.” We also are beginning to understand that the First World War and the Holocaust are intimately related.

At the Somme on July 1, 1916, the British lost about 60 thousand men, of whom 21 thousand were killed—most in the first hour of the attack. Robert Kee called the trenches the “concentration camps of the First World War.” Citing Kee, military historian John Keegan observes in The Face of Battle that there is something “Treblinka like” about July 1 at the Somme, those “long docile lines of young men, shoddily uniformed, heavily burdened, numbered about their necks, plodding forward to their own extermination inside the barbed wire.”

Only by pretending that men getting out of trenches and running into machine gun fire and artillery shells have a “sporting chance”—do we maintain the delusion that World War I and the Holocaust were different kinds of events.

With regards,
Orion Anderson
Managing Editor
Ideologies of War

Bonadeo, Alfredo. Mark of the Beast: Death and Degradation in the Literature of the Great War (Book Excerpts)

Only men who know how to overcome their “personal material egoism,” nationalist leader Enrico Corradini proclaimed, can understand that war is “desirable and holy”—because it brings death, and death welds the individual to the nation. Corradini urged his selfish compatriots to fight, to die, and to redeem themselves. “By devoting himself to death the insignificant egotist helps to create the life of the true great individual—the fatherland.”

Griffin, Roger. The Meaning of ‘Sacrifice’ in the First World War (Paper)

As the prospects of a short war evaporated and the death toll grew, powerful psychological processes ensured the war would remain for millions a catalyst to experiencing transcendence. It was as if the fantasy of redemption through sacrifice—stubbornly entertained by both the fighters and onlookers—was fuelled rather than quenched by the blood of the fallen, like pouring oil on flames. The war can be seen as a collective act of redemptive self-sacrifice—transcendent meaning produced by the relentless flow of blood.

Gullace, Nicoletta. White Feathers and Wounded Men (Paper)

On August 30, 1914, Admiral Fitzgerald deputized thirty women to hand out white feathers to men not in uniform. The purpose was to shame “every young slacker,” and to remind those deaf to their country’s need that “British soldiers are fighting and dying across the channel.” Fitzgerald warned the men that there is a danger awaiting them “far more terrible than anything they can meet in battle,” for if they were found “idling and loafing tomorrow” they would be publicly humiliated by a lady with a white feather.

Lockwood, Renee. Sacrifice and the Creation of Group of Identity (Paper)

The battles at Gallipoli are often seen to represent the moment of independence for the Australian nation. Despite its Federation in 1901, Australia had not yet succeeded in producing a unique national character. Australian war historian Ken Inglis asserts: “The altar had not yet been stained with crimson—as every rallying center of a nation should be.” After the huge loss of life at Gallipoli, Australia’s prophetic hopes of a national identity born of blood and sacrifice were realized.

Mosse, George L. National Cemeteries and National Revival: The Cult of the Fallen Soldiers in Germany (Paper)

The cult of the fallen assimilated basic themes Christianity. The exclamation “Now we are made sacred” implied an analogy of the sacrifice in war to the passion and resurrection of Christ. Walter Flex, one of the chief myth-makers of the First World War, linked the war to the Last Supper, a revelation through which Christ illuminated the world. The sacrificial death of the best of our people, he said, is only “a repetition of the passion of Christ.”