Tag Archives: WWI

Review Essay of Dynamic of Destruction by Joanna Scutts

Developmental Time, Cultural Space

Publisher: Oxford U. Press
Author: Alan Kramer
Format: Paperback
Published on: Mar. 2009

For information on purchasing this book through Amazon at a special, discounted price, click here.

From the Western Front to the Balkans, from Italy to the war in the East, the First World War was the most apocalyptic the world had ever known. This book tells you how and why the civilized nations of Europe descended into unprecedented orgy of destruction.

About the Author: Alan Kramer is Professor of European History at Trinity College Dublin.

About the Reviewer

Joanna Scutts is a literary critic and cultural historian with teaching and research interests in all aspects of modernism. She holds a BA in English from the University of Cambridge, MA from the University of Sussex, and a PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University, where her research focused on World War One commemorative practices and their impact on British literary modernism.

Her writing and research seminars, on “The Return of the Soldier” and “Memory and the City” respectively, explore questions of cultural memory and identity, and both focus on the ways that literature shapes our understanding of history, gender, and place.

She has written book reviews and essays for publications including The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The Nation, and is currently at work on a new book project about self-help culture and feminism in the 1930s. More information is available through her website.

Click here to read her article on commemoration, Battlefield Cemeteries, Pilgrimage, and Literature after the First World War.

Dear Colleague,

We are very grateful to Joanna Scutts for her review essay on Alan Kramer’s Dynamics of Destruction. You may read the complete review directly below, or on the LSS Book Reviews website. Here are my own reflections:

Scutts discusses the idea of “mass death,” defined by Kramer as the “killing of a large proportion of a military formation, or a large number of civilians,” distinguished from genocide by “reciprocity.” In other words, during the First World War, one group murdered members of another group—while the group on the other side could kill back. Whereas in the case of the Holocaust, one group murdered members of another group—while the other group could not kill back.

Omer Bartov has observed (1996) that the Nazi death camps were “architecturally and organizationally modeled on the experience of the Great War,” incorporating all the attributes of a military environment such as uniforms and barbed wires, watch towers and roll calls, hierarchy and order, drills and commands. The Holocaust, Bartov says, was “almost the perfect reenactment of the Great War,” with the important correction that “all the perpetrators were on one side and all the victims on the other.”

Bartov observes that there is reluctance to associate the imagery of the Great War with the Holocaust because of our “discomfort of perceiving national wars as an instance of industrial killing;” and because of our desire to insist that there is a difference between war and genocide.

Historians, Scutts notes, tend to view the First World War as some kind of “natural disaster,” an extension of masculine violence, or an instance of a war that somehow got out of control—people and cultural artifacts being destroyed by a “whirlwind” or a “machine.” The most important contribution of Dynamics of Destruction, according to Scutts, is how Kramer brings into focus how human agents brought the First World War into being. Mass-murder and mass-destruction arose based on “specific decisions of specific commanders, by orders decreed from above and carried out by armed men on the ground.” Human being acted to create—and to perpetuate—the First World War.

So what is the difference between the First World War and the Final Solution? One might say that the Holocaust was a case of “intentional” mass-murder, whereas the First World War was an instance of “unintentional” mass-murder.

However, if young men were asked to get out of trenches for four consecutive years (the “slow march of men into machine guns” and artillery shells)—based on specific decisions made by specific commanders—can we truly say that the extermination of young men that occurred during the First World War was “unintentional?”

Thanks again to Joanna Scutts. Please read about her in the column to the right, take a look at her website, and read her online publication, “Battlefield Cemeteries, Pilgrimage, and Literature after the First World War”.

To comment on Scutts’s review essay (or on my own comments), please write below.

Best regards,
Richard Koenigsberg


Richard A. Koenigsberg, Ph.D
Telephone: 718-393-1081
Fax: 413-832-8145

Kramer, Alan., Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Reprint 2013. 434pp. ISBN 9780199543779. Reviewed by Joanna Scutts, New York University.

Any history of the First World War begins with numbers. The war is defined by the dizzying casualty rate on all combatant sides, and remembered in acres of grave markers and monuments listing what Siegfried Sassoon called the “intolerably nameless names” of the missing. Its impossible statistics make the war feel both modern and historic: modern for ushering in a century marked by mass death, yet old-fashioned in its combat methods (the slow march of men into machine guns, the last shreds of the cavalry) and the sheer size of its amateur army. But as historians like Jay Winter have made clear, statistics alone are an inadequate measure of meaning. Even in the rare cases where numbers are accurately calculated and recorded, they can only be understood when placed into a dynamic relation with other numbers, other facts, other testimony.

We would appreciate your comments on this Newsletter — or the entire review essay. Leave your reflections and commentary below.

Alan Kramer’s comparative history of the First World War, Dynamic of Destruction, acknowledges a debt to Jay Winter’s demographically rooted approach, but digs more deeply into what numbers can tell us at the distance of a century. He pays attention to statistics that are usually footnoted in conventional histories of the war: civilian deaths in the early weeks of the German advance into Belgium; the massive casualty rates of the wars that bookended the conflict in the Balkans and Russia; Italian fascist violence in North Africa; and the genocide of the Armenians. In the process he disrupts many fixed assumptions about the war, and urges the reader to a bold reimagining of what mass death means, for victims, perpetrators, and societies at large.

“Mass death” is defined by Kramer in broad terms as “the killing of a large proportion of a military formation, or a large number of civilians,” and is distinguished from genocide by “reciprocity.” (2) His study begins with a detailed account of the German mass murder of civilians in the Belgian university city of Louvain in August 1914, an atrocity compounded by the destruction of the university library and many other historic buildings. The attack on Louvain, and subsequently on Rheims cathedral in France, instigated a wave of international condemnation of German military tactics.

In the United States, in particular, the attacks were denounced as evidence of German “barbarism.” Yet for Kramer they are not barbaric, in the sense of a throwback to a pre-civilized world, but rather represent a stage in the evolution of twentieth-century warfare. German tactics in Belgium in 1914 were “an expression of something entirely modern: the logic of annihilation.” (27) His analysis of the events in Louvain, which draws on both Belgian civilian sources and the evidence of German soldiers and the military high command, sets the stage for Kramer’s central thesis, that the First World War brought together the destruction of people—soldiers, prisoners, and non-combatants—with the destruction of culture—churches, libraries, ancient buildings, archives, and museums. This cultural annihilation was more extensive than ever before and, Kramer argues, was a deliberate military tactic, ordered by senior officers and carried out by individual soldiers.

The brutal combination of human and cultural destruction was not some kind of natural disaster, nor the logical extension of human (or masculine) violence, as it was (and is) often explained. Instead, it “arose from strategic, political, and economic calculation.” (41) This is perhaps the book’s most important contribution: the awareness that people and cultural artifacts were not destroyed by a “whirlwind” or a “machine” but by the specific decisions of specific commanders, by orders decreed from above and carried out by armed men on the ground. Historians are usually reticent to assign “blame” in the First World War, and often dismiss contemporary reports of German atrocities as mere Allied propaganda. By contrast, Kramer convincingly shows that the German war aims and policies, especially in the crucial months of July and August 1914, were indeed “total war” aims in a way that the policies of the other combatant powers were not.

By marshaling evidence against myth, Kramer continually debunks popular theories about what started the war—for instance, he refutes the idea that it was made inevitable by the binding treaty structures of pre-war Europe in part by pointing to many instances before 1914 when treaty obligations were avoided. Drawing on his previous work on the German atrocities in Belgium, he shows that at least in the West, these specific German tactics (and attendant worldwide outrage) were what precipitated British and French entry into the war.

The anti-war approach of many historians, emphasizing the conflict’s wasteful pointlessness, had tended to understand this connection backwards, as evidence of the power of bellicose propaganda. By this light, the German atrocities (bayoneted babies, raped nuns, and so on) are downplayed as the hysterical imaginings of right-wing pro-war journalists and politicians. Yet as Kramer even-handedly demonstrates here and in his German Atrocities 1914: A History of Denial, the mass murder of civilians, including women, children, and elderly men, as well as rape and forced prostitution in the occupied territories were distinctive—and deliberate—features of Germany’s invasion.

This central insight, that mass murder and cultural destruction were specific instruments of policy, serves as a kind of moral anchor to Kramer’s study, as he goes on to examine the concept of “total war” and the ways in which the First World War did and did not correspond to it. This is where his comparative approach truly pays off, in the nuance and variety he uncovers within the overwhelming scale of the conflict. Cultural destruction was not universal, for instance—churches, cathedrals, and cultural monuments were often spared, in the wake of Louvain and Rheims.

Human destruction, too, was not usually genocidal during the war itself: it was aimed at the enemy’s political and economic collapse (and hence the victor’s gain), rather than at ethnic “cleansing” or murder. At the same time, however, much of the war’s worst attendant violence—the destruction of Catholic Louvain, the Armenian genocide, the horrific conflicts in the Balkans as the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires fractured—was spurred or worsened by racial and religious prejudice. These mass killings at the historical edges of the conflict made the unthinkable possible, and made familiar deaths in the tens or hundreds of thousands by forced displacement, mass incarceration, starvation—all methods that would precede and accompany the more technologically advanced mass murder of the Holocaust.

The Second World War unavoidably shadows this investigation of the First World War’s human and cultural destructiveness. As both wars recede into history, Kramer notes, they increasingly “appear as a single period,” or in Eric Hobsbawm’s words, a “Second Thirty Years’ War.” (328) By this logic, the brutalization of war tactics and interwar politics leads somehow inevitably or inexorably to Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler. Here again, Kramer’s careful comparative approach provides a thoughtful counterweight to this too-simple argument.

We would appreciate your comments on this Newsletter — or the entire review essay. Leave your reflections and commentary below.

He shows that the notion of the universal “brutalization” of politics in interwar Europe is false, and that in Britain and France, and even in Weimar Germany after the anti-Communist violence of the immediate postwar period, governments were strenuous in their avoidance of political violence and in their commitment to establishing international laws against it. By contrast, in Soviet Russia and Italy, violence entered the political mainstream as any distinction between civilian and military leadership crumbled.

Although arguments about the causes of the Second World War are largely beyond the scope of Kramer’s book, his concluding chapters offer some intriguing new ways of understanding the links—and discontinuities—between the two wars. In the spirit of debunking historical myths, for instance, Kramer revises conventional understandings of the Versailles treaty, by showing that the German “stab in the back” myth was deliberately stoked by right-wing extremists rather than truly felt by the majority of Germans.

Unlike historians who tend to blame Versailles for producing the (supposedly inevitable) conditions for the Second World War, he demonstrates that the reparations were not beyond Germany’s ability to pay, nor was the “war guilt” clause so loathed by the Nazis unique to Versailles or much remarked on at the time—similar clauses were a standard part of other contemporary treaties. Instead, if we read the war guilt clause in its original spirit, rather than through the lens of the Second World War, it is an important recognition that German war aims were indeed different to those of the Allies, that conquest and extermination of the enemy were part of the theoretical planning of the German military, and the military had far greater control over the government than in other nations.

What this book eloquently shows is that the history of the First World War should not be remembered merely for the scale and nature of death in trench warfare, nor should our understanding of it be dominated by the interpretations of the poets, like Wilfred Owen, who stressed its “futility” and tragic meaninglessness. Kramer’s great achievement is to imbue the war’s mind-numbing numbers with meaning, and to begin to dismantle the historical myths around them.

Why, for instance, do the British remember the first day of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 as the ultimate expression of the war’s tragedy, when more of their troops died on the first day of the 1918 German Spring Offensive? Is it because “futility” and trench immobility have so absorbed British historical memory that it cannot make space for the urgent, mobile beating-back of an offensive that nearly won the war for the Germans? What are the consequences for history of such selective memory?

Kramer’s book is also an important deepening of the analysis of military modernization in the Great War. As he shows throughout, it is not merely the development of aircraft, tanks, poison gas, and heavy artillery that made the war “modern,” but the way in which these weapons and their capabilities were understood. For the first time, modern science provided metaphors to expand the range of what was permissible in warfare—the language of hygiene, surgery, ethnic difference and “cleansing” providing a spurious intellectual justification for mass murder. Kramer thus emphasizes the role played by modern writers and artists, especially the Italian Futurists, in developing and popularizing pseudo-scientific fantasies of historical rebirth. Similar excitement over the new and modern was apparent in the German military, with generals keen to put the ideas of Schlieffen and other total-war theorists to the test.

Despite his comprehensive comparative approach that enlightens not only the German and Allied experience but the less-studied events of the Italian front, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, Serbia, and the Balkans, Kramer stresses that there is still much archival research to be done. In particular, the Turkish government’s refusal to allow historians to properly investigate the Armenian genocide means that the importance of this event at the time, and in subsequent understandings of the war, is still underestimated. Yet Kramer’s careful weighing of the available evidence, and his insistence on taking seriously the way that events were understood at the time rather than perpetuating historical myth, provides an instructive methodology for future historians. In its centennial year, our understanding of the First World War is still incomplete. Alan Kramer shows us why it is so important to continue to investigate its events and interpretations.

We would appreciate your comments on this Newsletter — or the entire review essay. Leave your reflections and commentary below.

We Don't Know What War Is


Germans being shelled in their trenches during the Battle of the Somme.

From: Walter Smoter Frank (2004), Hitler: the Making of a Fuhrer, Chapter 9.

In the preliminary bombardment that opened the battle, the British and French fired over 40,000 shells every hour in hopes of pulverizing German defenses. As the shells came raining down on the German positions, the land itself seemed to burst open and flash. As far as the eye could see, fountains of mud, iron and stone filled the sky.

Gas moved across the land and filled the valleys and meadows. Talk was impossible for one could not be understood. Men huddled in their shelters as exploding shells cleared away the earth protecting them. Trenches disappeared. Dugouts vanished. Screams were heard between the explosions. Where men had sat only lumps of flesh and bits of uniform remained.

In the deeper shelters, old and battle-hardened troops peered through their masks at one another and shook their heads. The new recruits with big eyes and quivering bodies were watched with apprehension. Some turned green and began vomiting. Some began sobbing. Those with haunted protruding eyes attempted to dig deeper into the earth with their bare hands.

Some snuggled up to their stronger comrades and looked out from behind a kindly shoulder like frightened little children peeking out from behind their mother’s hip. As the shells tore apart the upper layers of concrete and began working their way toward them, many lost control of their bowels.

The smell of putrefaction mixed with the stench of exploding powder. No one condemned them for in war it was a common thing. After a hundred continuous hours of bombardment, even old soldiers experienced wet foreheads, damp eyes, trembling hands and panting breath as spasms of fear fought their way to the surface. Men felt they were already in their graves waiting only to be closed in.

Germans in their trenches at the Third Battle of Ypres, July 1917.

From: Frank, Walter Smoter (2004). Hitler: The Making of a FuhrerChapter 11.

The Germans had been forced, by the water soaked soil in the region, to abandon deep dugouts in favor of small concreted pillboxes which held machine gun crews and twenty to thirty men during heavy shelling. As the men huddled in their shelters the bombardment continued and churned the wet soil.

Between the rounds of exploding shells, the British also began hurling their latest inventions—new deadlier forms of gas and “cylinders of liquid fire.” Although the pillboxes could resist the shells of light artillery, many were engulfed by the early form of napalm or torn to shreds by the heavier shells.

For some of the lucky soldiers, death came quickly. Those in the area of an exploding shell simply vanished. For others, all that was left behind were a few body parts. Most men however, did not die so easily. Men who survived saw friends with half their legs missing running to the next shell hole on splintered stumps. Between bursting shells they saw burning men running in circles. They saw men running with their entails dragging twenty feet behind them.

They saw living men without legs, without arms, without jaws, without faces. They saw opened chests, opened stomachs, opened backs and opened skulls. Clumps of flesh that no longer resembled anything human continued to breath. Mercifully, some men never knew how badly they were hit and died in the middle of a sentence.

Others died slowly as they looked on in shock at a large part of their body laying yards away. Some looked at their deadly wounds in bewilderment and their long faces seemed unable to accept the fact that it had happened to them. Others gasped in horror, looking and longing for help they knew would never come.

DEAD BODIES ON THE BATTLEFIELD, the First World War, September 1916

From: Frank, Walter Smoter (2004). Hitler: The Making of a Fuhrer, Chapter 9.

Because of the speed at which the men were fed to the guns, it often became impossible to bring in the dead for burial. Bodies lay scattered upon the field until the exposed flesh became the same color as their gray-green uniforms. Strange distorted, taut, dead faces, all alike, revealed terror, anguish and suffering.

Gases within swollen dead bellies, hissed, belched and made movements. Bodies and parts of bodies were dumped into shell craters or abandoned trenches where huge gloated rats fattened themselves. Huge shells fell upon the graves and lifted the rotting corpses back onto the earth.

Heads, torsos, limbs, and grotesque fragments lay everywhere scattered among the scorched, torn and pitted earth, rotting and stinking. A miasma of chloroform and putrefaction rose from the piles and shifted back and forth over the living. Old cemeteries were not spared, and the stained bones and skulls of those who had perished centuries before were heaved back upon the earth and scattered among the fresher dead as though to inquire about the progress of leaders.

For a hundred and fifty miles, from the Somme to Verdun, the land was a giant lunar-scape with dying men, open grave-yards, and rotting corpses. At Verdun the Germans advanced about five miles, while on the Somme the British advanced about the same. For this trade the leaders of the opposing countries sustained over 600,000 casualties at Verdun and over 1,000,000 on the Somme.


Most of us don’t know what war is. We haven’t experienced its concrete reality—the actuality of battle. For most people, war is an abstraction, a geopolitical fantasy. Many relish the idea of warfare: the struggle to defeat the enemy, destroy evil, protect and defend one’s nation, etc. However, whether one is “for” or “against” war, most of us don’t know what war is.

Even those who advocate or believe war is a necessary enterprise prefer not to contemplate the reality of the warrior’s dead or maimed body. We don’t want to look closely at the results of battle: blood and gore. When soldiers return from battle, we don’t want to hear too much about what they’ve experienced. We stay away from hospitals. We don’t want to see—or think about—their wrecked bodies.

The title of Rene Girard’s Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1987) refers to the “scapegoat” mechanism: a concealed dynamic which, he believes, has worked to maintain civilization from its beginnings. Girard writes about the scapegoat as an outside group selected because it is weak or unable to defend itself. He is not familiar with the concept of insider violence: how soldiers function as victims and unifiers of society.

According to Girard, the sacrificial mechanism must be disguised or hidden in order to be effective. We avert our eyes from the victim. S. Mark Helms states that the working of mythical sacrifice in society requires that people “know not what they do.” Sacrificial scapegoating is “most virulent when it is most invisible.” The effectiveness of the mechanism of sacrificial killing depends on “blindness to its workings.” To “avert one’s eyes from the sight of the victim,” Helms says, is that “characteristically human act” that lies at the heart of scapegoating.

When it comes to warfare, we know and don’t know. We know, but don’t want to know too much. History books produce statistics on “casualties.” But we don’t like to contemplate what occurred. We prefer not to speak or write about the fact that our own nation kills and maims people. The truth hurts.

We don’t want to think about the dead and maimed bodies of our own soldiers. Certainly, we don’t want to see these bodies. We keep them out of sight. We don’t want to see body bags containing the dead. We don’t even want to see coffins that contain the remains of dead soldiers. In the midst of sound and fury, we like to keep war hidden. It’s our secret.

The institution of warfare and denial of reality go hand and in hand—they are two sides of the same coin. What is most deeply denied is the reality of what happens to the bodies of soldiers in battle. Historians like to write about geopolitical issues, political machinations, and battle strategy—anything to avoid looking at reality.

Denial of the reality of the death and maiming of soldiers is nothing new. Douglas Haig was the British Commander-in-Chief responsible for the disastrous Battle of the Somme. In his report of August 22, 1919, Features of the War, Haig states that total British casualties in all theaters of war—killed, wounded, missing and prisoners (including native troops)—was approximately three million (3,076,388). He claims that these casualties were “no larger than to be expected.” Yet Haig’s son reports that the General felt that it was his duty to refrain from visiting the casualty stations because “these visits made him physically ill.” French Commander Joseph Joffre said to his Staff: “I mustn’t be shown any more spectacles. I would no longer have the courage to give the order to attack.”

How strange and bizarre that men so close to the battlefield—responsible for the deaths of millions of young men—refused to look at the results of the orders they gave. Yet each of us inhabits a psychic space that is not radically different from that of the Generals. Although war may fascinate as a geopolitical enterprise, we don’t want to know or think about what happens to soldiers in and after the battle.

What is the meaning of this “Germany” that compelled Hitler to embrace—refuse to abandon—war? What is the meaning of a “nation” for any human being? Why do we feel that it would be a “sin to complain” about our country, even though we know it has generated death and destruction? Please leave your reflections and insights below.


Adolf Hitler—unlike most of us—experienced the reality of battle. He’d been there, witnessing and experiencing the horror: death, maiming and the decaying bodies of young men. In the face of Hitler’s experience of the First World War, it’s reasonable to ask: why did he not become a pacifist? That Hitler did not become a pacifist lies at the heart of this inquiry, raising a broader question: Given our knowledge of the massive destruction that war has caused, why do so many continue to embrace and advocate warfare?

Despite the fact that he was still holding Austrian citizenship, Hitler asked for—and was granted permission—to join the Bavarian Army in August 1914 (at age 25). He was present at a number of major battles, including the First Battle of Ypres, the Battle of the Somme, the Battle of Arras, and the Third Battle of Ypres (The Battle of Passchendaele).

Hitler was a dispatch runner, taking messages back and forth from the command staff in the rear to the fighting units near the battlefield. Based on what we know, Hitler was a highly competent, dedicated and passionate soldier. On December 14, 1914, he was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class, in 1915 was promoted to Lance Corporal, and on August 18, 1918, he was awarded the Iron Cross 1st class for service since 1914 as a messenger.

Hitler joined the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment (known as the List Regiment). After its first engagement near Ypres, 2500 of the 3600 men in Hitler’s regiment were killed, wounded or missing. According to Walter Smoter Frank, the chances that a 1914 volunteer of the List Regiment would be killed or maimed was almost guaranteed. Because of replacements, Hitler’s Regiment suffered 3754 killed before the war ended. For most of the war, Hitler led a charmed life. He was nearly killed on numerous occasions. It was miraculous that he survived. However, during the Battle of the Somme on October 7, 1916, he was seriously wounded in the left thigh when a shell exploded in the dispatch runners’ dugout. He spent two months in a hospital, was sent to Munich after being discharged, then returned to his regiment on March 5, 1917.

Hitler was temporarily blinded by a mustard gas attack on October 15, 1918, and also lost his voice. He was hospitalized in Pasewalk, and learned of the Armistice (November 11, 1918) marking Germany’s defeat in the First World War. Hitler reacted with bitterness and profound sadness.

What was the psychological meaning of “Germany” for Hitler? Why was this word—the simple evocation of “Germany”—so powerful that it prevented Hitler from complaining about the deaths of thousands of his comrades? What is the nature of our attachment to nations that makes it impossible for us to complain? Please leave your reflections and insights below.


The Battle of the Somme, also known as the Somme Offensive, was one of the largest battles of the First World War. Fought between July 1 and November 1, 1916 near the Somme River in France, it was also one of the bloodiest military battles in history. On the first day alone, the British suffered more than 57,000 casualties, and by the end of the campaign the Allies and Central Powers would lose more than 1.5 million men.

The British planned to attack the German trenches on a 15-mile front on July 1, 1916. To ensure a rapid advance, Allied artillery pounded German lines for a week before the attack. According to Robert Whalen (1984), between June 24 and 29, 1916, some 50,000 French and English gunners (a force the same size as Wellington’s entire army at Waterloo) fired 1,500,000 rounds into German positions near the Somme.

The passages to the right present Walter Smoter Frank’s descriptions of the German experience of trench bombardment, and of a First World War battlefield (1916). It is likely that Adolf Hitler witnessed much of what Frank describes.

A fair amount has been written documenting Hitler’s experience of the First World War. Among the best accounts is an online publication by Walter Smoter Frank, who reconstructs the experience of German troops on the receiving end of a massive artillery barrage—as they waited for the British attack in late June 1916. Hitler was at the Battle of the Somme and experienced first-hand many of the things that Frank describes. Hitler later stated, “I saw men falling around me in thousands. Thus I learned that life is a cruel struggle.”

What is the meaning of this “Germany” that compelled Hitler to embrace—refuse to abandon—war? What is the meaning of a “nation” for any human being? Why do we feel that it would be a “sin to complain” about our country, even though we know it has generated death and destruction? Please leave your reflections and insights below.


In Mein Kampf. Hitler relates how he learned about and reacted to Germany’s defeat in the First World War. On November 10, 1918, a pastor came to the hospital in Pasewalk (where Hitler was recovering from his poison gas attack). This “old gentleman,” Hitler reports, told him and his comrades that “we must now end the long war”; that the war had been lost and that Germany was now “throwing ourselves upon the mercy of the victors.”

“Again,” Hitler says, “everything went blank before my eyes. I tottered and groped my way back to the dormitory, threw myself on my bunk, and dug my burning head into my blanket and pillow.” Since “the day when I had stood before my mother’s grave,” Hitler says, “I had not wept.” Hitler’s experience at the end of First World War metamorphosed into a trauma from which he never recovered.

I want to focus here, however, on another aspect of Hitler’s response. Upon learning of Germany’s defeat, Hitler says, “I nearly lost heart for a moment.” He has a flicker of doubt and ambivalence, seems tempted to abandon hope. Hitler bolsters himself, however, remembering his earlier struggles on the battlefield and how he developed “merciless hardness and defiance,” then declares:

“When in the long war years Death snatched so many a dear comrade and friend from our ranks, it would have seemed to me almost a sin to complain—after all, were they not dying for Germany?”

In spite of having witnessed the death and maiming of thousands of his comrades during his four years of fighting, Hitler refuses to complain, indeed declares that it would be a “sin” to do so. It is a sin to complain about the death of his dear comrades and friends because they were “dying for Germany.” Hitler’s attachment to his nation transcends everything that he experienced as a soldier.


I’ve suggested that human beings don’t know what war is. More significantly, we don’t know what “nations” are and why they impact upon us so profoundly. “Countries” are in the background of most historical accounts of war. We don’t often analyze the meaning of nations because we take them for granted. They are always there. We identify so deeply. We possess countries, and countries possess us. We barely conceive of who we are apart from our attachment to our nation with its “national life.”

Hitler is unable to abandon warfare—to become a peace activist—because of his attachment to the nation with which he identifies. Actually, there is no separation between Hitler’s attachment to Germany and his attachment to warfare. Because he refuses to consider abandoning Germany, he refuses to consider abandoning war—despite the massive suffering that he witnessed and experienced.

What was the psychological meaning of “Germany” for Hitler? Why was this word—the simple evocation of “Germany”—so powerful that it prevented Hitler from complaining about the deaths of thousands of his comrades? What is the nature of our attachment to nations that makes it impossible for us to complain? Please leave your reflections and insights below.

In light of previous LSS Newsletter issues, one might suggest that Hitler doesn’t complain about the death of comrades and friends because he is committed to an ideology of national sacrifice. We’ve noted that Hitler believes civilization could not exist if human beings were unwilling to die for their countries. Still, why does he imagine that nations require sacrifices?

Explaining this requires that we ascertain what “Germany” meant to Hitler. Indeed, to understand the meaning of warfare we need to know what “countries” mean for anyone. We conceive of nations as real entities existing outside our minds. Of course, countries exist as political and social structures. The question, however, is: What do nations mean to us, psychologically? Why do they play such a powerful role in our psyches—to the extent that we are willing to kill and die in their name, and to forgive them for all the suffering they cause.

It is difficult to think of “nations” and not to think of actual entities possessing objective existence. However, whatever reality nations possess, they function as mental representations. Nations exist within our minds and play a profound role in the psychic economy of each and every one of us.

What is the meaning of this “Germany” that compelled Hitler to embrace—refuse to abandon—war? What is the meaning of a “nation” for any human being? Why do we feel that it would be a “sin to complain” about our country, even though we know it has generated death and destruction? Please leave your reflections and insights below.

Mass-Murder by Government


The Holocaust cannot be understood as an event separate from German history and Western civilization. The Holocaust grew out of the calamitous German experience of the First World War, and how Hitler interpreted and responded to this event.

When people learned of the death camps, they were horrified and appalled. “Incomprehensible” was a common reaction. Indeed, the event called the Holocaust is nearly beyond imagination. It is difficult to believe that human beings could bring something like this into existence. The event is so disturbing that some people deny it occurred.

When I became aware of the First World War, I was shocked, horrified and appalled. This event too is nearly beyond imagination. It’s difficult to believe that the leaders of “civilized” nations could ask men to get out of trenches for four years to be ripped apart — killed and maimed — by machine gun fire and artillery shells.

Here is a summary of the results of the First World War:

65 million men mobilized
8.5 million dead
21 million wounded
7.7 million POWs and missing
37 million total casualties

Although I was bewildered when I first began to read about the First World War, historians are apparently not. Perhaps they have become accustomed to this war. Whatever the reasons, historians — and people in general — rarely express surprise or amazement. The term “incomprehensible” is never used.

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In spite of the monumental carnage, the First World War is viewed as a “normal” dimension of history. We’d prefer not to put the First World War — or any war — in the same category as the Holocaust. Why? Because we view the Holocaust as an instance in which a nation intentionally engaged in mass–murder, whereas the 52-month episode of mass slaughter called the First World War is conceived as an event that occurred accidentally, or at least unintentionally.

It wasn’t that nations actually wanted to destroy large numbers of people. Rather, no one comprehended what they were getting into. The magnitude of killing was not expected. Things got out of control and went far beyond what anyone anticipated. It wasn’t as if anyone wanted what happened to happen. No one was responsible.

Can we truly claim that killing during the First War World — 9 million dead — was unintentional? Please provide your own insights on our blog.


Hundreds of books have been written seeking to fathom why some Germans were willing to murder Jews. Controversies have arisen. Were the murderers simply following orders — manifesting a universal human tendency to be “obedient to authority”? Had these people been so thoroughly indoctrinated with the anti-Semitic ideology that they believed that their actions were necessary and virtuous?

Rarely are similar questions asked about participants in the First World War. Soldiers are expected to kill. When they murder, they are simply doing their duty. No explanation is required. Regarding the First World War, we want to know — not only why soldiers were willing to kill — but why were they willing to die. This issue is glossed over. Do we imagine that it is natural for soldiers to go into battle — and to die when leaders ask them to?

One historian has posed the question of why soldiers continued getting out of trenches for four years — running into machine gun fire and artillery shells — when they knew that the results of this behavior were often fatal. In Rites of Spring (2000), Modris Eksteins asks:

What kept them in the trenches? What sustained them on the edge of No Man’s Land, that strip of territory which death ruled with an iron fist? What made them go over the top, in long rows? What sustained them in constant confrontation with death?

The question of what kept men going in this hell of the Western Front, Eksteins says, is “central to an understanding of the war and its significance”:

What deserves emphasis in the context of the war is that, despite the growing dissatisfaction, the war continued, and it continued for one reason: the soldier was willing to keep fighting. Just why he kept going has to be explained, and that matter has often been ignored.

Political scientist Jean Bethke Elshtain (in Women and War, 1995) observes that the First World War was the “nadir of nineteenth-century nationalism.” Mounds of bodies were sacrificed in a “prolonged, dreadful orgy of destruction.” “Trench warfare” meant “mass, anonymous death.” Elshtain observes that we “still have trouble accounting for modern state worship”; the “mounds of combatants and noncombatants alike sacrificed to the conflicts of nation-states.”

I pose three fundamental questions.

  • Why, during the course of the First World War, did national leaders continually ask young men to engage in battle strategies that caused a great number of men to be wounded or killed?
  • Why did men in the great majority of cases follow orders — going like sheep to the slaughter?
  • Why have historians rarely interrogated the suicidal battle strategies of the First World War?
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Carolyn Marvin’s theory of warfare, presented in Blood Sacrifice and the Nation (1999), helps us to answer these questions. Marvin hypothesizes that “society depends on the death of its own members at the hands of the group,” claiming that the underlying cost of all society is the “violent death of some of its members.” In short, one’s nation or society “lives” insofar as members of one’s society die.

War is a ritual performed by nations — in order to claim sacrificial victims. Society, Marvin says, “depends on the death of sacrificial victims at the hands of the group itself.” The maintenance of civilization, society and the nation-state, according to Marvin, requires blood sacrifice in war.

What an unpleasant theory. However, is it less pleasant to reflect upon the 200 million plus human beings killed by governments in the 20th century? It is not a question of this instance of war, or that; of this instance of genocide, or that. Rather, the slaughter of citizens by nations is a consistent theme — a prominent feature — of twentieth century history.

Do we have theories to account for these recurring episodes of governmental mass murder? Of course, each historical event is unique. However, do we really wish to claim that each episode of societal killing has a separate cause?

Marvin’s theory arose out of her study of United States history, yet works perfectly to explain the phenomena I have studied. The First World War may be understood as a massive, collective ritual of blood sacrifice. Societies acted to cause the deaths of young men — in order to keep their nations alive. In some instances (for example, Australia and Canada), blood sacrifice gave rise to the nation.


Marvin’s theory explains why wars recur — their function for societies and human beings. Just as significantly, her theory seeks to explain the fact that we don’t want to know the truth: that warfare is sacrificial ritual. The occurrence of war — and the denial of warfare’s purpose or function — are part of the same dynamic or complex.

According to Marvin, knowledge that society depends on the death of sacrificial victims at the hands of the group is the “totem secret”; the “collective group taboo.” While we enact warfare as a sacrificial ritual, we simultaneously don’t wish to know that we are enacting this ritual.

Throughout the twentieth century, governments have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of millions of human beings. Did each war and episode of genocide occur because of reasons unique to each given event? Perhaps a more parsimonious hypothesis is that episodes of violence generated by societies and governments represent the fulfillment of a collective desire.

Warfare is not forbidden. Indeed, we take it for granted that nations will wage war. It’s what they do. This is what I mean when I say that people believe that Nations Have the Right to Kill (Koenigsberg, 2009). We are not forbidden to wage war, but up to now we have been forbidden to know why we wage war.

The sacrificial meaning of warfare once was a secret — but no more.

Warfare: Slaughter or Sacrifice?

Destroying the World to Rescue the World

Paul Kahn: The popular sovereign emerges when all members of the polity can experience the pain of politics. All citizens are equal, when all read the same history of suffering as their pain, and all stand equally before the threat of future pain—sacrifice—for the state.

At the heart of the state, we find a commitment to the willing sacrifice of all of the national resources—human and material—for the end of preservation of the state. All can be called upon to sacrifice—to suffer—for the maintenance of the state. Nuclear weapons are the perfect expression of democratic pain. A policy of mutual assured destruction is the end-point, ending in a vision of universal self-sacrifice founded on a love of nation.

Richard Koenigsberg: Better dead than red. Hitler declared, “You are nothing, your nation is everything”: destroy the world in order to rescue one’s nation and its sacred ideals. But the other side—one’s enemy—they too are willing to destroy the world in order to preserve their sacred ideals.

Destroy the world in order to save the world. This is the fundamental structure of political ideologies: Where is evil located? Who is the enemy? Evil is located within the heart and soul of the enemy. Political ideologies are rescue fantasies. To save the heart and soul of the world, one must destroy evil—kill off the enemy.

Hitler located evil in “the Jew.” If Germany was to survive, every single Jew in the world would have to be located and destroyed. “We may be inhumane,” Hitler declared, “but if we rescue Germany we have performed the greatest dead in the world.” Is there any political ideology that does not have this structure?

Ideologies differ in terms of the class of people identified as the source of evil: Jews, communists, capitalists, the great Satan, terrorists. Political ideologies seek to locate the source of evil. In our hearts the dream remains the same: if only this class of people did not exist, the world could return to a state of perfection. Destroy the enemy to save the world.

Torture—or Noble Sacrifice?

Paul Kahn: Nothing is easier than to describe the horror of the battlefield. Yet, despite our knowledge of that horror, we celebrate a political history of achievement on the battlefield. The West not only experienced the destruction of a generation of young men in the First World War, it pursued the Second World War to the point of genocide and the destruction of European material wealth and civil society.

The experience in the trenches of the First World War may come to appear as nothing other than a torturous mauling and destruction of bodies. For the soldier who has lost faith in the sovereign character of a politics of sacrifice, war becomes a scene of horrendous torture: broken bodies, pain and death. Once a family loses this faith in the sovereign, it will only see the state conscripting and killing its loved ones.

The sacred loses its power and we are left with the tortured body—a residue of politics when faith in the sovereign has disappeared. Wilfred Owen captures this residue of the dying body when he writes: “What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?” Not sacrifice, but slaughter; not the transcendence of the merely human, but the evil of the loss of the human. To those who do not hear God, Abraham’s action must have looked like a bizarre torture of his son.

Richard Koenigsberg: Yet historians continue to write about episodes of mass destruction as if they make sense. Historians are true believers. Their craft builds upon faith in sovereign entities given names like France and Great Britain and Germany. Dying for one’s country: sacred devotion.

Losing faith, one perceives the horror of the battlefield. Warfare comes to be experienced as torture: the torture of young men. The First World War was a massive scene of torture, with national leaders sending young men to be blown to pieces: broken bodies, pain and death.

But they were “dying for their countries.” Faith transforms slaughter into sacrifice. Dying for Great Britain, the young men are revered, memorialized, commemorated. The soldier—like Christ—is resurrected in the immortality of the nation. And so in the soldier all will be made alive. The soldier dies so that we may live.

Destroying Witches/Killing Enemies

Paul Kahn: A secular age looks back at the wars of religion and sees in them a great evil: bodies were destroyed for “no real reason.” All the suffering and destruction to what end? Similarly, we look at the tortured destruction of witches and heretics as a kind of madness producing great evil. Once faith is gone, we are left with only tortured and maimed bodies.

So we are beginning to see our own political past. We do not see political martyrs, but senseless suffering. No longer understanding the sacred character of the political, we see only the tortured bodies of the victims. We see a field of arbitrary death and destruction that contributes nothing to the well-being that we would place at the heart of the contemporary political narrative.

Or, I should say, this is what we might begin to see—or even hope to see—but still not quite yet. The politics of the sublime, of the sacred character of the nation, recedes but is not yet gone. The popular sovereign remains a brooding presence capable of enthralling the nation. It remains a hungry god and we remain willing to feed it our children. We react in only half-forgotten ways to the attack of September 11.

Richard Koenigsberg: Yet we do not yet understand political mass murder as a “kind of madness.” We still do not equate our drive to destroy “enemies” with the “tortured destruction of witches and heretics”: a form of madness producing great evil.

Looking back upon the twentieth century, historians imagine that—somehow—it all made sense: anti-Semitism was a cultural form rooted in Western civilization and history; communism was a doctrine created by serious thinkers who believed that a humane world required the elimination of capitalism and capitalists; and preservation of the American way of life required the destruction of communism and communists (generating “witch-hunts”).

Was killing Jews in Nazi Germany analogous to killing witches? Yes. However, the enlightenment belief in rationality persists: we seek “reasons”; assume there must have been reasons, refusing to embrace the reality of collective madness. MAD = mutually assured destruction: “A doctrine of military strategy and national security policy in which a full-scale use of high-yield weapons of mass destruction by two opposing sides would cause the complete annihilation of both attacker and defender.”

Insanity—or Noble Sacrifice?

Paul Kahn: Willingness to sacrifice for the creation and maintenance of political meanings always appears inconceivable to those outside of the community. We find it incomprehensible that Palestinians would be willing to blow themselves up for the maintenance of a political identity. But the suicide bomber is not different in kind from the Israeli soldier. Both know that political identity is a matter of life and death.

Both sides in this conflict wonder at the capacity of the other to kill and be killed. We have the same reaction to the sacrificial politics of others as we do to those who believe in different gods, rituals, and sacred texts. It literally makes no sense to us; it appears “crazy.” How, we wonder, can anyone believe that the gods appeared in that object or that place? This shock of difference, however, usually does not cause us to doubt our own beliefs. We think others strange, but that does not unmoor us from our own sacred rituals. The same is true of our own political meanings.

Richard Koenigsberg: How strange and bizarre that Islamic radicals would willingly die for Allah. How weird. Yet 360,000 Union soldiers died in the American Civil War in the name of “preserving the Union.” And 126,000 American soldiers died in the First World War—in order to “make the world safe for democracy.” We don’t find these deaths strange at all. There is nothing “crazy” about dying for our own sacred ideals. By virtue of faith, slaughter becomes noble sacrifice.

Why War?

In 1989, I was on the fourth floor of the Bobst library at NYU. Having read most of the books on Nazism, Hitler and the Holocaust, I drifted across the aisle and started browsing through the volumes on the First World War—and was astonished at what I discovered.

I was astonished—not only by the persistence and magnitude of the slaughter—but by the blasé way historians described what had occurred. It seemed as if mass murder was taken for granted: nothing special. At least the Holocaust evoked shock and bewilderment. But the extermination of 9 million human beings (most of them young men) evoked little amazement.

I began studying the topic more deeply, assuming historians would reveal the causes. What was so significant that could generate such massive slaughter? Of course, historians were able to trace how one event led to another. But why did the slaughter take place? Why was it necessary? Gradually, I realized historians were unable to answer these questions.

Orion and I were reading back issues of the New York Review of Books earlier this week—as a model for Library of Social Science Book Reviews—and came across a terrific article by Jason Epstein. In his review essay, Epstein poses several questions I have been thinking about during the past 25 years.

Reviewing John Keegan’s The First World War, Epstein conveys this great historian’s conclusion: that the nations of Europe (and the world) “had no compelling reason to fight.” Keegan asked: “Why did the states of Europe proceed as if in a dead march and a dialogue of the deaf, to the destruction of their continent and its civilization?” It is this question—and others like it—that we pose in this Newsletter, and through our Websites.

The most profound flaw in the thinking of historians and political scientists is their assumption of rationality. They proceed as if it is possible to identify “real reasons” for mass murder—and for the tendency of nation-states to proceed as if self-extermination was their objective.

Epstein cites a sermon presented by the Bishop of London in 1915, who urged Englishmen to kill Germans…to kill the good as well as the bad, to kill the young men as well the old,…to kill them lest the civilization of the world should itself be killed. As I have said a thousand times, I look upon it as a war for purity…for the principles of Christianity. I look upon everyone who dies in it as a martyr.

The words in this brief passage (that easily could have come out of Hitler’s mouth) reveal several themes that have emerged from my research on collective forms of violence.
Warfare revolves around the idea that it is necessary to kill or destroy the enemy. There is blind passion in the Bishop’s words—he insists it is necessary to “kill Germans,” the “good as well as the bad,” the “young men as well as the old”. Why this belief that it necessary to kill—or kill off—each and every member of another nation or societal group?

Nations and enemies go together. It seems that one requires the other, almost as if nations need enemies in order to energize themselves—to stay alive. The nation’s identity seems to be dependent on its capacity to identify an enemy to hate, revile—and possibly kill.

The Bishop asserts that it is necessary to kill Germans “lest the civilization of the world should itself be killed.” I have found that the idea of “rescuing civilization” is central in generating warfare. War is not about “primitive aggression.” Rather, nations initiate acts of war when they imagine that the future of civilization is at stake.

Somehow, the other civilization (or group) is imagined to threaten the existence of one’s own civilization. This principle applies to contemporary political struggles—as well as the First World War. Warfare arises as a form of morality, or moral righteousness. The enemy Other is imagined to be acting to destroy one’s own society. Violent acts are therefore necessary—required.

Hitler explained, “We may be inhumane, but if we rescue Germany, we have performed the greatest deed in the world.” If you think about any case of political violence that you have studied or are familiar with, you will probably conclude that Hitler’s statement is applicable. Collective forms of violence are undertaken in the name of a rescue fantasy. “Yes, we are performing acts of inhumane violence. However, if our nation or society is to survive, we have no other choice but to undertake them.”

The Bishop’s war cry, Epstein observes, could have “landed him in an asylum” had he delivered it a year earlier. Warfare, it would appear, renders normal what in other circumstances would be judged insane. Outside the context of war, asking men to get out of trenches and to run into machine gun fire and artillery shells for four years—would be considered a form of insanity.

I worked with a psychiatrist in 1998 developing an all-day seminar on warfare. She was not a historian and was unfamiliar with the First World War. We were sitting on a couch watching Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957). When we came to the scene in which soldiers were compelled to get out of their trench and move into no man’s land—in the face of massive shelling (click the link to view the video), she jumped up from the couch and screamed, “It’s crazy. It’s insane.”

This, perhaps, is the normal or natural reaction of a human being who has not been socialized into the historical discourse on the First World War. And yes, what occurred between 1914 and 1918 was insane. However, we don’t like to say this. We shy away from acknowledging that insane forms of behavior are contained within the fabric of civilization.

What’s more, human beings to not seem to be ashamed of their proclivity toward mass murder and self-destruction. Leaders who are responsible for the deaths of millions of human beings often live to a ripe old age. Perhaps we are even proud of our willingness to kill and die for abstract ideas—our sacred ideals. It’s what distinguishes us from other animals.

Can we begin to “bracket” the ideology of warfare—to conceive of this institution as something other than who we are? Post-modernists have deconstructed nearly everything. However, the idea of warfare (and of the nation-state, which generates war) reigns supreme.

It is easy to be “against” war. However, we have yet to pose and answer fundamental questions: Precisely what is warfare? Why do we need it? Why have human beings become so attached to the idea or ideology of warfare? These are questions we seek to answer through our Library of Social Science Newsletter, our Ideologies of War website, and through Library of Social Science Book Reviews.

We may not be ready to conceive of warfare as an institutionalized form of insanity. So let’s say that warfare is like a dream that many people are having at once: a collective fantasy that has been embraced and called “reality.”

We hope you will join us in our project of working to awaken from the nightmare of history.