Dynamic of Destruction. Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War

Kramer, Alan
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The descent of the supposedly civilised European great powers into the barbarity of the two World Wars and the reasons for it are a matter of great debate. Unlike other authors, Alan Kramer does not see the two wars as an extended ‘European Civil War’ or second Thirty Years War. Their connection is rather that the First World War greatly increased the degree to which destruction, and particular cultural destruction, was acceptable in European nations, allowing it to occur in to such a great degree in the Second. In particular, he notes the appropriation of the ‘experience’ of the first war by fascist regimes to justify their destructive policies and use of political violence.

Taking the German atrocities of 1914 and the destruction of Louvain in Belgium as a starting point (the subject of his and John Horne’s earlier book on ‘German Atrocities 1914’) [1], Kramer traces an increasing pattern of destruction in the First World War. This manifested itself in both ‘cultural destruction’ (targeting the enemy’s culture, either through attacks on enemy civilians or of tangible symbols of culture) and the ‘culture of destruction’, which enabled educated people across Europe to accept and even support this destruction. The dynamic was not restricted to attacks on occupied nations or internal enemies; the obliteration of the landscape and men in the fighting zones and maltreatment of prisoners of war are seen as a part of the same process. Moreover, it is by no means confined to the war years, extending back into the Balkan Wars and forward into the Russian Civil War and interwar internal disturbances in Europe. Kramer tracks both the expansion of this physical and cultural destruction and, integral to this cultural study, the mental acceptance of it.

Importantly, Kramer does not view the ‘dynamic of destruction’ as a mechanistic process, nor as an evenly distributed one; rather it was man-made, variable and, ultimately, stoppable (p. 329). There were significant differences between the reactions to the war in different states with their distinct cultures and circumstances: the British and French were fighting a defensive war, Russia and Serbia had no real interest in or advantage to be gained from aggression in 1914, while Germany and Austria-Hungary (and later Italy) had specific war aims linked to aggressive war plans (Ch. 3 and pp. 116-122). It was in Germany and Italy that the government and the intellectual community saw the war as a way to achieve specific aims and as something that had to be won, irrespective of the methods needed (pp. 169, 189-92), so it does not come a great surprise that it was in these countries the dynamic of destruction produced interwar political violence and the growth of fascist regimes.

While the intellectual ‘culture of war’ was stronger in these future fascist states, ‘“absolute destruction” was not the monopoly of Germany’, but was also followed by the French and British in the ‘material war’ (p. 227), which by 1918 saw the use of the ‘annihilation of space [by artillery] and men to conquer space’ (p. 273). In this regard the culture of destruction was widespread, but it was the countries’ intellectual cultures that differed in their approaches to this destruction. In Italy and Germany (more so than among the Western Allies), aggression was also turned upon the ‘enemy within’ – exemplified by the German ‘stab-in-the-back’ myth and the Italian idea of an unfinished victory. In these cases, militarist and future fascist elements could lay the blame for the war or the peace not going as planned on other sections of society. Also in Italy and Germany, the war saw the undermining of ideas of the inherent worth of individuals, whether soldiers or civilians, where they could not assist the drive to victory.

Following from these differences in wartime cultures, the interwar paths of the main western actors followed distinct routes, with fascism and the ‘brutalisation’ of politics in Italy and Germany; while in Britain the reaction was ‘rather the fear of brutalization and the rejection of violence in politics’ and likewise in France political violence remained rare (p. 283). Here, Kramer explicitly challenges George Mosse’s thesis on the ‘myth of war experience’ and Europe-wide brutalisation.[2] Instead, Kramer links the prevalence of political violence to the manner in which the nation-state in question was formed: Western European states formed by internal revolutions (Great Britain and France) remained relatively stable, while those formed by nationalist unification movements (Italy and Germany) saw ‘the democratic order destroyed by paramilitary violence’. Thus ‘reactions to the war had as much to do with culture’ (p.279)[3] as with the actual war experience of the state in question. In Russia, the violence of the civil war is seen in this light as a continuation of pre-war political violence, given greater legitimacy by the wartime culture of destruction (pp. 286, 290).

The ‘dynamic of destruction’ thesis provides a convincing explanation of the growth of total war and total destruction in the twentieth century; it gives a more nuanced view related to the culture and experience of different states than simply seeing Europe-wide ‘brutalisation’ caused by the First World War. One problem with Kramer’s treatment of the cultural reactions to the war, however, is an over-emphasis on high culture, with a great deal of attention paid to futurism and the aestheticisation and glorification of war in the art and writings of intellectuals. Important though these are in terms of the observable reaction of ‘culture’, they do not tell one a great amount about the reactions of ordinary soldiers and civilians. It was, after all, these people who were the majority of both the victims and perpetrators of the destruction waged in the two World Wars. While Kramer notes that ordinary soldiers in the French, British and German armies ‘reacted to industrialized warfare and mass death with fatalism’ (p. 242), more attention could have been paid to this reaction, whether it too varied between countries and its similarities with or differences from the intellectual reaction. Although, clearly, this kind of study would by necessity be very broad ranging, it is striking that there is little attention given to the subject in this work, where it could have been included to a much greater extent, perhaps in place of some of the large amount of space devoted to the Italian futurists and in particular Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Treated with the same attention as the high-cultural reaction, this would have made a very interesting part of this otherwise excellent study.

[1] Kramer, Alan; Horne, John, German Atrocities 1914: A history of denial, New Haven 2001.
[2] Mosse, George L., Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars, Oxford 1990. A similar view is taken by Leed, Eric, No Man’s Land: Combat and Identity in World War I, Cambridge 1979, pp. 193-213.
[3] The typology of nation-states is credited by Kramer to Theodor Schieder. See Schumann, Dirk, Europa, der Erste Weltkrieg und die Nachkriegszeit. Eine Kontinuität der Gewalt?, in: Journal of Modern European History 1 (2003), S. 24-43.

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