Summer 1914: War Enthusiasm, Real and Imaginary

Die Kriegserklärung by Max Beckmann

Max Beckmann, “The Declaration of War”.

During the years leading up to 1914, Europe’s upper classes, the landowning aristocracy and the industrial-financial bourgeoisie, had lived through years of almost intolerable tension. Obsessed by the fear of a revolution, they imagined themselves to be witnessing a race between war and revolution, a sprint whose outcome could be decided at any time. Which one of the two was going to win? The elite feared revolution and therefore prayed for war. From the viewpoint of Europe’s elite, history had been moving in the wrong direction, as democratization was making progress and the revolution appeared to be approaching rapidly. A change of course, a U-turn, was urgently required. The bourgeoisie wanted to return to the era before 1848 and 1871, the years when the working class and other proletarians had become truly troublesome. As far as the nobility was concerned, it preferred to go all the way back to the “good old days” of the ancien régime, the era before the French Revolution. In order to put a definitive end to the execrable process of democratization, the clock had to be turned back to that Age of Aquarius before the fateful year 1789, that is, to the time when, as far as class relations were concerned, the planets had been perfectly aligned

In view of this, the upper classes experienced the outbreak of war in 1914 as a deliverance after years of uncertainty, tension, and fear, and they heaved a sigh of relief. The coming of the war, writes Eric Hobsbawm,

“was widely felt as a release and a relief . . . Like a thunderstorm it broke the heavy closeness of expectation and cleared the air . . . After a long wait in the auditorium, it meant the opening of the curtain on a great and exciting historical drama in which the audience found itself to be the actors. It meant decision.”

When he learned the news, the famous Field Marshal Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener declared laconically that “it is better to have an end of the uncertainty.” And a young Briton “from a good family,” Rupert Brooke, who would later be well known as an antiwar poet, expressed his enthusiasm in these verses:

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary.

In Russia too, where 1914 had been a year of tensions and unprecedented social conflicts, the outbreak of war abroad, like a deus ex machina, brought peace at home. “The social malaise, which had been growing relentlessly, suddenly evaporated when war broke out,” writes the historian Hans Rogger, “what had seemed impossible in peacetime became reality in the wink of an eye.” The elite, and the upper classes in general, welcomed the war as a deliverance from the “meanness and narrow mindedness of spirit,” a “spiritual awakening,” the “end of a moral crisis,” an opportunity for Mother Russia to “reclaim its true Russian and Slav identity,” and so forth. The relief was just as great in Germany. The famous writer Thomas Mann, very much a member of the upper-middle class, gave vent to his relief as follows:

The world of peace, which has now collapsed with such shattering thunder — did we not all of us have enough of it? Was it not foul in all its comfort? Did it not fester and stink with the decomposition of civilization? Morally and psychologically I felt the necessity of this catastrophe and that feeling of cleansing, of elevation and liberation which filled me, when what one had thought impossible really happened.

And in the streets of Berlin many burghers congratulated each other for “being over the hurdle.”In Mein Kampf, Hitler was to describe about ten years later what the feeling was like in Munich when the news arrived that war had broken out: “[The war] was not forced on the masses . . . no, it was desired by the whole people. People wanted at length to put an end to the general uncertainty.” And he personally experienced the coming of war as “a release from the painful feelings of my youth,” so he “fell down on [his] knees and thanked Heaven from an overflowing heart for granting [him] the good fortune of being permitted to live at this time.”

Despite what Hitler believed, it was not “the whole people” that was relieved and overjoyed, but primarily the members of the country’s aristocratic and bourgeois elite, that is, the ruling and governing classes of all of Germany, and indeed of all countries that were drawing the sword, and also of a part of the lower-middle class of which Hitler himself was a representative specimen. The war that had broken out was the war they had wanted, the war that would dissipate the spectre of revolution, the war to stop and even roll back the democratization process.

The war that was being welcomed with open arms by the elite was of course a war between countries, a war in which a vertical obstacle, the “wall” of the frontline, separated countries, including their upper as well as their lower classes, and was therefore a kind of “vertical” war. But it was simultaneously a “horizontal” war, a conflict in which a horizontal rampart segregated “those above” from “those below” within each belligerent country, the superior classes from the lower orders. Seen from “above,” the lower classes, especially the workers and other proletarians, incarnated the great problems that were presumably going to be resolved by the war that had just started. They were the “dangerous classes,” the threatening “masses” that had been incited for decades by the socialists and had therefore shown themselves to be restless and seditious; via the process of democratization, they had already made too much progress, and sooner or later they were likely to overthrow the established order via a revolution, just as the Barbarians had destroyed the Roman Empire.

From the perspective of the elite, the war was a war against democracy, against socialism, against revolution, against internationalism (linked to socialism) — and against pacifism, directed against war itself. It is thus hardly surprising that the very first victim of this war was the great French socialist leader Jean Jaurès, assassinated in Paris on July 31, 1914. That the Great War, evidently a war between countries, would also be a war between classes, was reflected in the fact that its very first victim was a socialist who also happened to be a beacon of internationalism, antimilitarism, and pacifism, who was assassinated by a fanatical French nationalist, and in the fact that the first victim on the French side was a Frenchman brought down by a French bullet.

In a famous song entitled “Pourquoi ont-ils tué Jaurès?,” the late Jacques Brel asked why Jaurès had been killed. The answer is that it was because he attempted in extremis to prevent a war in which the elite, not only of France, but also of Germany, Russia, etc., had invested such high hopes. In the eyes of the European elite, the time of peace had been a miserable time, and the time of war that was now dawning could only be a good time. The outbreak of war was certainly a moment of great illusions, of the Grand Illusion, to cite the title of a classic movie on the First World War, produced by Jean Renoir in 1937.

One of these illusions was that the war would be a short one, although a handful of military and political Cassandras, including Lord Kitchener, did in fact predict that the war would be long. “The soldiers would be back for the wine harvest” was the widespread belief in France. “Home before the leaves come down” (Zurück bevor die Blätter fallen), they said in Germany. In Great Britain they were a little less optimistic, but believed nonetheless that it would all be over soon; the troops were supposed to be “home before Christmas.”

Naive ideas also prevailed with respect to the nature of the war. With the precedent of recent colonial wars fresh in their minds (at least as reported in the press), most people expected that the war would cause the soldiers little hardship, but would bring plenty of travel, adventure, perhaps romance, and certainly glory, lots of it. Those rare birds who might actually perish for the fatherland, hit by a bullet in the chest and dying an instant and painless death, would enter Valhalla to the triumphant sound of trumpets.

The public, and even countless military experts, did not take into account how murderous modern armaments really were, such as the machine guns that had already existed for quite a few decades. It was thought that the war would resemble the recent Balkan Wars, conflicts that had been brief and limited in terms of casualties, and in which the cavalry had still played its traditional important role. “On the [European] continent, there had been no war between the Great Powers since 1871,” writes the American historian Paul Fussell. “No man in the prime of his life knew what war was like. All imagined that it would be an affair of great marches and great battles, quickly decided.”[10] His colleague Gabriel Kolko, likewise an American, notes that “romantic militarist illusions left generals everywhere utterly oblivious to the nature of warfare in the machine age.”

Just about everybody was confident in victory and believed that this triumph would bring eternal glory to the fatherland in addition to a considerable enlargement of its own territory or portfolio of colonial real estate. Even in minuscule Belgium, about to be crushed under the boots of the German Moloch, countless burghers were convinced that, with Britain and France as allies, victory was certain. In a book about his experiences as a soldier in 1914, Namen 1914, the Flemish writer Ernest Claes related how the good folks in Brussels looked forward to seeing their country’s postwar borders stretch all the way to the Rhine. And so, in that magnificent, even idyllic summer of 1914, they went to war with an apparently universal enthusiasm, with beaming faces and, as they said in France, “with flowers in the barrels of their rifles” (la fleur au fusil). Preceded by marching bands, acclaimed by women and men waving flags, and followed by children, the recruits streamed out of the armouries and marched to the stations; there they boarded trains on whose sides graffiti scribbled with chalk proclaimed that they were heading to the enemy capital: “Auf nach Paris!,” or “À Berlin!”

We now know that the bellicose enthusiasm of the summer of 1914 was far less widespread than had been generally believed. “The photographs of cheering crowds in the great capitals are misleading,” writes Margaret MacMillan in her book about the outbreak of war in 1914. “The coming of war took most Europeans by surprise and their initial reaction was disbelief and shock.” The lower classes were not nearly as enthusiastic as the elite, and the villages and small towns in the countryside far less than capitals like Berlin and Paris. But the big cities, where patriotic citizens loudly welcomed the war and where the authorities stimulated the enthusiasm with marching bands and displays of flags, enjoyed by far the most attention from the journalists and photographers. And the political and military leaders were only too happy to send the reports and images of enthusiasm around the world.

A considerable part of the lower-middle class and the great majority of workers and peasants had never been bellicose. They did not share the elite’s illusions with respect to war, and they worried about the hardships the war was certain to cause them. In France, “still essentially rural,” the countryside reacted “with surprise and consternation” when war was declared. In Russia, “only a minority displayed patriotic ardour and nationalist fury,” writes the French historian Alexandre Sumpf, while “the majority wavered between concern and resignation,” and the countryside displayed far less appetite for the war than the cities. The state of mind among the Russian peasantry has been described elsewhere as “profound stupefaction,” “downcast fatalism,” and “passive obedience.” For the peasants, it was particularly traumatic to have go to war at harvest time, when the sight of wheat fields, shining like gold in the August sun, symbolized, as a French author Jean Rouaud has written, “the kept promise of daily bread”; it was an image, he continues, that did not conjure up war but had been associated with “peace, ever since men learned to work the land and to expect from it on a certain date the pleasure of a full belly.”

From France to distant Serbia and Russia, the peasants did not know how the crops would be harvested now that they and their sons would march off to distant battlefields and the army would come to take away their horses and carts. (Being separated from the familiar companion, the horse, was particularly traumatic for the peasants; in France alone, no less than 730,000 horses were requisitioned in August 1914.) The despondency of English peasants was echoed in the following lines of the poem “August 1914,” by John Masefield:

The harvest not yet won, the empty bin,
The friendly horses taken from the stalls,
The fallow on the hill not yet brought in,
The cracks unplastered in the leaking walls.
Yet heard the news, and went discouraged home,
And brooded by the fire with heavy mind,
With such dumb loving of the Berkshire loam
As breaks the dumb hearts of the English kind.
Then sadly rose and left the well-loved Downs.

Among Europe’s lower orders in general, there was also talk of “discontent,” “angry grumbling,” and “critical murmurs” with respect to the “bosses” who were considered to be responsible for the war. Workers everywhere asked themselves how their families would survive on the meagre soldier’s pay that would replace their wages for an indefinite period of time. In many cities, for example in London, Frankfurt, and Hamburg, whatever frivolity may have been displayed during the first hours and days soon gave way to a serious and even sombre mood, particularly in working-class districts such as London’s East End and the Berlin district of Moabit. Germany’s “mass of workers and employees” was reported to remain “very reserved toward the warlike atmosphere.” Via a drawing entitled The Declaration of War (Die Kriegserklärung), the German expressionist painter Max Beckmann dramatically conveyed the consternation of ordinary German citizens.

In St. Petersburg, whose German name would be changed on August 18, 1914, to the Russian Petrograd, also meaning “City of Peter [the Great],” many suspected that the scenes of enthusiasm that drew the attention of the media were far from spontaneous, but were probably orchestrated by the authorities, and that countless participants had received money or alcohol for their “work.” The ambassador of a neutral country, Spain, observed that the recruits who marched through the city looked rather “quiet and downcast.”[15] Among the departing troops, all too numerous were those who were reluctant to leave their family, their workplace, their village — and had the feeling that they might never return. This type of foreboding is evoked in a poem, “Departure” (Abschied), written by Alfred Lichtenstein, a German who would be killed on September 25, 1914, somewhere in northern France:

Wir ziehn zum Krieg. Der Tod ist unser Kitt. (We go to war. Death is on our side.)
O, heulte mir doch die Geliebte nit. (I wish my love would stop crying.)
Was liegt an mir. Ich gehe gerne ein. (I myself do not matter, I go happily.)
Die Mutter weint. Man muß aus Eisen sein. (My mother cries. One needs to be made of steel.)
Die Sonne fällt zum Horizont hinab. (The sun disappears behind the horizon)
Bald wirft man mich ins milde Massengrab. (Soon they will throw us into a welcoming mass grave.)
Am Himmel brennt das brave Abendrot. (The kind red glare of evening burns in the sky.)
Vielleicht bin ich in dreizehn Tagen tot. (In a fortnight I will perhaps be dead.)

“In spite of intense pedagogical efforts and a semi-artificial, semi-spontaneous enthusiasm, the desire to go and die in war did not exist at all,” is what two historians have written with respect to the German soldiers who marched off to war in the summer of 1914, and the same could be said about their counterparts in the Allied camp.  Everywhere, however, the soldiers were imbued with a sincere love of their fatherland and a sense of duty. And they believed — or wanted to believe — what they had been told by their social superiors, namely that the war would be short, require few sacrifices, and would end with victory, thus opening the gate to a better world.

Not only the ordinary soldiers, but also the civilians of modest origin displayed precious little enthusiasm for the war. During the final days of peace, impressive numbers of them expressed their pacifism and antimilitarism in antiwar demonstrations sponsored by socialist parties, trade unions, and pacifist associations. Between July 26 and 31 such demonstrations took place just about everywhere in Germany, even along the Unter den Linden avenue in the heart of the capital, and on July 27 a wave of demonstrations swept over France. During a final meeting of Europe’s leading socialists such as Jean Jaurès, the German Hugo Haase, and Britain’s Keir Hardie, on July 29 in Brussels, a crowd of more than seven thousand sang the “Internationale” and shouted “War against the war!” In London, on August 2 and 4, great crowds joined protest marches organized by unions and leftist parties, and flocked to an antiwar rally with speakers such as Labour leaders Keir Hardie, Arthur Henderson, and Ramsay MacDonald; and there was talk of organizing a general strike in case it came to war. The Independent Labour Party, founded by Keir Hardie, published a declaration in which one could read that “across the roar of guns, we send sympathy and greeting to the German socialists, [who] are no enemies of 182 the great class war 1914–1918 ours, but faithful friends,” and Sylvia Pankhurst, a well-known suffragette with socialist sympathies, signed an open letter to the women of Germany and Austria-Hungary, imploring them “not to forget that our very anguish unites us . . . and that we must all urge that peace be made.”

But this truly awesome opposition to the war melted like snow under the sun when, in all countries, the working-class parties and unions pronounced themselves in favour of the war and nationalist feelings triumphed. In Great Britain and elsewhere, writes Arthur Marwick, “the second week of August 1914 presented a picture of unity and enthusiasm for the war.”

In the summer of 1914, Europe’s plebeians went to war, obedient and docile, but without any enthusiasm, as their governments claimed at the time and many of our historians as well as politicians and most of our mainstream media still try hard to have us believe.

Jacques R. Pauwels is the author of The Great Class War: 1914-1918 and Myths of Modern History: From the French Revolution to the 20th Century World Wars and the Cold War (forthcoming).