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The Meaning of ‘Sacrifice’ in the First World War

by Roger Griffin

About the Author

ROGER GRIFFIN, Professor in Modern History at Oxford Brookes University, is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on Fascism. In Modernism & Fascism, Griffin describes how modernisms’ roots lay in the human need to perceive a transcendent meaning—and to restore purpose in times of social breakdown.

Modernism and Fascism: The Sense of a Beginning under Mussolini and Hitler

Author: Roger Griffin
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan Format: Hardcover
Published on: Dec 15, 2010
ISBN-10: 1442643390

For information on order through Amazon, PLEASE CLICK HERE.

Intellectual debates surrounding modernity, modernism and fascism continue to be active and hotly contested. In this ambitious book, renowned expert on fascism Roger Griffin analyzes Western modernity and the regimes of Mussolini and Hitler and offers a pioneering new interpretation of the links between these apparently contradictory phenomena.

"A product of enormous erudition and profound thought."
   —Zygmunt Bauman, Leeds University, UK

In Redemption by War (1982), Roland Stromberg addressed the inadequacy of existing historical explanations for the almost “manic bellicosity of the European intellectuals, writers, artists, scientists” at the crucial beginning of the terrible war of 1914–18. He confirms that not only the avant-garde, but ordinary people from every class were eager to witness a “cultural rebirth” unfolding in an age of machines and masses rather than popes and princes.

Angelo Ventrone—one of the foremost Italian experts on the significance of the First World War for the genesis of Fascism—states that the age of nationalism had powerfully promoted the “war ethic conviction”—that the war experience fulfilled the task of “rejuvenating and regenerating a civilization now in steep decline.”

The bellicose “mood” that resulted had by 1914 become an essential factor in the origins of the First World War. In Berlin, Vienna, Paris, and London (though not in Rome or Moscow), a “storm of war feeling broke.” The assumption took hold on segments of the collective mythopoeia in Europe that destroying a contemptible society would “open the way to a better one.” Within this mindset, the brief bout of ruthless slaughter of the enemy this demanded was perceived as a ritual act of purification; a “cleansing fire.”

For once the avant-garde really proved to be the “advanced guard” of a popular army—as war-fever descended on the crowds of the pro-war movements whose enthusiasm destroyed any chance of negotiated peace—and marked what Thomas Mann would later describe as the “beginning of much that was still in the process of beginning;” as the West marched joyfully into labyrinthine mental catacombs of its own making. It would only finally emerge from them in 1945—after over 70 million combatants and civilians had died as a direct result of war, persecution, or genocide—a mere fraction of the survivors whose lives were devastated.

Stromberg seeks the explanation for the “August madness” in the powerful “revolt against intellect” and longing for community that had arisen at the turn of the century as a result of modernity’s attrition of traditional society. The 1914 spirit was “an antidote to anomie,” which had resulted from the sweep of powerful forces of the recent past—urban, capitalistic, and technological—“tearing up primeval bonds and forcing people into a crisis of social relationships.”

Such an account bears out the thesis that the primitive instinct to “do battle against a common foe” that seized so many educated, civilized Europeans at the time expressed what we have called an instinctive search for a “transcendent nomos and sense of belonging as an antidote to modernity.” Both of these crystallized in 1914 in precisely the kind of myth-driven populist regeneration movement Sorel had speculated about a decade earlier.

The quest for rebirth was triggered not by the image of the general strike bringing down capitalism to establish social justice, but by that of “the fatherland in danger”—the last bulwark against the loss of “civilization” or “culture” (according to who was judged to be the barbarians). It is no coincidence if the war was often referred to at the time as a contemporary Armageddon—a battle occurring at the end of time; prelude to a new era.

The international crisis that came to a head in July 1914 thus turned millions of Nietzsche’s passive “last men”into myth-hungry “modern men.” However, they spurned everything Zarathustra had preached by looking to the _nation _to provide the “womb,” the “home,” and the “horizon-framing myth” whose loss he had mourned in The Birth of Tragedy.

Certainly Europeans did not throng to become Dionysian vitalists finding creative, peaceful, compassionate ways to affirm the value of life in the face of cosmic absurdity, but rather rushed lemming-like over the cliff of civilization into rationalized barbarism. The sacralization of the nation that resulted from a vulgarized, nationalized Nietzscheanism was epitomized in the words of Maurice Barrès—the artist-politician of French organic nationalism. Barrès announced that August 3, 1914—the day of Germany’s declaration of war on France—had been not just a “historic” day (since every day is historic in this “era which is seeing the start of a new world”), but a “sacred day.”

War-fever was thus both an elite and mass movement of _modernist _reactions to the historical crisis—no longer a brooding “malaise” or refined aesthetic sense of the putrefaction of culture under the cosmetic sheen of progress— but the concrete, palpable implosion of the entire social, political, and moral order of the post-Napoleonic political system—and self-destruction of the Age of Progress. In this special sense the First World War can be approached as a modernist event, not just experienced by millions as the harbinger of a new temporality demanding self-sacrifice and destruction, but exciting paroxysms of despair and expectation far beyond the confines of the avant-garde.

Robert Wohl observed that what led many young men and women to believe they were about to witness the “dawning of a new age” was the sensation of being in the throes of a “cultural transmutation” brought about by the sudden collapse of the nineteenth-century political system in Europe.

The acute insecurity this unleashed activated in millions the human faculty for projecting daydream and utopias onto what now seemed a blank future. As a result, the primordial logic of the rite of passage took control, filling many with adamant certainty that the war represented a process of cultural demolition vital to lay the foundations for the “culture of the New.”

It would be logical to assume from a humanist perspective that the infernal realities of industrialized warfare that unfolded over the next four years would shatter such great illusions. Certainly, the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front—the outstanding bestseller of the inter-war period—spoke for untold thousands for whom the experience of combat was hell on earth, and whose only new community was the international but largely silent one of fellow survivors for whom promises of redemption rang lugubriously hollow.

Yet as the prospects of a short war evaporated and the death toll from the “war of position” grew ever higher, powerful psychological processes continued to be activated—ensuring the war would remain for millions a catalyst to experiencing transcendence. It was as if the fantasy of redemption through sacrifice—a fantasy stubbornly entertained by both the fighters and onlookers—was fuelled rather than quenched by the blood of the fallen, like pouring oil on flames. In the section “Liminality and War,” Eric Leed addresses this paradox by analyzing the experience of No Man’s Land from the perspective of anthropological theories of the “rite of passage.””

He argues that moments of “collective transition” such as mobilization of a nation for war open a gap in historical time that is filled with images of “something new.” This is why many combatants—rather than feeling crushed by nihilism—came to feel they belonged to a “secret” community participating in a moral revolution leading to a “new order”—a “synthesis of traditional values.”

For some, the new order was an unprecedented experience of the nation’s sacralization into a site for the enactment of Christian imaginings of self-sacrifice and redemption. Allen Frantzen, for example, has explored the deep nexus between “chivalry, sacrifice, and the Great War” that emerges in poems, diaries, and essays where the soldier’s death is pictured as a gesture of “purification” and “love.”

By extension the whole war could be seen as a collective act of redemptive self-sacrifice—transcendent meaning produced by the relentless flow of blood. In May Sinclair’s novel, The Tree of Heaven(1917), the central character suddenly realizes how the war might “grab hold of you like a religion:”

It was the Great War of Redemption. And redemption meant simply thousands and millions of men in troop-trains coming from the ends of the world to buy the freedom of the world with their bodies.

However, the religion that revealed itself to combatants broke the vessel of orthodox Christianity. Michael Burleigh’s analysis of religion’s symbiosis with politics in the Great War stresses that exposure to tremendous displays of material might and the imminence of death turned minds to an “unseen power,” and the awakening of an elemental faith that most of the men were “ill equipped to articulate in terms familiar to the Church.”

The use of Christian discourse in the celebration of war should therefore not be taken at face-value as an assertion of religious faith. On one level it was no more than the articulation in the conventional language of the dominant religion of archetypically human impulses to “redeem” individual human lives in the face of a squalid, degrading, meaningless death.

It was, in other words, an elaborate euphemism: the “medieval language of Christian redemption and warrior honour” worked to gloss the “world of blood, filth, and futility,” an abuse of faith—blasphemy even—that seems to occur in the history of every religion held hostage by war.

But in the context of the First World War, this discourse expresses a fundamentally _modernist _urge to conjure up the prospect of historical renewal; to turn the obscenely meaningless, mechanized slaughter into a holocaust—a “burnt sacrifice” that would infuse a decadent age with a new sense of transcendence.

In short, mythic responses were triggered by the combination of the brooding liminoidality of modernity, the acute liminality of trench warfare, and the imminent prospect of death—a psychological defense mechanism that long pre-dated Christianity.

This line of argument is corroborated by the American social psychologist Richard Koenigsberg, who in a series of essays has explored the “sacrificial fantasy” that the death of the soldier is vital to the revitalization of the community, or more precisely the “body politic.” This is a literalized, reified metaphor configured as a suprapersonal, “magic” organism of flesh, blood, and spirit, whether in the form of the tribe, a distinctive ethnic culture, or in a modern context, the nation.

He argues that the all-consuming sacralization of death in the First World War points to the survival into modern times of the same primordial logic that drove the elaborate social and ritual life of the Aztecs, which was entirely constructed round the myth that war was a sacred necessity.

The logic was simple: If no enemy warriors were captured in combat to immolate atop the pyramid-altar, no sacrificial blood could run down the steps to keep the sun alive. As Barak Rahimi puts it, the sacrificed blood of a soldier “bestows a new life for the community, as it identifies the reality of the nation displayed with the destruction of each body on the battle field.”

By the twentieth century international forces of _völkisch _nationalism generated throughout Europe by the revolt against Modernity had led to the theological obscenity of God’s conflation with “country,” and the perversion of the Christian concept of sacrifice into a patriotic duty. This was no rhetorical flourish of state propaganda. For some it was a phenomenological reality.

The Italian historian Emilio Gentile records that many combatants lived the experience of the trenches as the sanguinary rite of initiation to a new life—entrance into a world apart; a sacred world which in the course of the war became ever more distinct from the _profane _world of the rear guard of the civilians. With the baptism of fire occurred the metanoia of the old man into the fighter or the new man.

Thus it was that millions of “ordinary” soldiers—once they found themselves members of the community of the front-line—experienced the war not as absurd, but as a “second birth,” filled with enthusiasm by a new sentiment of “national communion imbued with lay religiosity.”

According to the primordialist theory of modernism as a social as well as aesthetic force, the extraordinary tolerance of daily slaughter generally shown by combatants, their families, and their “mother” nations on all sides for four years—far from being the sign of a collective “death wish” as some have claimed—was deeply bound up with the contemporary avant-garde “revolt against decadence;” and with the archaic myth that “fighting and dying for one’s country” are the means through which a society is cleansed, purified, and indeed “resurrected.”

The spectacular eruption of this religious belief—that became a myth that dominated the historical imagination and political policies of an entire civilization for four years—cannot be dissociated from the fact that on the eve of World War many European countries feared what they saw as the degeneration and degradation of their societies, linked to the loss of virile, manly values.

The mindset that generally prevailed for the first three years of the conflict was that the greater the losses suffered in the war, the greater its cleansing power. It is this paradox that illuminates the “anomaly” identified in Fussell’s classic The Great War and Modern Memory: that a war representing a triumph of “modern industrialism, materialism, and feeling” could give rise to a myth-ridden world made up of “conversions, metamorphoses, and rebirths.”

For those whose chauvinism was turbocharged by the war, the identification of death with “spring and resurrection—the forest of oaks, nature symbolizing the nation”—formed a tradition that made it possible for wartime nature to be viewed as a transcendent reality supporting the “Myth of the War Experience.” It was a myth that would make the aftermath of the war an incubator for myths of social transformation, which would take on a revolutionary, totalizing, populist, uncompromisingly political dynamic unthinkable before 1914.

Paper adapted from: Griffin, R., Modernism and Fascism. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.