“The Meaning of ‘Sacrifice’ in the First World War”
by Roger Griffin
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“It was as if the fantasy of redemption through sacrifice—stubbornly entertained by both fighters and onlookers—was fuelled rather than quenched by the blood of the fallen, like pouring oil on flames. The whole war can be seen as a collective act of redemptive self-sacrifice—transcendent meaning produced by the relentless flow of blood.”
   —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 Modernism and Fascism: The Sense of a Beginning under Mussolini and Hitler

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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.

Angelo Ventrone
states that the age of nationalism powerfully promoted the 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, a “storm of war feeling broke.”

The assumption took hold on segments of the collective mythopoeia 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.”

The West marched joyfully into mental catacombs of its own making. It would only 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.

As prospects of a short war evaporated and the death toll grew ever higher, powerful psychological processes ensured that the war would remain for millions a catalyst to experiencing transcendence. It was as if the fantasy of redemption through sacrifice—stubbornly entertained by both the fighters and onlookers—was fuelled rather than quenched by the blood of the fallen, like pouring oil on flames.

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.“ 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.”

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.

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. He argues that the 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.”

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. 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.”

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 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.”