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Denial of the First World War
Richard A. Koenigsberg
The historical profession specializes in documenting what occurs—and is excellent performing this task. Simultaneously, historians specialize in the denial of reality: refusing to draw proper conclusions from events they document.

Bound up with the denial of reality is the delusion that events are generated by “rational” thought: political actors scan the world seeking to achieve “gain.”

When success is not achieved, it is because political actors make “mistakes.” Everyone behaves rationally seeking victory or gain. But somehow things don’t turn out as planned. The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

I’ve often reproduced a chart listing casualties of the First World War. I do so again (see data below): 65 million men mobilized with 37 million “total casualties.”

  Men mobilised Killed Wounded POW’s + missing Total casualties casualties in % of men mobilised
Total Allies 42 mill 5 mill 13 mill 4 mill 22 mill 52%
Total Central Powers 22.8 mill 3.3 mill 8.3 mill 3.6 mill 15 mill 67
Grand Total 65 mill 8.5 mill 21 mill 7.7 mill 37 mill 57%

World War I was a bizarre episode. Yet historians study and write about this war as if it was not extraordinary. One of the main tasks of the historical profession is to normalize the fantastic.

For many historians, it seemed as if the First World War occurred by chance. Leaders and nations entered the war, one thing led to another, and soon—perpetual slaughter. People didn’t know what they were getting into. Once things got rolling, the carnage could not be stopped.

According to this way of conceiving things, wars are events separate from human beings. They have a life of their own. It is as if they “descend” upon us from above, unrelated to human intention.

Accompanying this mystification are astonishing explanations: Generals “underestimated the power of the machine-gun.” It takes just a few days to understand what machine-guns do. But men were asked to get out of trenches and run into machine-gun fire for four years.

One fine historian—in a classroom lecture that appears as a YouTube video—spoke the truth about the First World War:

All the capacity of industrial society—straining at the bit for destruction. One of the French soldiers called it extermination. I call it routinized, mechanized genocide: The genocide of people on their own citizens.

It’s not difficult to see that the First World War was a form of autogenocide.

At the core of the mechanism of denial is narcissistic attachment to or identification with one’s own civilization. People wish to believe in its “goodness.” Some historians write about the “superiority” of Western civilization.

Nonetheless, the First World War was a product of Western civilization. The astonishing carnage it produced was not disconnected from civilization. Has any other society produced such a massive, systematic episode of destruction or self-destruction?

The objective of social science is to seek truth. It is important to understand the sources and meanings of this gigantic trauma that lies at the heart of Western civilization.

Society is a human creation. “History” is a record of events brought into being by human beings. There is no super-human force standing “above” us (however strongly we may feel that this is the case).

What desires and fears brought the First World War into being? What were the motives that generated this gigantic episode of destruction—and caused it to persist for four years?