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The Gods Exist to Receive Gifts
Richard A. Koenigsberg

What desires brought the First World War into being? What motivated the creation of this monumental episode of collective destruction and self-destruction?

What occurred in the First World War was that societies from Europe—and all parts of the world—demonstrated the depth of their devotion to the nation-state: their willingness to die and kill in its name. Each nation demonstrated its commitment and sincerity by sending its own young men to participate—to fight and die. The founder of the Irish revolutionary movement, P. H. Pearse—observing the daily carnage in 1916—stated that such “august homage” had never before been offered: the homage of millions of lives “given gladly for love of country.”

It was “good for the world,” Pearse said, that “such things had to be done.” The heart of the earth needed to be “warmed with the red win of the battlefield.” Each nation offered the blood of its own young men.

First World War 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%

From a practical point of view what did the war accomplish? Here are the conclusions of the eminent First World War historian, Jay Winter:

The war solved no problems. Its effects, both immediate and indirect, were either negative or disastrous. Morally subversive, economically destructive, socially degrading, confused in its course, futile in its result, it is the outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict.

Historians search in vain to identify anything that was gained as a result of the First World War. Guided by the assumption of “rationality,” some find it difficult to imagine that this gigantic war—such massive destruction—could have produced no beneficial result.

What was gained? What possibly could have been gained?

The most obvious result or outcome of the war was that millions of men had been killed or wounded. Could this outcome have been the war’s purpose?

Each society did what it did—contributed its portion of blood—in the name of its nation. The blood-thirsty god, the nation state, came into prominence as never before. Young men from Europe and throughout the world were sucked into the vortex: the gravitational pull of the killing fields.

Abandoning the claim that the First World War was fought in order to achieve “gain,” a more parsimonious hypothesis is the one put forward by Franco Fornari. Writing about warfare in general, Fornari states that this institution revolves around the destruction of “previously accumulated reserves of human capital,” an activity formed with the intention of “sacrificing a certain number of lives.”

Norman O. Brown states that archaic gift-giving (e. g., the potlatch) refutes the notion that the motive of economic life is “utilitarian egoism.” On the contrary, the psychology is self-sacrificial. The need to produce an economic surplus, Brown says, is connected with the sacred: “Gifts are sacred, and the gods exist to receive gifts.”

During the First World War, the reigning god, the nation-state, received the gift of millions of human lives.