The Great War

Prof. Dr. Bernd Hüppauf © Hüppauf/Transcript used with permissionThe exceptional nature of this war is evident from its name. It began as the Great War on both sides of the front, then became the European War and, when the USA entered on the side of the Entente Powers, it became a world war. To this day, the military victors still regard it as the Great War. The losers have avoided that name since the end of the war, because they had to come to terms with the greatest loss – in terms of deployment numbers - previously known in the history of war.

It was a matter of survival

The European nations were convinced when the war broke out that it was being waged to preserve their own identity and purely as a matter of survival. No previous war had aroused emotions in such a way and triggered public debate. The agitation died down during the war, but flared up again after 1918, particularly in Germany. The Second World War was then superimposed on it. However, even today, the First World War is still more alive in the collective memory than any other war in Europe.

Radical change

This war brought about the end of the monarchies in Austria and Germany and changed the political map of Europe, shifting the balance of world power to the disadvantage of the losers. It also led to radical changes in the culture and the lifeworld. This first, and, in the broad sense of the term, modern war of the industrial age created problems in terms of the connection between war and civil society. These problems led to an extensive literature, to philosophical attempts and to myths and theories about the war. The point of view became fragmented: ordinary soldiers, frontline officers, staff-officers, aircraft pilots and U-Boat commanders, women, children, conscientious objectors and patriots developed very different images of this war which were made public via the new media. Extremely subjective images emerged and could be conveyed only partially to some sectors of the public; a new, militant pacifism accompanied hitherto unknown militancy. A society developed that soon came to be called war in peace. The mental consequences of this war were a veneration of technology, yet at the same time, a deep-seated fear of military technology, of gas and airplanes.

The question of responsibility for the war

National Socialism and World War II have been interpreted, not without justification, as a continuation of the First World War; Enzo Traverso speaks of the “European civil war 1914-1918“ (2007). Responsibility for the war was a problem that did not exist in earlier history. It was discussed vehemently from August 1914 onwards and, after the Treaty of Versailles, with warlike doggedness in European societies. The answer to the question of responsibility for the war led to virtual wars, between parties in Germany and between Germany and the victor nations. It is one of the reasons that there is no European history of this war to the present day and for the fact that national differences dominate, even in the age of globalisation.

Diverse views

A new book, Christopher Clark’s “The Sleepwalkers” (2013), returns to a position in this debate that was once representative. Lloyd George wrote in his war memories (1934) that Europe had slithered into this war: the nations slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war. Even 100 years after the outbreak of the war, this thesis developed from politics and diplomacy has enabled Clark’s book to make it into the review sections of newspapers and onto the non-fiction bestseller lists. Given the conditions today, if this view were to gain acceptance again, it would be a good basis for the overdue internationalisation of the view of the First World War.

From a supranational viewpoint, George F. Kennan once called this war the seminal catastrophe of the 20th century, thus supplying a catchword for the ongoing debate. This view is dubious and cannot be supported by evidence. Not just one war is in the memory: it is broken down into many different wars that have not merged into a cohesive (catastrophic) image to this day.


Australia, as a dominion of the United Kingdom, was involved in the war, and sent troops that fought under the British High Command and suffered heavy losses. Australia experienced the war not as a seminal catastrophe, but as the birth of the nation, in the same way as the new small nations of Central and Eastern Europe owed their origin to this war. In 1917, Australia, a country on the periphery, sent an official war photographer to the Western Front. His photographic work is representative of the fundamental problem of a cultural history of this war: its unrepresentability. Can there be a unified image of the war of the modern age, given the participation of completely heterogeneous societies? Frank Hurley experimented with simple composite prints in order to create an image of the war. He regarded his composite images as authentic, since the monstrous violence and sheer size exceeded the limits of conventional pictorial representation. However, the High Command considered them to be fakes and removed him from the position of war photographer after a few months. Since then, the portrayal of war has been struggling with the problem of representation that originated in World War I.

What is war?

During the war, after 1914, the question was asked: what is war? The present has inherited and radicalised the question. Herfried Münkler calls symmetrical and representable war a “discontinued model”. He argues that we live in post-heroic societies that are founded on work, commerce and exchange, but not on sacrifice and values such as honour and pride. However, that does not mean the end of war as a means of international conflict resolution. The centre of world history is shifting towards Asia, where the continuation of the symmetrical war of nations is not unlikely. Moreover, war has always created new technologies to preserve itself. New forms of war, Infowar, Cyberwar or drone wars could lead to the end of the 3000-year old war and image of war. The First World War was symptomatic. It was the time of eclipse, darkening and a radical new beginning, the rupture of civilisation and the dawn of a new age of technical civilisation, which we are witnessing.

Bernd Hüppauf, December 2013
Copyright: Goethe-Institut Australia, 2014

Bernd Hüppauf, What is War? Foundation of a cultural history of war Bielefeld (transcript) 2013.

The generic term war originated around 1800, and Carl von Clausewitz’s “On War” (1832) was one of the first attempts to give meaning to the abstract word. What do we mean, he asked, when we talk of war and use it to refer to past centuries? Buchumschlag: Was ist Krieg? © transcript, used with permissionHe understood the essence of war to be a duel in which adversaries strive to wrestle one another to the ground so the victor can impose his will on the loser. This answer has remained to the present day. Hüppauf’s book counters this metaphor with another definition. One can speak of war, he writes, only if the physical battle is supplemented with images of fighting, strategy and presentations of battle, and myths and rituals. Social discourse is necessary for murder and manslaughter to develop into war, and this originated with the urbanisation of the early cities in Mesopotamia and Egypt. According to Hüppauf, the European war grew out of the urban environment, the first public [perception] and the production of large quantities of weapons from metal.

Stimulated by innovations in weapons technology and the public discourse in media, the European war underwent fundamental changes. The book uses focal points to follow that change: war in the Archaic Period, 17th-century wars (the Thirty Years’ War and the Turkish wars), 19th-century wars (wars of liberation and the first industrialised battlefields) and the First World War, the first comprehensively modern war of the industrial age. It ends with the wars to come, the Drone Wars, Cyberwar, Infowar, and Lawfare.

The argumentation follows the question as to whether and how an overall history can be developed from military history that integrates war into the cultural context of society. How can a discipline be justified that describes and tries to understand organised crime on a large scale as cultural history?
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Prof. Dr. Bernd Hüppauf

Prof. Dr. Bernd Hüppauf © Hüppauf/Transcript used with permission

Prof. Dr. Bernd Hüppauf is Emeritus Professor of German Literature and Literary Theory at New York University.

His research focus is the history of the mentality and culture of the modern age.

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