The Lessons and Legacy of World War I
Nearly one hundred years ago, on June 28, 1914, a Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Franz Ferdinand. Austria-Hungary, encouraged by Germany, declared war on Serbia, which was backed by Russia. Germany, assuming that Russia's ally France would enter the conflict, launched a preemptive attack by marching through neutral Belgium. This prompted England to declare war on August 4. Linked by their preexisting alliances, the Allied Powers (the British Empire, France, Russia and Italy) formed a block against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire). What came to be known as the Great War, and later the First World War, eventually ensnared not only the European continent, but Japan, China, the United States and parts of Latin America.
In popular memory, the summer of 1914--like the day, some twenty-five years later, when Hitler invaded Poland, or September 11, 2001--was indescribably beautiful. Amalgams of fact, nostalgia and metaphor, such memories demarcate a perceived loss of innocence, drawing a line between a supposedly halcyon past and a more somber present. In 1914, Britain had not known war (aside from some conveniently distant colonial scuffles) in a century, and most of continental Europe had been at peace since the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. Industrialization had spawned an apparently stable middle-class society and a network of international economic ties that seemed to guarantee perpetual harmony.
Nevertheless, opposition to the new social order was widespread among the underclass, which felt exploited, as well as the avant garde, which felt stifled by the bourgeoisie. Many German intellectuals believed that modern civilization and art were irreconcilable. "The mind," wrote Thomas Mann, "is civil, borgeois; it is the sworn enemy of the instincts, the passions... it is, moreover, anti-genius." Industrial mechanization, seen as inseparable from the borgeois ascendancy, was likewise considered an enemy by artists like Max Beckmann and Franz Marc. Marc hoped the Great War would expose the inutility of advanced technology and thereby prove a decisive turning point in Europe's "spiritual transformation." The Italian Futurists, on the other hand, idealized the redemptive potential of technology and viewed the military machine as a means of annihilating the established order. In either case, across Europe, the intelligentsia initially embraced the war as a necessary cleansing purgative.
No one, of course, thought the war would last very long; a few weeks or months at most. Beckmann, Marc, Otto Dix and George Grosz were among the many young men who, caught up in a groundswell of patriotic fervor, volunteered for military duty early on. Oskar Kokoschka went out and bought his own horse and fancy uniform so that he could join an elite cavalry unit. Even Käthe Kollwitz, later a committed pacifist, at first felt compelled to support the war effort. "Occasionally there comes the foolish thought: how can they possibly take part in such madness?" she wrote. "And at once comes the cold shower: they must, must!... Only one state of mind makes it all bearable: to absorb the spirit of sacfrifice into one's resolve."
England did not impose a draft until 1916, but in Germany, France and Austria-Hungary military service had been mandatory for young men since at least the late nineteenth century. There were, however, various ways of avoiding conscription, and especially in Austria-Hungary, few actually served prior to the outbreak of the war. Thereafter, the Austro-Hungarian Army provided safe sinecures for well-connected soldiers. Artists and writers attempted to get themselves assigned to the War Press Headquarters, War Archive or Army Museum (where Egon Schiele eventually served). Those who had graduated from Gymnasium or who, like many Austrian and Germany artists, had at least three years of post-secondary schooling qualified as "one-year volunteers," which meant they were fast-tracked for officer training. In the more industrialized parts of Europe, there was an inherent tension between well-educated bourgeois recruits and the established career officers. At the same time, the draft swept up thousands of scarcely literate peasants and workers who, particularly in the fragmented Eastern provinces, had no loyalty to the distant government that controlled their fates. Depending on one's vantage point, universal conscription could be seen as a great democratizing force or as an exacerbation of the conflicts that had contributed to the war in the first place.
By late 1914, it was already clear the war would not end quickly, and that it was consuming soldiers at an exorbitant rate. The original forces on both sides had been all but wiped out, and the standards for new recruits and conscripts began a notorious downward spiral. (In Jaroslav Hasek's classic World War I satire, The Good Soldier Schwejk, the eponymous hero shows up for his physical in a wheelchair.) After a few head-to-head engagements, the armies were now ensconced in an elaborate network of trenches that extended some 400 miles from the Belgian coast through France to the Swiss border. And here the troops would remain, more or less, for the next three years, the two sides separated from one another only by barbed wire and a 500- to 1,500-yard "No Man's Land." Conditions were miserable down in the trenches, which were prone to flooding, swarming with rats and lice, and rife with the stench of men living and dying at close quarters. Above ground, all was a wasteland. From strategic lookout points, soldiers lobbed hand grenades across No Man's Land or pelted the other side with machine-gun fire. This was not the first time these weapons had been deployed, but their use, in tandem with other relatively recent inventions like the airplane, the zeppelin, the submarine, long-range missiles, tanks, landmines and poison gas, resulted in mechanized destruction on a previously unimaginable scale. Within the context of such a war, Kokoschka's elegant horse and cavalry paraphernalia seemed like a cruel joke.
In all, the Great War left 37.5 million dead, wounded or missing. The war machine's unquenchable appetite for men and materiel, coupled with the disruptions of international trade, placed enormous burdens on the home front. Complex propaganda efforts were therefore needed to ensure the loyalty of a populace forced to endure food shortages, rationing, wage controls and the continual loss of loved ones. From the outset the enemy was demonized, and each side identified the other as the aggressor. Words in the enemy's language were expunged from common use, enemy authors banned. The Austrian writer Karl Kraus referred mockingly to "traitor's noodles" (spaghetti) and (anticipating the American Congress during the second Iraq war) "warmonger fries." The British perfected the art of euphemism: casualties became "wastage"; poison gas was "the accessory." Communications were routinely censored, and news reports were falsified. "All they know is a bunch of crap," says a character in Kraus's World War I play, The Last Days of Mankind, "and if they do know anything, they won't tell the public."
The British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, believed that if the public knew the truth about the war, they would rise up to stop it. "The thing is horrible, he said, "and beyond human nature to bear." As maimed and shell-shocked soldiers, returning from the front, began to bear witness to their experiences, a peace movement did in fact emerge. In Germany, the left-wing periodical Die Aktion (one of the few to maintain an antiwar stance from the start) was joined, in 1916, by Der Bildermann, a pacifist broadsheet published by the art dealer Paul Cassirer. Propaganda leaflets dropped by enemy aircraft exacerbated nascent dissent. German soldiers were shown photos of their comrades enjoying abundant meals in English P.O.W. camps; workers were told that they were fighting not for the nation's honor, but for the benefit of greedy millionaires; mothers were urged to save their sons. Deteriorating conditions made it increasingly difficult to maintain order in the factories and the military ranks. Court materials--that is to say, summary executions--occurred regularly in both the Allied and the Central armies. In Russia, the government was too weak to counter the domestic forces of rebellion. After the Tsar was deposed and his family murdered, the soldiers and workers formed Soviets (councils) demanding an immediate socialist redistribution of property. In early 1918, the new Bolshevik government signed a peace treaty with Germany and its allies. In November of the same year, German sailors at the ports of Kiel and Wilhelmshaven mutinied, forcing the Kaiser to abdicate. A general armistice between the warring parties was effected on November 11.
The mechanized terror of the World War created an unprecedented impetus, not just to outlaw the most agregious weapons (like poison gas), but to eliminate war altogether. In 1928, the United States, Great Britain, Germany, France and eleven other leading nations actually signed a pact renouncing war as an instrument of national policy. Kollwitz, who had lost her son on the Belgian front, led off her polemical War cycle with the woodcut Sacrafice: a scathing denunciation of the patriotic imperative that had seduced the German nation into betraying its children. The belief that maternal instincts could serve as a counter to male belligerence was echoed by Virginia Woolf, who considered war an artifact of the patriarchy. Supporters of the Soviet revolution, on the other hand, saw capitalism as the villain. The only victor in a modern war was the munitions industry, which sold indiscriminately to both sides and profited regardless of the outcome. Wars were fought at the behest of what Grosz mockingly called the "pillars of society" (the clergy, the military and the bourgeoisie), and at the expense of disempowered workers, whose brainwashing prevented them from recognizing their transnational class interests. If the workers of the world truly did unite, some believed, there would be no more wars.
During the war, images of the conflict had been as carefully controlled by the authorities as news reports. Both Germany and France banned press photography at the front. It was self-understood that those who, like Oskar Laske, were officially designated "war painters" would create only positive pictures. Schiele, unable to wangle such an assignment, curried favor with his superior officers by sketching their portraits and producing elegant drawings of military facilities. For more artist-soldiers, however, the war was an ordeal that left little time for picture making. August Macke and Marc were among the millions who were killed in action. Kokoschka was seriously wounded twice and finally invalided out of service in 1917. Beckmann, Grosz and E. L. Kirchner all suffered emotional breakdowns. Dix was one of the few major German painters to survive a full four years at the front. Benumbed, saddened or furious, artists lucky enough to return home alive brought memories of the war with them and, in many cases, into their work.
The Great War gave new currency to the old maxim, "The first casualty of war is truth." Indeed, the very notion of "the truth," of fixed values, may be considered a casualty of that war. As the literary historian Paul Fussell has noted, irony hereafter became the quintessentual mode of modern discourse. The contrast between the ideals for which the men had ostensibly fought, and the realities they faced on the battlefield could only be addressed obliquely, or in satires like The Good Soldier Schwejk and The Last Days of Mankind. Grosz, who did the set designs for Erwin Piscator's 1928 stage production of Schwejk, used charicature, the visual equivalent of satire. His illustration of the German slogan "Heart and Hand for the Fatherland" depicts a soldier enthusiastically beyonetting his adversary, while the artist's portratals of officers are classic distillations of smug self-righteousness.
It was not just that the public knew it had been deceived; people no longer trusted words or pictures. Artistry as such seemed suspect, amateur efforts more authentic. While Dix's War cycle is a technical tour-de-force, it derives its power from a deliberate lack of anatomical inaccuracies and intentionally crude drawing. Beckmann, too, abandoned conventional realism in favor of a visceral expressive vocabulary that relied on fragmented lines and compositional disjunction. Audiences were now prepared to recognize such distortions as the visual language of their time.
The triumph of the avant garde over prewar bourgeois pictorial conventions led to a wider acceptance of formerly controversial styles like Expressionism and Cubism. The younger generation of artists, however, wanted to move on. Some found solace in a soothing neoclassicism, or in the pseudo-objective naturalism of the Neue Sachlichkeit. Many German artists, especially those with socialist leanings, disdained the Expressionists' individualistic self-absorption and the bourgeois preciousness of painting. Instead they favored art forms, like photo-montage, that minimized the evidence of the artist's hand. Inexpensive multiples--such as prints, photographs and photomechanical reproductions--reached out to a large and ostensibly proletarian public. The emphasis on the hand-hewn and raw seen in the work of Dix, Beckmann and others was thus balanced by a de facto recognition that the machine was an integral part of contemporary life. The Constructivists embraced mechanization as a liberating force. "Technology knows no tradition and no class consciousness," declared Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. "This is our century: technology, machinery, socialism."
If the World War had been a metaphorical showdown between nature and the machine, it was clear the machine had won. The torpedoing of the British passenger liner Lusitania in 1915 offered a chilling coda to the sinking of the Titanic three years earlier. In the first incident, Kraus noted, "It was the wrath of God about the arrogance of this technical age that tried to teach man through horror what he wouldn't learn through reverence. But now the God of technology does the teaching--that's progress." In truth, the war made a mockery of human progress. Far from inaugurating the "spiritual transformation" of Europe, the conflict demonstrated that "natural man," reduced to his primitive essentials, was no better than a beast. Traditional heroic virtues, like valor, discipline and noble sacrifice, were meaningless in the trenches.
In Greek mythology, the Furies were the goddesses of revenge--ferocious, but just. In modern times, however, warfare has grown so brutal that many wonder whether it can ever be justified. Our nation has been at war in one form or another for much of the past century, but maintaining popular support for these conflicts has often proved difficult. The resultant propaganda apparatus has come to resemble George Orwell's 1984, with its bogus "Newspeak," mendacious "Ministry of Truth," and "Big Brother" spying on everyone. While on the one hand it can unite a country with a sense of shared mission (as was the case in World War II), the draft can also lead citizens to rebel (as happened during the Vietnam era). A volunteer army, such as we have today, solved this problem by offering the underclass an otherwise scarce chance at employment, while simultaneously keeping their deaths far from general awareness. Technology, too, makes killing appear remote, and as bloodless as a video game. The intertwined interests of industry and the military, recalling Grosz's caricatures, are now a mainstay of our economy. We live in the world foreshadowed and in part created by the Great War.
We would like to express our warmest thanks to the lenders who made this exhibition possible, including the Archive of Modern Conflict in London, Merrill C. Berman and Gary Neil Miller. Checklist entries are accompanied by their catalogue raisonné numbers, where applicable. Image dimensions are given for the prints, full dimensions for all other works, including the posters and printed ephemera.