Modris Eksteins
Rites of Spring

Germany had worked hard and successfully; the upshot was envy and jealousy among her neighbors. Thoma was outraged. Similar sentiments were expressed throughout the land. For Magnus Hirschfeld, the leader of the homosexual movement and no admirer of the country's bureaucratic establishment, the war was for the sake of 'honesty and sincerity' and against the 'smoking jacket culture' of Britain and France. To the argument that Britain was the home of freedom and Germany was the land of tyranny and oppression, Hirschfeld replied that Britain in the last century had damned her great poets and writers. Byron had been chased out of the country, Shelley forbidden to raise his children, and Oscar Wilde sent to prison. Lessing, Goethe, and Nietzsche had, by contrast, been greeted in their country with acclaim, not humiliation.

If in Britain, France, and the United States millenarian notions were to surface in the course of the war—'the war to end all wars' and 'the war to make the world safe for democracy'—in Germany the mood was apocalyptic from the outset. The visions in the Allied nations had a strong social and political content to them, as in Lloyd George's promise of 'homes fit for heroes.' For Germans, however, the millennium was to be, first and foremost, a spiritual matter. For Thoma the hope was that 'after the pain of this war there would be a free, beautiful, and happy Germany.'

The war, for Germany, was, then, eine innere Notwendigkeit, a spiritual necessity. It was a quest for authenticity, for truth, for self-fulfillment, for those values, that is, which the avant-garde had evoked prior to the war and against those features—materialism, banality, hypocrisy, tyranny—which it had attacked. The latter were associated particularly with England, and it was to be England, of course, who was to become Germany's most hated enemy after she entered the war on August 4. Gott strafe England—may God punish England—became the motto even of many Germans who had been moderates before the war.

For many the war was also a deliverance—from vulgarity, constraint, and convention. Artists and intellectuals were among those most gripped by war fever. Schoolrooms and lecture halls emptied as students literally ran to the colors. On August 3 the rectors and senates of Bavarian universities issued an appeal to academic youth:
Students! The muses are silent. The issue is battle, the battle forced on us for German Kultur, which is threatened by the barbarians from the east, and for German values, which the enemy in the west envies us. And so the furor teutonicus bursts into flame once again. The enthusiasm of the wars of liberation flares, and the holy war begins.
After the rector of Kiel University appealed to students, almost the entire male student body enlisted.

The association of the war with liberation and freedom, a Bereiungs- or Freiheitskampf, was widespread. For Carl Zuckmayer the war represented 'liberation from bourgeois narrowness and pettiness'; for Franz Schauwecker it was 'a vacation from life'; for Magnus Hirschfeld the uniforms, stripes, and weapons were a sexual stimulant. When the Berliner Lokal-Ameiger remarked in an editorial on July 31 that the mood in Germany was one of relief, it captured what was probably majority sentiment. But the freedom was above all subjective, a liberation of the imagination. Emil Ludwig, who after the war became the scourge of those whom he considered to have been the 1914 war lords, was as caught up in the fever of August as everyone else. With an exuberance that he later clearly wanted to repress and hide—in his 1929 book July 1914 he referred to the masses as 'the deceived' and talked about 'the collective innocence on the streets of Europe'—he wrote 'The Moral Victory,' an article that appeared in the Berliner Tageblatt on August 5: 'And even if a catastrophe were to befall us such as no one dares to imagine, the moral victory of this week could never be eradicated.'

For Ludwig and many others the world seemed altered all of a sudden. 'The war,' as Ernst Glaeser would put it later in his novel Jahrgang 1902, 'had made it beautiful.' The Faustian moment that Wagner and Diaghilev and other moderns sought to achieve in their art forms had now arrived for society as a whole. 'This war is an aesthetic pleasure without compare,' one of Glaeser's characters would say. Glaeser was not inventing ideas after the fact. German letters from the front are full of associations between war and art. 'Poetry, art, philosophy, and culture are what the battle is all about,' insisted the student Rudolf Fischer.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.