Hew Strachan
To Arms

For the Kaiserreich Nietzsche's influence was subversive. Only after the war broke out was he appropriated as a patriotic icon, a process in which the radical right and enemy propaganda colluded. After all, Nietzsche himself was a self-confessed European, scathing about the nationalist preoccupations of Bismarckian Germany. Intellectuals influenced by him did not reflect the national limitations of politicians: in 1910 Rupert Brooke, to be seen in 1914 as representing something essentially English in British letters, found his inspiration abroad, writing: 'Nietzsche is our Bible, Van Gogh our idol.' What Brooke and his contemporaries expected to find in war was, therefore, more immediate and more personal than the serving of patriotism. Indeed, if they had viewed the war primarily as one fought for national objectives they might have found it far harder to accept. Another British poet, Charles Sorley, recognized the irony in his fighting for England, which embodied 'that deliberate hypocrisy, that terrible middle-class sloth of outlook', against Germany, which was doing 'what every brave man ought to do and making experiments in morality.'

Brooke has been castigated as the embodiment of British public-school idealism, gulled into enthusiasm for the war by false ideals and vain hopes. This misses the point. Brooke was scared. The war was therefore a test of his courage, a personal challenge to which he had to respond or think less of himself: 'Now God be thanked,' he wrote, 'who has matched us with this hour.' By embracing the war in spite of his fears the individual became a hero. He also gained the means to live life more intensely: soldiers, a Hungarian, Aladar Schopflin, said in late August 1914, 'are going into the totality of life', and Walter Bloem, a novelist and German reserve officer, felt that war service had made his novels 'my own living present.'

The notion that modern society was too safe, that boredom and enervation were the consequences, was propagated by popular British writers like John Buchan and H. Rider Haggard. In France Charles Peguy and Ernest Psichari, both killed in the opening weeks of the war, had written successful books venerating the glory of war and the asceticism of military service. In Germany A. W. Heymel penned a poem in 1911 that longed for war as an end to the 'opulence of peace', and in the winter of 1912-13 Johannes R. Becker portrayed his generation as rotting, seated at their desks, as they waited for the trumpet call to a 'great world war'.

Much of this was self-consciously an attack on rationalism. The development of psychoanalysis in the years before the war had emphasized that balancing man's intellect were his subconscious and his emotions. Sigmund Freud above all had criticized the intellectual tendency to suppress or ignore feelings. But even Freud was unprepared for the emotional force of the war's outbreak. To his surprise he found that his 'libido' was mobilized for Austria-Hungary. The war revealed to him how thin was the veneer of culture: he was appalled to discover that civilized states committed horrors and barbarities against each other which they would never have condoned in their own citizens. He could only conclude that many men observed social norms in defiance of their true natures: 'we are misled', he wrote in the spring of 1915, 'into regarding men as "better" than they actually are.'

In emphasizing the need to integrate both intellect and emotion by being more aware of the latter, psychoanalysis legitimized a preoccupation with the mystic, the inexplicable. Something of what psychoanalysis was saying had been anticipated by Romanticism, by its emphasis on the worth of the individual and his own creativity, and Nietszche could be employed as a link between the two. By forsaking his desk for action, the writer gathered those experiences which were essential to his creativity. Thus, the seemingly irrational search for danger was rendered rational as a means for emotional and intellectual self-discovery.

Although the willingness to wage war for many was, therefore, a personal test rather than a national one, the response of the intellectuals went on to emphasize the collective social good which would follow from war's conduct. Indeed, for men whose inclinations and callings tended to render them solitary, not the least of war's attractions was its effect in integrating their individual aspirations with those of society as a whole. The idea that the destructive effects of war were beneficial, that war cleansed and renewed society, was one familiar to social Darwinists. Both they and the younger generation of intellectuals were ready to welcome war as driving out decadence: 'Today's man', Dezso Kosztolanyi wrote on 4 October 1914,'—grown up in a hothouse, pale and sipping tea—greets this healthy brutality enthusiastically. Let the storm come and sweep out our salons.' Jettisoned were the bourgeois values of the commercial classes: war trampled on their financial calculations, and in clothing their sons in uniform rendered null the niceties of social rank. The individual found fulfilment, not in pursuit of personal profit, but in the altruism and hardness of military service. The causes of war lay, at least indirectly, in the softness and self-indulgence of pre-1914 Europe. 'This is not a war against an external enemy' opined the painter Franz Marc, 'it is a European civil war, a war against the inner invisible enemy of the European spirit.' Brooke's famous description of recruits remains remarkably evocative of the mood—'as swimmers with cleanness leaping, glad from a world grown old and cold and weary.'

Less pleasing to the elder statesmen of social Darwinism was the reversal of the traditional hierarchy implicit in this rejection of bourgeois society. Frontline service was a young man's activity; the middle-aged struggled to be accepted by the army, and in doing so denied the seniority and maturity of their years in pursuit of the fashion for youth. War enthusiasm was an assertion of the values of the younger generation against those of the older. Max Scheler, the German philosopher, declared that the war had rendered the nostrums of the older generation passe, while for their successors it was neither a nightmare nor a burden but 'an almost metaphysical awakening from the empty existence of a leaden sleep.' In France in 1913 Henri Massis and Alfred de Tarde, under the pseudonym of 'Agathon', had published a study of the student generation of 1912: they had depicted their calling to action, to absolutes, to things of the spirit, to order and hierarchy, and their turning away from introspection and relativism. The French generation of 1914 was thus given an identity that was specifically opposed to that of their republican and anticlerical fathers.

However, the conflict of ideas was not one simply between generations but also one between different views of the values which wartime society would elevate. For some the liberation from materialism and from bourgeois nostrums was to be accomplished by a return to a pastoral idyll. Western Europe had still not come to terms with its increasingly urban existence; G. D. H. Cole, Maurice Barres, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber—all saw city life, with its destruction of community and its erosion of family, as undermining social cohesion. The war, by calling men to a life that demanded physical fitness, to a career spent outside, that tested the individual against the natural elements as much as against the enemy, was consonant with a return to nature. It is striking that writers from Britain, the country that had been most industrialized for longer, were the most expressive of this aspect of war enthusiasm. Officers in autumn 1914 proved acute observers of the countryside through which they were passing, and readily fell back on the terminology and analogies of field sports. B. F. Cummings, whose multiple sclerosis prevented any such escape, used more turbulent imagery in his diary on 30 June 1914: 'Civilization and top hats bore me. My own life is like a tame rabbit's. If only I had a long tail to lash it in feline rage! I would return to Nature—I could almost return to Chaos.'

  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.