- Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War
Most people would agree that sport, religion, politics, even music can, in various degrees, grip and enthral societies. Alan Kramer (an associate professor of history at Trinity College, Dublin) reminds us here that the same scenario also applies to war.
Two themes summarize this interesting and informative monograph on World War I and its immediate aftermath: the mass killing of soldiers and civilians, and the destruction — incidental and deliberate — of cultural artifacts. How do we account for such a colossal disaster? The answer is an historic shift in the nature of war. Indeed, the industrialization of warfare, the organizational power of the state (and that includes its military arm) to mobilize all the resources of agriculture, industry, science, finance, and culture, the willingness of nations to be mobilized, and, finally, the firm conviction among all the protagonists that "[t]he enemy was not merely the enemy army, but the enemy nation and the culture through which it defined itself" (p. 31) explain the enormous losses suffered on all fronts in Europe and the Near East — an exercise in self-mutilation without precedent since the Thirty Years' War of 1618–1648. Not surprisingly, therefore, this dynamic of violence and destruction compelled all belligerents to adopt ever more radical war policies that often violated international law.
It all started with the burning of Louvain and its renowned university library in August 1914 in the wake of the German invasion of Belgium. Acts of vandalism continued relentlessly with the merciless exploitation of occupied territories [End Page 503] and the destruction of lives, property, and agricultural and industrial capital, as evidenced by the mutual mass slaughter of the trenches; the many atrocities committed by Greeks and Turks on one another; the Armenian genocide of 1915; the Russian violence directed against hundreds of thousands of Jews, Poles, and Ukrainians, forcibly removed from Galicia by a scorched-earth policy; the horrors of Verdun, the Somme, Passchendaele, and Caporetto; and the Allied blockade of the Central Powers and the recourse to unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans. These all turned soldiers and civilians into legitimate targets of violence and expendable beings, thus adding to the death toll.
Arguably the most interesting chapter is the fifth, entitled "Culture and War." Here the author convincingly shows how many artists, intellectuals, and members of the clergy welcomed the war, seeing it as the only solution to purify a rotten European society; in spite of a gradual disillusionment from 1916 onwards (one related to the realization that there would be no quick victory for either side), they played a leading role in the mobilization of minds and culture — a not insignificant contribution, given the undeniable link between the resolve and resilience of both soldiers and home front and the prosecution of the war.
Kramer concludes his book with an enumeration of the long-term effects of this culture of excessive violence: it profoundly affected soldiers' minds as well as the theory and practice of psychiatry; it loosened the bonds of traditional religious and patriarchal societies; it encouraged pacifism and appeasement in interwar France and Great Britain and, inversely, left its imprint on the socialist experiment in Soviet Russia at its very dawn (witness the devastation of a vicious civil war between the Reds and the Whites); and it facilitated the rise of fascism — "the realization of the principle of war in peacetime, a continuation of war by other means" (p. 300) — in Italy and, somewhat later, in Germany with the emergence and triumph of Adolf Hitler.
Dynamic of Destruction is a well-written book that uses primary and secondary sources in several languages (Italian, English, German, and French). Kramer must be commended for his impressive mastery of the relevant literature (a quality revealed, for example, in the excellent choice of quotes and illustrations), his comparative approach, and his fine and perceptive analysis; nevertheless, more than one reader will be frustrated by one major weakness — the poor structure of the book itself. A few...