The Ideals of War
by Casey Edgington
During the pre-war era the mindset of European nations were one of superiority and nationalism, there were mounting tensions and plenty of propaganda that fueled a desire for a great war. Rites of Spring would argue that the driving force was a war of cultural upheaval and ideologies of rebelling against the established order which is expressed during the time in many plays which reflected this idea of “violent change” (Eksteins, 82-84). In Germany it was as much a desire for liberation and change as a desire to embrace one’s country in order to perpetuate Germany’s superiority and greatness on the rest of the world (Eksteins, 195 and xv).
Britain on the other hand would consider Germany’s entire culture an affront to them along with her “pre-eminence” in the world to drive themto counter Germany’s forces (Eksteins, xv). Eksteins paints a very modern and abstract idea that war began in the theater and in the minds of not only war as an art form but supposedly scientific reasoning. Imperialistic ideals of superiority would fuel a mad dash to obliterate and conquer “lesser” nations. Nations during this time would all claim superiority and greatness above other nations which would ultimately result in mass casualties and disappointment, not in the act of going to war, but largely in disappoint that it was not all it promised to be. In light of the mass failures and death during the Great War which was brought about by the concept that the ideologies of the time were, before the war infallible and justified. By the end of the war the mindset these ideals had become largely falsified and had humbled the western powers quite decidedly; at least, for most imperial powers that had previously thought of themselves as unstoppable and greater than the other nations that they had conquered felt that they had been short changed by the war. America retreated into isolationism while Europe found itself entrenched in guilt and then sought to “bury the war” people were left in economic, social, and utter turmoil after the Great War. Germany itself of all the powers would become an exception in Europe, and the ideals of war would maintain their hold an ultimately lead to the Nazi fascism and the rise of an Adolf Hitler.
The evidence compiled on how the mentality was manipulated and expressed by the people at the time reflects how the human tendency can be manipulated by the greater powers. Eksteins uses a great deal of evidence from what would be the more outspoken in Germany, people who have at least some prestige and influence; in contrast, Remarque presents the peasants of the time who bring forth a more human experience that incites pity and remorse that the war occurred. Eksteins could incite remorse in Rites of Spring by the description of the soldiers who would be described in T.S. Eliot’s book as “hollow men” but the ideals presented would illicit more scorn and abhorrence to the ideals that were maintained even after the horrors of trench warfare (Eksteins, 253). Remarque would as Eksteins states die unhappy his book made an enemy of Germany and the war buried and to be forgotten for its horror and remembered for its potential for victory in Germany (Eksteins, 299). Manipulation of the populace in favor of war had won out.
The war begins on the basis of cultures with ideas of supremacy and Germany especially had a desire to fulfill a “German mission” (Eksteins, 82). From the beginning of All Quiet on the Western Front there is an understanding that the war would bring them fame and they view war as “an ideal and almost romantic character” (Remarque, 21). The mentality of the young men that signed up for the war was that they will become heroes. The German Soldier Paul Baumer expresses that they had become “soldiers with eagerness and enthusiasm” and the idea that they would hold a place of authority in society but found out that instead that they were treated as a tool in war and Paul Baumer was not completely hostile to the idea rather he calls it
“necessary” (Remarque, 22). These ideologies became a fight for survival in which the men on the front line have largely become tired, injured, hungry and sick of the death and killing (Remarque, 113). Ideology and culture have little to do with survival on a battlefield full of poisonous gas, machine guns and constant bombardment, and during the war many men will realize, that for them, it will never be the same and the architecture in a Paris theater—irrelevant–the ideology of heroism was shattered. Although Remarque would create a very human image of the soldiers, an “international flavor…its core be[ing] German” during the war would describe “the war as [their] brothel” and insist on war as an art form and intrinsically beautiful (Eksteins, 210). Furthermore, soldiers on the frontline would find that they were disillusioned about what the war would actually entail, they could not possibly have fathomed the brutality of trench warfare. According to Remarque the mentality of the troops on the frontline shifts from a desire to become heroes and serve their country, to anger to a desperation for peace, to complacent hopelessness and pessimism that there will ever be an end to the suffering and tragedy of war.
The soldiers stop believing they will ever go home, and they believed that even if they ever returned to civilian life they would not be fit into society again. Remarque paints a very clear picture of the detachment felt by the soldiers when they would return home on leave. The returning soldiers did not feel like those at home understood them anymore in which Baumer sums up most succinctly by saying in regards to people in his home town “they are always absorbed in things that go to make up their existence. Formerly I lived the same way, but now I feel no contact here” it is very evident that when Paul comes home he is uncomfortable with discussing the war and feels a great sense of complete disconnect with those at home. Remarque removes the outer shell of pretense that the war was art, as Eksteins would argue, and Remarque argues for a much more humane soldier, and a soldier that would like to desert the war as Detering attempts to but is caught by “those despicable military police (277). Germany would perhaps be the player most disillusioned by war’s end and rather than the horrors of war–creating a message of anti war– the message was exemplified that Germany needed still to return to glory, but largely the world would learn of the horrors of modern warfare (Eksteins, xvi). There is a great believability in Eksteins Rites of Spring because how else could Germany have lost so decidedly and witnessed the horrors of war and decided, once again, not to learn after the Great World War, but to perpetuate another war on culture and begin anew, murder and destruction? The only way this seems possible is if Eksteins theory is plausible, that controlling media and the manipulation of a populace into a state of nationalism and extremism and by controlling how the war is viewed by their people. The mentality of the soldiers becomes one of hopelessness and most soldiers know that civilians are fed a perspective that they can no longer share which explains their cold countenance upon returning home. At the end of the war Britain and France are in competition with each other for who really won the war, and debating on whether or not they can trust each other (Eksteins,
296). Instead of becoming more unified and morally aware of the horrors of war, they argue amongst themselves like children for who can take the most credit for defeating their enemies, and who can be blamed for not helping enough. According to Eksteins the postwar attitudes were largely mixed throughout countries on who to blame and why the war was such a failure, societies are not only upturned and destroyed by the failure of the war but towns are destroyed and disease runs rampant killing “more people than the war itself” (Eksteins, 253). During this time nationalism and nations with the idea of superiority are still quite strong. Unfortunately, according to Eksteins the war being thought of as repulsive to Germans was largely a construct of Remarque’s own thoughts on the war, which is unfortunate and disturbing to contemplate that even after witnessing the horrors of war these people are still not quite afraid of conflict, rather most think that they can find a new way to win the next war, or how they could have won the last one more decisively (Eksteins, 298). It was hardly surprising that before the beginning of trench warfare people were still largely unaware of how horrible the war would be; there is an understanding that they would be naïve about the destruction and dehumanizing effects of war.
The surprising aspect is that the people of Germany almost completely silenced a conscience of abhorrence to war and created a new regime called Nazis under the leadership of Adolf Hitler that would soon revile once again in the idea of Germany marching to war with ideas of world domination (Eksteins, 298-309). It is a frustrating and repelling reality that after the Great War many did not seem to learn that war may be something to be avoided. While Eksteins paints a very vivid picture of how many countries remained ambivalent to the idea of war being morally abhorrent, Remarque paints a very clear and concise novel that outright states it should be morally reprehensible to go to war, he shows how ugly the war is. Such overwhelming evidence is there throughout Eksteins’s Rites of Spring, for a completely volatile society bent on destruction with seemingly few in opposition to the war, it seems very likely that it’s not hard to believe the idea of war as an art form was the mentality that lead to the Great War and subsequently the second.
Eksteins, emphasizes how culture and aesthetics created the mentality of both world wars. Eksteins talks about how the ideals of the war a closely linked to an idea to return to nature or primitivism, which I think conflicts with what Remarque portrays in All Quiet on the Western Frontbut instead of reviling in it, Paul Baumer expresses distaste in what the war has done to them. The war had been previously something that countries could wield to prove superiority by sword and shield, and nothing could have really prepared them for the brutality and helplessness that modern technology would expose them to.Bombs, machine gun fire, it was all new to them and it took away the hope of a soldier who knew that once he left the trenches odds are he was not going to come back unscathed if at all. The daunting brutality of the war completely overcame them after the initial excitement and urgency to “return to the spirit of the Hun” was proven to be less than glorious (Eksteins, 84). There was no glory in being blown to bits and there was no hope to overcome poisonous gasses and shelling day and night. The war could not “return to the glory of the Hun” or primitivism because it was new era or technology. The idea or mass killing by machine guns and bombs quickly put to rest the idea that any glory would be found in this war.
It appears that those actually fighting in the war had no chance to actively participate in the conversation regarding what drove the powers in Germany to pursue violence and war or “return to the spirit of the Huns” (Eksteins, 84). An American philosopher George Santayana describes this idea of the Germans with disdain as a “sprit in which parties and nations beyond the pale of English liberty confront one another is not motherly nor brotherly nor Christian. Their valorousness and morality consist in their indomitable egotism. Liberty that they want is absolute liberty, a desire which is quite primitive.”There is definitely the idea of primitivism in Remarque, but not a reveling in it but a despairing resentfulness towards what the war has done to them Baumer laments “we are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial—I believe we are lost” at this point the indifference and acceptance death has come to Baumer and his comrades on the front lines. At first there is an idea of a quick victory but as the war continues on past Christmas soldiers on the frontline express further alienation from those at home and those fighting in the war: “I was a soldier, and now I am nothing but an agony for myself, for my mother, for everything that is so comfortless and without end. I ought to never come on leave” (Remarque, 185). Baumer does not describe himself or his comrades as heroes instead he states they are “thugs, murderers, devils(Remarque, 114). Not really the noble soldier a great many people would write about in their pro-war books. By the end of the war people in Europe largely remain ignorant to what really happened in the war, and for the most part focus on the wars failure rather than its immorality. People completely ignore the horrors of trench warfare in favor of avoiding blame for the war. The soldiers and the innocent people that lost their lives are not a lesson to these nations to avoid war, at least not for the majority, or in any real sense. The soldiers that survived are not a testament to the immorality of war but are seen as a reminder of failure. If there is to be any advancement in humanity there needs to be an understanding that war is a horrific and terrible experience that should be avoided all cost. The mentality of the frontline troops in both Remarque and Eksteins accounts are both pitiable and disgusting, pitiable because of the pain and anguish felt by Remarque’s human characters and disgusting in the very real image painted by Eksteins that shows a deep seated evil and an absence of morality among those in power which manipulate and imbued a large faction of people. If culture and ideology were what began the war, it was war that profoundly changed the culture and mentality of the world–to one that is more aware today– but any leaps towards a more peaceful and moral society were put on hold after the Great War, the mentality seems to remain stagnant and eventually erupts into World War II.
Eksteins, Modris. Rites of Spring. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company , 1989.Remarque, Erich Maria.
All Quiet on the Western Front. New York: Random House Publishing Group, 1929.