The enthusiasm of the first months of the war was rooted in an imagery of military glory that bore no relationship to the reality of the battlefield. The splendid bayonet charge over a field of flowers that so many soldiers had been taught to expect did not materialize. Instead, green fields were transformed into oceans of mud, frontal attacks ended up as massacres, great offensives rapidly ground to a bloody halt, and heroic gestures were soon replaced by grim determination and a desperate will to survive. Yet as the huge, arrogant armies burrowed underground into a maze of trenches filled with slime and excrement, rats and rotting body parts, the soldiers began to construct their own vision of glory, distinct both from the romantic images of the past and from the discredited chauvinistic eyewash of the propagandists in the rear. This new vision, unique to the age of total war, has become part of the manner in which we imagine destruction; aestheticized and cherished, it motivated another generation of young men to fight and die, and enabled the veterans of previous wars to make a kind of peace with their memories of massacre. Given the right political and cultural context, however, this vision has also come to serve as a crucial component of our century’s genocidal predilections, facilitating a metamorphosis of values and perspectives in which the annihilatory energy of modern war was portrayed as generating great creative powers, and the phenomenon of industrial killing was perceived as a historical necessity of awesome beauty. The Great War’s new fields of glory were the breeding ground of fascism and Nazism, of human degradation and extermination, and from them sprang the storm troops of dictatorships and the demagogues of racial purity and exclusion. In a tragic process of inversion, the true comradeship and sacrifice of millions of young men was perverted into hate and destruction. The new vision of war that emanated from the trenches of 1914-18 ensured that our century’s fields of glory would be sown with the corpses of innocent victims and the distorted fragments of shattered ideals.
Contemptuous of the idealized images of war that bore no relationship to the fighting as they knew it, resentful of the staff officers’ sheltered lives behind the front and the civilians in the rear, the troops developed a complex subculture all of their own making. Exemplified in frontline journals for their own consumption, a vocabulary that only they could understand, and a new kind of sarcasm and black humor, this was a state of mind that combined a good measure of self-pity with immense pride in their ability to endure inhuman conditions for the sake of a nation seemingly ignorant of and indifferent to their terrible sacrifice. This camaraderie of the combat troops was shared by soldiers on both sides of the line, and while it had some common features with the mentality of all armies in history, the crucial difference was that most of these men were conscripts who would return to civilian life as soon as the fighting ended—if they were lucky enough to survive. The first months of the war had decimated the professional formations and the traditional officer corps of all combatant nations, not least because they could not adapt to the new conditions on the battlefield without fundamentally changing those very attitudes that had previously ensured their elite social status. Soon they were replaced by a new breed of combat officers who shared the emerging ethos of the battle-hardened conscripts and were socially less remote from them.
Patriotism at the front differed from the rhetoric of the rear, and no one was more aware of this than the soldiers themselves. They had gone to war to serve and save their country, but not only was this nothing like the war they had expected, the country too seemed to take a very different shape when seen from the perspective of the trenches. The camaraderie that helped them endure the front also created and made a virtue of the difference between them and that part of the nation that had stayed behind. Theirs was not the naive heroism extolled by the propagandists, but one born of suffering and pain, horror and death. To be sure, most soldiers had but the vaguest notion of how the nation should be transformed once they returned from the front, but they increasingly felt that it was their right and duty to bring about far-reaching changes, rooted, first and foremost, in the trench experience.
By now we have become used to thinking of World War I as the moment in which innocence was forever shattered. We are haunted by the image of millions of devoted, unquestioning, patriotic, young men being led to senseless slaughter, betrayed by their elders. The Western Front has come to epitomize the notion of war as a vast arena of victimhood. That all this sacrifice was in vain is underlined by the aftermath of the war. We recall the broken promises and despair, the soldiers who instead of returning to a “land fit for heroes” were abandoned to unemployment, destitution, and physical and mental decay. Hence, it is argued, both the apathy and the extremism, the conformism and the violence that were characteristics of the postwar era. But the very attitudes toward violence and the perceptions of destruction that emerged among the soldiers during the war as a means to endure it were ultimately at the root of the even greater horror and devastation of the next war. The images of violence and fantasies of destruction that became so prevalent during the interwar period were directly related to the reality and trauma of the front experience in 1914—18. It was these fantasies that played such a major role in the enactment of genocide two decades later. Ironically, the same mechanism that helped soldiers survive one war created the necessary mind-set for mass murder. A crucial component of this mechanism was the frontline notion of soldiers’ glory.
Glory at the front meant enduring the most degrading, inhuman conditions, under constant threat of death and while regularly killing others, without losing one’s good humor, composure, and humanity. It meant discovering the ability to switch between being a helpless prey and a professional killer, and acting as a loving son, father, and husband, radically separating the atrocity at the front from the normality of the rear, indeed making this very separation into a badge of honor and a key for survival. For one had to survive not only the fighting but also the homecoming. The true accomplishment of the frontline troops was not merely to tolerate this unbearable, schizophrenic condition but to glorify it, to perceive it as a higher existence rather than a horrifying state of affairs that could not be evaded. To be sure, many soldiers were incapable of this transformation of perception. But such World War I mussulmen (originating in the German word for Moslem, this term was commonly used by Nazi-concentration camp inmates to describe the most emaciated among them), walking dead who had lost all desire to survive, were normally doomed if they were not taken out of the line in time. To be saved from drowning, soldiers had to rely on the glory they had fabricated of which the essence was to construe atrocity as an elevating experience, one which was to be simultaneously celebrated, kept apart from personal relationships in the rear, and used as a tool to change the universe that had made it possible. And because such notions of wholesale future transformation were entertained within a context of vast devastation, they were inevitably permeated by an imagery of destruction.
When the war finally ended, the veterans felt an even greater urge to endow it with meaning. This does not mean that all of them glorified the war, but by and large most seem to have glorified their own and their comrades’ experience even when they rejected the war itself. Here was a paradox of significant import, since opposition to war, even pacifism, shared one important element with extremism and militarism, namely, the glorification of the individual soldier, whether as a ruthless fighter or as a hapless victim. Some hoped that the shared fate of the veterans would become a formula for unity, for domestic and international peace. But as we know, precisely the opposite happened, not least because what all these soldiers had in common more than anything else was years of fear and atrocity, killing and mutilation. This was a treacherous foundation for peace.