The Battle Community

Germany experienced the aftermath of World War I as an unmitigated disaster. Apart from the tremendous cost in lives, the Reich’s overseas empire was lost along with large tracts of its European territories, the Kaiser was gone, and the newly established Weimar Republic signed what most Germans considered a humiliating peace treaty that compelled it to pay huge reparations and severely restricted its military. The sailors’ and soldiers’ mutinies, the revolutions in Berlin and other cities, the ensuing civil strife and spiraling inflation, all made for a picture of chaos and disintegration. And yet, from the midst of despair, a new notion of German glory and greatness began to emerge. Central to this process were not only the veterans associations but even more important the Freikorps formations, paramilitary units that roamed Germany in the early years of the postwar period, composed of former soldiers and youngsters who had just missed service in the war. Engaged in vicious fighting against their domestic enemies in the cities and their foreign enemies along the former Reich’s eastern frontiers, these heirs of a long freebooter tradition attributed their despair to peacetime conditions rather than to the suffering of war and perceived their identity as meaningful only within the context of the Kampfgemeinschaft.On one level, this “battle community” was constituted only of one’s direct comrades in the unit; but on a more abstract level, it included all those multitudes of men who had shared the same frontline experiences and came to see the world, and their role in it, through the prism of struggle, sacrifice, and destruction. Furthermore, the Kampfgemeinschaft soon came to be defined in a manner that excluded from it those veterans who embraced different political views or were not considered “truly” German. This referred mainly to the Jews, whose own nationalist veterans association consequently became increasingly isolated. Conversely, the battle community included men who had not taken part in the war and shared the front experience by sheer force of their convictions and imagination, combining the requisite physical qualities with a similar view of the world. Thus the Fronterlebnis, the experience of the front, was not an objective event, but rather, as Ernst Junger called it, an “inner experience” (inneres Erlebnis) available only to those of the right persuasion, sensibilities, and ultimately “race,” and containing the potential of being extended in time well beyond the war generation. The postwar conceptualization of the Kampfgemeinschaft therefore became the core of the Volksgemeinschaft, the national, or “racial” community whose frontlines were populated by the battle-hardened political soldiers of the extreme right and the fledgling Nazi movement. For these men, Germany’s fields of glory led from the trenches of 1914-18 to the struggle of the Volk for its future greatness, to be waged with equal devotion and comradeship, sacrifice and ruthlessness.

The notion of destruction was of course central to this worldview in its many variations; shared in the 1920s by a relatively small but growing minority, by the 1930s it was widely disseminated as a central tenet of the Nazi regime. The terrible devastation of World War I, while it justified calls for retribution, was also perceived as clearing the way for a better future, not least because it made for the emergence of a “new man” out of the debris of the past, a warrior much better equipped for the tasks of a new Germany. Intoxicated by the reality and aesthetics of destruction, these men saw war as a sure instrument to sweep away the weak and the degenerate, making room for the brave and the pure. The trenches had taught humanity that life is war and war is life, that violence brought out the best qualities in man, and that only the ruthless application of violence would propel one to the higher spheres of existence. The fact that many Germans were just as terrified and disgusted by the carnage of the war as other Europeans only served to enhance the vehemence with which such views were propagated. Moreover, this powerful undercurrent of extremism reflected a far more prevalent preoccupation with violence on both sides of the political divide, ranging from the conservatives to the Communists. Even the most explicit antiwar imagery of such artists as Otto Dix and George Grosz reveals a brutal strain, a fascination with depravity, mutilation, and inhumanity generally absent from representations of war in France.

This is of course most evident in German World War I veteran Ernst Junger, the tone and ideological import of whose writings on the war distinguishes them from most other popular accounts of life and death in the trenches. Thus, for instance, French writer Henri Barbusse’s novel Under Fire (1916) presents the war in collective moral and political terms: the slaughter at the front heralds the beginning of a new world in which the downtrodden rise against the powerful and establish universal social justice, thereby finally bringing an end to war and suffering. A compatriot of Barbusse, Roland Dorgeles strikes a more melancholy chord in his wartime novel Wooden Crosses (1919). Here, too, the close-knit group of soldiers is extolled, but not only does the author lament its progressive destruction at the front, he also follows its survivors as they find themselves denied or abandoned by their loved ones in the rear and rejected by an indifferent postwar world. This atmosphere of regret and disillusionment also characterizes German veteran writer Erich Maria Remarque’s best-seller, All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), as well as his subsequent, less well-known novels on the “lost generation.” While Remarque’s celebration of comradeship demonstrates his affinity with the exponents of theKampfgemeinschaft, his focus is the loss of innocence, as the group of comrades is decimated and the individual is mentally and physically annihilated. It is, indeed, through the prism of Remarque’s tale of heroes betrayed and victimhood uncompensated that generations of readers first encountered the carnage of 1914—18.

Junger is an entirely different case. His Storm of Steel (1922) is an acute and powerful portrayal of the emergence of the new, modern warrior, from the mechanical and faceless destruction in the trenches. He does not lament his fallen comrades and feels no regret for the loss of innocence. For Junger the individual is wholly autonomous; and it is during the war, in the midst of devastation, that he discovers his freedom, his inner strength and “essence,” and rises from the destruction whole and purified. But in Junger’s universe, World War I is only the point of departure, a necessary baptism by fire in which he acquires knowledge about himself and humanity that must then be employed by, indeed imposed on, the postwar world, as his later writings indicate. In some respects, Junger’s new man is the embodiment of the Nazi ideal; yet his early rejection of the Kampfgemeinschaft, bred by his individualistic heroism and innate elitism, made him into an ambivalent and somewhat skeptical observer of the fictions and realities of the emergingVolksgemeinschaft. Nevertheless Junger relished his iconic status in Nazi imagery and rhetoric, and was in turn fascinated by the Third Reich’s immense destructive energies. His long-term impact on subsequent generations, however, should be sought in his ability for detached observation of unmediated horror and his curious mix of cold reason and almost uncontrollable passion in the face of destruction, a state of mind that came to be idealized by the Wehrmacht’s combat officers and even more so by the SS. Because of Junger’s fascination with naked violence, the pleasures of causing and submitting to pain, he straddles the line between nihilism, fascism, and postmodernism, articulating the enormous appeal of modern industrial destruction as event and image, memory and anticipation: destruction on such a monumental scale that it fills one with awe, even while being devoured by it.

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