World War I in literature
In most descriptions of wars, commanders, generals and the course of the battle are depicted. Most of the time, the unending suffering of the common soldiers or civilians hardly or only marginally occurred.
The following poem by Walter Flex (1887-1917) in his book “The Wanderer Between Two Worlds” (1916), which was set to music by Robert Götz (1892-1978), describes in a melancholy-sentimental way the hopelessness of ordinary soldiers.
Even if Walter Flex, who died as a company commander on the Eastern Front as a result of a serious wound on October 16, 1917, did not pursue this with his poem.
- Wild geese rush through the night
With a shrill cry to the north –
unsteady journey! Be careful, be careful!
The world is full of murders.
- Drive through the night-swept world,
Pale light twitches, and the battle cry rings out,
The quarrel surges and waves far.
- Intoxication, drive up, you gray army!
Rush to the north!
Drive south across the sea –
what has become of us!
- Like you we are a gray army,
and we drive in the name of the emperor, and we drive without return,
rustle us in autumn an amen!
Rainer Maria Remarque
On the other hand, Rainer Maria Remarque (1898-1970) clearly described the horrors of war in his book “In the West Nothing New” (1929). Remarque, whose real name was Erich Paul Remark, took part as a soldier on the Western Front from 1916 after his graduation until June 1917. His famous novel “Nothing New in the West” was not, however, his first work. “In the West Nothing New” had been published as a serial in the Vossische Zeitung since 1928. Very quickly, as early as 1930, the book was made into a film by Lewis Milestone in Hollywood and became world famous.
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The novel “In Stahlgewittern” by Ernst Jünger (1895-1998) is downright disturbing in its detached objectivity. Ernst Jünger’s early work, also including the book “In Stahlgewittern” (1920), can be attributed to the Conservative Revolution. In the book “In Stahlgewittern” Jünger describes his experiences at the front from January 1915 to August 1918. What is remarkable is the changing character of the work, which on the one hand depicts the war in all its brutality without condemning it. Although “In Stahlgewittern” is based on Jünger’s diary entries, his diaries were only published in 2010.
The situation before 1914
In 1908 Austria-Hungary annexed the province of Bosnia-Herzegovina. On June 28, 1914, the heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand (1863-1914), visited Sarajevo with his wife Duchess Sophie von Hohenberg. The couple drove through the city together with a few companions in an open “double Phäton”. The heir to the throne and his wife were shot dead in Franz-Joseph-Gasse by the Serbian nationalist, the 19-year-old student Gavrilo Princip (1894-1918).
The assassin was a member of Mlada Bosna, a revolutionary-nationalist association of schoolchildren and students that was active in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was ruled by Austria-Hungary, at the beginning of the 20th century and, among other things, fought to keep Bosnia-Herzegovina from the Austro-Hungarian occupation to free. He was then sentenced to 20 years imprisonment and died after just four years imprisonment under dire circumstances in the prison in Theresienstadt – in what is now the Czech Republic.
It should be mentioned that the car in which the heir to the throne and his wife were shot is exhibited in the “Heeresgeschichtliches Museum” in Vienna in the Sarajevo wing.
In order to be able to take military action against Serbia, Austria sought the support of Germany, as in this case an intervention by Russia was feared. This request was granted by Kaiser Wilhelm II and his Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg. As a result, Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to the Serbs on July 23, demanding that Serbia, with the participation of Austria-Hungary, among other things, initiate a judicial investigation against the participants in the June 28 plot. At first it appeared that Serbia would fulfill the ultimatum, but Russia’s promises to help the Serbs in the event of an attack diminished the willingness to fulfill the ultimatum. The conflict took on a pan-European dimension during the French state visit to St. Petersburg between April 20 and 23.
Outbreak of war
On July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungarians declared war on the Kingdom of Serbia. The interests of the great powers and their alliance obligations let the war in the Balkans escalate into continental war within a few days – with the participation of Russia, on which Germany declared war on August 1, 1914, and France, with the German declaration of war on August 3, 1914.
Because of the violation the neutrality of Belgium and Luxembourg as a result of the Schlieffen Plan – Great Britain declared war on Germany as the Belgian guarantee power on August 4, 1914. All major European powers were at war with one another.
On August 1, 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm II had given a speech from the balcony of the city palace (2nd balcony speech), in which he announced, among other things,
that he no longer knew any political parties or denominations, instead we are all only German today Brothers.
He repeated this speech on August 4th in the German Reichstag with the modified and “famous” saying:
“I no longer know any parties or denominations, only Germans.”
The Schlieffen Plan
The Schlieffen Plan provided for attacking France from the northeast, bypassing the French fortresses between Verdun and Belfort, even if the neutrality of Belgium and Luxembourg had to be violated.
These plans were made in 1905 by Field Marshal Alfred Graf von Schlieffen (1833-1913). With the help of this strategy, a quick victory over France was intended to prevent Germany from entering a grueling two-front war with France and Russia, since it was assumed that the Russian Empire would need a longer period of time to mobilize. As is well known, the plan was unsuccessful, but Schlieffen, who died in 1913, had never lived to see it fail. However, it should be mentioned that the implementation of the Schlieffen Plan worked until the Battle of the Marne (September 5-12, 1914).
In the course of this plan, German troops attacked Liège on August 4, 1914, where unexpectedly fierce resistance was met.
Battle of the Marne
The battle of the River Marne marked a decisive turning point in the war. The fighting took place from September 5 to 12, 1914 along the Marne east of Paris and halted the successful German advance of the five armies, which had begun on August 2. During the advance of the Germans, which led to fleeing movements of the French, there was a gap of about 30 km between the 1st and 2nd Army, which led to the Germans pausing – with the result that the French were rearranging themselves and gained time to bring reinforcements from their colonies. The 1st German Army was commanded by Colonel General Alexander von Kluck and the 2nd Army by General Karl von Bülow.
The plan of the German army command – under the command of Colonel General Helmuth von Moltke – to defeat France in a short time, had failed after this battle. The French spoke of the “miracle on the Marne”:
The consequences of this first German defeat were an almost four-year trench war with unimaginable suffering and losses for the soldiers involved. The ossuary near Verdun still reminds of these battles today.
Fight at Langemark
In the course of the first Battle of Flanders between October 20 and November 18, 1914, on November 10, the Belgian village of Langemarck was attacked by the Germans, whose units consisted of inexperienced volunteers, including many students. Thousands of people found a senseless death here without a recognizable goal, which in the course of time was transfigured into the “myth of Langemarck” by propaganda in which the soldiers ran into the enemy fire with chants.
The trench warfare in the west
The trench warfare in the west began after the war of movement ended. This turning point is usually dated with the fighting near Ypres (October/November 1914). After the so-called “Race to the Sea” had extended the western front to a length of approx. 750 km, this stretched from the English Channel to the Swiss border. The solidification of the front led to the establishment of an extensive system of trenches. The foremost rows of trenches were usually only 50 m apart. These defensive systems put the defending armies in an advantageous position and made any attempts at breakthrough almost impossible. The “Battle of Verdun” is a symbol of the solidification of the front line. This attack by German troops on the French fortress Verdun lasted from February 21, 1916 to December 19. 1916, killing more than 300,000 soldiers in total (note that this is a conservative estimate and the death toll was likely much higher). The battle entered both German and French cultures of remembrance. Partly as “Hell of Verdun”, partly as “White blood of the enemy” or “Blood pump” and “Bone mill”. The result of the battle was a minimal shift in the course of the front without having achieved a breakthrough.
Later attempts to break through the frozen front led to the use of poisonous gas such as chlorine gas. The first use of chlorine gas took place on April 22, 1915 near Ypres. In the perverted logic of the war, this led to the development of even more cruel gases such as mustard gas, which was also first used in Ypres in 1917. The end of the trench warfare, however, led to the use of tanks on the Allied side.
The fighting in the east
The fighting between the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary) and Russia took place on the so-called Eastern Front during World War I. The area of the fighting encompassed almost all of Eastern Europe and stretched from the Baltic States to the Black Sea. The fighting on the Eastern Front contrasts with the frozen rift system of the Western Front, as larger front shifts took place here. The fighting ended with the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty. After the end of the First World War, the greatest political upheavals took place on the former combat zone of the Eastern Front. In addition to the successful October Revolution and the establishment of Soviet rule in Russia, the multi-ethnic state Austria-Hungary also disintegrated and thus ensured the emergence of new and historical states such as Austria
Battle of Tannenberg
The battle took place between August 26 and August 30, 1914 south of Allenstein in East Prussia between German and Russian units and ended with a victory for the German units under the command of Paul von Hindenburg. It ended with a victory for the German troops and the defeat of the Russian troops that had invaded East Prussia.
At the request of Paul von Hindenburg, the battle was called the “Battle of Tannenberg” and propagandistically exaggerated. This should also make the eponymous defeat of the Knights of the Teutonic Order in 1410 against the Polish-Lithuanian Union forgotten.
Lenin’s trip to Russia
During the February Revolution of 1917 the Tsar had been overthrown, but the Russian army nonetheless continued to fight the Germans. In order to weaken the Russian will to fight and to create chaos in Russia, the German Supreme Army Command decided to allow Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov Lenin (1870-1924), together with other prominent communists, to return to Russia from their Swiss exile via Germany. This happened on a sealed train that had been declared extraterritorial. Lenin and his companions reached Petrograd in April 1917 and planned the revolution to seize power by the workers, peasants and soldiers.
Lenin stood against the provisional government, which ruled under Kerensky. On June 4, Lenin announced at the 4th All-Russian Congress of Soviets that the Bolsheviks wanted to take power in the country.
Their slogans were an immediate peace agreement, the distribution of the land to the peasants and the workers taking over the factories. The party, chaired by Lenin, set up the Council of People’s Commissars as the Bolshevik government. In February 1918 they were supported by the Red Army under the leadership of Leon Trotsky and the Cheka secret police under Felix Dzerzhinsky.
The Peace of Bresk-Litovsk
On March 3, 1918, the separate peace of Brest-Litovsk ended the war between Russia and Germany, with Russia accepting considerable land losses, approx. 26% of the then European territory. And Germany believed that it had solved its problems on the Eastern Front.
End of war, Treaty of Versailles, Weimar Republic
The First World War was officially ended with the Treaty of Versailles. But with the signing of the Compiègne armistice on November 11, 1918, all fighting had ceased. The war had cost between 17 and 20 million dead and many wounded. Not to mention the material damage.
The ceasefire agreement was signed in a railway saloon car that was in a wooded area east of the northern French town of Compiègne.
The armistice was signed by the Council of People’s Representatives – a body that held the highest governmental power in the German Reich between 1918 and 19119 after the end of the war.
The chairman of the council was Friedrich Ebert, who had been provisionally appointed Chancellor on November 9th by the “imperial” Chancellor Max von Baden. Max von Baden also announced the resignation of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had left Germany on November 10th and was living in exile in Doorn in the Netherlands until his death. Wilhelm II officially announced his abdication on November 28, 1918. This made Germany a de jure republic.
On the afternoon of November 9, 1918, the SPD politician Philipp Heinrich Scheidemann (1865-1939) proclaimed the republic from a balcony of the Reichstag – without informing Friedrich Ebert.
At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 in the Palace of Versailles, the opponents of Germany and their allies until May 1919 largely agreed on the content of a peace treaty.
The treaty established the sole responsibility of Germany and its allies for the outbreak of war and therefore obliged it to cede territories, disarm and pay reparations to the victorious powers. The delegation of Germany was not admitted to the negotiations, but was only able to make a few improvements at the end.
After strong political pressure, the German delegation signed the contract on June 28, 1919 in protest in the Versailles Hall of Mirrors. It officially came into force on January 10, 1920, but was not recognized by many Germans because of the restrictive conditions and the way in which it came about and served the Right and the National Socialists as a reason for their political struggle against the Weimar Republic. The signatories of the treaty were dubbed “November criminals” by the nationalists in Germany, along with others.
On January 19, 1919, the Weimar National Assembly was elected in general, free and secret elections. This passed a law on provisional imperial authority on February 6th. Then on February 11, 1919, the National Assembly elected Friedrich Ebert as Reich President, who two days later installed the Scheidemann government. This ended the time of the Council of People’s Representatives. The famous Weimar Constitution was also adopted in Weimar on July 31, 1919 and came into force on August 14, 1919
The war had killed around 9 million soldiers and around 6 million civilians. In addition, the Treaty of Versailles laid the foundation for World War II and ultimately made Hitler’s successes possible.
On August 3, 2014 – 100 years after the declaration of war on France – Federal President Joachim Gauck and French President François Hollande laid the foundation stone for a Franco-German war museum on the 956 m high Hartmannsweilerkopf (Franz: Vieil Armand, Alsatian: Hartmannswillerkopf) in Alsace. A French memorial is already here.
The mountain in the vicinity of the villages of Cernay, Uffholtz and Guebwiller was fiercely contested during the First World War and changed occupiers eight times during the four-year positional war.
A total of around 30,000 German and French soldiers were killed and many more were wounded.
The mountain was named “Death Mountain” by the people. About 60 km of the former 90 km long trenches are still preserved. At the summit there is a 20 m high cross that is illuminated at night.
Around 20 heads of government and state – including Federal President Joachim Gauck – met in Liège on August 4th to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the German attack on the city.