What confuses you about modern culture?

The First World War

Wolfgang Kruse

Apl. Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Kruse, born in 1957, is an academic senior counselor and adjunct professor in the field of Modern German and European History at the Historical Institute of the Distance University in Hagen. His main research interests include the history of the First World War, the history of the French Revolution, the history of the German and international labor movement and the history of the political cult of the dead. Von Kruse has published: Wolfgang Kruse: The First World War, Darmstadt 2009 (history compact of the WBG).

The downright monstrosity of the First World War was significantly reflected in culture and art. The loss of civilizational conceptions of meaning found its logical correspondence here. Paintings, war diaries and poems captured this aesthetic and also made the horror of war tangible for every observer.

"Der Gestürzte" by Wilhelm Lehmbruck (1916) License: cc by-sa / 3.0 / de (bodok2006)

After the 'long' 19th century since the French Revolution, despite all the contradictions and counter-tendencies, had been dominated by modernization, progress and civilization, this optimistic perspective suddenly seemed to be turned into its opposite: all the achievements of modernity were now closed Instruments of destruction. The result had to appear as a cultural breach: around ten million dead soldiers alone, a far greater number of injured and crippled, and barely countable victims of war-related crimes and suffering, including the first major genocide of the 20th century, in which the Young Turkish government killed around one million Armenians in 1915/16 alone. Modern civilization actually saw its relapse into barbarism during the First World War.

Cultural pessimism and modern criticism of war

A premonition of this had accompanied the modernization process from the beginning. While conservative cultural critics had complained about the dissolution of supposedly organic communities and the destructive effects of an ultimately purely instrumental rationality, pacifists and social democrats critical of capitalism grappled with the destructive potential of an industrialized war. In the face of modern imperialism, Friedrich Engels predicted as early as 1888 in his introduction to Sigismund Bornheim's brochure "In Memory of the German Murder Patriots 1806-1807" a "world war that was previously unimagined. Eight to ten million soldiers will choke one another and The devastation of the Thirty Years' War compressed into three to four years and spread over the whole continent; famine, epidemics, general wilderness of armies as well as the masses caused by acute distress; our hopeless confusion artificial gears in trade, industry and credit, ending in general bankruptcy; collapse of the old states and their traditional state wisdom, so that the crowns roll by the dozen across the pavement and nobody can be found to pick them up; absolute impossibility of foreseeing like that everything will end and who will emerge victorious from the fight ... "And shortly before the war began in 1912, the social democratic teacher Wilhelm Lamszus once again warned urgently against the modern" human slaughterhouse "into which a war between the industrial powers would transform Europe.

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"Patrouille" by August Stramm

The stones are enemies
Window grins treason
Choke branches
Mountains of bushes leaf quickly

From: Peter Rühmkorf, 131 Expressionist Poems, p. 145.



When the war actually broke out, the Dutch socialist leader Pieter Jelles Troelstra described the consequences: "Heaven, sea and earth a scene of mutual devastation. The world a hell, the people wild devils, scientific advances and technical possibilities in the service of one thing never before there was barbarism. " The psychologist Siegmund Freud saw people now "crazy about the meaning of the impressions that force themselves on us and about the value of the judgments that we form"; they felt "strange in this once so beautiful and familiar world." And the poet Hermann Hesse let his fictional character Klingsor determine after the end of the war in relation to the effects of the war: "... our beautiful reason has become insane, our money is paper, our machines can only shoot and explode, our art is suicide. We go under, friends ... "

Indeed, the war not only left a "broken world" on the battlefields, but it also caused a profound shattering of civilizational conceptions, values ​​and patterns of interpretation. It was primarily the soldiers at the front who were directly confronted with the monstrosity of modern war. Especially with regard to the young generation, shaped by the experience of war, people soon spoke of a "lost generation" - not only because their relatives fell en masse, but also because the survivors were permanently damaged and had major problems in civil life with their own to rediscover civilizational norms and values. The destructive power of the war was also reflected particularly clearly in modern art, which drew new innovative strength from it and which experienced a significant boost in development as a result of the First World War. It is true that large parts of the art of war, especially in their propaganda use, remained extremely traditionally oriented. Nevertheless, it was precisely the representatives of artistic modernism who found appropriate forms of design for the destructive effects of the war and were thus able to decisively shape the further development of modern art.

Nihilism and cynicism

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"Wild geese rush through the night" by Walter Flex

1. Wild geese rush through the night
With a shrill cry to the north -
Unsteady journey watch out, watch out!
The world is full of murders.

2. Drive through the nocturnal world
Gray-iced squadrons!
Pale light twitches, and the battle cry rings out,
The strife surges and waves far.

3. Intoxication, drive up, you gray army!
Rush to the north!
Drive south across the sea -
What has become of us!

4. Like you, we are a gray army
And drive in the emperor's name.
And we drive without return
Give us an amen in autumn!

From: Walter Flex, The Wanderer Between Two Worlds, Munich 1918, p. 8.



First of all, the war brought about radicalized experiences of violence and destruction, which profoundly contradicted bourgeois culture and its values. The destruction, which was ubiquitous, especially on the front, brought with it nihilistic orientations that were characterized by despair, but also by cynicism. "The sun falls down to the horizon. / Soon I will be thrown into the mild mass grave" was the muted sarcasm with which the expressionist poet Alfred Lichtenstein, who died in 1914, processed his soldiery farewell at the beginning of the war. The real experiences at the front, however, resisted simple distancing and often aroused despair. "All streets lead to black decay", this is how the expressionist poet Georg Trakl, drafted as a medic, let his poem about the battle of Grodek end before he committed suicide. The war processing by Walter Flex, who wrote the famous song "Wild geese rushing through the night", and by Ernst Jünger, who in his war diaries began to experience the modern battle from all humanitarian perspectives, were shaped in a completely different way by nihilistic tendencies solve and aestheticize in a radical way. In the end, a new image of man, or rather soldierly, of men emerged here, shaped by the industrialized war, which was to become a basis of fascist culture. "This war is not the end, but the beginning of the violence," said Jünger. "He is the hammer forge in which the new world is smashed into new borders and new communities. New forms want to be filled with blood, and power wants to be gripped with an iron fist. War is a great school, and the new man becomes be of our kind. "

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"Farewell" to Alfred Lichtenstein

Before I die, I'll make my poem.
Quiet, comrades, don't bother me.

We're going to war. Death is our glue.
Oh, my beloved didn't howl for me.

What is up to me. I like to go in.
The mother is crying. You have to be made of iron.

The sun is falling towards the horizon.
Soon I will be thrown into a mild mass grave.

The brave sunset burns in the sky.
Maybe I'll be dead in thirteen days.

Aus .: Peter Rühmkorf (ed.), 131 expressionist poems. Berlin 1976, p. 66.



But the artistic examination of the violence of war could also produce opposing tendencies. In the more liberal political climate of Western Europe, anti-war tendencies could develop more freely in art than in authoritarian Germany. "We are creating a new world," was the sarcasm title given by the English painter Paul Nash to one of his devastated war landscapes. Christopher Nevinson's depiction of a soldier who died in barbed wire with the subtitle "Paths of Glory" crossed the borders and fell victim to censorship in liberal England. In Germany, art that was openly anti-war could only develop beyond the public domain. Detached from immediate personal war experiences, it was above all sculptors such as Käthe Kollwitz, Wilhelm Lehmbruck or Ernst Barlach who found haunting forms of expression for the suffering creature. "Seeds should not be ground", was the clear consequence that Kollwitz drew from the fate of the "lost generation" of the First World War. Her memorial in memory of her son who died in Belgium testifies to this, as does Lehmbruck's sculptures "Sitzender Jüngling" or "Der Gestürzte", which still impressively express the destructive effects of the experience of violence without any specific reference to war and struggle.

Identity shattered and broken worlds

The events of the war itself, with its diverse, simultaneous sensory impressions, proved in many ways to be overwhelming and overwhelming for human individuals, whose portrayal required special artistic forms. At the beginning of the war, it was above all the expressionist poet August Stramm, who died in 1915, who, with his conceptually condensed art of words, found appropriate forms of expression for these overwhelming experiences. Otto Dix was particularly prominent in painting. "Artists should not reform and convert. They only have to testify," was his artistic credo. "I also paint dreams and visions; the dreams and visions of my time, the dreams and visions of all people!" Similar to the robot-like war figures by the Englishman Wyndham Lewis, Dix's soldier pictures, which testify to the madness of war, also portrayed the development from the destruction of identity and values ​​of modern war to the general dissolution of clear identities and worldviews in the further development of modern art.

Dada, or: a game of fools out of nowhere

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Richard Huelsenbeck et al .: Dadaist Manifesto, 1918

Art depends in its execution and direction on the time in which it lives, and the artists are creatures of their epoch.
The highest art will be the one that presents in its contents of consciousness the thousandfold problems of the time, which one notices that it allowed itself to be thrown by the explosions of the last week, which repeatedly seek its limbs together under the thrust of the last day. The best and most unheard-of artists will be those who every hour pull the tatters of their bodies together from the chaos of the cataracts of life, dogged by the intellect of the time, bleeding from their hands and hearts. [...]

The word Dada symbolizes the most primitive relationship to the surrounding reality, with Dadaism a new reality comes into its own. Life appears as a simultaneous tangle of noises, colors and spiritual rhythms, which is unwaveringly adopted into Dadaist art with all the sensational screams and fevers of its daring everyday psyche and all of its brutal reality. Here is the sharply marked crossroads that separates Dadaism from all previous art movements and above all from FUTURISM, which recently idiots have understood as a new edition of Impressionist realization. For the first time, Dadaism is no longer aesthetically opposed to life by tearing into its component parts all the catchphrases of ethics, culture and inwardness, which are only cloaks for weak muscles.

The BRUITISTIC poem describes a tram as it is, the essence of the tram with the yawning of the reindeer Schulze and the scream of the brakes.

The SIMULTANISTIC poem teaches the sense of messing things up, while Mr Schulze is reading, the Balkan suit drives over the bridge near Nisch, a pig whines in the cellar of the butcher Nuttke.

The STATIC poem turns the words into individuals, out of the three letters forest, the forest with its treetops, forester's livers and wild boars, perhaps a guesthouse emerges, perhaps Bellevue or Bella vista. Dadaism leads to unprecedented new possibilities and forms of expression in all arts. He made Cubism a dance on the stage, he propagated the BRUITIST music of the Futurists (whose purely Italian matter he does not want to generalize) in all European countries. The word Dada also points to the internationality of the movement, which is not bound by any borders, religions or professions. Dada is the international expression of this time, the great fronde of the art movements, the artistic reflex of all these offensives, peace congresses, rallies at the vegetable market, suppers in the Esplanade etc. etc. Dada wants the use of the NEW MATERIAL IN PAINTING.

Dada is a CLUB that was founded in Berlin, which you can join without assuming any obligations. Everyone is chairman here and everyone can give his or her word on artistic matters. Dada is not a pretext for the ambition of some writers (as our enemies would have us believe). Dada is a kind of spirit that can reveal itself in every conversation, so that one has to say: this one is a DADAIST - that one is not; Club Dada therefore has members in all parts of the world, in Honolulu as well as in New Orleans and Meseritz. To be a Dadaist can mean being more of a merchant, more of a party man than an artist - just being an artist by chance - to be a Dadaist means to let yourself be thrown by things, to be against any sedimentation, to sit on a chair for a moment means to live in Have brought danger (Mr. Wengs was already pulling the revolver out of his pocket). A tissue tears itself under the hand, one says yes to a life that wants higher through negation. Say yes-say no: the huge hocus-pocus of existence stimulates the nerves of the real Dadaist - this is how he lies, this is how he hunts, this is how he cycles - half Pantagruel, half Francis and laughs and laughs. Against the aesthetic-ethical attitude! Against the bloodless abstraction of Expressionism! Against the world-improving theories of literary hollow heads! For Dadaism in words and pictures, for Dadaist events in the world. To be against this manifesto is to be a Dadaist!

From: Karl Riha and Hans Bergius (eds.), Dada Berlin. Texts, manifestos, actions, Stuttgart 1977, pp. 21-25.



The most radical dissolution of traditional art forms was finally practiced by the "DADA" movement. In the Zurich "Cabaret Voltaire" since 1915, refugees from different countries such as the Romanians Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janko, the Germans Hugo Ball and Richard Huelsenbeck, the Alsatian Hans (or Jean) Arp and his wife Sophie Teuber came together and developed them Art, in the words of its pioneer Hugo Ball, as a completely new kind of "fool's game from nowhere" characterized by the breaking up of all forms and experimenting with new forms of design.

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Excerpt from: "End of the World" by Richard Huelsenbeck

It has actually come to that with this world
The cows sit on the telegraph poles and play chess.
The cockatoo sings so melancholy under its skirts
The Spanish dancer like a stick trumpeter
And the cannons whine all day.
That is the landscape in purple that Mr. Mayer spoke of
When he lost his eye. [...]

Oh oh you big devils - oh oh you beekeepers and field commanders
Will woof woof woof Will where where who doesn't know today
What our father Homer wrote
I keep war and peace in my toga
But I opt for the cherry brandy flip
Today nobody knows if he was tomorrow
With the sark lid you beat the beat
If only someone had the courage to take the tram
To tear off the tail feather it's a big time

From: Karl Riha (ed.), 113 dada poems, Berlin 1982, p. 51.



They believed that they could only shape the horrors of war as grotesque. To do this, they broke with all traditional forms of design related to identifiable realities and conceived a very own world of artistic freedom that followed their inner logic. Anarchist nonsense and targeted provocations were experimented with just as unrestrainedly as with the fusion of different artistic genres and materials. Artistic happenings emerged, but also onomatopoeia, language experiments, collage art and surrealistic forms of design. In particular via the Cologne DADA offshoot with Jean Arp and Max Ernst, there were also direct transitions to the surrealism of the 1920s, while DADA-Berlin after the revolution in 1918 with George Grosz and Raoul Hausmann and the brothers John Heartfield and Wieland Herzfelde not only through so-called DADA fairs provoked the bourgeois public, but also went through a radical politicization in the environment of the early KPD.

Selected literature:

Modris Ecksteins, dance over trenches. The birth of modernity and the First World War, Reinbek b. Hamburg 1990 (orig. Boston 1989).

Paul Fussel, The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford 1975.

Wolfgang J. Mommsen (ed.), Culture and War. The role of intellectuals, artists and writers in the First World War, Munich 1996.

Hans Richter, Dada - art and anti-art. Dada's contribution to 20th century art, Cologne 1973.

Aviel Roshwald and Richard Stites (eds.), European Culture in the Freat War. The Arts, Entertainment, and Propaganda, 1914-1918, Cambridge 1999.

Rainer Rother (ed.), The last days of humanity. Pictures of the First World War, Berlin 1994.

Uwe Schneider and Andreas Schumann (eds.), War of the Spirits. First World War and literary modernity, Würzburg 2000.

Klaus Vondung (ed.), War experience. The First World War in the literary design and interpretation of nations, Göttingen 1980.