Collaboration During WWII

There were two types of Nazi collaborators in occupied Europe, the acquiescent and the opportunist. To the former belongs if not our sympathy, at the very least our understanding. To the latter belongs our scorn and disgust, as they not only betrayed fundamental human morality in willingly cooperating with the Nazis, but they also betrayed their own compatriots. The latter category include the most nefarious of collaborators, Philippe Petain of France and Vidkun Quisling of Norway. Petain’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and he was eventually released due to ill health; Quisling was executed by firing squad shortly after the war. Opportunist collaborators used Nazi occupation as a means to further their selfish ambitions, and there isn’t much doubt over the immorality of their wartime actions. But how should we judge those millions of average men and women, inside and outside the Third Reich who were seemingly coerced into cooperating with the Nazis?

Despite the infamy such collaborators as Petain and Quisling have garnered, there were many lesser known individuals who collaborated in the worst sense of the word. In “One Day in Jozefow,” Christopher Browning investigates the rationale and mentalities behind those German policemen who participated in the mass execution of Jews in a small town in occupied Poland. That these men murdered hundreds of innocent civilians at point-blank range may, without further investigation, have led us to believe that they were ideologically motivated, perhaps rabidly anti-semitic SS hard-liners. However, as Browning explains, the police officers:

“were not from a generation that had been reared and educated solely under the Nazi regime… They were older; many were married family men; and many came from a social and political background that would have exposed them to anti-Nazi sentiments before 1933.” (Crew 312)

Browning observes that these men participated in such horrendous acts of brutality for a host of other reasons; hardly any were ardent Nazis. Influenced by their peers or hoping for career advancement, these men were able to commit brutal acts in an environment which made such deeds acceptable. The “banality of evil” which brought a number of Hitler’s subordinates, even in the absence of the Fuhrer or his inner circle to plan the systematic extermination of European Jewry occupies a special place in the nightmare of the Holocaust and the Second World War. In their willingness to participate in Nazi crimes, they were at the same time acquiescent and opportunistic. They acquiesced to peer pressure or presiding authorities, but at the same time saw in their actions a means through which to advance their own statuses. In this sense, they occupy a theoretical middle ground, but in the perversity of their actions, they were as evil as the most fervent Nazi.

The wide range of actions which constituted “collaboration” make it even more difficult to navigate through the narrative of the Holocaust and the Second World War, as the moral compass has essentially become incomprehensible with ever-expanding historical analysis. It is no longer simply a matter of “putting one’s self in another’s shoes” to make a moral judgement. What is perhaps the most frightening theoretical consequence of the “banality of evil” is that perhaps any individual is capable of committing the most heinous crimes.

We must therefore treat the concept of collaboration sensitively, as to place a career civil servant in Vichy France into the same category as a a Norwegian volunteer in the Nordic-SS would be a miscarriage of moral justice. Some are more guilty than others. The purpose of investigating and examining the role of Nazi collaborators in the Second World War and the Holocaust is to not only catalogue and categorize their actions, but to understand their reasons for having committed them.

In this disambiguation of collaboration, Petain and Quisling stand out, as they did not have to cooperate had they chose not to. Quisling, a Nazi-sympathizer and leader of the fascist National Gathering party, staged a coup against the fleeing Norwegian government as the Nazis advanced into his country. Petain voluntarily assumed a leadership position during and after the Nazi invasion and occupation, and even went so far as to nurture a personality cult around himself. These two collaborators enabled the perpetuation of Nazi occupation by independently repressing local resistance movements.

Within the category of opportunist collaboration, the most difficult conclusion, one which may be impossible to make, is whether the greatest guilt belongs to those whose actions were most consequential, or those whose actions were the most nefarious. Adolf Eichmann never killed a man himself, but his actions enabled so many nameless, untried individuals to murder innocent people in cold blood. Collaboration is thus further muddled by the attempted application of a basic moral litmus test.

Ultimate moral judgements must therefore be made on a case-by-case basis. Who in our collective memory must share a greater “burden of guilt,” national leaders such as Quisling or Petain, whose actions indirectly led to the murder of thousands of civilians, or the anonymous tip who informed local Nazi authorities in Amsterdam of the location of Anne Frank and her family?Both are guilty of collaboration, thus it would be futile, and perhaps inappropriate to even attempt to compare their actions. But when it comes to the distribution of guilt, which thereby must be distinguished from blame, we must appreciate how immense and ubiquitous was collaboration with the Nazis.

For those millions of average, largely nameless collaborators, there will never be punishment. More importantly than this fact is the question it connotes: should they have been punished? Collaboration can be the most far-reaching and innocuous action as much as it can be the most nefarious and microcosmic one. Collaboration occupies such a prominent place in our popular and academic depiction of the Holocaust and the Second World War because it is such an ambiguous, case-by-case subject that the evaluation and examination of the entire spectrum of collaborationist activity has not, nor can it ever, be fully exhausted.

We must learn to accept a world and a history wherein millions, perhaps the majority of people in any given situation, are complicit in the evil which occurs in their midst. We will undoubtedly never be able to fully understand the actions or inaction of every individual who experienced the scourge of Nazi occupation and brutality. While there exists thousands of cases wherein moral transgression is undoubtable, perhaps more haunting is the revelation that millions of men and women, although they may not be guilty, must carry the “burden of blame” for their acquiescent collaboration.

 

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Some Thoughts on the Political Structure of Nazi Germany

The chaotic nature of the Third Reich was a direct consequence of Nazi ideology. The notion of “will to power,” which the Nazis misappropriated from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, made competition the fundamental element of social, economic, and political relationships. Central to Nazi ideology was the spencerian notion of “survival of the fittest” which necessitated persistent struggle. It is important to realize, however, the distinction the Nazis’ made between the chaotic nature of everyday life and bureaucracy, and the stabilizing energy and force of the Fuhrer.

Once in power, the Nazis expanded this principle to bureaucratic administration. Thus the intense individual and interdepartmental rivalries which developed within the Nazi bureaucracy was not inadvertent. Such competition disabled any single person or agency to acquire too much power, and as final arbiter of such disputes, enabled Hitler to remain at the top of the hierarchical pyramid. In addition, this chaos allowed Hitler to present himself as the primary source of stability to the German people. In “The ‘Hitler’ Myth,” Ian Kershaw observes that “Hitler was able to offer a positive pole in the Third Reich, transcending sectional interests and grievances through his necessary aloofness from the ‘conflict sphere’ of daily politics, separating him from the more unpopular aspects of Nazism.” (Crew 203)

Nazism in practice, was largely adherent to its theoretical form. Their slogan “ein Volk, ein, Reich, ein Fuhrer” symbolized the party’s efforts to portray the people, state, and leader as one entity, which stood as a bulwark against the forces of disunity. Routine turmoil, which characterized administration in Nazi Germany was not anathema to party ideology. It reaffirmed the notion of “survival of the fittest,” and at the same time enabled the Nazis to portray Hitler as having transcended such ordinary competition. Hitler thus stood at the top of the social hierarchy. And while in the Third Reich, failure flowed down the hierarchical pyramid, success flowed to the top. Even before becoming chancellor, Hitler had increasingly intertwined the Nazi movement and ideology with himself. As Ian Kershaw notes:

“No one was more aware of the functional significance of his popularity in binding the masses to him, and hence to the regime, as Hitler himself,” and that “[Hitler] commented that the ruler who was dependent only upon executive power without finding ‘the way to the people’ was destined to failure” (Crew 202)

Through the conscious construction of such institutionalized competition in the party and bureaucracy, Hitler and his immediate circle both retained absolute authority, and displayed to the German people a clear example of “survival of the fittest” in action. The monumental, omnipotent image the regime displayed to the German people and the world was not a facade which hid administrative turmoil beneath the surface, but rather symbolized the supreme power and unity of the state and Fuhrer with the people. Hitler, with the help of his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and such propagandists as Leni Riefenstahl, was able to increasingly depict the nation’s fate as being in his hands alone. And as Kershaw observes, “the more [Hitler] succumbed to the allure of his own Fuhrer cult and came to believe in his own myth, the more his judgement became impaired by faith in his own infallibility.” (Crew 208)

Hitler had used chaos as a means to both reaffirm party ideology and maintain absolute authority. This chaos enabled Hitler to become an almost mythic figure. His subordinates saw in Hitler the “driving force and untiring motor of the great achievements of the National Socialist State,” and “one of the greatest figures in German History.” (Crew 208) The administrative chaos which Hitler had enabled in order to transcend it and portray himself as the leader who would drive Germany into the future, served also to place in Hitler’s hands the actual fate of the German people, which he ultimately drove into the ground.

 

 

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On “Nazism and German Society: 1933-1945” Edited by David F. Crew

Nazism and German Society: 1933-1945, a series of articles on Nazi Germany, summarizes a new approach which has emerged in the field of historical study. As editor David F. Crew observes: “For many years after 1945, discussion of the popular experience of German fascism seldom went beyond vague assertion of ‘collective guilt’ or equally simplistic attempts to differentiate between the ‘victims and the ‘perpetrators.’” (1) The authors of this collection emphasize how Nazism was not imposed upon the German people. Rather, the successful rise of Nazism must be understood as, at least partially, a product of its environment. As works of social history, these articles reveal the causes and consequences of Nazism on a more microcosmic, focused level. Crew maintains that the previously common notion of Nazi Germany as a “totalitarian model” was a consequence of how the Nazi regime had sought to depict itself through its own propaganda. (1) Thus to fully comprehend the causes and consequences of Nazism, a new perspective must be pursued. These articles emphasize this new, more detailed approach. This new approach is valuable as it further explains an historical development which at face value, may appear no more than an anomaly.

In his article “German Workers, German Soldiers,” Omer Bartov rejects the previously popular interpretation of the Third Reich as an all powerful, all-popular monolithic regime which had perverted the course of history: “The view of Nazism as an aberration, a society inexplicably gone made, or taken over by a ‘criminal clique’ against its will, has not been corroborated by historical evidence.” (43) Rather, Bartov understands Nazism as having fit into its contemporary context, as a “normalizing” force following an era of chaos. Bartov focuses upon the transformation of the working class, from staunch opponents to fervent supporters, as proof of the “fit” of Nazism into the historical narrative. Just as the First World War had “demonstrated that a just, classless society is not a necessary precondition for total mobilization,” the onset of the Second World War led even opponents to fight for the “Nazi regime so many of them were were supposed to oppose,” and even “[fight] shoulder to shoulder against those they had been persuaded to believe were their common enemies.” (47-8) Thus the transformation of workers, from natural opponents of the regime to its enthusiastic soldiers, exemplifies the convergence of historical precedence and contemporary circumstance which facilitated the rise of Nazism.

Though perhaps less a result of historical precedence than ideological particularities, the ease with which German society received the Nazis’ policies towards women reveal something about the collective German psyche. In “Natalism, Maternity and Paternity in National Socialist Racism,” Gisela Bock maintains that the repression and objectification of women was largely a result of National Socialist ideology. However, Bock remains ambiguous on the issue of whether or not the relationship between Nazism and women was a result of historical context.

Bock’s article illustrates that chauvinistic programs such as sterilization were a result of a convergence of certain notions of motherhood and race which were already supported by the popular eugenics movement. However, Bock observes that the Nazis’ emphasis upon race “shaped National Socialism’s multiple views of women.” Bock further claims that “[National Socialism] broke with the maternalist image of the female sex.” (134) The somewhat anomalous nature of the Nazis’ perspective towards women, signals the limits to which broad historical movements can be understood as a result of microcosmic forces. While some may disagree with Bock, there evidently remains historians unwilling to comprehend Nazi Germany and its activities as solely a consequence of its contemporary or historical context. What can be extrapolated from Bock’s article is that, although certain aspects of Nazi ideology were a perversion of contemporary attitudes, its gradual acceptance illustrates its contemporary appeal. In “Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omnipresent? Gestapo, society and resistance,” Klaus-Michael Mallmann and Gerhard Paul reject the popular notion that the Gestapo was an all-powerful organization. They emphasize that the Gestapo was only able to succeed through the consistent volunteering of information on the part of German civilians: “The phenomenon of mass denunciation… was solely a matter of free will.” (180) This revelation is telling, as it places the blame for Nazi totalitarianism as much on the perpetrated as it does on the perpetrators. The true nature of the relationship between the Gestapo and German society vindicates a more microcosmic approach to the study of Nazi Germany.

Through the analysis of just one particular aspect of German society under the Third Reich, we come closer to comprehending how the rise of Nazism was more than a historical phenomenon. The authors, quoting Hans Mommsen, agree that “the decisive cause of the German catastrophe was not the Nazis’ superior manipulative capabilities or their techniques of rule, but rather the lack of resistance in German society to the destruction of politics. The Third Reich can, in this respect, be historicized without thereby questioning the special importance of National Socialism.” (189) Thus the existence of Nazi Germany can be understood as a result of the weaknesses and instability of German society, not the force and energy of the movement itself.

The various perspectives and opinions in Nazism and German Society all possess a common, overarching theme. Historical phenomena, those which warrant as much academic research and study as do Nazism and Nazi Germany, necessarily have to be examined and analyzed from manifold perspectives. Thus seeking to break away from previous approaches to the study of Nazi Germany, these authors emphasize social history, and individually focus upon a particular piece of the larger historical narrative. This microcosmic, particularized approach allows contemporary students of history to understand an historical event as the convergence of diverse developments, rather than solely a grand chapter in the annals of history.

 

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The Nature of Early Soviet History: From Marxist-Leninism to Stalinism

For generations, historians have grappled with the various difficulties which the evolution of communism in the Soviet Union have engendered. In a word, history is chaotic; an historian will find him or herself at a loss if they approach their discipline with an obstinate determinism. While nothing in the course of history is entirely accidental, neither is it wholly an inevitability. An historical development at once reinforces and contradicts the course of human affairs. To fully comprehend the nature of Soviet history, one must interpret it as having been both inevitable and anomalous.

An historical event is an anomaly in that it could conceivably have never took place, it is an inevitability simply because it did. In accepting the chaotic nature of history, we can thus come closer than ever to identifying the causes of an historical occurrence. Any moment in history is simultaneously determined as much by its past and present context as it is by sheer happenstance. While one may believe any event to be the inevitable culmination of its various causes, they cannot deny that its actual character could never have been entirely evident beforehand.

As we have previously discussed in this course, while the First World War was probably inevitable, its content and character were not. Before the outbreak of war, an entire genre of “invasion literature” imagined a number of possible scenarios for how such an international war could turn out. Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands (1903) envisioned a German invasion of Great Britain, while William Le Queux’s The Great War in England in 1897 (1894) predicted a joint Franco-Russian invasion of England. The proliferation of this genre following the Franco-Prussian War illustrates a growing unease among Europeans that a wider war would be the inevitable result of a new “culture of violence.” The course of history can only be vaguely anticipated. What cannot be foretold with even some degree of certainty are the results of the coalescence of manifold, complex historical developments.

The Russian Revolution certainly began as an organic movement, a rejection of Czarism and autocracy which many Russians began to believe had brought their nation to the brink of collapse. That the Bolsheviks were able to capture the spirit of the Revolution and position themselves at its forefront, is a result both of historical and accidental circumstance.

In having been the sole socialist political organization in Europe to come out against the war, Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik party was a victim (initially) of historical circumstance. In Germany’s provision of safe passage to St. Petersburg and the growing opposition to war in Russia, Lenin was a beneficiary of accidental circumstance. This same duality of human affairs affected the prospects of the Mensheviks, the socialist faction which initially appeared the heir to political authority in post-Revolution Russia. In rejecting outright revolution (as the prerequisite capitalist phase was supposedly incomplete), the more orthodox Marxists of the Menshevik party were victims of history (in this case, their own). In their disparate, fractured alliance with other anti-Bolshevik forces and their mismanagement of military campaigns, they were victims of coincidence.

With this duality of history in mind, what explains the metamorphosis of Soviet history from idealized proletariat utopia and worldwide revolution to harsh totalitarianism and “socialism in one country” (as early Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky put it)?

That the ideals of the revolution were in a decade’s time subsumed and replaced by Stalinism does not mean that the latter was the inevitable result of the former. Neither does it mean that it was a wholly avoidable development. In order to fully understand how in Russia, from 1917 to 1927, Marxism was gradually replaced by Stalinism, we must look both at the predictable and unpredictable elements of Russian and Soviet history.

In “Was there an Alternative to Stalinism,” socialist David North argues that the totalitarianism of Stalin was hardly an inevitability. North claims “the growth of the bureaucracy and its usurpation of political power,” through which Stalin was eventually able to rise to power “were consciously and systematically opposed from within the Bolshevik Party.” (North, 1995) Furthermore, Leon Trotsky, the quintessential anti-Stalinist argued:

 

“after an unexampled tension of forces, hopes and illusions, there came a long period of weariness, decline and sheer disappointment in the results of the revolution. The ebb of the ‘plebian pride’ made room for a flood of pusillanimity and careerism. The new commanding caste rose to its place upon this wave.” (The Revolution Betrayed, Ch. V.)

 

For the anti-Stalinist, the rise of Josef Stalin must necessarily have been an accident of history, a reaction to rather than a result of the revolution. But it is difficult to ignore those elements of the revolution’s context which enabled and even encouraged the ascendancy of an autocrat. To what degree the nature of Russian society is to blame for the emergence of an autocrat in such an egalitarian atmosphere remains a matter of debate.

North argues that the Bolshevik party, despite the authority and influence it came to achieve “could not abolish a thousand years of Russian history. It could not abolish all the different forms of social, economic, cultural and political backwardness that were the legacy of Russia’s historical development over those many years… Even in the consideration of the roles played by the most crucial individuals, it is necessary to recognize the primacy of objective conditions and circumstances…” (North, 1995)

North therefore identifies Stalinism to have been not the natural result of Marxism, but rather the result of various historical and contemporary pressures beyond anyone’s control. The legacy of autocracy, the trials of the First World War and the Civil War, the loss of much of the original cadre of Bolsheviks and their supporters to war, hunger, disease and displacement… These environmental circumstances came to define the history of communism and Bolshevism in Russia as much as these ideologies had defined that same environment.

Leninism, with its emphasis on the necessity of a “vanguard” of elites to lead the workers to a “dictatorship of the proletariat” illustrates how the patriarchal legacy of Russian society came to influence even its greatest opponents. Furthermore, that Stalin and his underlings employed similar tactics of repression as had their Czarist predecessors (secret police, political exile…) illustrates that no matter how revolutionary its character, any political or social movement cannot fully divorce itself from the atmosphere in which it developed. Thus it is evident how historical circumstance influences even its harshest revisionists.

Leon Trotsky, the charismatic Bolshevik leader who was perhaps the most realistic alternative to Stalin, identified a number of circumstances which enabled Stalin’s rise to power in his magnum opus, The Revolution Betrayed (1937). As (by then) the last living major opponent to Stalin’s regime, it was in Trotsky’s best interest, for his own legacy and his ideology, to recognize those elements of Stalinism which were a flagrant perversion of orthodox Marxist-Leninism.

Trotsky’s critique of Stalin’s rule had the luxury of retrospect. Those who either purposefully or inadvertently enabled the “betrayal” of the revolution could not have possibly foreseen the complete results of their actions or inaction. Even Stalin, the individual actor most responsible for the crucial shift in the course of Soviet history, was at the mercy of historical and accidental circumstance. According to North “one of Stalin’s principal political strengths in the struggle against his opponents was that he foresaw so little.”

Upon deeper investigation, the dual nature of history is as much applicable to the evolution of Soviet history as it is to any other number of exceptional historical occurrences. What sets the Russian Revolution and Civil War apart from all but a few “turning points” in human history is that it appears chaotic and unprecedented in its relative brevity and intensity. While the specific character and chronological location of such extraordinary historical developments are chaotic and cannot be entirely foreseen, both its causes and results are far from anomalous. Early Soviet history is no exception. North asserts that there was an alternative to Stalinism, evident in the Left Opposition and Trotsky’s decades-long struggle to delegitimize Stalin’s regime. Others, such as Thomas G. West argue that “the despotism and wholesale violence of Marxism in practice arise not in spite of but because of the high ideals of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin.” (West, “Marx and Lenin”) There is no such thing as a definitive answer in the study of history. We must appreciate a host of perspectives, and never refine our own to such a degree as to exclude other plausible alternatives.

There is no concrete explanation as to why the course of history progresses as it does. Rather, the proper historian must appreciate both historical and circumstantial context. In this way the evolution of Soviet history from Marxist-Leninism to Stalinism can be properly assessed as a result of both organic and artificial developments.

 

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Why Russia? Why Bolsheviks? Why Not?

The Russian Revolutions and the subsequent Civil War was a uniquely Russian affair. Whether the creation of a communist state in Russia was a result of, or was in spite of the country’s unique social, cultural, political and historical nature remains a matter of controversy. Professor Porter-Szucs noted that Russia’s cultural and geopolitical affiliation is neither European or Asian, but a unique admixture of the two. Russia’s elite aristocracy sought to emanate their Western neighbors, but the face of Russia outside the four major urban centers of Moscow, St. Petersburg, Odessa and Warsaw remained uniquely Russian.

Perhaps Russia, with its ethnic diversity, immense gap between the rich and poor, and colossal size would be uniquely ripe for a revolutionary change, as in its complexity any number of political ideologues could transpose their principles into a Russia framework. While in original Marxist thought the Russian Empire, as a pre-capitalist autocracy, was not nearly as close to the communist stage of history, circumstance enabled Russian communists to seize the moment, theory be damned. Manifold political ideologies have cited Marx, as so complex were his works, so often self-contradictory, that it essentially is irrelevant that in theory Russia should not have been the birthplace of communist revolution.

It is important to distinguish between the Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik takeover. The Revolution was about the disestablishment, rather than a purposeful transfer, of power. The Soviets that emerged out of the mass of unorganized workers had no homogenous political ideology, if they had any at all. After the initial Revolution in February 1917, the masses of workers communes constituted an almost organized chaos. Within the general framework of committees and meetings, the environment in these nascent de facto political groups was pandemonium: “They would reflect nothing but chaos and ‘emergency reports’ about every possible danger and excess we lacked the means to combat.” (Pethybridge 123) The Mensheviks, who at first dominated the Soviets, were gradually discredited by their political inaction, a result of their zealous upholding of original Marxist doctrine. In the almost organic evolution of the Revolution, there was no initial aim, no means to an end. It appeared more a national (though primarily metropolitan) outpouring of frustration towards the status quo than anything else. Thus when the perennial conundrum of Soviet history, whether Russia was ripe for communism, is almost irrelevant. The Bolsheviks neither initiated, nor drove the Revolution, they were merely its chief beneficiaries.

While the Revolution began as an entirely unorganized, chaotic movement, it was eventually partially contained, and given some direction through the Provisional Government. The Provisional Government, composed of Duma members and other established elites sought, with only limited success, to capture the allegiance of the Russian people. In this effort, the government appointed socialist Alexander Kerensky, but their failure to end the war and stabilize the economy undermined their legitimacy. In the period between the February Revolution and the Bolshevik coup in November of the same year, Russia remained on the brink of collapse, in the starving cities, in the terrorized countryside, and on the frontlines.

That the Bolsheviks eventually emerged victorious from the revolutionary period had far more to do with the nature of Russian society than anything else. While Russia proved the birthplace of communist revolution, this does not vindicate any Marxist or Leninist theories that have predicted as such; they remain only theories, and even if proven in certain respects by the initiation of its predictions, context and circumstance render these theories irrelevant. Were the Mensheviks to have reformed its political idealism and taken early action, generations of historians would have argued perpetually over how they had won, and why in Russia. That the Bolsheviks eventually took the reins of power, and in a few short years moved from the political wilderness to the center is what is uniquely Russian about the Revolution.

For centuries, high society in Russia had sought to imitate Western culture and practices. This served to further isolate themselves from the peasant masses and engender growing discontent. At the same time, the aristocratic nature of Russia hindered the development of a Western liberal tradition, and thus political life would either be suppressed, or carried to the fringes. Without a moderate alternative, Russian political life as it emerged was defined by extremist elements. It was Czarist versus Communist, Anarchist versus Autocrat. That the Duma in 1917 tried to create a constitution testifies to the inexperience the Russian people had with practical politics. That Alexander Kerensky defined his role as Prime Minister in a Western European fashion that was impractical in a Russian context, indicates the absence of an indigenous political life.

The Revolution was not communist, nor socialist, nor liberalist… it merely was a rejection of the traditional power structure. What made it so chaotic was the lack of a true political life. Most Russians remained disenfranchised, and in only 1861 had been freed from serfdom. Those who could vote for Duma members, continued to have their political freedom qualified by the final word of the Czar. While the emergence of the Bolsheviks as the most powerful political entity in the Russian Revolution seemed unlikely at first, it is not entirely surprising. While history could have proven any number of charismatic political parties and leaders victorious, any such political entity would most certainly have been “revolutionary” in the western sense of the term.

Thus in the absence of an organized political tradition, Russia proved ripe for a Bolshevik seizure of power. Not because of any sort of socio-economic or political arrangement which Marx or Lenin could have predicted, but because in the absence of a political life, the people of the Russian Empire could easily reorient their allegiance to a group which offered them hope. The Bolsheviks did just that: ending the war (at an immense territorial cost), promising bread, and pledging their support for the soviets. The Bolsheviks did not win the Revolution and the subsequent Civil War because they were communists. They simply did not represent the status quo, and were at the right place at the right time.

 

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WWI and Film

The cinematic depictions of the First World War have often focused on the perceived loss of innocence of the aptly named “lost generation” from their war experiences, either on the front lines or on the home front. In our historical study of the conflict, we have rightly become obsessed with the sheer violence, trauma and absurdity of the war. Unlike any conflict before, the First World War nearly destroyed a generation and shifted the course of human affairs more rapidly and drastically than any other single conflict beforehand. As such, the First World War of the silver screen is one which emphasizes the plight of the individual soldiers, who in the course of the war became little more than cannon fodder to commanders and grand strategists.

In lecture, Professor Porter-Szucs showed us a battlefield clip from the French film, A Very Long Engagement (2004). What is important to note is that the film used the war as the setting for a romantic narrative. This film exhibits the common thread which links much of the First World War film genre: the plight of the common soldier; both in the battlefield, and in all that he lost upon becoming a soldier. Such is the case because the war, in its intensity, violence and fruitlessness so drastically altered the cultural and social perceptions of war. Films such as Gallipoli (1981) emphasized the vain loss of so many young men in a pointless conflict. As Professor Porter-Szucs indicated, many of those who perished may have lived to see the invention of the television, witness man’s conquest of space, and be shocked by the flagrant sexuality of Rock and Roll music. What made the cinematic depiction of the First World War so potent and popular was its distinction as the first war of the age of new media, which so aptly and shockingly displayed the unprecedented carnage of its battles, and the seeming pointlessness of such an immense loss of life.

WWI films usually focus on how the war affected the individual lives of the soldiers and the lives and relations they had to leave behind. As the post-bellum popularity of war poetry and All Quiet on the Western Front indicate, the First World War left many with a permanent distaste for this total and industrial style of warfare which came to typify armed conflict in the modern age. Debunked were such archaic ideals of warfare as chivalric honor, noble bravery and the value of the man over the weapon. War was no longer a test of masculinity, a noble pursuit, or a character-building exercise. War was hell. The post-war culture, epitomized in art, literature and cinema decried the culture of violence which had precipitated and came to characterize the conflict, and emphasized that war was not inevitable, and was something to be avoided.

Since the First World War, directors and producers have approached the conflict in a variety of unique and interesting ways, but virtually all have been lamentations and condemnations of the conflict. The Christmas Truce of 1914, a frequent subject of WWI cinema, is such because in retrospect, it seems to have been the last chance to restore civility, the last opportunity the young soldiers at the front had to preserve their unwounded humanity.

The French film Joyeaux Noel (2005) focuses on the camaraderie of the belligerents during the truce and contrasts it with the virulent nationalism and xenophobic environment in which its participants had been raised and educated. In Richard Attenborough’s musical Oh! What a Lovely War (1969) the Christmas Truce is a somber affair, the last breath of the Belle Époque. The absurdity of the conflict, the disconnect between the front line soldier and the generals, is encapsulated in the words of a German soldier to his British counterpart as they meet in the middle of no-man’s land: “We will not ever shoot again… unless you start.” In its pointlessness, the war, as depicted on film, became the ultimate tragedy, to be avoided at all costs.

The Christmas Truce is the quintessential tragedy of the war, the best example of what the “lost generation” truly lost. The First World War of cinema is thus a far cry from the idealized and romanticized conflict detailed in Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel. For Junger “the war was our dream of greatness, power, and glory” a quite disparate sentiment than those shared by the filmmakers of the succeeding decades. The calamity of the Second World War only served to magnify the tragedy of war, which at the same time served to discredit the nostalgia of war, as illustrated in Junger’s account.

The cinematic depiction of the First World War is thus an interesting and subtly important footnote in the greater narrative of modern European history. In its distinction as the first war fictionalized or documented in the age of cinema, it was in itself not a mere art form, but had the potential to shape its audiences perspectives and ideals. The raw realism of the cinema provides perhaps the greatest opportunity to win the hearts and minds of the viewers. Thus while such nationalist celebrations of the First World War as Storm of Steel have become discredited and marginalized, the cinematic depiction of the war, with its violence and graphic nature remains a popular sub-genre of war films, and continues to serve both as memorial to the dead, and a warning against the carnage of modern warfare.

 

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Junger’s Story and the “Scientific War”

Above all else, what made the First World War the calamity that it became were the new technologies of warfare. The era of peace which had preceded the outbreak of war in 1914 had also been the era in which a new generation of weapons and battlefield devices were born. As Professor Porter-Szucs indicated, it was the application of these new technologies into the battlefield which made the First World War so terrifying, and had such a lasting affect on the psyche of the soldiers and civilians who had witnessed the use of such technologies.

Thus what makes Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel such a frightening account is the graphic depiction of how these new technologies wrought such horrors on the bodies and minds of those who experienced it firsthand. Modern artillery, which made for an invisible enemy; machine guns which struck fear in the men of a forward advance; poison gas, perhaps the most terrifying weapon in its lethality and silence… for the average soldier such features of modern warfare, quite divorced from the warfare of past generations, destroyed notions of manhood and warrior-culture which had become the dominant discourse on conflict in the Belle Époque.

As Junger put it: “It was the days at Guillemont that first made me aware of the overwhelming effects of the war of material” (108) The most unnerving irony of the “war of material,” for Junger, was that these new weapons and technologies which prolonged the war and created its nightmarish character, were fielded to bring about a swift end to the conflict. Junger realized the effects of such a “scientific” war: “it seemed that man, on this landscape he had himself created, became different, more mysterious and hardy and callous than in any previous battle.” (109)

In Junger’s narrative, the destructive new technologies and weapons of war presented the conflict as both a national and personal tragedy. Junger’s account made the war years more palpable, more real, and in its graphic detail, seemed to indict a whole epoch of European exceptionalism. Though Junger is often cited as quasi-fascist in his glorifications of warfare, reckless bravery, and the intensities of battle, he was far from it. Lost in the intricacies of history was his true intent: to detail how the First World War stood alone in the history of warfare in its intensity; an intensity for which European culture and technology of the decades preceding the outbreak of the war were culpable. Junger’s final epiphany made him realize the worth of his “four years’ schooling in force.” (109) It was not a new love for the Fatherland, but a new courage and energy which only his generation of soldiers could possibly possess:

“Hardened as scarcely another generation ever was in fire and flame, we could go into life as though from the anvil; into friendship, love, politics, professions, into all that destiny had in store. It is not every generation that is so [favored].” (317)

Junger hardly glorified war, and he exhibited in detail the destructive technology which had nearly destroyed his generation. Junger claimed that the war “was an incomparable schooling of the heart.” (xii) This conviction, coupled with the even greater destruction of the Second World War, has led to the steady wane in the popularity of Junger’s magnum opus. Junger’s conviction that this “scientific” war hardened him and made him better able to handle the trials and challenges of life, appealed to that part of the “lost generation” (especially in Germany, which had suffered a particularly stinging defeat) which longed for the battlefield and would come to fill the ranks of the Freikorps and the Nazi Party.

Junger’s Storm of Steel acutely links the technological advances of the preceding era of European history with the unprecedentedly brutal war it produced. In contrast to the fictionalized, less lurid and more sentimental All Quiet on the Western Front, Storm of Steel presents the first truly modern war in all its terror and violence. As such, it appealed to those who nostalgically remembered the war for its perceived character-building and camaraderie, those that would become paramilitaries and would help wage the Second World War.

At the same time, however, Junger’s account has been discredited for its perceived propagation of fascism and militant nationalism. While the author was convinced of the value he had gained from his war experience, such should not be mistaken for a glorification of warfare and violence in itself. He consistently decried the violence of the First World War, even though he felt he had gained in character and strength from having experienced it. Junger’s account has been discredited as the work of a far-right, warrior who loved warfare. Rather it is the account of a young soldier who dared to gain in character from his time in a war that, in its “scientific” destruction was unlike any other before it.

 

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