The scenes of festive Berliners beamed around the world in recent months have stirred a profound ambivalence in many spectators. After all, this isn’t the first time that Berliners have celebrated the prospect of a renascent Germany. In the summer of 1914, as historian George L. Mosse reminds us in his unusual and stimulating new book, Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars, they poured into the city’s streets in a similar mood of intoxicated joy to welcome the start of World War I.
As we approach the end of the 20th century, it is hard to fathom the exultation that gripped Berlin then. How could a civilized people have mustered such enthusiasm for the chaos and carnage of war? Could it happen again in a reunified Germany?
Mosse’s survey of the symbolism of war in European popular culture from 1792 until 1945 offers a distinguished scholar’s offbeat perspective on these issues. Wearing his erudition lightly, Mosse seeks out the roots of Germany’s perverse zeal for war not just in the familiar domains of diplomacy and domestic politics, but also in the realm of the popular imagination — in propaganda and postcards, tin soldiers and — his most telling example — the creation of special war cemeteries. Particularly in Germany, a national cult of the fallen soldier helped sanctify the brutal realities of modern combat, transforming war ”into a sacred experience which provided the nation with a new depth of religious feeling, putting at its disposal ever-present saints and martyrs, places of worship, and a heritage to emulate.”
Mosse’s conclusions are surprisingly hopeful. The indiscriminate annihilation promised by nuclear weapons, coming on the heels of the wholesale slaughter of civilians in Europe between 1939 and 1945, made it impossible to continue worshiping war as a medium of national redemption. One telling symptom of the shift in European attitudes is the main monument to World War II in Berlin. As Mosse points out, this is not a statue dramatizing the virtues of an armed patriot but rather the deliberately preserved ruin of a bombed church — a symbol of devastation, not heroic sacrifice.
Popular symbolism, of course, is not the only wellspring of violence among nations; today only a fool would trust in the idea of ”a war to end all wars.” But if Mosse is right, the disappearance of popular cults of the war dead in Germany and elsewhere suggests that the festive follies of August 1914 are unlikely to be repeated anytime soon. B