This book, one of the best and most insightful I have read in a long time, rests at a cross-section between art, culture, sociology, and memory. At 225 pages, it is both extremely short, and yet scholarly, well-argued, timely, and convincing.
Does the sudden emergence of trench warfare in any way transmute the ways in which we walk about and experience war? Did the shift from monarchy to burgeoning nation-states during this time period change soldierly ideological motivations in wanting to engage in warfare? Why did separate cemeteries appear for soldiers, completely unheard of before the nineteenth century, suddenly start appearing in France and Germany? These questions form a group of concerns the book discusses, yet Mosse manages to touch on a number of other topics, as well.
About 600,000 soldiers died during the American Civil War, while just two generations later in World War I, almost 9 million perished. Mosse argues that facts like this, along with the horrors of trench warfare, gave rise to a construction of civic religion centered around remembrance and a search for human meaning as a way to cope with heretofore unknown amounts of barbarism. This remembrance, along with the various ways of glorifying and sanctifying battle that would arise, Mosse refers collectively to as the "Myth of the War Experience."
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the constitution of many armies gradually shifted from conscripted poverty-ridden peasants to bourgeois, well-educated professional soldiers, who envisioned themselves fighting for Aufbruch (a nascent national-democratic spirit). Suddenly, going off to war was no cause for angst and concern, but rather a chance to fight for the fatherland, and an opportunity to get to see new and exotic places (see the work of soldier-poets like Lord Byron and Theodor Korner). Aesthetic representations of triumph were built from both classical pagan imagery and Protestant piety, which were used to create "communities of the dead" (military cemeteries) where soldiers could rest pure, away from mere civilians.
Mosse claims that culture and art, too, have a definite place in shaping the ideology of the Myth of the War Experience. The Italian Futurists (like Marinetti) and German Expressionists added to the Myth Experience a sense of camaraderie to war in which a "new man" would be created, forming a society free of hypocrisy and tyranny (highly ironic, as Marinetti is perhaps best remembered for his flirtations with fascism). Youth now symbolized manhood, virility, and pure energy. Death was no long an unfortunate loss, but a sacrifice and a chance for eternal resurrection (again, that Christian imagery) for a glorious cause.
A retroactive Romanticism was also invoked, full of its images of bucolic hills and untainted, rural countryside, and used to symbolize purity away from an ill, noxious city (the literature of the nineteenth century is replete with metaphors of the city as rotten and diseased). Movies touting the moral virtues of mountain climbing as a "manly" conquering of nature filled the screens, effectively masking the dangers of death and destruction while at the same time shoring up ideas that were attractive to far right political elements, like adventure, domination, and conquest.
The Myth's appearance in popular culture was perhaps inevitable, but had a most interesting result: the "process of trivialization." There are several photos in the book depicting the war as a humorous, quaint, distant affair. There is a German postcard of a rabbit laying eggs with the caption "Frohliche Ostern" (Happy Easter), one from Au Bon Marche showing two little girls stomping all over a helpless German toy soldier, and perhaps most disturbingly, a father cradling his baby boy and looking aside admiring another of his boys with the caption "The New Conscripts." Some artists, including the German Rudolf Grossmanns, made a career producing nothing but kitsch showing heroic boys yearning for the joys of the battlefield. Closely related to trivialization is the brutalization of political discourse in which themes and tropes of militarism and aggression gave additional emphasis to notions of manliness, a trend which continued until World War II.
But around this time, these ideological means started to outgrow their political and historical usefulness. After German defeat in the First World War, it could be effectively argued that the courageous Germans had not actually lost the war, they just hadn't yet won. But after losing another World War, the Myth was too tendentious and suspicious to garner populist support for the political right. Thus the fiery rhetoric of manliness and sacrifice in the name of one's country saw its last days.
For anyone convinced that "ideology" is just a word used in the ivory towers of academia, or that popular culture doesn't drastically affect the way we perceive and experience some of the most fundamental aspects of our world, this book will forever change your mind. It is most highly recommended for anyone interested in the history of war memorials, changing perceptions of war and the soldier, and the politics of the interwar years.