Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Smith, Leonard V.
Pub Date: 09/22/2009
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Fall, 2009 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 1
Topic: NamedWork: Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Kramer, Alan
Accession Number: 209577974
Full Text: Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War. By Alan Kramer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. xii plus 434 pp. $34.00).

The historiography that has revolutionized the study of World War I since the early 1990s has emphasized two broad objectives--exploring the war of 1914-1918 as a "total war" that engulfed whole societies and cultures; and expanding the study of the conflict spatially, beyond the trenches of the Western Front. This has made it possible to consider World War I as more than one long prelude to World War II, and at the same time to rethink the complex connections between the two "great wars" of the twentieth century. At a time when many publishers consider brevity the soul of wit, Alan Kramer has written a substantial book with a great deal to say. He has both synthesized an enormous body of recent scholarship and made any number of contributions of his own based on original research. The result is a sophisticated and comprehensive work operating at the forefront of present-day historiography. Its scope, depth, and skillful presentation make it particularly suited to classroom use.

The "dynamic of destruction" that unifies the diverse topics covered by Kramer's book draws from Carl von Clausewitz's often-misunderstood calculus of warfare. War to Clausewitz was an eminently rational enterprise. A properly executed war has a pre-determined end (Zweck) achievable through any available means (Mittel), through various intermediary stages (Ziele). "War," according to this calculus, is inherently "total." At every stage, be it the taking of a bridge or the destruction of an enemy army, violence must not be constrained. Only the politically determined Zweck can properly limit war. (1) The problem was not, as literary convention of the Great War would come to have it, that the Zweck and the Mittel were at odds with each other, but that they were utterly in agreement, from the first days of the war to the last. "Security" came to mean the destruction of the enemy, militarily, economically, even culturally. As a means of doing so, violence came to provide its own legitimacy. Thus, the episode with which Kramer opens the book, the burning on 25 August 1914 of the Louvain library, with its irreplaceable collection of old books and manuscripts, proved a representative act of the war as a whole.

Destruction took many forms beyond the well-known and bloody pandemonium of trench warfare on the Western Front. Some of the frightfulness was technological, the consequence of nineteenth-century gifts to humanity such as smokeless power, high explosives, and repeating-fire rifles and machine guns. Yet weapons did not fire themselves. A good bit of the "cultural work" paving the way to destruction during the Great War had been accomplished before the shooting began--whether through war plans of unprecedented scale, or through artistic movements such as futurism, which worshiped annihilation aesthetically as well as ideologically. Even diplomacy became increasingly fixated on destruction, as with Germany and Austria-Hungary coming to view their survival in paradoxically apocalyptic terms or with efforts to mutilate German sovereignty in the peace settlement.

While Western Europeans and Americans are most likely to think of destruction in World War I in terms of trench warfare, Kramer illustrates the calamitous impact of that war on civilians as well. The Ottoman war against the Armenians, which most scholars today agree claimed at least 1 million lives, is simply the most notorious example. Civilians were slaughtered on a smaller scale in the Balkans, Galicia, Anatolia, and elsewhere. Even the occupation of Belgium and Northeastern France was a far more brutal enterprise than even specialists in the Great War knew until fairly recently. Civilians sometimes simply proved expendable. Particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, countries that had not imported large amounts of food before the war permitted the near-starvation of civilians in order to keep the troops fed.

A great strength of Kramer's book lies in its ability to connect well-known examples of destruction on the Western Front to less well-known examples elsewhere. Even many specialists remain remarkably uninformed about the role of Italy, an imbalance addressed admirably in the book. For an unstable quasi-democracy bribed into entering the war on the side of the Entente with dubiously sincere promises of territorial gain, Italy and Italians fought the war with remarkable ferocity. The same may be said of the tottering multinational empires that did not survive the war--Austria-Hungary, Imperial Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. On their deathbeds, all three regimes proved capable of considerable brutality, as would the multinational states endeavoring to become national states that would succeed them.

Yet through it all, Kramer's training as a Germanist shows through in intriguing ways. For reasons that puzzle a reviewer with a background in French history, Germanists still seem preoccupied, either as supporters or opponents, with the Sonderweg. Kramer puts George Mosse and Isabel Hull under particular scrutiny as scholars overly concerned with a uniquely German path to destructiveness. Yet throughout, his own analysis of the Germans remains distinctive from his analysis of any other national community. Perhaps the issue is simply that he has a far richer historiography to draw from than for, say, the Serbians or the Ottoman Turks. Or perhaps the issue was what today we would call "spin." It could be that the Germans were not actually different, but simply appeared to be so. As A.J.P. Taylor remarked some decades ago: "But the Allies, and particularly the British, managed to give the impression that they acted brutally or unscrupulously with regret; the Germans always looked as though they were enjoying it." (2)

Leonard V. Smith

Oberlin College


(1.) See Michael Howard, Clausewitz (Oxford, 1983), p. 35.

(2.) A.J.P. Taylor, The First World War: An Illustrated History (London, 1963), p. 57.
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