German intellectuals’ World War I collaboration with militarism

This video about Belgium is called The last survivor of the destruction of Louvain in WW1 | Channel 4 News.

By Verena Nees in Germany:

German intellectuals in World War I

20 October 2014

The current revival of German militarism has won the enthusiastic support of considerable sections of the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia and academia. Since German President Gauck proclaimed the “end of military restraint” at the beginning of the year, many journalists and academic “experts” have called for the dispatch of German soldiers to combat zones in eastern Ukraine and the Middle East. While the majority of the population rejects militarism, these academics bang the drum for war and support rearmament.

A review of the behavior of the educated elites at the time of the outbreak of World War I a hundred years ago reveals many disturbing parallels to what is taking place today.

On October 4, 1914, some two months after the outbreak of the war, there appeared what came to be known as the “Manifesto of the Ninety-Three.” [1] Ninety-three signatories, including artists and writers, attempted to justify the bloody crimes of the German forces in Belgium and glorify the war as a struggle for culture. The manifesto first appeared in German (under the title “Appeal to the Civilized World”) and then in ten translations over the following days, sparking furious responses from scientists in England and France, who published their own fierce denunciations of the “German barbarians.”

Among the signatories of the “Appeal to the Civilized World” were many outstanding scholars, such as Wilhelm Röntgen, Max Planck (who later withdrew his signature), Wilhelm Foerster, Ernst Haeckel, Paul Ehrlich and Emil Fischer. Several were Nobel Prize winners.

The declaration was also signed by famous artists such as Max Liebermann, Max Reinhardt, Engelbert Humperdinck, Gerhart Hauptmann and Max Halbe. The signatories also included the architect and precursor of the Bauhaus, Bruno Paul, expressionist poet Richard Dehmel, and Max Klinger and Maximilian Lenz, members of Gustav Klimt’s Vienna Secessionist circle.

The text had been composed in September by the playwright Ludwig Fulda and the nature poet and playwright Hermann Sudermann. It was approved by the German Imperial Naval Office and the Foreign Office.

At the time, German troops were already committing war crimes in Belgium, which Germany had invaded despite the country’s declared neutrality. German forces demolished the old town of Leuven (Louvain) together with its medieval library. They shot hostages, terrorised the civilian population and burned down villages. Some 674 civilians were murdered in the Belgian town of Dinant on August 23. In total, approximately 6,000 people were killed by the German army.

This did not prevent the manifesto’s signatories from heralding the war as a defence of culture. Mimicking the style of Martin Luther’s 95 theses, they wrote: “It is not true that our troops treated Louvain brutally. Furious inhabitants having treacherously fallen upon them in their quarters, our troops with aching hearts were obliged to fire on a part of the town as punishment.

“It is not true that our warfare does not respect international laws. It knows no undisciplined cruelty. But in the east, the earth is saturated with the blood of women and children mercilessly butchered by the wild Russian troops, and in the west, dumdum bullets mutilate the breasts of our soldiers. Those who have allied themselves with Russians and Serbians and present such a shameful scene to the world as inciting Mongolians and Negroes against the white race have no right whatever to call themselves upholders of civilization.”

The appeal culminated in the glorification of German militarism—“Were it not for German militarism, German civilization would long since have been extirpated”—and an invocation of the unity of the people and the army—“The German Army and the German people are one. Today this consciousness fraternizes 70,000,000 Germans, all ranks, positions, and parties being one.”

The document closes with the cynical claim that it speaks for “a civilized nation, for whom the legacy of a Goethe, a Beethoven and a Kant is just as sacred as its own hearths and homes.”

The appeal was the best known of many similar declarations, letters and speeches by academics. Following the Kaiser’s declaration of war, a veritable spiritual mobilisation was launched. “German artists, writers, journalists and academics were some of the most jingoistic Germans in August 1914,” writes historian Jeffrey Verhey. [2] Wolfgang Kruse stresses that “A real flood of appeals, sermons, speeches and writings on the part of theologians, poets and thinkers attempted to define the significance of the war and justify the war policies of their own nation.” [3] This was particularly the case in Germany. Ernst Piper and Volker Ullrich have given similar accounts. [4]

The “Appeal to the Civilized World” was followed less than two weeks later on October 16, 1914 by the “Declaration of University Teachers of the German Empire,” which states: “In the German army there is no other spirit than that of the German people, for both are one, and we are also a part of it.” It goes on to declare that the “very culture of Europe” depends on “the redeeming victory… for which German militarism will fight.” This declaration, initiated by Berlin classicist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, was signed by about 4,000 tertiary-level teachers, i.e., almost the entire teaching staff of the German Empire.

On the other hand, a pacifist counter-manifesto, titled “An Appeal to Europeans” and written by physician Georg Friedrich Nicolai in October 1914, found only three signatories among German scientists—physicist Albert Einstein, philosopher Otto Buek and astronomer Wilhelm Foerster (who had previously signed the “Appeal to the Civilized World”). It ultimately failed to achieve publication in the German language.

In the spring of 1915, Albert Einstein commented on the behavior of scholars at the beginning of the war: “Will future centuries really be able to believe of our Europe that three centuries of assiduous cultural endeavor had brought no more progress than a transition from religious madness to national madness? Even the scholars of different countries are behaving as though their cerebrums had been surgically removed eight months ago.”

The struggle for “European culture”

The pathetic appeal to a “defence of culture” served to camouflage the promotion of German imperialist interests. This was very clearly demonstrated by the declaration of Bonn historians on September 1.

It proclaimed that Germany was called upon “to fight for the highest values of European culture” because the “principles of an intolerant Jacobinism, the self-seeking of predatory political parties and the control of political thought by an unscrupulous press” held sway in France. It charged that Russia wanted to liberate the Slavic peoples under Germanic rule and bring them under its protection, which offered only “mind-numbing, brutal and insidious despotism,” while England stood for “pure material egoism.” According to the Bonn historians, England wanted to destroy German naval and commercial power “so that the profit of world trade would fall alone to the British.”

The universities became a focus for pro-war rallies and a recruiting ground for volunteers among the students and younger teachers. This was where the ideological arguments for war were formulated. Berlin’s Friedrich Wilhelms University, the forerunner of today’s Humboldt University, distinguished itself in this respect.

The text of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s appeal of August 6, 1914, “To the People of Germany,” was drafted by Berlin theologian Adolf von Harnack together with historian Reinhold Koser. The appeal includes the infamous dictum: “I know of no political parties, only the German people.”

Among the intellectual “excellencies”—as the Berlin professors liked to be called—were theologians Ernst Troeltsch and Reinhold Seeberg, jurist Otto von Gierke, and historians Hans Delbrück, Dietrich Schäfer, Otto Hintze and Friedrich Meinecke. The latter, who in the course of the war became one of the more nominally liberal advocates of mutual peace, remarked in 1922 on the behavior of the Berlin professors (including himself) at the outbreak of war: “We are standing in the front, rather than before the front.”

Even after the horror of mass slaughter had long since extinguished the initial war euphoria, the majority of Berlin professors were still calling on the population to persevere. Thus, there appeared on July 27, 1916 the exhortative proclamation, “The Will to Victory.” [5]

The myth of the unity of the people

The much-touted “August experience” of 1914—i.e., universal enthusiasm for war—was a propaganda myth, as numerous studies now show. Even in the final days before the mobilisation, about three quarters of a million workers participated in anti-war rallies organised by the Social Democrats. The Kaiser’s declaration of war unleashed fear and shock, rather than enthusiasm, in the working class areas and the countryside.

It was only the historic betrayal of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which approved war loans and made a truce with the conservative parties on August 4, 1914, and the continuous war propaganda, which was now also being promoted by the SPD press, that influenced certain sections of workers to support the war. In contrast, the middle classes and especially the educated middle class enthusiastically welcomed the war and openly sided with the monarchy and the imperial government.

The industrial rise of Germany at the end of the nineteenth century had been accompanied by a sharp intensification of class antagonisms, and professors, school teachers, pastors and other academics felt increasingly threatened by the growing strength of the revolutionary workers’ movement. This drove the educated classes “to the right, onto the side of the old power elites, and made them ready to accept opposed ideologies such as nationalism and militarism,” writes Volker Ullrich.

The failure of the German states’ revolution of 1848 and the eventual violent unification of Germany in the German-French war of 1870-71 had converted many former liberals into enthusiastic supporters of Otto von Bismarck.

Towards the end of the First World War, the historian Friedrich Meinecke declared in retrospect: “The university educated middle class—once on the offensive against the old ruling classes, then joined and almost merged with them to form something of a co-regency—now feels on the defensive against all the social layers created by the transition from an agricultural to an industrial state, i.e., against the broad masses of workers and employees.”

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the nobility played a leading role within military and political circles, as well as among the academic elites. Those in educated middle-class circles, who saw themselves as the “intellectual aristocracy,” tried to adapt their lifestyle to that of the nobles—from aping their clothes and allegiance to reactionary student fraternities to embracing the feudal tradition of the duel. Their militaristic mindset was accompanied by an elitist rejection of democratic demands, such as the abolition of the Prussian three-class franchise.

In 1895, the historian Friedrich Paulsen had already complained about the “inhumane arrogance” of the educated middle classes. It led them, he wrote, to promote their own superiority at the expense of those less fortunate via “the noisy, narrow-minded nationalistic conceit that parades as patriotism.”

The war propaganda promoted by today’s academic elites is likewise marked by an “inhumane arrogance.” The only difference is that they invoke “human rights” instead of “culture” to justify the return of German militarism.

However, it is not the conservatives—those die-hard fossil elements still boasting of their student fraternity dueling scars—who now stand at the head of war propaganda. Instead, the tone is set by numerous veterans of the 1968 student revolt such as the Greens’ Joschka Fischer and Ralf Fücks, who once protested against the Vietnam War, and German university professors trying to hide their Nazi past.

What remains is their class conceit—their “inhumane arrogance”—in relation to the working class. In 1968, this had its roots in a distrust of any kind of mass movement, which drew from the ideology of the Frankfurt School, or took the form of a glorification of Stalinism in the form of Maoism. Today, many of the leading lights of these movements are in the forefront of the campaign to revive German imperialist war policy.


[1] Manifesto of the 93 here.

[2] Jeffrey Verhey: The Spirit of 1914: Militarism, Myth, and Mobilization in Germany, CUP 2000

[3] Wolfgang Kruse: Eine Welt von Feinden. Der Große Krieg 1914-1918, Frankfurt a.M. 1997

[4] Ernst Piper: Nacht über Europa, Berlin 2013; Volker Ullrich: Die nervöse Großmacht 1871-1918, Frankfurt a.M., 1997, 2013

[5] Quote from Aufrufe und Reden deutscher Professoren im Ersten Weltkrieg, Reclam, 1975, 2014

During World War I, the German government put a price on the head of Dutch anti-German military cartoonist Louis Raemaekers: here.

Belgian forced labour for World War I German army: here.

52 thoughts on “German intellectuals’ World War I collaboration with militarism

  1. Pingback: Dance, theatre and World War I in Britain | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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  3. 100 years ago: Militarist celebrations of Bismarck centenary in Germany

    On April 1, 1915, German authorities organized major public commemorations of the centenary of the birth of Otto Von Bismarck, the longtime Prussian leader and architect of the German Empire.

    The streets of Berlin and other major cities were decorated with hundreds of flags, and large ceremonies were held, in an attempt to sustain the climate of militarist nationalism that had been used to dragoon German workers and youth into the world war that had erupted in August, 1914.

    In a telegram to the German Chancellor, Bethmann Von Hollweg, Kaiser Wilhelm II declared that Bismarck was the “personification of German strength and determination.”

    According to historian Edgar Feuchtwanger, “The Bismarck cult was at its peak between his death and Germany’s defeat in 1918. Bismarck monuments sprang up all over Germany and his name was invoked on innumerable occasions when Germans gathered to celebrate the greatness, power and future destiny of their nation.”

    Bismarck, who died in 1898, had been appointed Minister-President of Prussia by Kaiser Wilhelm I in 1862. An aristocratic junker (Prussian landowner), militarist and vicious opponent of the working class, Bismarck presided over German unification in 1871, and was appointed Chancellor of the new federated state.

    In his famous “blood and iron speech” in 1862, Bismarck had outlined his support for the militarist unification of Germany, declaring: “The position of Prussia in Germany will not be determined by its liberalism but by its power. … Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided … but by iron and blood.”

    Bismarck had also been at the center of the attempts by the German state to suppress the mass socialist movement of the working class. In 1878, he instituted “anti-socialist laws” which effectively illegalized the rapidly growing Social Democratic Party—except for its parliamentary representatives in the Reichstag—and were only repealed in 1890.

    While a proponent of militarism, Bismarck practiced balance-of-power politics, aimed at giving Germany a predominant position in European affairs, but avoiding the danger of a two-front war, with Russia in the East and Britain and/or France in the West.


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  7. 100 years ago: German authorities censor social-democratic newspaper
    Alfred von Tirpitz

    On June 26, 1915, German authorities suspended publication of Vorwarts, the main daily newspaper of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Berlin, over an appeal for peace published in its pages. The SPD, which had been based on a socialist and internationalist program prior to the war, had responded to the outbreak of global conflagration in August 1914 by betraying the working class and supporting the militarist efforts of the German ruling elite.

    The SPD’s statement, shot through with hypocrisy, combined criticism of the war as a “catastrophe” and claims that the SPD “has worked unceasingly for a good understanding among the nations, for the cause of our common civilization, and for the welfare of mankind,” with a reminder to the German ruling class of its past services in supporting war credits in 1914.

    It read in part: “When the Czar’s Cossacks came across the border, pillaging and burning, the Socialists made good the promise that had been given by their leaders—they put themselves at the service of the Fatherland and voted for its defense … In the name of humanity and civilization, and recognizing the favorable position which our troops have won, we urge the Government to try to end the struggle.”

    The decision to shut down the SPD publication reflected the extreme nervousness of the German state over the growth of opposition to war, and divisions within the government and the army over how to prosecute the conflict. While reports indicated that the German Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, was considering a settlement with the Allied Powers over Belgium, General-Admiral Von Tirpitz called for a more thorough prosecution of the conflict, including the retention of Belgium, the taking of Calais, and war with the United States.

    Throughout the first half of 1915, opposition to the war had grown in the working class. On May 28, over a thousand women had marched on the Reichstag calling for an end to the conflict. At the same time, the course of the war increasingly dispelled any conception of a speedy German victory. In the first months of 1915, The German state had responded by attempting to suppress the revolutionary internationalists who had opposed the war and attacked the SPD’s pro-war stance, sending Karl Liebknecht to the front and jailing Rosa Luxemburg. The SPD did nothing to oppose the attacks on these revolutionary leaders.


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  23. Zürich, June 14: Ferdinand Hodler exhibition opens

    In Zürich, the most comprehensive exhibition ever held of the work of Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918) opens on June 14 [1917]. Hodler belongs to the most innovative and versatile artists of the early modernists. His work encompasses everything from realistic landscapes and portrait paintings, to symbolism and art nouveau, to ever more abstract presentations of people and landscapes. His later works include not only portraits and landscapes of great luminosity, but also several monumental paintings and murals in which he approached historical themes with a new visual vocabulary. His figures and groups of people move in rhythmic repetitions and are reminiscent of modern dance.

    Holder grew up in poverty and was confronted with death at an early age, something which became a central theme in his life’s work. When he was five years old, his father, a carpenter, died of tuberculosis. When he was 13, his mother succumbed to the same disease, collapsing in a field. The 14-year-old loaded her into a wheelbarrow and carried her into the city with tears streaming down his face. After that, his five siblings also died. Hodler: “In the family, death was universal. In the end, it seemed there would always be a dead person in the house, and that it had to be so.”

    Among his most impressive works are the 100 or so drawings and paintings concerning the illness and death of his lover, the dancer Valentine Godé-Darel (1915).

    In 1914, he signs a letter of protest against the bombing of the Reims Cathedral by German troops. Following this, he is subjected to a furious smear campaign in Germany. One of Hodler’s pictures, “The German Students in the War of Liberation of 1813,” hangs at the University of Jena. Nobel laureate Rudolf Eucken and zoologist Ernst Haeckel call for the painting to be removed and ultimately sold. Haeckel writes that with his “spiteful and libelous statement,” Hodler had “deeply wounded” the German honor. All of his paintings are banished to the cellars of German museums


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