The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch – A Summary

On the back of the book, on Wikipedia and in various other locations, large claims are made for The Sleepwalkers, the trilogy of ‘modernist’ novels by Austrian writer Hermann Broch. They are all along the lines of it being ‘a portrait of a world tormented by its loss of faith, morals and reason’.

Having read all three novels quite carefully, the aim of this little essay is to question some of these claims and to put the trilogy into a broader historical perspective. If this seems a questionable thing to do, then bear in mind that the novels themselves – especially the third one – include long passages which take a very highbrow, Hegelian view of history, and which analyse the development of Western culture since the Renaissance right down to the present day.

In other words, rather than applying an alien and academic approach to what are essentially fictions, it’s more accurate to say that I am continuing Broch’s own obsession with the present plight of Western Civilisation and his own lengthy analyses of where Western Man has gone wrong – and applying this approach to his own books.

Critics claim The Sleepwalkers is a panoramic overview of German society and history

The Sleepwalkers is emphatically not ‘a panoramic overview of German society and the collapse of its values’. It is three portraits of tiny groups of characters, each one centring on individuals who are psychologically unbalanced.

Critics claim The Sleepwalkers portray ‘a world tormented by its loss of faith, morals and reason’

1. The books are spread over thirty years, from 1888 to 1918. That’s not ‘a world’, that’s three distinct eras. Imagine saying three novels set in the England of 1988, 2003 and 2018, as describing ‘a world’ – they might be set in the same country but the social setup, the politics and feel of each of those moments would be very different. Same here.

2. None of the books really describe ‘a world‘ – it felt to me like the opposite: each novel describes tiny, unrepresentative groups of characters.

The Romantic is about army officer Joachim von Paselow, his Bohemian mistress Ruzena, his posh fiancée Elisabeth and his suave ex-army friend, Eduard von Bertrand. That’s not a portrait of ‘a world’. That’s a drawing room drama. It barely has enough characters in it to make a sitcom.

Similarly, The Anarchist concerns a relatively small number of characters, namely the book-keeper August Esch, the woman he bullies into marrying him (Mother Hentjen), the brother and sister he boards with in Mannheim, the local tobacconist and a trade union activist who gets locked up, and with three or four theatrical types he goes into business with. About the wider world beyond these ten or so characters we hear very little. Hardly the portrait of ‘a world’. It’s a microcosm.

The closing pages of the third novel in the trilogy, The Realist, are the only place where you have a sense of the wider world and History impinging on the characters, as they describe the anarchy which breaks out at the very end of the Great War, but these final passages leave a misleading impression: the nearly 300 pages which preceded them, once again, focus on a handful of characters: Huguenau the canny deserter, Esch from the second book who we now meet running a small newspaper, Joachim von Pasenow from the first book, who is now an elderly major in charge of the town, and a handful of civic dignitaries and workers. Again this is the opposite of ‘a world’, it is more like a small village.

3. Another sense in which the novels don’t describe a world is the way the lead figures in all three books are psychologically extreme characters. To be a little more analytical, they are highly unrepresentative figures.

– Joachim von Pasenow becomes subject to increasingly prolonged bouts of delusion and almost delirium. He has little or no grasp on the ‘real’ world, as his friend Eduard von Bertrand is quick to point out.

– August Esch is a dim-witted bully, whose malfunctioning mind is overtaken by absurdly grandiose, religio-philosophical psychodramas.

– Huguenau is calm and collected and detached from reality, an early forebear of the hundreds of psychopaths described in thousands of modern thrillers. This feeling is crystallised when he murders Esch in cold blood, stabbing him from behind with an army bayonet in a darkened street.

The third novel is longer and more complex than the others, but follows the same broad arc whereby the central character becomes drowned in their author’s increasingly lengthy pseudo-philosophical and religious ramblings.

So: three fruitcakes, three psychological cases and their close friends and associates do not constitute a world and are not really ‘a portrait’ of anything (if they really build up to anything, it’s a very negative summary of ‘the German character’, see below).

Critics claim The Sleepwalkers is a bold analysis of the collapse of Western values

Even if it were anything like a panoramic overview etc (which it isn’t), portraying the collapse in values in modern Germany (1888-1918) could hardly be called original.

In fact, it would be deeply unoriginal, since this topic of decline and fall was the obsessive subject of most German politics and culture in the decade after the Great War.

The territory had already been well staked out by Oswald Spengler’s classic of gloomy pessimism, The Decline of the West. Spengler’s book depicted the 19th century as a soulless age of materialism which had led to rootless immoralism in the arts (i.e. Symbolism, Expressionism and everything else which Spengler disliked).

The Decline was published in 1922 and was an immediate bestseller, setting the tone for cultural debate throughout the Weimar period.

A 1928 Time review of the second volume of Decline described the immense influence and controversy Spengler’s ideas enjoyed during the 1920s: ‘When the first volume of The Decline of the West appeared in Germany a few years ago, thousands of copies were sold. Cultivated European discourse quickly became Spengler-saturated. Spenglerism spurted from the pens of countless disciples. It was imperative to read Spengler, to sympathize or revolt. It still remains so’. (Wikipedia)

Quite. Lamenting the decline and fall of ‘Western values’ was an intellectual parlour game played by every intellectual, writer, critic, commentator, aspiring politician and pub bore in the Western world.

Therefore, claiming that Broch’s massive novel about ‘the collapse of social values’ was in any way innovative or ground-breaking is ridiculous, seeing as it was published ten years after Spengler’s book had set the tone and defined the age.

The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot holds up because (among many other things) it is an excoriating portrait of mental collapse amid what genuinely seemed – in the immediate aftermath of the Great War – to be a continent in flames. But it got in early (like the Spengler it was published in 1922) and established a marker for a new technique and tone to describe the world. The Sleepwalkers, on the contrary, was published ten years later, and was more like a tardy latecomer to the debate.

Using Walter Laqueur to critique The Sleepwalkers

1. The Sleepwalkers’ cultural pessimism, far from being innovative, was entirely in line with its time and place

A few years ago I read half a dozen books about the Weimar Republic to coincide with some art exhibitions on the subject. By far the most convincing was Weimar: A Cultural History 1918-1933 by Walter Laqueur, who had the advantage of growing up during the period (born 1921, he fled Germany in 1938).

Laqueur’s history of Weimar is interesting because, unlike most left-wing academics who tend to concentrate on the communist writers and composers and the gender-bending nightclubs etc, Laqueur gives full weight to the conservative cultural forces of the time.

Above all he makes it all the more clear that so many of the liberal or left-wing, Socialist or communist artists, writers, playwrights etc who infested the Weimar Republic, did everything they could to undermine it and nothing to support it and thus materially contributed to its overthrow by Hitler and the Nazis.

I was continually reminded of Laqueur and his diagnosis as I read the final volume in the trilogy, The Realist. This is divided into short alternating chapters describing – or in the voice of – eight or so key characters.

One of these is (rather inevitably) an academic – not a professor of medicine or physics or engineering or anything useful, but (again, rather inevitably) a philosopher, and it is he who is the author of a series of sections entitled ‘The Disintegration of Values’.

These ‘Disintegration of Values’ sections go on at some length about the horrors of ‘this age’ and the laziness and cowardice of ‘our age’. The author is something of an aesthete and seems to be an expert in architecture. His sections repeatedly make the point, at immense, circumlocutionary length, that the unornamented style of modern post-war architecture bespeaks a deliberate banishment of ‘style’ and ‘beauty’ which is, ultimately, the emptiness of death.

‘Style’ and ‘Beauty’ we are told, reached their heights in the Middle Ages when all Europeans believed in one ideology, Catholicism as promoted by the universal Catholic Church, and everyone shared the same values and so art was accessible to all. But the Renaissance broke this happy balance between public and private, promoting the value of ‘the individual’, and then the Protestant Revolution smashed it wide open, leading to civil war in Europe but, more importantly, to the triumph of the each individual finding their own path to God.

This quest for individualism has led to 400 years of decline, in social life, art and architecture, until we reach the sorry depths described in Broch’s novels, which, he now explains to us, are meant to be detailed descriptions of how older values have been rejected in favour of the current state of soulless materialism and everyone-for-themselves consumer capitalism.

These sections are example of the worst kind of turgid, long-winded, grandstanding German philosophising. The author of these sections is not slow to drop in learnèd tags, like cogito ergo sum and refer to Neo-Kantianism or Hegelian notions of Geist – and confidently makes sweeping generalisations about all Western history interpreted as an interplay between The Rational and the Irrational etc.

But none of this really masks the fact that, deep down, the author is another drunk old bore propping up a bar somewhere telling anyone who comes near enough that the world is going to the dogs. And quite quickly this becomes really tiresome.

2. The Sleepwalkers is a good example of turgid, incomprehensible Germanic philosophising at its worst

Laqueur’s review of Weimar culture gives pen portraits of the works of numerous figures from the era who are now totally forgotten. Quite quickly you realise something almost all of them had in common was that they were:

  • long-winded and verbose
  • at the same time, extremely obscure and hard to understand
  • full of dire cosmic predictions about the collapse of civilisation and the end of the Western world

You notice this because Laqueur goes to some lengths to point it out and emphasise that long-winded, pretentious obscurity is an enduring strand of German culture.

Take the works of Moeller van den Bruck who wrote The Right of Young Peoples and The Third Reich. Laqueur comments that van den Bruck’s two books are almost impenetrably obscure, but nonetheless full of high-sounding rhetoric, ‘poetic visions, enormous promises and apocalyptic forebodings’ (p.96). Well that describes Broch’s huge trilogy to a T. Here are some other Laqueur comments on writers of the period:

The German language has an inbuilt tendency towards vagueness and lack of precision… (p.63)

[Thomas Mann was] Weimar Germany’s greatest and certainly its most interesting writer. But he could not be its spokesman and teacher, magister Germaniae. For that function someone far less complex and much more single-minded was needed. With all his enormous gifts, he had the German talent of making easy things complicated and obvious matters tortuous and obscure. (p.124)

Sounds like Broch.

[The heroes of the most popular writers of the time, neither left wing nor modernist, not much known outside Germany] were inward-looking, mystics, men in search of god, obstinate fellows – modern Parsifals in quest of some unknown Holy Grail. They were preoccupied with moral conflicts and troubled consciences, they were inchoate and verbose at the same time, very German in their abstraction, their rootedness and sometimes in their dullness. (p.139)

Quite. That sounds exactly like the thought processes which come to dominate the characters Joachim von Pasenow and August Esch – long-winded, verbose, over-the-top, full of pretentious, world-shattering generalisations which, on a moment’s reflection, mean nothing.

3. The Sleepwalkers revels in the corruption it portrays without offering any positive vision

What I came to dislike over the ten days I was immersed in these three heavy, turgid novels, is the way Broch’s vast trilogy revels in psychological collapse. It glories in the hysteria and confusion of its characters. It smiles with glee as they hallucinate, scheme and panic.

The Sleepwalkers enjoys its descriptions of corruption. It takes 150 densely-written pages to dissect the character of the loathsome, stupid and mentally ill army officer Joachim von Paselow, and a further 150 glutinous pages to plumb the depths of the wife-beating dimwit, August Esch.

The books dabble their fingers in the damaged Germanic soul, relishing every minute of their portrayal of deeply disturbed characters, and periodically inserting lengthy descriptions of their confused pseudo-philosophical obsessions.

Like so much Weimar Art, The Sleepwalkers trilogy didn’t build, but destroyed. It didn’t make positive suggestions, but carped and cavilled at every aspect of modern society, which their author regarded as going hopelessly downhill. Just like more or less every other author of his day (compare with the lengthy laments about the ‘sickness of our age’ throughout the first half of Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf.)

It has no positive suggestions to make, it offers no solutions. It despises industrialism and social democracy and politics as much as it ends up appearing to despise pretty much all human beings and their pathetic attempts to find meaning.

I know that Broch was himself arrested by the Nazis in 1938, not least because he was a Jew, and so he was no friend at all of the regime – but that doesn’t alter the fact that the tendency of these three novels is entirely destructive of what you could call the sensible, democratic middle ground.

They don’t really describe or analyse this supposed ‘collapse of values’ (I actually found it impenetrably difficult to understand just what ‘values’ were being discussed in any of the novels: for example the concept of ‘romanticism’ which is referenced half a dozen times in the novel of the same name is nowhere really explained; not clearly).

What the novels do do, is enact and promote the very decadence and corruption which they claim to be lamenting.

Their nihilism was just one more contribution to the overall artistic nihilism of Weimar, and if this didn’t exactly open the door to Hitler, it ensured that when the moment came, the artistic, cultural and intellectual community lacked the intellectual means or the will to resist him.

The hopeless German-ness of the Germans

I’ve been moving from the specificness of the individual novels, up to a higher-level look at their place in Weimar culture as a whole. Now let’s step outside German culture altogether.

Stepping right back and viewing it from an Anglo-Saxon perspective, it seems to me that the entire analysis carried out by The Sleepwalkers is wrong because it is trapped inside German culture and can’t get out.

It is a truism that people often get stuck in hopeless, repetitive and self-destructive behaviour and eventually need help from therapists or counsellors. This is because the therapist is outside the situation the patient is stuck in and consequently can see it with a clearer perspective, and can offer what often turn out to be relatively simple solutions and ways out.

In the same way, all the works of cultural criticism and gloomy pessimistic German fiction which Laqueur describes, and of which Broch’s trilogy was a notable example, are trapped inside the prison of being German.

They were all addressing a simple problem made up of the following parts:

1. They take it as axiomatic that at some point in the past, say the era of Goethe and Schiller, German culture was fine and good and healthy, that the Germans had at some stage in the past had a wonderful soul and beautiful art and matchless music.

2. But then something seems to have gone wrong. Nietzsche in the 1870s was warning that something was wrong with German culture and after him a flood of writers, philosophers and so on produced thousands of variations on the same theme, from the tortured German Expressionist artists, through Gustav Mahler and his obsession with Death, through Spengler’s pessimism and thousands of nihilistic Weimar artists and writers, through to the Granddaddy of German unhappiness, and friend of the Nazis, the high priest of incomprehensible, long-winded laments that the modern world has lost its soul and authenticity, Martin Heidegger.

3. And this ‘problem’ had gone into overdrive in the aftermath of the First World War because the Germans, from all classes, at all levels, up to and including the loftiest intellectuals, couldn’t understand why the Germans had lost the war.

Why did we lose the war? What is wrong with us? What is wrong with Germany?

Questions which prompted thousands of agonised screeds about Seele and Geist and God and the Absolute – when the answer was perfectly simple: the Germans lost the First World War because the combined industrial and agricultural resources of Germany and Austria were no match for the combined industrial and agricultural resources of Britain, France and, especially, America.

Any therapist or counsellor outside their situation could have told them that this was the brute, blunt, material reason why they lost – but, unfortunately, this was precisely the kind of pragmatic, bathetic ‘fact’ beloved of the despised ‘nation of shopkeepers’ and of vulgar Yankee carpetbaggers that lofty and high-falutin German professors of philosophy just couldn’t handle, process or accept.

It was too simple, too obvious – lacking in true Germanic dignity and Geist and God and Sacrifice and Volk and Blut.

Thus, from the lowest bar-room drunk to the cleverest writers in the land, the Germans, as a people, looked for the reasons for their defeat in a huge variety of reasons and excuses – all except for the blindingly obvious one staring them in the face.

They attributed their defeat to a lack of honour, or patriotism, or duty or sacrifice, in a ‘collapse of values’, in the viciousness of modern culture, in its sexual decadence or its mercantile corruption, in the machinations of big business or the financial conspiracies of the Jews or the betrayal of the Army by civilian politicians or betrayal of the Volk by liberals and Jews – in a hundred and one reasons and excuses all of which managed to mask and conceal from themselves the blindingly obvious reality that, as a nation, they ran out of manpower and resources.

It was this failure to properly and responsibly analyse the stark economic and material reasons for their defeat, and instead the addiction to attributing defeat to a wild collection of fanciful philosophical or religious or psychological failings, which helped to create a paranoid victim culture – which emphasised psychological or moral or spiritual failings, rather than the more mundane practical realities – which helped Hitler’s rise to power.

Seen in this broad cultural context, Broch was just one more German writer crying out that his culture was profoundly, horribly diseased. Stepping right back, he was one among a huge chorus of cultural producers in Weimar Germany who were all lamenting how rotten and corrupt their culture was.

Well, they shouldn’t have been all that surprised when a strong leader stepped forward and offered himself as the cure to everything which was wrong with German society, starting with rejuvenating its rotten debased ‘values’ and re-instilling a sense of Pride and Patriotism and Confidence.

They wanted it. They got it.

The gross failure of German political culture between 1870 and 1945

Above the intrinsic economic and industrial strength of a nation obviously sits the class of people who manage them, who manage the economy, who run the country – the politicians.

And here again, Broch wasn’t experiencing some ‘collapse of values’ – or no more so than anyone in any Western country which had thrown off its Victorian straitjacket, had swapped its ankle-length skirts for flapper fashion and was dancing the Charleston.

No, what he was experiencing – as every other German between the wars did – was the complete and utter failure of German political class to manage its nation.

In the years leading up to 1914, and then again in during the 1930s, the men who came to the top of the German political system turned out to be completely incapable of running a modern state, without itching for war.

This is made crystal clear in all the histories of the Great War which I read during its recent centenary. In 1914 the men at the top of the German political system – Kaiser Wilhelm and the German Chiefs of Staff – took a calculated gamble that they could exploit the crisis which erupted after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.

This is a summary of the argument made in a recent book about Germany and Austro-Hungary in the build- up to, and during, the First World War, Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson (2014):

  • The conspirators – Elements in the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Ministry and military had been waiting for an opportunity to suppress little Serbia, located just on the empire’s border and endlessly fomenting nationalist unrest. When Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was assassinated on 28 June in the Serbian capital, Sarajevo, the Austrians blamed Serbia and spent most of July devising an ultimatum so extreme that they, and everyone else in Europe, knew that it could not be fulfilled. Germany, not that concerned at this point, gave Austro-Hungary unqualified support, the so-called ‘blank cheque’. Both countries changed their tune when they realised that Russia was mobilising to support the Serbs, their fellow Slavs.
  • War of existence – Why was the Austro-Hungarian hierarchy so harsh on Serbia? Watson gives a review of the many tensions tearing the Austro-Hungarian empire apart. ‘The actions of Austro-Hungarian rulers in the summer of 1914, although secretive and aggressive, were motivated less by belligerence than a profound sense of weakness, fear and despair’ (p.14).
  • The miscalculated risk – The pressures on German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg reflected a nation anxious about the growing might of Britain and France and the industrialisation of Russia, but also well aware of the risk of world war. German Chancellor Hollweg gambled that a) the Austrians would defeat Serbia quickly, within a week and b) that Russia would be so slow to mobilise that the conflict on the ground would be over in the Austrians’ favour before the whole thing got handed over to international mediation (as had a number of other recent international disputes e.g. the Balkan Wars of 1912-13). He was wrong on both counts.

As the situation deteriorated and the German High Command began to fear a possible war on two fronts, they decided to implement the Schlieffen Plan which called for the rapid invasion of France in order to knock her out of the war in a brisk six weeks, so that the Germans could then turn their attention to Russia who, they expected, would take at least six weeks to mobilise.

Wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong.

Germany’s political and military leaders made a huge military gamble and were wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong. World class wrong. All the catastrophes of the twentieth century stem from this one catastrophic miscalculation, not only the war itself but the overthrow of the Tsarist regime by the Bolsheviks, the rise of communism in Russia, Stalin, millions murdered in famines and gulags, the catastrophic triumph of communism and the rule of Mao in China, the entire Cold War with all its deaths and distortions.

From that one miscalculated gamble.

Once they’d committed they couldn’t back down, and when the ‘lightning’ attack through Belgium that was designed to capture Paris and knock France out of the war failed, the world was condemned to four years of meat-grinding deadlock.

This was the simple truth that everyone living in Germany through and after the war appeared to be unable to realise or accept. Instead, they were told by their leaders that they were fighting a war of civilisation against Western decadence (France) and Eastern barbarism (Russia).

They were fed cultural and spiritual and moral reasons for a war which was characterised as a crusade. And so an entire generation of Germans appears not to have grasped its much simpler geopolitical reasons (Germany’s paranoid fear of its rivals France and Britain, combined with paranoid fear of attack from the East, combined with a really fatal military miscalculation).

Back to Broch

Thus Hermann Broch’s big trilogy of novels, The Sleepwalkers, can be read, not as any kind of analysis of ‘a world tormented by its loss of faith, morals and reason’ and so on, but as one more instance of the German intellectual class’s complete failure to grasp the realities of the geopolitics, political leadership and economics which determined the world they lived in.

Broch was just one of many, many, many over-educated intellectuals and philosophers and academics and writers and commentators who couldn’t accept the simple truth that they lost the First World War because their leaders fucked up, and so wrote thousand-page novels blaming it all on the Renaissance or the Reformation or the Romantic movement or the imbalance between Reason and The Irrational or the falling of God from Infinity into the Absolute, and so on and on and on and on.

Conclusion

To summarise: in my opinion, Broch’s entire project of attempting to explain his country’s plight in terms of a collapse of so-called values:

  1. is not an accurate description of what the books are actually about
  2. is, in any case, crushingly unoriginal and indebted to much more influential cultural forerunners such as Spengler
  3. and completely misses the point – it wasn’t the Germans’ social values which were at fault, it was the failure of their political culture to be able to manage a large modern state without resorting to the Kaiserprinzip or the Fuhrerprinzip and aggressive wars of conquest, which was at fault

What German ‘culture’ meant to its neighbours

Because if you happen not to have been born in Germany in the 1880s, if you happen to have been born in, say, France, the most obvious thing about Germany was not its lamentable collapse into ‘a world tormented by its loss of faith, morals and reason’ – the most obvious thing about Germany was the way it kept on bloody invading you – in 1870 and in 1914 and in 1940.

The most obvious thing about German culture was that it produced the febrile and unpredictable Kaiser Wilhelm II and his military high command who started World War One, and then the febrile and mad Adolf Hitler, who started World War Two.

‘World tormented by its loss of faith, morals and reason’ be damned – this was a nation which plunged the world into a catastrophe in 1914, and then did it again, 25 years later, so that the destruction they caused during the second one surpassed the most destructive capacity of all humanity in all preceding history put together.

That is why to this day the Germans are forbidden from having an army. Because nobody trusts them to have one. Think about that.

To this day the Germans are not to be trusted with an army because the whole world has seen what happens if you let Germany have an army. They wreak havoc, death and destruction on an unprecedented scale (read the mind-boggling descriptions of the destruction the Germans wrought all across Europe in Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe; read Primo Levi about Auschwitz.)

Because Death is a master from Germany.

Thus, stepping right back from the specifics of plot and character, The Sleepwalkers can be read as just one among many long-winded, melodramatic and pretentious refusals by German intellectuals to acknowledge the reality of German culture and history – to deny, to refuse to acknowledge what Germany had been in 1870 and 1914 and would be 1939 – a force for unbridled savagery and aggression.

Which part of the siege of Paris (1870) or the burning of Louvain:

From the first days they crossed into Belgium, violating that small country’s neutrality on the way to invade France, German forces looted and destroyed much of the countryside and villages in their path, killing significant numbers of civilians, including women and children. (August 25 1914)

Or the systematic demolition of Warsaw or the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane

The women and children were locked in the church, and the village was looted. The men were led to six barns and sheds, where machine guns were already in place… The SS men began shooting, aiming for their legs. When the victims were unable to move, the SS men covered them with fuel and set the barns on fire… The SS men next proceeded to the church and placed an incendiary device beside it. When it was ignited, women and children tried to escape through the doors and windows, only to be met with machine-gun fire… (Oradour-sur-Glane massacre)

Did German ‘intellectuals’ not get?

All of it. They refused to acknowledge any of it as their fault or responsibility. Germany’s intellectual class continued to worry about Goethe and Beethoven and the World Spirit while their sons and nephews murdered, raped and burned their way across Europe.

How to cure Germany

Only the complete destruction of their country, the mass rape of their women, the seizure of their borderlands by Poland and the permanent encampment of the Soviet Union in the eastern half of their country for 45 years, along with the expulsion of over ten million ethnic Germans from every one of their neighbours, finally, at last, completely and utterly convinced the Germans that maybe they weren’t a Master Race blessed with special insight into Culture and Spirit and Being.

Only the utter devastation of all their cities, of their infrastructure and economy managed to finally convince the German population that all their verbose, melodramatic, self-indulgent rhetoric about ‘morality’ and ‘values’ and ‘reason’ concealed a people who would shovel millions of Jews into crematoria and set out to exterminate the entire Slav population of Eastern Europe (Generalplan Ost).

In the final book of the trilogy, The Realist, Broch goes out of his way to attack modern, money-minded commercial culture. The central figure of the book, Wilhelm Huguenau, is a successful, respectable businessman who is also show to be an amoral murderer and Broch repeatedly emphasises the direct connection between money-minded entrepreneurism and heartless murder. Broch despises modern business and business methods and business men.

But this didn’t stop Broch when push came to shove i.e. when the Nazis came to power, like so many of his left-wing, socialist or communist fellow Weimar intellectuals, from fleeing to the heartland of consumer capitalism, the epicentre of modern business methods, America, where he sat out the Second World War in comfort, holding a number of academic posts, benefiting from the largesse and the protected by the enormous military machine, generated by precisely the kind of modern capitalist society he went out of his way to anathematise in his novels.

This combination of factors goes some way to explaining why Broch came to dislike and then actively despise ‘the novel’ as an ‘art form’.

Because it was not The Novel he was reviling, not the novels of, say, Virginia Woolf or Ernest Hemingway or William Faulkner or Evelyn Waugh – it was his own novels:

– long pretentious tracts which claim to be analysing an entire society through the lens of half a dozen freakish characters

– larded with weighty rhodomontades about Sacrifice and Truth and Reality and Mind and Spirit and a whole load of other capitalised and empty words

– misleading and windy ‘analyses’ which concealed the true nature of the German plight / condition / situation, and so proved utterly useless in preventing the rise to power of the most evil regime in world history

– none of which prevented the rise of the Nazis, their aggressive foreign policy, the outbreak of war and the complete collapse of European civilisation

When you put like that, I think you can see why Broch would come to despise his own efforts as long-winded showing off, as showy grandstanding which, in the end, changed nothing.

Credit

The English translation by Willa and Edwin Muir of The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch was first published in 1932. All references are to the Vintage International paperback edition of all three novels in one portmanteau volume, first published in 1996.


Related links

20th century German literature

The Weimar Republic

German history

Mimesis: African Soldier @ the Imperial War Museum

Making a new world

For the past year or so, Imperial War Museum London has given over its third floor to four related but very different exhibitions marking the end of the First World War a hundred years ago.

They come under the overarching title of Making A New World, and have been accompanied by a programme of live music, performance and public debates, all addressing aspects of the aftermath of the conflict. Here’s the promotional video.

I’ve reviewed three of the four already:

Across the corridor from these two spaces is a door opening onto a darkened corridor leading to a blacked-out screening room in which is being shown a new art film by John Akomfrah, titled Mimesis: African Soldier.

John Akomfrah

Akomfrah was born in Accra, Ghana in 1957. His mother and father were both anti-colonialist activists. His father served in the cabinet of Ghana’s first post-independence Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah. When the latter was overthrown in a coup in 1966, his mother fled the country with young John. Surprisingly, maybe, they fled to the epicentre of the colonial oppressor, to the home of racism and imperialism, to Britain, where John became a British citizen, trained as an artist and went on to become a famous and award-winning maker of art films.

John Akomfrah in front of Mimesis: African Soldier, co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, New Art Exchange, Nottingham and Smoking Dogs Films, with additional support from Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo © IWM / Film © Smoking Dogs Films

John Akomfrah standing in front of a screen showing Mimesis: African Soldier, co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, New Art Exchange, Nottingham and Smoking Dogs Films, with additional support from Sharjah Art Foundation. Photo © IWM / Film © Smoking Dogs Films

So prestigious has Akomfrah’s career been that in 2008 he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and in 2017 appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). Also in 2017, Akomfrah won the biennial Artes Mundi prize, the UK’s biggest award for international art, having been chosen for the award for his ‘substantial body of outstanding work dealing with issues of migration, racism and religious persecution.’

It is a story in itself, and one not without irony – how the son of vehemently anti-British anti-colonial activists went on to become a lion of the British art establishment.

Purple

I first heard Akomfrah’s name when I came across the massive multi-screen installation of his film Purple at the Barbican a few years ago.

In the long darkened space of the Barbican’s Curve gallery, Purple projected onto a series of massive screens a combination of historic archive footage of industrial life in the West – coal mines, car factories, shopping centres and street scenes from the 1940s, 50s and 60s – and stunningly beautiful modern footage shot at remote and picturesque locations around the planet with pin-prick digital clarity.

The purpose of Purple was to inform its viewers that humanity’s industrial activity is polluting the planet.

As a theme I thought this was so bleeding obvious that it made no impact on my thinking one way or the other: I just sat entranced by the old footage, which had its own historic interest, the 1960s footage in particular, tuggingly evocative of my own distant childhood – and enjoying the aesthetic contrast between the historic footage and the stunning landscapes of, for example, Iceland – which made me desperately jealous of the lucky researchers, camera crews and prize-winning directors who get to fly to such breath-taking destinations.

Mimesis: African Soldier

Visually, Mimesis: African Soldier does something very similar.

There are three big screens instead of the six used by Purple (the screening room at the IWM is a lot smaller than the long sweeping Curve space at the Barbican where Purple was screened).

Once again the screens intercut creaky old archive footage with slow-moving, almost static ‘modern’ sequences shot in super-bright digital clarity at a number of remote locations – both of which are fascinating and/or entrancing in their different ways.

The vintage black-and-white footage shows black African and Indian soldiers, labourers and carriers at work during the First World War. There’s a lot of footage at docks where all manner of goods are being unloaded by black labourers and heaped up into enormous piles of munitions and rations. Other footage shows Indian troops on parade, marching – and then footage of what appear to be black soldiers going into battle.

Installation view of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of an ‘archive’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

The modern sequences are completely different in every way. For a start they are in colour. They are shot with stunning digital clarity. But most of all they are very, very slow.

For, as with Purple, the visual contrast is not just between the black and white and modern colour footage – there’s a rhythm thing going on, too, in that the old footage has that speeded-up, frenetic quality (due to the discrepancy between the speed of the cameras it was shot on and the different speed of the projectors we now play it on) which brings out even more the hauntingly slow, almost static nature of the modern sequences.

In the colour sequences which I saw, a black soldier is walking through a jungle, very, very, very slowly, until he comes upon a skeleton hanging from a tree, and stops dead. Different screens show the static scene from different angles. Pregnant with ominousness and meaning.

Installation view of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of a ‘modern’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

In another ‘modern’ sequence a handful of black men in uniform are on a wet muddy beach. The beach is dotted with flags of many nations, and also random crates. The men stare out at sea. They turn. One picks up a crate. Another takes off his helmet and wipes his forehead. All very slow.

In another sequence an Asian man in army uniform and wearing a turban is standing in a landscape of dead and fallen trees, and slowly chopping a piece of wood with an axe. Very slowly. The ‘bock’ sound of each blow of the axe is amplified on the soundtrack which, from amid a collage of sounds, sounds of docks, works, men, soldiers, guns going off.

By and large the loudness and business of the audio track contrasts eerily with the Zen slow motion movements of the black and Asian actors.

Installation view of a 'modern' segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of a ‘modern’ segment of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Mimesis: African Soldier is 75 minutes long – long enough to really sink back and become absorbed and entranced by this audiovisual experience.

The message

So much so that it’s easy to forget Akomfrah’s message. This is that some three million African and Asian men served on the Allied side during the Great War, as labourers, carriers and soldiers, and their story – indeed their existence – is rarely if ever acknowledged.

This is spelled out in the wall label outside the gallery, in the wall label in the corridor leading to the screening room, in the ten-page handout to the exhibition, and in the extended prose descriptions about the film on the museum’s website:

And in the interviews Akomfrah has given about the work:

But having read all these sources and listened to all the interviews, none of them get me much further than the basic idea. All these texts just repackage the same basic fact:

Between 1914 and 1918, millions of African and colonial soldiers served in long campaigns that spanned the whole of the African and European continents, contributing to victories throughout the First World War. These soldiers from British and French African territories were brought to Europe’s western front, where hundreds and thousands lost their lives alongside unknown, unheralded and undocumented African labourers and carriers. Mimesis: African Soldier seeks to commemorate these Africans and colonial soldiers who fought, served and died during the First World War.

This information takes less than a minute to process and understand – in much the same way as I have in the past processed all manner of obscure or (to me) unknown aspects of this war, of the other world war, and of countless other historical episodes.

It was, after all, a world war. It had a global reach and consequences which are almost impossible for one person to grasp. A few months ago I was reading about the Mexican Revolution and the role played in it by the notorious Zimmerman Telegram in which the Germans promised to give Mexico back large chunks of Texas and other neighbouring states, if only Mexico would come in on the side of the Allies.

You could argue that Mexico thus played a key role in the First World War. Who knew?

To take another example, not so long ago I made a conscious effort to break out of the straitjacket of always viewing the war through the experiences of the British on the Western Front, and read two books to try and understand more about the war in the East.

Who in this country knows anything about the course of the First World War in Galicia or Bulgaria or Romania, let alone the vast battles which took place on the huge eastern Front? Who is familiar with the ebb and flow of fighting in little Serbia, which caused the whole damn thing in the first place?

Or take the example of another First World War-related exhibition I visited recently: I knew nothing about the role played by the Canadian army, which not only supplied cavalry on the Western Front, but also proved invaluable in setting up lumber mills behind the Front which supplied the millions of yards of planking from which the trenches and all the Allied defences were built. I had never heard about this until I went to the Army Museum’s exhibition about the painter Alfred Munnings who documented their contribution.

For me, then, the message that some three million Asians and Africans fought and supplied invaluable manual labour to the Allied side is just one more among a kaleidoscope of aspects of the war about which I freely admit to being shamefully ignorant.

Not being black, and not coming from one of the colonies in question, it doesn’t have a salience or importance greater than all these other areas of which I know I am so ignorant. Why should the black dockers have more importance than the Canadian lumberjacks? And why do their stories have any more importance or relevance than the millions of Russians, and Poles, and Romanians and Hungarians and Ukrainians and Jews who died in fighting or were massacred in the ugly pogroms and racial violence which characterised the war in the East?

Surely all human lives are of equal value, in which case all deaths in massacre and conflict are equally to be lamented and commemorated.

Art film as a medium for education

As it stands, the mere presence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum as part of this year-long commemoration means that all visitors to this part of the building will read the wall labels explaining the importance of the millions of Africans and Asians who aided the Allied war effort.

And since the IWM gets around two and a half million visitors, that’s potentially a lot of people who might have their minds opened to this overlooked aspect of the war.

But I’m not sure the film itself does very much to educate and inform. It’s an art film. It moves very, very slowly. The soundtrack is a disorientating mash-up of what is presumably the sounds of ships and docks and workmen with what seem to be African tribal music, chanting and so on. I get that this is the aural equivalent of the mash-up we’re seeing on-screen, but I’m not sure it really adds anything to anyone’s understanding.

In a nutshell, I’m not sure art films are an effective way to convey information about anything, apart from the film-maker’s own aesthetic decisions.

Comparison with Bridgit 2016

I had much the same response to Charlotte Prodger’s film, Bridgit 2016 which won the 2018 Turner Prize. It was intended to be a lecture about LBGTQ+ rights and gender and identity, but I found all the information-giving parts of it boring and sanctimonious (where they weren’t factually incorrect).

Instead, what I responded to in Bridgit 2016 was not the right-on, politically correct sentiments but the haunting nature of some of the shots, especially the sequence I saw (like every other visitor, I didn’t stay to watch the whole thing) where the camera was pointed at the wake being made in the grey sea by a large ferry, presumably off the Scottish coast somewhere.

The way the camera didn’t make any kind of point, and the way that, for at least this part of the film, Prodger wasn’t lecturing me about LGBTQ+ rights, meant that, for that sequence at least, the film did what art films can sometimes do – which is make you see in a new way, make you realise the world can be seen in other ways, make you pay attention enough to something humdrum in order to let the imagination transform it.

Which has a liberating effect, far far from all political ideologies, whether conservative or socialist or politically correct or politically repressive. Just that long shot of the churning foaming wake created by a big ship ploughing through a cold northern sea spoke to me, at some level I can’t define.

Which is better at conveying information – art film or conventional display?

Similarly, like Bridgit 2016Mimesis: African Soldier comes heavily freighted with the moral earnestness of a Victorian sermon (and it’s as long as a Victorian sermon, too, at a hefty 75 minutes).

Akomfrah wants ‘Britain’ to ‘acknowledge’ the contribution of these millions of colonial subjects who fought and died for their imperial masters.

OK. I accept it immediately without a quibble, and I can’t imagine anyone anywhere would disagree. Isn’t this precisely what visiting museums is all about? That visitors are bombarded with all kinds of information and facts about the subjects of exhibitions they have chosen to visit? That people visit museums to learn.

And if the aim of the film is to educate, you can’t help wondering whether the point wouldn’t have been better made, more impactful, if it had been replaced – or maybe accompanied – by a more traditional display of hundreds of photos of the time accompanied by wall labels giving us facts and figures and, maybe, the stories and experiences of half a dozen African and Asian soldiers.

The rise and rise of the ‘forgotten voices’ trope

But as I reread the text around the film asserting that its aim was to restore an overlooked aspect of the history of the war, to rediscover lost voices, and restore people to their rightful place in history, I found myself more intrigued by this aspect of the display – the claim to be rediscovering, reclaiming and restoring – rather than its actual content.

How each era gets the history it requires

History is written for its times, responding to the cultural and economic needs of its day.

Machiavelli wrote his histories of Rome as warnings to Renaissance princes. Carlyle wrote a history of the French Revolution to thrill Victorian society with a vision of how Great Men direct the course of events.

The often-ridiculed ‘Whig’ historians reassured their liberal-minded readers by writing British history as if the whole thing, from Magna Carta to the reform acts of the 1800s, demonstrated the inevitable rise of the best and fairest possible liberal democracy.

Tougher minded Edwardian historians set out to show their readers that the British Empire was a force for peace and the enlightened development of the colonies.

The historians I read as a student (Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill) were Marxists who showed in their particular areas (the long nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution, the British Civil War, respectively) that history consisted of class struggles which confirmed Marx’s underlying theory of a dynamic and the forward march of history which would inevitably lead to a proletarian revolution.

And so they were very popular among students as the Cold War 1950s turned into the heady student revolutions of the 1960s and on into the strike- and violence-soaked 1970s and 1980s.

But, as I understand it, during the 1970s and 80s there was also a reaction against these grand, high-level (and very left-wing) narratives among a younger generation of historians who decided instead to specialise in provincial studies of particular localities (I’m thinking of John Morrill’s studies of Chester or David Underdown’s studies of the West Country during the Civil War). These tended to show that events at a local level were much more complicated than the lofty, and dogmatic, Christopher Hill-type versions suggested.

And it’s possible to see these reactions against the Marxist historians as a symptom of the way that, throughout society, the old communist/socialist narratives came to be seen as tired and old fashioned, as Mrs Thatcher’s social revolution changed British society and attitudes in the 1980s.

But another trend, when I was a student in the 1980s, was a growing move towards apolitical oral history, with a rash of books telling the ‘untold stories’ of this, that or the other constituency – generally the working classes, the class that didn’t make policies and diplomacy and big speeches in the House of Commons, the ordinary man or woman throughout history.

I’m thinking of Lyn MacDonald’s accounts of the key battles of the First World War in which she relied heavily on letters and diaries with the result that her books were marketed as telling ‘the untold stories of…’, ‘giving a voice to…’ the previously ignored common squaddie.

This ‘popular’ approach prompts pity and sympathy for ‘ordinary people’ of the past without being overtly left or right-wing, and it is an approach which hasn’t gone away, as these recent book titles indicate:

  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Somme’ by Joshua Levine
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of D-Day’ by Roderick Bailey
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust’ by Lyn Smith
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Second World War’ by Max Arthur
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of Burma’ by Julian Thompson
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of the Falklands’ by Hugh McManners
  • ‘Forgotten Voices of Mao’s Great Famine’ by Xun Zhou

To bring us up to date, the end of the Thatcher era coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of communism as a viable political theory. I’ve watched as over this period, the past 30 years, increasing numbers of progressive thinkers, writers, historians, artists and so on have become steadily more in thrall to questions of identity – especially the twin issues of race and gender – which have spread out from academia to become two of the broader, defining issues of our time.

And watched as a new generation of historians, including many women and black and Asian historians, has arisen which has packed bookshelves, magazines, radio and TV programmes with new interpretations of history which ‘restore’ the place of women and non-white figures in British and world history.

Combining all this, we arrive at the present moment, 2019, where there is:

  1. more cultural production than ever before in human history, with an unprecedented number of poems, plays, radio programmes, TV documentaries, films and art works ranging over all of recorded history in search of subjects and people from the past to restore, revive and reclaim
  2. and this unprecedented output is taking place in an age obsessed by identity politics, and so is ever-more relentlessly conceived, produced and delivered in terms of identity, specifically the two great pillars of modern progressive ideology, race and gender

Adding the ‘forgotten stories’ trope to the inexorable rise of identity politics helps to explain the explosive proliferation of books, plays, movies, documentaries and radio programmes which use the same rhetorical device of reclaiming the stories of unjustly forgotten women and unjustly forgotten people of colour from pretty much any period of the last 3,000 years. Thus, to give just a few examples of each:

Forgotten Women

  • 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World
  • The Forgotten Tudor Women: Anne Seymour, Jane Dudley & Elisabeth Parr
  • Ladies of Lascaris: Christina Ratcliffe and The Forgotten Heroes of Malta’s War
  • Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music
  • The Forgotten Tudor Women: Margaret Douglas, Mary Howard & Mary Shelton
  • Daughters of Chivalry: The Forgotten Children of Edward I
  • Roaring Girls: The forgotten feminists of British history
  • Charlie Company’s Journey Home: The Forgotten Impact on the Wives of Vietnam Veterans
  • Invisible Women. Forgotten Artists of Florence
  • War’s Forgotten Women
  • Forgotten Desert Mothers, The: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women
  • When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt

Forgotten people of colour

  • Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes
  • Black and British: A Forgotten History
  • The Forgotten Black Cowboys
  • Forgotten black TV and film history
  • 5 Forgotten Black and Asian Figures Who Made British History
  • Black on the battlefield: Canada’s forgotten First World War battalion
  • The Forgotten Black Heroes of Empire
  • Black servicemen: Unsung heroes of the First World War
  • Forgotten? : Black Soldiers in the Battle of Waterloo
  • The Forgotten Black Soldiers in White Regiments During the Civil War
  • Black Athena: The Afro-asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization

My point is that the whole notion of listening to ‘forgotten voices’ and restoring ‘forgotten histories’ has become a central trope of our times, and moreover it is, a moment’s thought suggests, a potentially bottomless well of material.

Once you have accepted the premise that we need to hear the voices of everyone who has ever lived, then there is potentially no end to the number of forgotten women whose voices we need to hear and whose stories we need to be told, just as there is no end to the number of forgotten black slaves, entrepreneurs, soldiers, heroes, scientists, writers, pioneers, cowboys, immigrants, poets and artists whose voices need to be heard and whose stories need to be told.

A flood of forgotten voices

To return to Akomfrah’s film, what I’m trying to do is understand the times I live in, and understand how a politically-committed work of art like Mimesis: African Soldier fits into it.

My view is that the Imperial War Museum commissioning this piece, and John Akomfrah making it, are very much not ground-breaking or innovative.

The opposite. Mimesis: African Soldier is smack bang in the centre of the cultural mood of our times. We are in the middle of an absolute flood of such productions:

I’m not saying any of this ‘forgotten history’ is untrue or unworthy. I’m just pointing out that each era gets the ‘history’ it asks for and, on some level, needs. That societies write history not to reveal any ‘truth’ (there is no fixed historical ‘truth’) but to manufacture the stories they need to sustain their current social and cultural concerns.

For reasons which are a little too deep to be tackled in this blog post, our culture at the moment is undergoing an obsessive interest in identity politics, focusing in particular on the twin issues of race and gender. ‘Diversity’, already a major concern and ubiquitous buzzword, will only become more and more dominating for the foreseeable future.

And so history retold from the perspectives of race and gender, history which perfectly reflects the concerns of our day and age –  is what we’re getting.

And, of course, it’s popular and fashionable. And lucrative.

History retold from the perspectives of race and gender is the kind of history which historians know will get them academic posts and high student approval marks from their evermore ‘woke’ pupils, the kind of history TV companies know will get them viewers, which publishers know will get them readers, and which artists know will get them museum commissions and gallery exhibitions.

Summary of the argument

All of this is intended to show that, if I have a relaxed approach to the political content of Akomfrah’s film, if I read that millions of blacks and Asians laboured and fought for the European empires and accept it without hesitation, filing it next to what I’ve also recently learned about Canadian lumberjacks, or about the troops who fought and died in Palestine or East Africa – it is not out of indifference to the ‘issue’. It is:

1. Because, on a personal level, there are hundreds of aspects of the First World War which I don’t fully understand or comprehend, and all kinds of fronts and campaigns which I am pitifully ignorant of – and I am pretty relaxed about living with that ignorance because life is short and I have umpteen other calls on my time.

2. Because, on a cultural level, Mimesis: African Soldier can be seen as just one more artifact in the tsunami of cultural products in our time which all claim to be unearthing ‘the untold story’ and restoring ‘the forgotten voices’ and putting the record straight on behalf of neglected women, ignored people of colour and any number of other overlooked and oppressed minorities.

I am trying to understand my complete lack of surprise at finding the film on show here, or at its subject matter, and the complete lack of factual or historical illumination I felt when watching it.

Summary on the film

The political motivation behind Akomfrah’s piece is worthy, if entirely uncontroversial.

And because it has no voiceover or captions and because it relies for understanding and meaning on the introductory wall labels, the film is not that effective as purely factual information. A conventional display would have been infinitely more informative. In fact, in his interviews, Akomfrah emphasises the enormous amount of research which went into the making of the film. Well, following that line of tnought, I couldn’t help thinking the whole project would make significantly more impact if it was accompanied by a book which dug really deeply into the subject, with maps and figures and deeper explanations, explaining just how many people came from each colony, willingly or unwillingly, how they were deployed, the special conditions they worked under, and so on, all liberally illustrated with – that favourite trope of our times – the actual stories of African and Indian soldiers in their own words. Ironically, there are no voices in the film: just silent and slow moving actors.

But quibbles about its meaning and purpose and its place in broader cultural movements aside, there is no denying that, as a spectacle, Mimesis: African Soldier is wonderfully hypnotic and tranquilising. The archive footage is artfully selected, the contemporary sequences are shot in stunning digital clarity, the two are edited together to make entrancing viewing.

And, just as with Purple, Mimesis allows the viewer’s mind to take the archive footage and modern scenery (its foggy jungles and muddy beaches and lonely Asian chopping wood) as starting points from which to drift off into reveries of our own devising, making our own connections and finding our own meanings.

Installation view of the 'beach' sequence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London

Installation view of the ‘beach’ sequence of Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum, London


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Imperial War Museum

World War One-related art reviews

World War One-related book reviews

Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson (2014) and multi-ethnic societies

Mutual suspicion, brinkmanship, arrogance, belligerence and, above all fear were rife in the halls of power across Europe in the summer of 1914. (p.8)

I’m very surprised that this book won the ‘2014 Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize in Military History’ and the ‘Society of Military History 2015 Distinguished Book Award’ because it is not really a military history at all.

It’s certainly an epic book – 788 pages, if you include the 118 pages of notes and 63 pages of bibliography – and it gives an impressively thorough account of the origins, development and conclusion of the First World War, as seen from the point of view of the politicians, military leaders and people of Germany and Austria-Hungary.

More social than military history

But I found it much more of a sociological and economic history of the impact of war on German and Austro-Hungarian society, than a narrative of military engagements.

Watson gives a broad outline of the German invasion of Belgium and northern France, but there are no maps and no description of any of the vital battles, of the Marne or Aisnes or Arras or Ypres. Instead he spends more time describing the impact on Belgian society of the burning of villages and the atrocities carried out by the Germans – in retaliation for what they claimed were guerrilla and francs-tireurs (free-shooter) attacks by civilian snipers.

I was specifically hoping to learn more about the famous three-week-long battle of Tannenberg between Germany and Russia on the Eastern Front, but there is no account of it at all in this book.

Instead Watson gives a detailed description of the impact on society in Galicia and East Prussia of the ruinous and repressive Russian advance. Little or nothing about the fighting, but a mass of detail about the impact on individual villages, towns and cities of being subject to Russian military administration and violence, and a lot about the impact of war on the region’s simmering ethnic tensions. I hadn’t realised that the Russians, given half a chance, carried out as many atrocities (i.e. massacring civilians) and far more forced movements of population, than the Germans did.

Watson does, it is true, devote some pages to the epic battle of Verdun (pp. 293-300) and to the Battle of the Somme (pp. 310-326), but it’s not what I’d call a military description. There are, for example no maps of either battlefield. In fact there are no battlefield maps – maps showing the location of a battle and the deployment of opposing forces – anywhere at all in the book.

Instead, what you do get is lots of graphs and diagrams describing the social and economic impact of war – showing things like ‘Crime rates in Germany 1913-18’, ‘Free meals dispensed at Viennese soup kitchens 1914-18’, ‘German psychiatric casualties in the First and Second Armies 1914-18’ (p.297) and so on. Social history.

Longer than the accounts of Verdun and the Somme put together is his chapter about the food shortages which began to be felt soon after the war started and reached catastrophic depths during the ‘Turnip Winter’ of 1916-17. These shortages were caused by the British naval blockade (itself, as Watson points out, of dubious legality under international law), but also due to the intrinsic shortcomings of German and Austro-Hungarian agriculture, compounded by government inefficiency, and corruption (all described in immense detail on pages 330-374).

So there’s more about food shortages than about battles. Maybe, in the long run, the starvation was more decisive. Maybe Watson would argue that there are hundreds of books devoted to Verdun and the Somme, whereas the nitty-gritty of the food shortages – much more important in eventually forcing the Central Powers to their knees – is something you rarely come across in British texts. He certainly gives a fascinating, thorough and harrowing account.

But it’s not military history. It’s social and economic history.

A lot later in the book Watson gives a gripping account of the German offensive of spring 1918, and then the Allied counter-offensive from July 1918 which ended up bringing the Central Powers to the negotiating table.

But in both instances it’s a very high-level overview, and he only gives enough detail to explain (fascinatingly) why the German offensive failed and the Allied one succeeded – because his real motivation, the meat of his analysis, is the social and political impact of the military failure on German and Austrian society.

Absence of smaller campaigns

Something else I found disappointing about the book was his neglect of military campaigns even a little outside his main concern with German and Austro-Hungarian society.

He gives a thrilling account of the initial Austrian attack on Serbia – which was, after all, the trigger for the whole war – and how the Austrians were, very amusingly, repelled back to their starting points.

But thereafter Serbia is more or less forgotten about and the fact that Serbia was later successfully invaded is skated over in a sentence. Similarly, although the entry of Italy into the war is mentioned, none of the actual fighting between Austria and Italy is described. There is only one reference to Romania being successfully occupied, and nothing at all about Bulgaria until a passing mention of her capitulation in 1918.

I had been hoping that the book would give an account of the First World War in the East, away from the oft-told story of the Western Front: the war in Poland and Galicia and the Baltic States he does cover, but in south-eastern Europe nothing.

The text – as the title, after all, indicates – is pretty ruthlessly focused on the military capabilities, mobilisation, economy and society of Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Ethnic tension

If there’s one theme which does emerge very clearly from this very long book it is the centrality of ethnic and nationalist divisions in the Central Powers themselves, and in the way they treated their conquered foes.

Throughout its examination of the impact of war on German and Austro-Hungarian society – on employment, women’s roles, propaganda, agriculture and industry, popular culture and so on – the book continually reverts to an examination of the ethnic and nationalist fracture lines which ran through these two states.

For example, in the food chapter, there are not only radical differences in the way the German and Austro-Hungarian authorities dealt with the crisis (the effectiveness of different rationing schemes, and so on) but we are shown how different national regions, particularly of Austria-Hungary, refused to co-operate with each other: for example, rural Hungary refusing to share its food with urban Austria.

What emerges, through repeated description and analysis, is the very different ethnic and nationalist nature of the two empires.

Germany

Germany was an ethnically homogeneous state, made up overwhelmingly of German-speaking ethnic Germans. Therefore the fractures – the divisions which total war opened up – tended to take place along class lines. Before the war the Social Democrat Party (much more left-wing than its name suggests) had been the biggest socialist party in Europe, heir to the legacy of Karl Marx which was, admittedly, much debated and squabbled over. However, when war came, Watson shows how, in a hundred different ways, German society closed ranks in a patriotic display of unity so that the huge and powerful SDP, after some debate, rejected its pacifist wing and united with all the other parties in the Reichstag in voting for the war credits which the Chancellor asked for.

Watson says contemporary Germans called this the Burgfrieden spirit of the time, meaning literally ‘castle peace politics’. In effect it meant a political policy of ‘party truce’, all parties rallying to the patriotic cause, trades unions agreeing not to strike, socialist parties suspending their campaign to bring down capitalism, and so on. All reinforced by the sense that the Germans were encircled by enemies and must all pull together.

Typical of Watson’s social-history approach to all this is his account of the phenomenon of Liebesgaben or ‘love gifts’ (pp.211-214), the hundreds of thousands of socks and gloves and scarves knitted and sent to men at the front by the nation’s womenfolk, and the role played by children in war charities and in some war work.

He has three or four pages about the distinctive development of ‘nail sculptures’, figures of soldiers or wartime leaders into which all citizens in a town were encouraged to hammer a nail while making a donation to war funds. Soon every town and city had these nail figures, focuses of patriotic feeling and fundraising (pp. 221-225).

Watson is much more interested by the impact of war on the home front than by military campaigns.

Austria-Hungary

The spirit of unity which brought Germany together contrasts drastically with the collapse along ethnic lines of Austria-Hungary, the pressures which drove the peoples of the empire apart.

The Empire was created as a result of the Compromise of 1867 by which the Austrians had one political arrangement, the Hungarians a completely different one, and a whole host of lesser ethnicities and identities (the Czechs, and Poles in the north, the Serbs and Greeks and Croats and Bosnians in the troublesome south) jostled for recognition and power for their own constituencies.

Watson’s introductory chapters give a powerful sense of the fear and anxiety stalking the corridors of power in the Austro-Hungarian Empire well before the war began. This fear and anxiety were caused by the succession of political and military crises of the Edwardian period – the Bosnia Crisis of 1908, the First and Second Balkan Wars of 1911 and 1912, the rising voices of nationalism among Czechs in the north and Poles in the East.

To really understand the fear of the ruling class you have to grasp that in 1914 there was a very clear league table of empires – with Britain at the top followed by France and Germany. The rulers of Austria-Hungary were petrified that the collapse and secession of any part of their heterogenous empire would relegate them to the second division of empires (as were the rulers of Russia, as well).

And everybody knew what happened to an empire on the slide: they had before them the examples of the disintegrating Ottoman and powerless Chinese empires, which were condemned to humiliation and impotence by the Great Powers. Austria-Hungary’s rulers would do anything to avoid that fate.

But Watson shows how, as soon as war broke out, the empire instead of pulling together, as Germany had, began dividing and splitting into its component parts. Vienna was forced to cede control of large regions of the empire to the local governments which were best placed to mobilise the war effort among their own peoples.

This tended to have two consequences:

  1. One was to encourage nationalism and the rise of nationalist leaders in these areas (it was via wartime leadership of the Polish Legions, a force encouraged by Vienna, that Józef Piłsudski consolidated power and the authority which would enable him to establish an independent Poland in 1918, and successfully defend its borders against Russian invasion in 1920, before becoming Poland’s strongman in the interwar period).
  2. The second was to encourage inter-ethnic tension and violence.

The difference between homegeneous Germany and heterogeneous Austria-Hungary is exemplified in the respective nations’ responses to refugees. In Germany, the 200,000 or so refugees from Russia’s blood-thirsty invasion of East Prussia were distributed around the country and welcomed into homes and communities all over the Reich. They were recipients of charity from a popular refugee fund which raised millions of marks for them. Even when the refugees were in fact Polish-speaking or Lithuanians, they were still treated first and foremost as Germans and all received as loyal members of the Fatherland (pp. 178-181).

Compare and contrast the German experience with the bitter resentment which greeted refugees from the Russian invasion of the Austro-Hungarian border region of Galicia. When some 1 million refugees from Galicia were distributed round the rest of the empire, the native Hungarians, Austrians or Czechs all resented having large number of Poles, Ruthenians and, above all, Jewish, refugees imposed on their communities. There was resentment and outbreaks of anti-refugee violence.

The refugee crisis was just one of the ways in which the war drove the nationalities making up the Austro-Hungarian empire further apart (pp. 198-206).

Two years ago I read and was appalled by Timothy Snyder’s book, Bloodlands, which describes the seemingly endless ethnic cleansing and intercommunal massacres, pogroms and genocides which took place in the area between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia in the 1930s.

Watson’s book shows how many of these tensions existed well before the First World War – in the Balkans they went back centuries – but that it was the massive pan-European conflict which lifted the lid, which authorised violence on an unprecedented scale, and laid the seeds for irreconcilable hatreds, particularly between Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians and Jews.

The perils of multi-ethnic societies

Although I bet Watson is a fully paid-up liberal (and his book makes occasional gestures towards the issue of ‘gender’, one of the must-have topics which all contemporary humanities books have to include), nonetheless the net effect of these often harrowing 566 pages of text is to make the reader very nervous about the idea of a multinational country.

1. Austria-Hungary was a rainbow nation of ethnicities and, under pressure, it collapsed into feuding and fighting nationalities.

2. Russia, as soon as it invaded East Prussia and Galicia, began carrying out atrocities against entire ethnic groups classified as traitors or subversives, hanging entire villages full of Ukrainians or Ruthenians, massacring Jewish populations.

3. The to and fro of battle lines in the Balkans allowed invading forces to decimate villages and populations of rival ethnic groups who they considered dangerous or treacherous.

Austro-Hungarian troops hanging unarmed Serbian civilians (1915)

Austro-Hungarian troops hanging unarmed Serbian civilians (1915) No doubt ‘spies’ and ‘saboteurs’

In other words, everywhere that you had a mix of ethnicities in a society put under pressure, you got voices raised blaming ‘the other’, blaming whichever minority group comes to hand, for the catastrophe which was overtaking them.

Unable to accept the objective truth that their armies and military commanders were simply not up to winning the war, the so-called intelligentsia of Austria-Hungary, especially right-wing newspapers, magazines, writers and politicians, declared that the only reason they were losing must be due to the sabotage and treachery of traitors, spies, saboteurs and entire ethnic groups, who were promptly declared ‘enemies of the state’.

Just who was blamed depended on which small powerless group was ready to hand, but the Jews tended to be a minority wherever they found themselves, and so were subjected to an increasing chorus of denunciation throughout the empire.

Ring of Steel is a terrible indictment of the primitive xenophobia and bloodlust of human nature. But it is also a warning against the phenomenon that, in my opinion, has been ignored by generations of liberal politicians and opinion-formers in the West.

For several generations we have been told by all official sources of information, government, ministires, and all the media, that importing large groups of foreigners can only be a good thing, which ‘enriches’ our rainbow societies. Maybe, at innumerable levels, it does.

But import several million ‘foreigners’, with different coloured skins, different languages, cultures and religions into Western Europe – and then place the societies of the West under great economic and social strain thanks to an epic crash of the financial system and…

You get the rise of right-wing, sometimes very right-wing, nationalist parties – in Russia, in Poland, in Hungary, in Germany, in Sweden and Denmark, in Italy, in France, in Britain and America – all demanding a return to traditional values and ethnic solidarity.

I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, I’m just saying the evidence seems to be that human beings are like this. This is what we do. You and I may both wish it wasn’t so, but it is so.

In fact I’d have thought this was one of the main lessons of history. You can’t look at the mass destruction of the Napoleonic Wars and say – ‘Well at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the appalling suffering created by industrialisation and say, ‘Well at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the mind-blowing racist attitudes I’ve been reading about in the American Civil War and say, ‘Well, at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the mad outbreak of violence of the First World War and the stubborn refusal to give in which led to over ten million men being slaughtered and say – ‘Well, at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the Holocaust and say – ‘Well, at least we’re not like that any more’.

We cannot be confident that human nature has changed at all in the intervening years.

Because in just the last twenty years we have all witnessed the savagery of the wars in former Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide, the genocide in Darfur, the failure of the Arab Springs and the civil wars in Syria and Libya, the 9/11 attacks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise of ISIS, the war in Yemen, the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar prove.

If all these conflicts prove anything, they prove that —

WE ARE STILL LIKE THAT

We are just like that. Nothing has changed. Given half a chance, given enough deprivation, poverty and fear, human beings in any continent of the world will lash out in irrational violence which quickly becomes total, genocidal, scorched earth, mass destruction.

In the West, in Britain, France, Germany or America, we like to think we are different. That is just a form of racism. In my opinion, we are not intrinsically different at all. We are just protected by an enormous buffer of wealth and consumer goods from having to confront our basest nature. The majority of the populations in all the Western nations are well off enough not to want, or to allow, any kind of really ethnically divisive politics or inter-ethnic violence to take hold.

Or are they?

Because creating multi-cultural societies has created the potential for serious social stress to exacerbate racial, ethnic and nationalist dividing lines which didn’t previously exist. When I was growing up there was no such thing as ‘Islamophobia’ in Britain. 40 years later there are some 2.8 million Muslims in Britain, some 5% of the population – and I read about people being accused of ‘Islamophobia’, or Muslims claiming unfair discrimination or treatment in the media, almost every day in the newspapers.

It’s not as if we didn’t know the risks. I lived my entire life in the shadow of ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland which were based entirely on ethnic or communal hatred. And now not a day goes past without a newspaper article bewailing how Brexit might end the Good Friday Agreement and bring back the men of violence. Is the peace between the ethnic groups in Northern Ireland really that fragile? Apparently so. But British governments and the mainland population have always had an uncanny ability to sweep Ulster under the carpet and pretend it’s not actually part of the UK. To turn our backs on 40 years of bombings and assassinations, to pretend that it all, somehow, wasn’t actually happening in Britain. Not the real Britain, the Britain that counts. But it was.

Anyway, here we are. Over the past 40 years or so, politicians and opinion makers from all parties across the Western world have made this multicultural bed and now we’re all going to have to lie in it, disruptive and troubled though it is likely to be, for the foreseeable future.

Conclusion

Although it certainly includes lots of detail about the how the societies of the Central Powers were mobilised and motivated to wage total war, and enough about the military campaigns to explain their impact on the home front, overall Watson’s book is not really a military history of the Central Powers at war, but much more a social and economic history of the impact of the war on the two empires of its title.

And in the many, many places where he describes ethnic and nationalist tensions breaking out into unspeakable violence, again and again, all over central and eastern Europe, Watson’s book – no doubt completely contrary to his intentions – can very easily be read as a manifesto against the notion of a multicultural, multi-ethnic society.


Related links

Other blog posts about the First World War

%d bloggers like this: