Why is life itself a war

lemoLiving Museum Online
  • Queuing for groceries, around 1917

The First World War changed the lives of soldiers just as permanently as that of the civilian population. For women in particular, the double burden of household and family as well as their ever increasing gainful employment increased. The daily struggle for survival against the miserable food supply left the population with a pronounced distrust of all state authorities, while the deaths of millions at the front made the question of the meaning of the war even more inevitable. Death and invalidity, privation and imprisonment shaped everyday life at the front.

A mood of optimism and propaganda

Even at the beginning of the war, large sections of the industrial workers and the rural population were far more skeptical of the state propaganda, which was confident of victory, than the "national circles", who mainly came from the middle-class camp. In large numbers, people flocked to supplication services that testified more of reverence and helplessness than of confidence in victory or the frenzy of war. A seemingly religious form of national emotion in the population was obvious and was repeatedly called to mind as a specific "August experience" throughout the war to maintain "national unity". As a sign of this unity, the Germanization of foreign terms immediately after the start of the war and, from 1915, community-building nailing actions were also considered. The people in their homeland should be encouraged to participate financially in the war or in caring for their dependents by buying an iron or brass nail. The nails were driven into wooden figures such as a cross in public ceremonies.

Before the men rushed to their units as soldiers, numerous marriages were concluded, given the possibility of imminent death. That all hopes for a short, campaign-like war were in fact illusory became apparent after just a few weeks: In the west, the encirclement and annihilation of the enemy provided for in the Schlieffen Plan had failed, and East Prussia became numerous after the invasion of Russian troops Atrocities reported against civilians. The reports from East Prussia left a feeling of existential threat, especially among the people in areas close to the front. In addition to constant concern about the course of the war and the personal well-being of relatives at the front, the question of how to obtain sufficient food was added every day.

Hunger and deprivation

In spite of the state rationing of all foodstuffs, the quantities that can be obtained via ration cards were insufficient to cover the daily calorie requirement. Potatoes and bread became increasingly scarce on the tables of the lower income brackets, and inferior substitutes were used in the place of coffee and tea. The food crisis was dramatically exacerbated by the sea blockade imposed by the British. Hunger reached a climax in the "turnip winter" of 1916/17. Around 700,000 people died in Germany as a result of malnutrition and hunger; child mortality rose by 50 percent. Diet-related illnesses such as fatigue, irritability and susceptibility to colds and flu were commonplace.

While there was acute hunger, especially in the urban working class households, the financially better off undermined the state-controlled distribution system and covered their food needs through smuggling, which at the end of the war made up almost a third of the total food and luxury goods trade. The agrarian regions were far less affected by the food and supply crisis than the cities. Farmers used the shortage economy to sell their products too far above the prices permitted by the Maximum Price Ordinance or to exchange them for objects of value. The privileged provision of individual sections of the population nourished rapidly growing doubts about the fairness of the state distribution system and the meaning of the unmanageable flood of ordinances and regulations. There were more and more protests and food riots, which often had an anti-Semitic undertone. It was astonished to note that tourism had been increasing again since 1915, and it was registered with bitterness that wealthy holidaymakers in the tourist centers had almost all the food and luxury goods they wanted, bypassing state regulations, while the non-privileged classes had access to Satisfaction and survival depended on hamster rides and coal theft. The belief that there would be enough food for the entire population if it were only distributed more fairly led to an enormous loss of credibility for the state. The knowledge to self-sacrifice all the burdens imposed by the war and yet - as in Prussia for example - to be stamped by the undemocratic three-class suffrage to people of second and third choice, undermined the trust in any form of state authority well into the time after graduation of the armistice.

Against the background of the acute food crisis, a class-specific solidarity behavior developed. For example, women and young people during their "procurement trips" to the countryside, which are illegal under the law, could count on being covered by railway employees from investigators. Under the conditions of the war, the subjective value system of law and justice shifted: The sharp rise in juvenile delinquency was mainly due to the fact that many adolescents had no other contribution to the survival of their families than theft. Their fathers, drafted as soldiers, could not fully replace them as breadwinners. The denial or downplaying of the problems perceived as serious by the population through unconvincing statements by the authorities seemed to legitimize one's own actions beyond the established law.

The needy population reacted with scorn and mute protest to seemingly absurd advice from the War Food Office and its subordinate authorities that the starving people should use 2,500 chewing acts for 30 bites in 30 minutes to ensure better food utilization. The recommendation to use ingredients such as butter and anchovies, made in 1917 in war cookbooks, was in stark contrast to all of our own experience and could only provoke a shake of the head. And the war kitchens, which were also introduced to reduce the bad mood at the local level, were more a forum for exchanging personal experiences than a suitable means of "raising war morale". The "National Women's Service", founded not least to mobilize perseverance, repeatedly encountered subjective empirical values ‚Äč‚Äčthat counteract the content of the official propaganda.

Everyday life at the front

Contrary to the optimism displayed by the front newspapers, which were under press censorship, the soldiers learned of the oppressive conditions in their homeland from letters from their wives, parents or children. While the crews in the stage and on the ships of the deep sea fleet at anchor also complained in their letters to the field about the unfair distribution of food and the preferential treatment of officers, there were fewer grounds for such complaints on the front line. Here, however, the contradiction between the official war propaganda and everyday reality was felt to be particularly drastic. Instead of shining heroes who gloriously defended their homeland, the soldiers were confronted with the brutal reality of trench warfare. Regardless of the amount of casualties, the soldiers' lives were used in endless material battles. If the official authorities spoke of "heroic death" in the "field of honor", the soldiers knew that their fallen comrades were collected by the thousands during pauses in fire, quickly sprinkled with lime to protect against epidemics and buried in a hurry. For the relatives at home, death, disability or reports of missing persons were a great deal of suffering. Many bereaved relatives asked insistently about the meaning of the loss, as the war opponent Heinrich Zille wanted to express in his parody of the awards customary in war: The fallen father received the "Iron Cross", but the family of five is threatened with poverty and one unsecured future.

The soldiers at the front saw the war as a "cage" from which there was no escape. It was not personal courage or bravery that determined the outcome of a battle, but the reliability and precision of the weapons used and the amount of ammunition available. Technology dominated the war, in which people were subordinated to weapons and which made it clear that the path to modernity was accompanied by the danger of human annihilation. The apocalyptic vision of the last days of mankind found its first counterpart in this war. Many soldiers found their last stop only in prayer and in military chaplaincy.

In the years of struggle for short-term land gain, not one step closer to the end of the war, the inevitable question of the meaning of the war arose more and more urgently. In order to escape the endlessly horrific killing and being killed in this mass war, soldiers did not shrink from self-mutilation. Many volunteers who rushed to the flags in 1914 to fight for "German intellectual culture" against the "materialistic civilization of the West" did everything to escape the front as "bed-wetter" or "hypochondriac". The experience of a community exposed to the enemy fire like "In Stahlgewittern" to life and death created the specific perception of the war by the soldiers fighting on the front line: Their "front-line experience" of trench warfare and material battles closed itself off even to soldiers on the front-line stage. Isolation and dulling from the omnipresence of suffering and death, indispensable for their own survival, but also pride in their achievements in the community, characterized the value system of the front-line fighters. Alienated from civil life for years and mutated into "war machines", many of them were unable to reintegrate into the structures of a civil society after the war. At the end of the war in 1918 there were around 2.7 million physically and mentally disabled combatants in Germany. The terrible sight of the disfigured and mutilated with prostheses was part of everyday life in the post-war period and was a permanent reminder of the war to the public.