Sace Elizabeth Elder

Im Westen nichts Neues:
Representations of Violence after the First World War

  • Petra Maria Schulz: Ästhetisierung von Gewalt in der Weimarer Republik. (Theorie und Geschichte der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft 21) Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot 2004. 283 S. 19 Abb. Kartoniert. EUR 35,00.
    ISBN: 3-89691-121-X.


In recent years a host of historical studies on the after-life of the Western Front of the First World War have drawn our attention to the ways in which the violence of industrial slaughter helped to shape the political culture of Germany’s first republic. As is well known to scholars of the Weimar period, the memory and commemoration of the war was mobilized by both republican and anti-republican groups to further their own political agendas. Petra Maria Schulz offers the latest contribution to a growing field of inquiry into the relationship between the war and the political violence of the Weimar period. She focuses her attention on the ways in which the radical right, particularly the National Socialists, employed images and motifs of wartime violence and the myth of the heroic soldier to critique the Weimar system and to articulate an aggressive, dynamic, and inherently violent nationalist ideology.


While the basic contours of the ›aesthetization‹ of war and violence in the political posters and public speeches of the Nazis will be familiar to many, what is new in Schulz’s work is a convincing genealogy of the symbolic vocabulary used by the Nazis in conveying their aggressive, self-sacrificing, modernist, and violent form of masculine national identity. Groups such as the Stahlhelm and the national socialist SA aestheticized violence to make sense of a lost war that otherwise seemed to lack any meaning. This process of meaning-making was conditioned by defeat and revolution, but it was the vitalist philosophy of Nietzsche and the symbology of heroism of the late nineteenth century that provided the ›semantic field‹ in which violence was represented. The process by which those two ›semantic sets‹ – vitalism and heroism – were mobilized during and after the war is the subject of her book.


This is the central contribution of Schulz’s work: to demonstrate continuity in the representational repertoire of the prewar and interwar periods. The experience of the Western Front produced a Remarquean break with traditional notions of war and violence. But the new aesthetics of violence embraced by Ernst Jünger and others made sense because they drew on an already established visual and verbal language of masculinist, anti-bourgeois political and cultural philosophy. Although the book largely ignores the many ways both republican and leftist groups mobilized war imagery for their own political purposes, Schulz’s study goes a long way toward explaining why the radical-nationalist version of the war became the dominant one.


Vitalist and Heroic Violence


Starting with the assumption that »politische Gewalt in der Weimarer Republik [...] ein gemeingesellschaftliches Phänomen [ist]« (S. 15), Schulz interrogates the visual and textual representations of violence produced by the nationalist right, and particularly by the Nazis, in their wider social and cultural context. In their warrior cults, public mourning rituals, paramilitary organizations, heroicized street fighting between the right and the left, the anti-republican, nationalist, right-wing organizations heroized and mythologized the war experience and the front-line soldier. The representation of violence in political posters, mourning festivals, fiction, and political tracts drew upon two semantic sets, according to Schulz, both of which had their roots in late nineteenth-century semiotics of violence.


She uncovers those sets by applying the method of ›semiotic discourse analysis‹ to propaganda posters, novels, soldier’s letters home, professional publicist publications, political tracts, and the like. She reads the words, concepts, phrases, and symbols as comprising a ›semantic field‹, in which she looks for continuities and breaks in representation and meaning. »Auf diese Weise kristallisieren sich Grundrisse semantischer Felder heraus, die die Konnotationen bestimmter Begriffe oder Symbole bestimmen« (S. 16). Such symbolism, however, cannot be read outside its social and cultural context. She therefore takes pains to situate as much as possible the symbolism within the cultural context in which verbal and visual codes would have been interpreted.


Largely for heuristic purposes, Schulz identifies two semantic sets that provided the vocabulary for the aesthetization of violence: that of vitalism and that of the heroism. The vitalist semantics of war she locates in Nietzschean philosophy. The notion that life is ›the will to power‹ constituted a radical critique of idealism and historicism and offered a way out of the perceived decadence of bourgeois society. Conflict, war, violence create life and renew culture, according to Nietzsche’s philosophy, which is significant to her analysis not because his ideas represent a ›prefascist‹ ideology (such debates do not interest her), but rather because his philosophy was widely familiar in the educated classes of Germany and therefore would have conditioned both the production and consumption of representations of violence.


The other semantic set can be found in the physiognomy of the monumentalized male form. The late nineteenth-century ideal of male beauty combined elements of classical and Germanic forms, but also drew on the vitalism and nudism that challenged notions of bourgeois male respectability. The new idealized male body was »hell und glänzend, vom Sonnenlicht beschienen, sonnengebräunt, blond, blauäugig« (S. 82). It also represented victory, the moment after violence, and therefore the heroic male figure was an aestheticized representation of violence. This hero embodied the nation as part of a ›post-rationalist myth‹ around the end of the nineteenth century. As such he »repräsentiert Übermenschliches, ausgedrückt durch die Erhabenheit, Distanz und Größe seiner Gestalt, und erscheint deshalb in der Lage, das ›Chaos‹ der Moderne zu beherrschen« (S. 85).


War by Other Means


Key to understanding the aesthetization of violence is the primary medium through which war was publicly represented during the conflict and through which violence would be aestheticized for political purposes in the interwar period. Schulz demonstrates it was not only the content of the propaganda that aestheticized violence, but also the form of propaganda itself that had its roots in the violence of war. She finds a close semantic relationship between the discourse of professional publicists and that of military. She argues: »Die analogen semantischen Strukturen, die zwischen dem semantischen Feld der Propaganda und dem semantischen Feld des militärischen Diskurses bestehen, deuten dabei auf eine analoge Struktur innerhalb der politischen Kultur der Weimarer Republik hin, die sich mit dem Ende des Krieges nicht qualitativ in eine zivile gewandelt hat« (S. 45). Publicists in their professional publications quite explicitly understood propaganda to be a ›spiritual battlefield‹ where the Germans had suffered defeat but where the German nation could also continue to fight for the ultimate victory: the revision of the Versailles Treaty.


There were two competing models of propaganda in the Weimar period. While advocates of liberal notions of republican citizenship sought to educate citizens to rational, enlightened notions of equality and fraternity, other propaganda theorists, drawing on the mass psychology of Gustav Le Bon and others who were essentially skeptical of the masses’ capacity for rational thought, advocated propaganda that addressed the ›feelings, desires and fantasies‹ of its recipients. (Significantly, the most visible representative of the liberal-enlightenment model of propaganda, the Reichszentrale für Heimatdienst, was dissolved by the Nazis in 1933.) The anti-rationalist potential of propaganda lent itself to the anti-democratic, anti-Enlightenment aesthetization of violence by the nationalist right in the Weimar republic. Violence in this post-rationalist propaganda »erzeugte offenbar nicht allein Angst und Schrecken, sondern war mit Erwartung und Sehnsüchten, mit Attraktivität und Faszination verknüpft« (S. 202).


War as Myth and Experience


One might expect that the heroic male form would not have survived the >Zivilisationsbruch< of the First World War or the humiliating defeat of November 1918. But Schulz finds that while this semantic set was challenged by the inglorious industrial slaughter of the first ›total war‹, it survived and coexisted with newer forms of representation. One could still find in the first years of the war the heroic image of the larger-than-life, naked male figure that recalled the Germanic mythology of the sword-bearing Siegfried. But by 1916, the idyllic and idealized male form began to give way to the contemporary soldier in his specific historical context, trenches, helmet, and all. Schulz identifies Fritz Erler’s design for the sixth war bond campaign in March 1917 as particularly influential in establishing the new visual vocabulary of representation. The image, »Mann mit dem Stahlhelm«, was a »diskursives Ereignis«, according to Schulz (S. 91). The poster (recently on display in a special exhibit at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin) for the first time portrayed a frontline soldier not only in his uniform with his weapon, but located the soldier in a barb-wired trench, gas mask (perhaps recently used) around his neck, his face blackened with soot. The soldier’s clear and far-seeing eyes, according to Schulz, suggest with their sharp contrast to the dirtiness of the face the »innere Reinheit« (S. 92):

Die Dichotomie von Schmutz und Reinheit, Schlamm und Kristall sind charakteristisch, um den alten, schlechten, gegenwärtigen und neuen, verheißungsvollen, zukünftigen Zustand auch qualitativ voneinander abzugrenzen, mit der Vision, daß die Destruktion des Alten Regeneration und Heilung verheißt» (S. 93 f.).

Erler’s poster portrayed the hero as the visionary frontline soldier who became a model, she tells us, for postwar depictions of the de-individualized , anonymous, and self-sacrificing soldier.


Erler’s image of the front soldier corresponded with a set of images and values that constituted a new mythology of war. Schulz draws on a published collection of letters written by student soldiers 1 to establish the subjective experience of the war and the semantic field in which representations of the war were produced. Older semantics of war as a glorious and heroic experience were inadequate to describe the experience of the modern warfare, she tells us, and required a new vocabulary for discussing and making sense of the war. Schulz reads out of these letters a new aesthetic of violence, influenced in many ways by the prewar aesthetics of artists and intellectuals such as Marinetti, that embraced the beauty of destruction and the regenerative potential of the machine violence. Marinetti’s pronouncement »Der Krieg ist schön« (which referred to the Italian-Ethiopian colonial war) juxtaposes effectively with a soldier’s description of a battle-scene as a »schauerlich-schönes Bild« (S. 108 f.).


Disillusionment with bourgeois notions of heroism and warfare led to the embrace of comradeship, self-sacrifice, the ›new man‹, and violence as a ›rite of passage‹ into manhood. At the same time, both the soldier’s letters and propaganda posters of the later war years reveal a persistence of the late nineteenth-century ›Heldensemantik‹. The lionized fighter pilot, for example, seemed as a ›knight of the sky‹ to be an atavistic figure in the context of modern trench warfare. Schulz argues that with the pilot »verknüpfte sich der alte Menschheitstraum vom Fliegen mit der Semantik des klassischen Helden und einer neuen Ästhetik von Männlichkeit und Technik« (S. 110).


The war represented an end of linguistic consensus not only on how to represent the experience of war, but also its meaning, especially with regard to nationalism. This rupture had important political consequences for the Weimar period, when the ›Sinnfrage‹ and the ›Schuldfrage‹ would continually destabilize the fledgling republic. Drawing mostly on the work of Ernst Jünger, Schulz outlines the new vitalist legitimation of war and violence, embodied in the myth of the ›new man‹, that attributed a meaning to the war. Such vitalism, which drew its strength from Nietzschean philosophy, made possible a new kind of heroic manliness that found its analogue in the figure of the predator rather than the Greek or Germanic god. The new man was adventurous but also brotherly (at least with other heroes) and based on a ›cult of experience‹ – experience that gave the narrator a kind of stylized authenticity. This claim to authorial authenticity and Jünger’s aesthetization of the war experience won for him a place in the publishing house of the Stahlhelm as well as the Mittler-Verlag, which produced books mainly for a military audience. The Reichswehr leadership also recognized the propagandistic potential in Jünger’s work. Schulz writes: »Jünger ist als Schriftsteller und Reichswehroffizier ein gutes Beispiel für die Interdependenz zwischen ästhetischem und militärischem Diskurs« (S. 133).


Violence and National Renewal


The connection between the new aesthetics of war and Weimar politics was embodied in the paramilitary, anti-republican veterans organization the Stahlhelm that embraced the myth of the frontline soldier who was self-sacrificing, courageous, disciplined, responsible, obedient. The Stahlhelm and other paramilitary organizations embodied the conservative-nationalist challenge to liberal notions of citizenship. The heroic masculinity embraced by Jünger and the Stahlhelm predicated political entitlement on military violence, on the ability and willingness to defend the nation. By contrast, pacifist republicanism was coded as feminine and weak.


The myths of the self-sacrificing hero and regeneration through war and destruction were thus well-established semantic sets in Weimar culture that the Nazis were able to mobilize for their own political purposes. Schulz draws on a wide range of sources to demonstrate the ways in which the Nazis used these myths in their public festivals and in their political tracts. The ›Cult of the Fallen‹, for example, was a ritual of mourning that celebrated the sacrifice of the frontline soldier and implicitly called for an ultimate victory in the war – that is, a revision of the peace. A particularly illustrative campaign poster in this regard depicts a helmeted soldier with the caption »Oder umsonst waren die Opfer« (S. 167). The SA men themselves represented the myth of the frontline soldier in their purported sacrifice for the nationalist and national-socialist cause. The SA also embodied the cult of youth, employed to distinguish the old bourgeois liberalism from the ›new‹ Germany of the future nationalist revolution. Schulz’s analysis of Nazi political campaign posters is rather unconvincing. Schulz finds in the Nazi political posters of the late Weimar period, particularly those of Hans Schweitzer’s (aka Mjölnir) ›activism‹ and violence that utilizes the form of the ›Riesen Proletariat‹ (that embodied the heroic naked male form) who smashes the houses of high finance and breaks the chains of the Weimar political system.


The National Socialists thus drew on a nationalist discourse that valued violence as a mode of action and a way of life. Masculinity meant readiness to exercise violence. The Nazi ideology was a future-oriented ideology that promised constant dynamism and a movement that held out a »utopian promise« (S. 206). In the semantic field she describes, violence served both inclusivist and exclusionary purposes. The SA man, the Hitler youth, the war veteran were united in their uniforms, their military-style marching, their brotherhood. But they also used their violence to exclude others, whether Jews, social democrats, or those lacking the ›will to power‹.


Although Schulz is primarily interested in the internal logic of the right-wing semantics of violence, the implications of her research are much broader than that. A growing body of new research into the postwar political violence in Germany challenges the model of mass psychology, according to which it was the front experience itself that desensitized and brutalized soldiers who returned to the home front ready to commit extreme acts of violence. 2 Schulz’s work would suggest that political violence, at least that embraced and practiced by the Nazis, was located in a nationalist discourse that both was predicated on the male experience of violence and legitimated, indeed mandated, personal and national redemption through violence.


Given the larger implications of her work one might have expected more in the way of a comparison between the semantics of violence used by the nationalist right and that of other organizations. Although she recognizes ›phenomenological similarities‹ in the representations of violence across the political spectrum, she attributes these to the nature of propaganda strategies rather than similar semantic fields. Schulz writes in her conclusion that she chose to concentrate on the aesthetization of violence on the part of the nationalist and radical right rather than other groups because it was there one found articulations of a masculinist nationalism:

Die Mitglieder der rechten Deutungskultur hatten einen zwar nicht unwidersprochenen, aber erheblichen und letztlich doch erfolgreichen Anteil daran, eine nationalisierte Konstruktion männlicher Geschlechtsidentität als hegemoniales gesellschaftliches Leitbild durchzusetzen. Innerhalb der deutschen Zivilgesellschaft symbolisiert dieses männliche Leitbild verdichtet die Deutungskultur des ersten industrialisierten Massenkriegs. (S. 203)

Yet the Nazis were not the only ones to use the memory of the war to construct a masculine nationalist identity. Benjamin Ziemann has outlined two divergent public memories of the war in the Weimar period that were put to political purposes. In contrast to the right-wing ›stab-in-the-back‹ version of the war, the republican version, which can be closely related to Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen nichts Neues, posited a narrative of national betrayal by a misguided autocratic government. The disastrous and tragic consequences of the betrayal were only halted by the democratic revolution, according to this view. As a defender of the Republic, the social-democratic Reichsbanner was the representative of that narrative and embraced in some regards the myth of the frontline soldier, especially the brotherhood of the trenches. 3 Certainly the radical nationalist memory of war came to be the dominant one, and Schulz’s study provides useful insight into why that might have been, drawing as it did on an established vocabulary of an anti-bourgeois embrace of violence that gave meaning to the experience of the war and also gave hope for ultimate victory. Except for a brief comparison of campaign posters, one gets very little sense from Schulz’s study how the right-nationalist representations of violence compared with those who supported the republic or the ›republican‹ memory of the war.


It should be clear by now that Schulz’s interest in representations of gender is limited to representations of masculinity and the male form. The aestheticized form of the female victim of violence, for example, does not concern Schulz. 4 She considers briefly the implications of the semantics of masculine nationalism for constructions of the feminized republic. She brings forward one illuminating source to make this point: Bogislav von Selchow’s depiction of Medusa (wearing high-heeled pumps and a star of David over her head) stabbing a uniformed soldier in the back. She discusses the way in which nationalist representations identified the Republic as a woman who practiced un-heroic violence (the Dolchstoß) and quite clearly identified the nation with the male soldier. Also interesting is her suggestion that the categories ›citizen‹ and ›soldier‹ were inherently anatogonistic in nationalist discourse; there was no return to civilian life, but rather the soldier remained a soldier – and claimed political entitlement as a soldier through participation in veterans and paramilitary organizations. In the writings of Jünger and others, »[gehörten] Männlichkeit, Kriegertum und Staat [...] ebenso konstitutiv zusammen wie Weiblichkeit, Gesellschaft und Demokratie« (S.148). This »extrem polarisierte Geschlechterverhältnis« suggests a ›militarization of reproduction‹ 5 that transformed the patriarchal structure of the family and, in Jünger’s writings, replaced the civilian family with the Männerbund.


Schulz’s work will be useful reading for anyone interested in First World War studies, Weimar political culture, or gender studies. It is a carefully argued piece that, despite its narrow focus, combines philosophy, media studies, literary criticism, and cultural history in an insightful analysis of violence in radical German nationalism.

Ph. D. Sace Elizabeth Elder
Eastern Illinois University
History Department
600 Lincoln Avenue
US - 61920 Charleston, IL

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Empfohlene Zitierweise:

Sace Elizabeth Elder: Im Westen nichts Neues: Representations of Violence after the First World War. (Rezension über: Petra Maria Schulz: Ästhetisierung von Gewalt in der Weimarer Republik. Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot 2004.)
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Philip Witkop (Hg. in Verbindung mit den Deutschen Unterrichts-Ministerien): Kriegsbriefe gefallener Studenten. München: Müller 1928.   zurück
For a discussion of the recent scholarship, see Benjamin Ziemann: Germany after the First World War – A Violent Society? Results and Implications of Recent Research on Weimar Germany. In: Journal of Modern European History 1, 1 (2003), S. 80–95.    zurück
Benjamin Ziemann: Republikanische Kriegserinnerung in einer polarisierten Öffentlichkeit. Das Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold als Veteranenverband der sozialistischen Arbeiterschaft. In: Historische Zeitschrift 267 (1998), S. 357–398.   zurück
Maria Tatar: Lustmord: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany. Princeton: Princeton University Press 1995; Klaus Theweleit: Männerphantasien, 2 Bde. Frankfurt/M.: Verlag Roter Stern 1977; Tanja Hommen: Sittlichkeitsverbrechen. Sexuelle Gewalt im Kaiserreich. (Geschichte und Geschlechter 28) Frankfurt/M., New York: Campus 1999.    zurück
Elisabeth Domansky: Militarization of Reproduction in World War I Germany. In: Society, Culture, and the State in Germany, 1870–1930. Ed. by Geoff Eley (Social History, Popular Culture, and Politics in Germany) Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press 1997, S. 427–463.    zurück