Matthias Schöning. Versprengte Gemeinschaft: Kriegsroman und intellektuelle Mobilmachung in Deutschland 1914-33. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2009. 330 pp. EUR 42.90 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-525-20017-9.
Reviewed by Franz Bokel (Independent Scholar)
Published on H-German (January, 2010)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Valuable Failures? German Books about the Great War
Matthias Schöning's study of World War I books adds to the mounting research on the intellectual history of Weimar Germany on its way to National Socialism. He examines the masses of war books that started issuing forth in 1915, boomed in 1928-29, and continued into the Third Reich. Specifically, he examines the authors' ability or rather inability to mediate their war experiences in a communicative and constructive democratic way against the persistent narrative of "the ideas of 1914." Formulated during the enthusiasm around the declaration of war in August 1914, this "myth" envisioned a national reawakening that would overcome the materialism, social divisiveness, and seeming aimlessness of the German empire (p. 7). Despite the starkly contrasting war experience, which Schöning describes as "social ground zero" (the fundamental destruction of anything social that is "war"), the myth lived on.
Schöning's study participates in the widely accepted narrative of National Socialism as the answer, however illusory, to the unresolved contradictions of Weimar. Related studies as divergent as Klaus Theweleit's Männerphantasien (2 vols., 1977-78) or George L. Mosse's Fallen Soldiers (1990) have done so before, though the latter is absent from Schöning's bibliography. In fact, an analytical focus on the conflictive representation of the war experience has dominated much of the literary analyses of Ernst Jünger in particular ever since the 1950s. Schöning places a novel emphasis, though, on the actual value of the literary response precisely as testimony to this "social ground zero" that undercuts political interpretations, whether they are "Left" or "Right," as well as aesthetic programs, whether seen by critics as "legitimate" or not.
Chapter 1 outlines the "ideas of 1914," a fairly coherent narrative promoted, though never systematically formulated, by a multitude of voices that included works by the military leadership no less than local newspaper editorials. Chapter 2 documents the possible demobilization of such ideas. Schöning traces, for instance, Thomas Mann's path from Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen (1918) to Der Zauberberg (1924), from enthusiastic promotion of these "ideas" to the ironically broken claim to a representative German authorship of universal love rising from the battlefields. Chapter 3 explores Jünger's progressive sophistication in converting the war experience into a diagnosis of a global future, leading him from initial embrace of the myth rather quickly into a distanced analysis in Der Arbeiter (1933). Steering mostly clear of Jünger's controversial Der Kampf als inneres Erlebnis (1922), Schöning maintains a commendably critical middle ground between the vitriolic condemnations and the sycophantic praise Jünger has received over the decades.
Most convincing and fascinating, perhaps, is chapter 4, which documents the "social ground zero" of the war experience through an array of social studies (including French and British) that resonate well with a large number and variety of war books by famous as well as lesser known authors. The "ideas of 1914" did not hold much water. Social differences were typically not overcome; military leadership often remained aloof; and military action more often than not led to the atomization of the individual soldier on a widely incoherent battlefield rather than "national rebirth." "Friendly fire" apparently became the rule rather than the exception, while the "discourses" of the front line and the home front grew increasingly incompatible. Irritating differences between even trench and rear echelon jargon emerged promptly and were noted in their significance early on by no other than Jünger. De facto experiences of community, on the other hand, may have included the enemy as well as friendly troops, groups that coexisted in temporary and improvised "live-and-let-live" arrangements that arguably best illustrate the essential insanity of large-scale wars between nations. Chapter 4 also covers marine and air warfare, pointing to special social conditions that gave war literature a certain genre variety. While the experience of the "flying aces" may have lent itself to romanticizing narratives of individual heroism, the experience of living in close quarters on ships for prolonged periods may have been instrumental in the production of the few available narratives of rebellion. The navy was in fact the only branch of the armed forces to mutiny in 1918.
Schöning's general conclusion extols the savvy of the "civilians," or rather, those who were not absorbed by the ideological thrust of much literature that sought to continue the war by literary means in the service of a new nation until 1933 and beyond. Thus, avoiding the politically correct moralizing that has understandably marred much research, Schöning rightly insists on the experiential value of war literature as testimony to the "social ground zero." Instead of identifying adherence to, or treason toward, humanistic values, as was done in the 1950s, or assessing the ideological legitimacy or illegitimacy of the authors concerned, as was done in the1960s and 1970s, Schöning indulges in overarching generalities more characteristic of younger generations of scholars that center around questions of memory, trauma, collective imagination, and narratology, or, in the present case, social ontology.
To be sure, Schöning's social ontology is general enough to serve as a justification for his "vertical analysis" of politically divergent narratives, vertical in the sense that the real value of the text lies not in the author's politics, but in its underlying testimony to the social ground zero of warfare. At the same time, the study wanders somewhat incoherently between arcane literary and narratological analyses of the works of exceptional individuals (Mann, Jünger) and well-taken, down-to-earth social contextualization of the purported collective war experience. On occasions, commendable critical balance collapses into ideological patronizing and taxonomical quaintness. He marks Walter Flex's Wanderer zwischen zwei Welten (1916) as "stark ideologisch" for not allowing the reader to see the "social ground zero" of war, and Erich Maria Remarque's Im Westen nichts Neues (1928) as "schwach ideologisch" for showing the brutal reality though undercutting its presumed critical goal by holding on to the idyllic image of a band of brothers in arms (p. 255).
Second-guessing a war generation on its "authentic" experience and intent is and will remain a sticky issue for literary critics, even if they take the ontological high ground. Likewise, the comprehensible praise of "civilian wisdom" is an easy pitfall. If the intellectual efforts of an involuntary noncombatant like Mann are laudable, the stance of Joseph Goebbels, also an involuntary non-combatant, may help to put matters into perspective. His Michael (1929) is no less "authentic" in its intellectual mobilization of the "new German" born from the trenches than Mann's demobilization. Neither should "female fantasies" of non-battlefield combat be forgotten. One might add to Schöning's sparse examples of woman authors that of Lily Braun, a self-declared feminist and vigorous promoter of "the ideas of 1914." Her novel Lebenssucher (1915) offered a panoramic diagnosis of the prewar period in the light of the battlefield experience in ways anticipative of both Mann and Jünger.
In the end, though, the analytical and stylistic vagaries of Schöning's study are no coincidence when we consider the enormous amount of surviving material to be covered and the virulence of the basic questions involved. As we are rightly reminded, questions of national community, unity, or even "identity" became, if anything, only more pressing in Germany after 1945. They assumed a wholly new perspective in 1989 and are arguably as relevant today as they were in 1914.
. John King, "Wann hat dieser Scheißkrieg ein Ende?": Writing and Rewriting the First World War, trans. Till Kinzel (Schnellroda: Edition Antaios, 2003), a title not included in Schöning's bibliography.
. On this question, see Günter Scholdt, "Literaturgeschichte und Drittes Reich," Kritische Ausgabe 2 (2004): 15-18; and the more recent Jay W. Baird, Hitler's War Poets: Literature and Politics in the Third Reich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 4.
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Franz Bokel. Review of Schöning, Matthias, Versprengte Gemeinschaft: Kriegsroman und intellektuelle Mobilmachung in Deutschland 1914-33.
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