World War I Short Fiction Essay - Critical Essays

World War I Short Fiction


World War I Short Fiction

World War I was the first great international conflict of the twentieth century and is remembered as the first war in which modern technological weapons were used extensively, resulting in massive human casualties and conclusively changing the nature of combat. For many intellectuals, the utter devastation of the Western Front shattered the optimistic belief that a new era of human achievement and cooperation would emerge through continued scientific and social progress. Machine technology, which had previously been regarded as a source of prosperity and comfort, now aided in widespread slaughter, and the brutal nature of combat reminded observers that moral enlightenment could not erase humanity's essential animal nature. Even as it was unfolding, the war presented a vast human drama and an absorbing literary subject. Viewed historically, the World War I period remains among the most fascinating eras of the twentieth century.

Many European writers and intellectuals actually welcomed the outbreak of war in the summer of 1914; among them were young German and English short fiction writers inspired by romantic patriotism who volunteered for service. For the most part they offered a poetic summons to battle, espousing such traditionally valorous ideals as honor, duty to the fatherland, and courage in the face of the enemy. As the dehumanizing nature of machine-age warfare became apparent, old values were reassessed by combatants writing from the trenches, and the great battles of the Western Front became the settings of new, realistic portrayals of combat, often containing bitterly satiric portraits of commanding officers, whom many writers blamed for the sweeping casualties in the front lines. Under the uncertain conditions of trench life complicated by disease, inexperienced leadership, and the constant threat of death, the early enthusiasm and optimism of volunteers yielded to a pervasive disillusionment that haunted many writers of the World War I generation for the rest of their lives. Eventually, a compassionate tone—unknown in previous war literature—emerged in the works of several short story writers, who sympathetically portrayed enemy soldiers suffering the same dehumanizing experiences at the front. Although a number of battle chronicles and memoirs found publication in the postwar period, interest in war literature generally declined as society returned to peacetime concerns.

The achievement of women writers in the genre of World War I short fiction has been a growing area of critical discussion. The authenticity of women's literary efforts were questioned early on, as men were considered the only legitimate interpreters of wartime experience. Yet many women did participate in paramilitary and medical forces during the war and gained firsthand experience at the Western Front. The female perspective on combat as well as accounts of the personal experiences of women in hospitals and near battlefields have attracted much critical attention in recent years. Moreover, women on the home front wrote short fiction reflecting the anxiety, grief, and disillusionment felt during those years. These stories are regarded as valuable contributions to the canon of World War I literature.

Representative Works

Women's Writing of the First World War [edited by Angela K. Smith] (short stories, novels, sketches, diaries, letters, and nonfiction) (anthology) 2000

John Peale Bishop
“Resurrection” (short story) 1922

Joseph Conrad
“The Tale” (short story) 1917

Georges Duhamel
Vie des martyrs: 1914-1916 [The New Book of Martyrs] (short stories) 1917
Civilisation 1914-1917 [Civilization; written under pseudonym Denis Thevenin] (short stories) 1918

Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Home Fires in France (short stories) 1918
The Day of Glory (short stories) 1919
Raw Material (short stories) 1923

Leonhard Frank
Der Mensch ist gut [Man Is Good] (short stories) 1918

Jaroslav Hašek
The Red Commissar, Including Further Adventures of the Good Soldier Svejk and Other Stories (short stories) 1981

Ernest Hemingway
In Our Time (short stories) 1925

Rudyard Kipling
A Diversity of Creatures (short stories) 1917
Debits and Credits (short stories) 1926
Limits and Renewals (short stories) 1932

Ellen La Motte
The Backwash of War (short stories and sketches) 1916

D. H. Lawrence
England, My England, and Other Stories (short stories) 1922

Andreas Latzko
Menschen im Krieg [Men in Battle; also published as Men in War] (short stories) 1917

Wyndham Lewis
The Wild Body (novel and short stories) 1927
Blasting and Bombardiering (memoir and short stories) 1937

Arthur Machen
The Angels of Mons: The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War (short stories) 1915

Katherine Mansfield
The Garden Party, and Other Stories (short stories) 1922

Berta Ruck
Khaki and Kisses (short stories) 1915

Bruno Vogel
Es lebe der Krieg! Ein Brief [Long Live War! A Letter] (short stories) 1925

Fritz von Unruh
Opfergang [Way of Sacrifice] (sketches) 1919

Edith Wharton
“Coming Home” (short story) 1915
The Marne (novella) 1918
“The Refugees” (short story) 1919

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

SOURCE: Natter, Wolfgang G. “What Is War Literature and Why Does it Merit Study?” In Literature at War, 1914-1940: Representing the “Time of Greatness” in Germany, pp. 11-34. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Natter discusses the definition of war literature through an examination of German World War I fiction.]

One of the most compelling challenges faced by German writers during the First World War and in the interwar period was how to structure an interpretation of meaning upon the events of the war. Whether they viewed the conflict as a moral-cultural mission or a defense against imminent territorial invasion, a struggle of culture between German Geist and Western materialism or an imperialistic battle waged solely for the benefit of national ruling classes, an event tragically devoid of meaning or, finally, as the birth of the new Germany, the issue of how to interpret and represent the war pricked deeply sensitive assumptions regarding virtually every facet of German civic life.

I describe in this [essay] many of the issues that a reader must weigh in determining the meaning of the war in the literature, particularly between 1914 and 1940. The [essay] also discusses why it is necessary to pursue the general question of how—through the interaction of military, academic, and publishing agencies—a particular knowledge about the First World War was created and disseminated. In this collaboration between political, military, and literary institutions, the guiding framework emerged for what became a war aesthetics. A consideration of the ongoing consequences of this interaction informs the analysis of each focus in [various essays in Literature at War, 1914-1940: Representing the “Time of Greatness” in Germany].

The textual object from which this analysis proceeds is the war book—principally books of prose, written both during the war and afterward, that deal with the war experience. This definition of the subject as “war prose” replicates the hybrid character evidenced by the source material and its reception. Moreover, while functioning as accounts of battlefield events or, more broadly, of a nation at war, these war books often not only are accounts of the fighting that took place in Verdun or on the Somme but perform the function of social commentary, expressing views of German society and nationhood from within a teleologically oriented, though shifting, historical framework. In them (and alongside them, in the institutional mediation that frames them), an imagined community is being forged.1

Within this broad categorization, proximity to the front—and to the front line of combat—is the ultimate ground of authenticity for the genre as a whole. Such a framing of war for the purposes of literary depiction is hardly inevitable; the lives of women munitions or textile workers or public and private practices outside the workplace during the war might as readily serve as the material for the narration of war experience. And the First World War in Germany also provided some access for women volunteers to the Etappen (support zones) in proximity to the front—as trench diggers in Alsace, for example, and news service personnel.2 But because the Erlebnis (experience) of the front—this most “sacred space,” in the language of much commemorative literature written during and after 1918—was fundamental in Germany and because direct experience of this space remained generally off-limits to women, what contemporaries in Germany took to be the war book is almost exclusively a male genre.3 Indicatively, nationalist critics of Erich Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, the most widely read war book of the Weimar period, challenged its success by asking whether the author had really been at the front and, in particular, the combat zone. Could he personally authenticate the experiences that his narrator had made his own? These critics thus employed a code of spatially defined legitimacy that equated authentic and privileged masculinity with the front and femininity with less sacred spaces of cultural practices and memory.

Despite such assertions of masculinist privilege, this hardly means in theory that the wartime division of labor along gender lines—most generally, front and home front—ought provide only (male) soldiers with a war experience to narrate, or, as importantly, precludes a recognition that masculinity and femininity are not equally under construction during wartime (and, thereafter, in books that thematize the war) both “at home” and at the front.4 In war books about the First World War published during it and the periods of Weimar and Nazi Germany, however, the gendered character of “experience” that emerged during wartime overwhelmingly separates men and women physically along binary zones of activity and create norms among gender roles and attributes according to a masculine martial code.

Given the difference in settings available to subjects during the war, it should not be surprising that a chasm separates the war experience for men and women. An absolute divide is, in fact, insisted upon by many soldier-poets and their interpreters who deny the possibility of communicating battle experience to those who have not been there, thus again privileging that “sacred space” of combat. But in spite of that binary cultural coding, the social truth remains that gender by itself is anything but homogenous or fixed; in pre-Second World War Germany a multiplicity of possible subject positions developed in tandem with particularities of class, religion, gender, and region.5 In the German context of the First World War, moreover, a cultural struggle to align the lived experience of its participants with the prospect of an official national history is particularly fragmented because after 1918 the war is a lost war. The character of this loss complicated passage toward a common, that is, national, memory of it. Such fragmentation is precisely what much National Socialist rhetoric offered to stamp out by promising to deliver the closure to German national history that had been promised but deferred during the war years. Between 1919 and 1939, the domain of experience anchoring what will come to pass as national history is increasingly and emphatically not multiple or fragmentary but rather masculinist, racialized, and self-contained. This is particularly true after 1933, when combat and the front are again rectified as the site of character rebirth essential for the reemergence of the nation.

Direct experience of rebirth, consequently, is available only to combatants, not to those kept from the front by sex or age. What is given to women within this construct is knowledge of the spaces of experience that follow from a front versus home front divide, the noble virtues of sacrifice, nurturing, and service to the combatant. The idealized subject position being called for (including writing by middle class women during the war—for example, Gertrud Bäumer and Thea von Harbou) embodies “quiet preparedness for sacrifice,” “women's service,” and “quiet heroism,” both “good” and nationalist at the same time.6 This nationalization of femininity calls for a subject who will share (with nationalized masculinity) the ethic of self-sacrifice while transforming attachments from personal to “higher” forms of love, independent of individuals and, of course, class interest.7 The model of development for fighting men in this construct makes their war experience the mutually reenforcing grounds linking the Bildung of masculine self and nation.8

The war and its retelling in war books thus crucially marks the linkage of experience and history, (gendered) subjects, and national identification. Not coincidentally, several antiwar narratives written during the Weimar Republic widened the frame of the war book to include wartime experiences at the home front and among civilians precisely to provide an expanded context for an effective social critique of war mobilization (and experience).9

In contextualizing how war books enact these various functions, moreover, this study simultaneously examines a constellation of issues affecting the production, distribution, and reception of literature between 1914 and 1918. Books have a substance and materiality without which their messages cannot enter circulation—an important practical consideration given the regulation of paper supplies during the war. More generally, a number of institutions will be shown to mediate the materiality of the book, what is and is not contained in it. As Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes insisted, the book (or, in Barthes' case, the text) is not simply the object that one holds in one's hands. Writers and their intentions form only one part of this social process. No text exists outside of the support that enables it to be read; any comprehension of a writing depends on the forms in which it reaches its readers.10 Implicated in this understanding of literature as a social process are the activities of publishing houses, booksellers, states, academies, libraries, and archives, which have all promoted and inhibited the parameters of the iterable on this subject. The concept of “war book” will therefore here also refer to the general expectations designated for and particular institutions of “the book” in a society at war.

In several significant regards, the First World War manifests the symptoms of the “end of the age of the book” in Germany in the powerful sense that an entire support system and cultural program was mobilized in its name for perhaps the last time.11 The presumed “Germanness” of book culture, from Gutenberg and Luther through the aesthetic Bildungsprogram (program of education and development) of the Enlightenment, to the comparatively high levels of book production and readership in 1914, all became “facts” of German cultural superiority usable in the war effort.12

For some thirty years after the Second World War, study of German literature of the Great War—as it is still referenced by scholars working from other national perspectives—lay largely dormant. A recent article has appropriately characterized the (non)treatment accorded this facet of German literature by noting its status as a “stepchild of literary criticism.”13 Reasons for this neglect are in one sense conveyed by the changing concepts used in German to designate its subject. The designation as the “First World War,” now in usage, became necessary after the “Second World War” linked the lapsed singularity of the first to a catastrophe that all the more marks a limit of understanding. That designation, in turn, had replaced “der Weltkrieg” used in Germany during the interwar period, which itself was a replacement of the label die große Zeit used by contemporaries in the first phase of the ongoing war. The First World War has not been the “time of greatness” for some time now for those few scholars of Germanistics who addressed it following the Second World War.

The limited attention paid the topic until recently also reflects the history of such treatments during the Weimar Republic and, more portentously, during the Third Reich. In writing about literature of the First World War today, one is not only writing about “the war” but also engaging this tradition of its reception. Few issues were as highly contested in Germany between 1918 and 1933 and beyond as the question of how to render “meaning” unto a war that had left nearly two million dead and nearly five million wounded and furthermore had left Germany the vanquished opponent charged by the Treaty of Versailles with being the sole culprit for the war's outbreak and devastation. There were no material spoils of war for the German Reich, none that even remotely postulated that the nation had made a good exchange for the resources expended. Any cultural capital to be forged from the war in Germany after 1918 would necessitate a dramatic reordering both of the war's events and of the society interpreting them. As we shall see, both would be forthcoming.

Unlike writers in France, the United States, and England, who after 1918 could at least represent the war as a victorious campaign for self-preservation, democracy, or expansion permitting the expense of life and material to appear justified, if costly—those in Germany could offer their readers little tangible solace, profit, or glory for four and a half years of suffering and loss. To begin with, the high casualty rate virtually ensured the personification of loss in Germany. A reminder of such total, private, and collective loss and of loss despite survival was omnipresent via the wounded, sometimes maimed or limbless survivors present on the streets of Weimar Germany.14 More numerous, dependents of the war dead, especially widows' children, “paid the cost of World War I in installments of their daily lives.”15 Commenting on another aspect of this exposure to loss, Walter Benjamin remarked that language itself offered telling insight on how total the loss of a war was in the collective life of a nation. Not without some recognition approaching empathy, Benjamin analyzed a collection of essays edited by Ernst Jünger as indicative of the severity of that trauma for these veterans. Jünger's volume pointed to the unflinching demand for another (total) war as the sole means to regain the “entire substantive and spiritual substance of the people” that had been invested and lost in the First World War.16

Belletristic renderings of the meaning and significance of the war in Germany, as well as criticisms of such literature, consequently entered into a highly charged public arena in which issues directly tied to the war's legacy (and thus its interpretation) and the specific forms of its public commemoration were a matter of unresolved dispute. Any writing about the war immediately “mobilized” positions regarding war guilt, the Kaiser's abdication, the status of the 1918-1919 revolution, attitudes toward the Republic's legitimacy, veterans' compensation, war memorials, and rearmament—to name but a few—that were daily matters on the political and journalistic palette.17 Post-1918 writings about the war can thus be perceived as engaged in a wider, belated, and interdiscursive battle for control over the war's events, dates, and symbols—that is, as individual efforts to authorize specific competing narratives and their attendant “lessons” for the present.

Those German writers who sought to represent the events of the war in literature could be assured, particularly after 1928, of a broad audience interested in a set of issues whose narratization unmistakably related the questions of aesthetic representation to issues of politics, history, and public memory construction. At the same time, journal reviews appearing during the Weimar Republic that reacted to the flood of publications following the unexpected success of Remarque's novel All Quiet on the Western Front generally focused on the presumed moral, political “lessons” offered by the work, and this in terms that set up a simple binary opposition. One was either “for” Remarque or “against” him. The heated debate over the “true” meaning of the war (and to a lesser extent the “proper” literary form that such meaning should assume), which became particularly acrimonious as sides were drawn for and against Remarque, engaged a surprisingly broad audience. An individual work of literature rarely provokes the type of reaction that leads, as with Remarque's book, to mass-circulation newspapers printing reader responses for nearly half a year after its initial appearance.18

What is at stake in this unprecedented public literary reception—nearly one million copies of the novel were sold within a year—is more than a misunderstood notion of aesthetic enjoyment and aesthetic judgment: for contemporary audiences, the debates surrounding war literature brought questions of interpretation on a nexus that one could regard as the genealogical issue for a republic born out of defeat and revolution. The categories of aesthetic and political discourse, often separated, are explicitly united in this discussion.

Any analysis that would do justice to the phenomenon of German war literature would do well to consider the contemporaneous conditions affecting the unusually public reception of these works and therewith a host of reception-theoretical implications. Because it was of significant interest to readers outside the German university, the institutional setting of the discipline called Germanistik, it will not do to be content with a consideration of the reactions of a few vociferous Germanisten toward this new type of literature.

That would be difficult in any case, because with some notable exceptions examined below, institutionalized Germanistics remained largely silent during the Weimar Republic about contemporary literary treatments of the war, a situation that would change dramatically after 1933. Moreover, in thinking about the literary complex that one critic in 1931 would sloganize as the “literary return of war” it becomes pertinent to consider the conditions affecting the production and reception of these works in the context of a mass market.19

If the intersection of literature with other forms of social and political discourse is unusually animated by the reception of war literature during the Weimar Republic, any present reading of such works is further affected by the use and abuse of war literature and the mythology of the front by the National Socialists. The unusually young generation of leadership that assumed power in 1933—former corporal Hitler and the last leader of the Richthofen Staffel, Hermann Göring, being two salient examples—was strongly influenced both by its experiences during the war and, after 1918, by the war's interpreted legacy. Although it would clearly be reductionist to attribute the complex nature of National Socialist cultural politics to the personal tastes of Hitler, it is still worth bearing in mind that the Iron Cross recipient took a personal interest in the memoiristic and belletristic literature written by fellow combatants and indeed took time to write endorsements of any treatments he found particularly admirable.20

The bitter campaign waged by the party against Remarque's book and the film inspired by it was a harbinger of the May 1933 burning of that book along with other similarly undesirable literary interpretations of the war. The so-called Feuerspruch (tribunal) in Munich on May 10, 1933, singled out the war novels of Remarque, Gläser, and Renn for condemnation with the following proclamation: “Against their besmirching and insulting of our fallen soldiers, against the defilement of our national honor, on behalf of the nation's will to resist, I consign to the flames the writings of E. M. Remarque, the writings of Karl Renn and Ernst Gläser.”21

Having thereby been expunged of any “incorrect” renderings, the war literature sanctioned by National Socialism became a bulwark of the regime's cultural and educational politics. By the time the next world war had begun, the “best” of this “literature of soldierly nationalism” had been canonized in the curricula of German high schools and universities, made available in inexpensive editions for all readers, and become one of the preferred objects of analysis for National Socialist Germanistics.22

As the introduction to Weltkrieg und Deutsche Dichtung (World war and German poesy), a school textbook published by the firm of Schönigh, noted, the nationale Erhebung (national uprising) had placed new demands on teachers and students. With selections from Walter Flex, Werner Beumelburg, Joseph M. Wehner, Hans Carossa, Paul Alverdes, Ernst Dwinger, Hans Grimm, Paul Dörfler, and the war letters of fallen students edited by Philipp Witkop, the textbook offered current students the “best, and best known” of the war poets. It was expected that in reading them, “the new generation of youth will stand in admiration before the immeasurable achievements of the German people during the World War, grateful to their boundless love of the Fatherland, and their unconditional fulfillment of duty. They will be deeply moved by this heroism that is demanded by our own age again as well.”23 A well-received (and, thereafter, frequently cited) literature dissertation published in 1937 aptly summarized and articulated the necessity of reordering the war's events and meaning to allow for their “correct” meaning to again generate cultural capital: “We recognize that in the trenches of Verdun an era was buried and that from Verdun's graves a new epoch of German history was born. Only a mode of understanding that is able to see in the German people's fight for existence the demise of the outmoded and the unfit and the birth of a new community of our people—that is, a mode of understanding that grasps the unique dynamic of the events of the World War—will be able to understand the inner value of World War poetry and will help us to hear the testament of the dead.”

Consistent with the “unique dynamic of the events of the World War,” the aesthetic categories elsewhere identified by Walter Benjamin as “creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery” were to remain largely paradigmatic for the literary movement that dominated the literary and academic marketplace during the Third Reich and whose “uncontrollable application” of these categories is enacted in the war literature of Werner Beumelburg, Heinrich Lersch, Ernst Jünger, Börries von Münchhausen, Hans Grimm, and Hans Friedrich Blunck, among others.24 After 1933, the above-named authors became cultural icons of the new regime, enthroned in the newly re-formed Academy of Arts in Berlin.25 Beumelburg's career is particularly symptomatic of how (properly written) war literature intersects with the cultural politics of National Socialism. He began his literary career as a semiofficial military writer and went on to write four best-selling war novels during the Weimar Republic before becoming corresponding secretary of the Academy of Arts.26 The soldier-poet, in turn, whose moral and aesthetic mission derived from his wartime experiences, became a model for the next generation of aspiring soldiers and authors.

Soon after the beginning of the Second World War, a noteworthy volume appeared that focused solely on writings about the First World War as the inspiration for those beginning to fight the Second. Published in 1940 in the Nordland-Bücherei, the title, Wie die Pflicht es befahl: Worte unserer Weltkriegsdichter (As duty commanded: Words of our world war poets), crystallizes the lesson its selections present. As the foreword by Matthes Ziegler (“At war, 1940”) amplifies, the writings selected for the anthology (several by Jünger, others by Beumelburg, Flex, Thor Goote, Groch Fock, and Hans Steen) were meant to steel the resolve of a new generation of fighters to risk death for a greater good, the good of the German Volk. For Ziegler, the combatant (addressed with the familiar Du form) learns that death is not the destroyer but the preserver of life, “embodied” in the Volk. Furthermore, this generation of soldiers was told that they owed a debt to past ones and were thus required to share the same commitment to this greater good, comforted in the certainty that their sacrifice would in turn be similarly honored. “The reverence that we accord to our forefathers will in time be accorded to us by those who follow. Just as we take up the duty which the blood sacrifice of the World War laid upon us, our children will one day need to draw their faith in Germany and the strength to fight from our commitment and our sacrifice.”27 Within this logic, an economy of debt (Schuld) owed the fallen necessitates reciprocity. After 1939, the words of canonized war poets of the First World War (particularly those who had died in combat, such as Walter Flex) were often included in the mourning services of the newly fallen.28 Within months of the appearance of Wie die Pflicht es Befahl, the first publications by the new generation of thus inspired “soldier-poets” began appearing, including volumes that joined two generations of combat soldiers in topical literary anthologies.29

For those literary critics inclined to a misunderstood classic-idealistic view of art as an autonomous realm of aesthetic reflection or, alternatively, who differentiate between authentic works of art and endless recyclings by the culture industry, study of war literature leads to thorny questions. First, from a critical perspective informed by the search for “beautiful appearance,” there appears little literary merit in much of this writing. Most of the novels, and particularly those of greatest interest during the Third Reich, are formulaic, stridently nationalistic, and permeated with resentment. A formalist reading of these works will find little to affirm—unless read against the grain and through the optic of an aesthetic of terror or pain.

Second, the manifest impact of state and market structures on this art would seem to doom it to the Germanistic limbo of so-called trivial or tendentious literature. Even worse, the scenario of utopian redemption that underlies some current interest in likewise-forgotten popular authors will hardly find much to laud in the dystopia of the nationalist battlefield. Characteristically enough, the few studies of war literature in general and Remarque in particular that appeared in the West during the immediate post-Second World War period seemed most interested in asking whether Remarque's book was aesthetically sound and deserving of inclusion in university canons of literature. The answer in most cases, due perhaps to a discomfort with Remarque's status as a best-selling author, was a resounding no.30

Despite such discomfort, Remarque is today probably the most remembered of all the best-selling authors who wrote war narratives during the Weimar Republic. What characterizes the scholarly treatments of his war and postwar novels, however, is also true of the several hundred others published immediately before and after the success (and immediate translation) of All Quiet on the Western Front.31 Nonetheless, the works penned by Remarque along with those by Ernst Jünger, Edlef Köppen, Arnold Zweig, Werner Beumelburg, Josef Magnus Wehner, Bruno Vogel, Ludwig Renn, Adam Scharrer, Philipp Witkop, Walter Flex, and others, have come to stand for the range of experiences and understandings of millions of German soldiers who fought during the war.

It has become an accepted truism that the First World War was an overwhelming experience for the veterans who survived it. Reading their war novels, supplemented perhaps by memoirs and letters, might therefore seem ideal for getting at the transformation in consciousness that so many contemporaries had noted as the war's legacy. Doing so would appear all the more valuable because these novels are some of the few available sources through which to approach the war's primary victims. The Frontschweine (common soldiers who served in the front lines), in fact, have largely been silenced in the official histories and literary histories of the subject. Rather like Africans in Georg Hegel's use of the continent in his Philosophy of History, their voices—at least judging by the treatment accorded them by scholars—have not counted in spirit's self-actualization.32

Although reading best-selling war books published between 1914 and 1945 leads to a more accurate understanding of what constitutes “representative” works of literature for the period, simply lamenting the absence of such works on current university reading lists, or, conversely, making such “voices” accessible through their inclusion in the contemporary canon, does not in itself do justice to the voices silenced before their time by bullets or disease—or by the operative parameters of the iterable. For as later chapters will demonstrate, precisely the relation between the textual order found in letters, diaries, and works of literature written by soldiers on the one hand, and the mediating institutional forces that frame this order on the other, encourages reconsideration of any presumed self-identity or sovereignty attached as a property to the writing subject in question.

Exploring the history of the reception of war literature, however, does invite interest in the interrelated problems of disciplinary history and literary canonization. For here is a genre of literature, representatives of which had at one time been canonized with the ideological vehemence of midcentury German Germanistics and that furthermore had contributed a significant number of the best-sellers sold in Germany between 1914 and 1945, all but forgotten some fifty years later by the same discipline. Literary tastes obviously change, as do the ways critics read literature, and a history of the reading (and nonreading) of works about die große Zeit immediately confirms the recognition that any attempt to portray the enterprise of literature and its critique as subject to unchanging and eternal laws of value is a disingenuous and ideological, not to mention ahistorical, veiling of its operation. Treating the period between 1933 and 1945 as an exception (a Betriebsunfall [company accident], as it were), however, tends to enure the rest of the post-enlightenment institution of literature in Germany from such critique.33

What has been glaringly missing from scholarly treatments that seek to come to grips with the “experience” of the First World War on the basis of the extant literature is a concomitant reading of these works viewed in the context of the institutions that mediate them.34 Regarding the difference in the literary language used in these works as a violence wrought on everyday speech is a necessary first step in overcoming this lacuna. Equally important, however, is a consideration of the dimensions of violence implicated by the process whereby language interpreting the war was created, disseminated, and received in Germany.

I attribute such importance to this question for many reasons, the first involving the already-mentioned broad reader reception during the war and, under different conditions, thereafter. As a type of hybrid, but not technical, writing whose implied reader after 1918 was one remembering (and perhaps reinterpreting) recent experience, literature about the war commanded national attention; it was discussed in newspapers, by veterans' organizations, in parliament, and even in churches beginning in the middle period of the Weimar Republic. Erstwhile combatants and those whose lives were affected by the war found in these works a medium through which to reflect on “what had really happened.” This Weimar-era reception is informally connected to academic institutions of art and is largely propelled by the perceived and actual vicissitudes of the book market.

Furthermore, most of the individuals who received attention as writers of war novels or published diaries were newcomers to the literary marketplace. Jünger, Remarque, Köppen, and Wehner each either had no literary ambition before 1914 or had no success. Hans Carossa, already a well-established author of the well-known Insel Verlag a decade before publishing his war diary, Rumänisches Tagebuch, in 1924, and Walter Bloem, who was one of the best-selling German authors well before he wrote his Kriegserlebnistrilogie, are the exceptions rather than the norm. Many of these new authors received their literary training during the war, as poets or writers of short stories or letters published for the first time in army or civilian newspapers. The shift that Benjamin observed affecting the relation between authors and readers, and therewith the fundamental status of both reading and writing—more readers at the same time becoming authors—was accelerated by the First World War. As he noted, “The facts today are such that there exists hardly any European engaged in the working process who could not find opportunity for publication based on a work experience, a grievance, a report, or similar event. Therewith, the fundamental differentiation between author and audience becomes less distinct.”35

Although the constellation of economic, educational, and social developments underlying this fundamental shift in reading and writing practices already had begun to be felt in the wake of the printing press and then the Enlightenment, and more rapidly so after the mid-nineteenth century, the First World War dramatically accelerated and consolidated development of a mass reading culture in Germany. The forms that this development took at the end of the Wilhelminian period lend considerable credence to Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer's thesis that the aesthetic ideology articulated under the aegis of Enlightenment reason would by the middle of the twentieth century reify into the production of material of subjugation.36 Following chapters will show that the type of reading and writing encouraged during the war by state structures informed by instrumental reason demonstrates an overarching intention to provide a palliative for real suffering. This intention was carried out with the cooperation of an affirmative culture industry whose technological capacities for production and distribution incarnate a modernization that is in stark contrast to the manifest content of the works disseminated. Editions of more than 500,000 became commonplace during the war for the most successful of these books. The resistance previously encountered in the book trade—in particular, demands for inexpensive books by proponents of the Volksbildung Bewegung (popular education movement) dissolved as part of a national imperative to provide “our fighting men” with textual evidence of the culture they were fighting to defend and to provide civilians with a taste of Frontgeist as written by contemporary soldier-authors.

Not only did numerous collecting agencies, including the Imperial Army, actively encourage soldiers to record and submit their letters, poems, songs, and prose narratives for publication, but civilians too felt compelled to add their voices to the chorus celebrating die große Zeit in forms and numbers that astonished (and sometimes dismayed) contemporary observers of the literary scene. For beginning with the mobilization of August 1914, the war was constantly described by leading politicians, government officials, and cultural authorities as a Volkskrieg (war between the nations, but also a people's war) and thus linkable in rhetoric to those earlier manifestations of a Volkserhebung (uprising of the people), particularly in 1813 (not 1848) and from 1870 to 1871. In an era of mass readership, the voice of das Volk authenticated such a characterization of this “große Zeit.” Staying within Benjamin's categories, contributions chronicling the nature of soldiers' “work experience” (and their socialization as participants of a national German culture) were particularly encouraged by collecting agencies, unlike reports of complaints.

At the same time, the audience for this new generation of writers would reach beyond academically trained or other middle-class readers to new groups for whom reading would become a relatively novel use of their free time. According to many contemporary observers, this new readership in Germany (at least among those doing military service) was in part schooled by institutions (like Feldbibliotheken [soldiers' field libraries]) that the army developed. On the home front, burgeoning organizations tied to the Popular Education Movement and worker education likewise saw their facilities and their readership actively supported as part of the war effort. For some readers-become-writers, the import of the types of books encountered in such facilities cannot be underestimated in accounting for the literary form and rhetoric perpetuating Wilhelmine-era aesthetics, which one finds in many war books published after 1918.

During the Weimar period, readers of war...

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Criticism: Female Short Fiction Writers Of World War I

Margaret R. Higonnet (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Higonnet, Margaret R. “Not So Quiet in No-Woman's Land.” In Gendering War Talk, edited by Miriam Cooke and Angela Woollacott, pp. 205-26. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Higonnet identifies and discusses several of “the misogynist barriers women had to overcome when they translated the war into words.”]

Patriarchal Poetry is the same as Patriotic poetry is the same as
                                        patriarchal poetry is the same as Patriotic poetry is
                                                                                the same as patriarchal poetry is the same.


(The entire section is 9898 words.)

Jane Potter (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Potter, Jane. “‘A Great Purifier’: The Great War in Women's Romances and Memoirs, 1914-1918.” In Women's Fiction and the Great War, edited by Suzanne Raitt and Trudi Tate, pp. 85-106. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Potter explores the transformative power of World War I on women's lives through an examination of women's romance stories and memoir writing.]

Romance and memoir are by far the most common forms used by women writers during the First World War.1 Most of the authors are unknown to us now. The works themselves are not ‘great literature’, but they are of literary and historical interest for what they say...

(The entire section is 8420 words.)

Margaret R. Higonnet (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Higonnet, Margaret R. Introduction to Nurses at the Front: Writing the Wounds of the Great War, edited by Margaret R. Higonnet, pp. vii. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Higonnet asserts that the fiction of Ellen Newbold La Motte and Mary Borden, two American nurses who volunteered for service during World War I, provides a valuable contribution to the canon of war literature.]

It was the war that had taken me to France,” recollected the novelist and poet Mary Borden.1 At the very moment when advancing armies were driving refugee women and children away from their homes in the battle zones of Belgium and Poland,...

(The entire section is 8232 words.)

Criticism: Central Powers

SOURCE: Pynsent, Robert. “The Last Days of Austria: Hašek and Kraus.” In The First World War in Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Hoger Klein, pp. 136-48. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1976.

[In the following essay, Pynsent finds parallels between the satirical military stories of Jaroslav Hašek and the drama of Karl Kraus.]

Most Czech First World War literature concerns the establishment of a Czechoslovak state. For all its horrors the war was in the end positive. Sassoon's bird suddenly burst out singing rather more meaningfully for Czechs and Slovaks than for the hung-over British, French, or Germans. Few Czech writers of war fiction...

(The entire section is 6836 words.)

Criticism: German Writers Of Short Fiction

Harvey W. Hewett-Thayer (essay date 1924)

SOURCE: Hewett-Thayer, Harvey W. “The Novel of the Great War.” In The Modern German Novel: A Series of Studies and Appreciations, pp. 214-53. Boston: Marshall Jones Company, 1924.

[In the following essay, Hewett-Thayer provides a survey of German World War I novels and short fiction, asserting that the fiction of period offers valuable insight into the German nationalistic psychology.]

In discussing contemporary affairs it is far easier to be diverting than to be comprehensive or penetrating. This circumstance lends support to the familiar saying that criticism of current literature is merely “conversation.” Any attempt at critical evaluation of current work...

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Wolfgang G. Natter (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Natter, Wolfgang G. “Remembering the Body: Bruno Vogel's Es Lebe Der Krieg! Ein Brief” In Literature at War, 1914-1940: Representing the “Time of Greatness” in Germany, pp. 192-202. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999.

[In the following excerpt, Natter demonstrates both how Bruno Vogel's Es Lebe Der Krieg! Ein Brief and its usage of the letter form bear witness to the conditions in Germany affecting the literary representation of World War I in three distinct phases: the war years, the Weimar Republic, and Nazi Germany.]

Even while the four-to-one ratio between war-affirmative and antiwar books published as of 1933 suggests the...

(The entire section is 5412 words.)

Criticism: Entente/Allied Alliance

SOURCE: Darrohn, Christine. “‘Blown to Bits!’: Katherine Mansfield's ‘The Garden Party’ and the Great War.” Modern Fiction Studies 44, no. 3 (fall 1998): 513-39.

[In the following essay, Darrohn maintains that Katherine Mansfield's well-known story “The Garden Party” provides insight into how society struggled to recover from the brutality of World War I, a “war that jeopardizes the integrity of physical bodies as well as the stability of social categories.”]

“Blown to bits!”

That is how Katherine Mansfield, still in shock just a few days after learning of her brother's death in the war, described him to a friend....

(The entire section is 10346 words.)

Criticism: English Writers Of Short Fiction

Charles L. Ross (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Ross, Charles L. “D. H. Lawrence and World War I on History and the ‘Forms of Reality’: The Case of England, My England.Franklin Pierce Studies in Literature (1982): 11-21.

[In the following essay, Ross examines Lawrence's treatment of World War I in the two versions of his story “England, My England.”]

Historians are wary of using fiction as a source of historical knowledge. Thus, A. J. P. Taylor writes: “Most novels are really set twenty or thirty years back, whether avowedly or not. Thus Galsworthy, Joyce, and even, I think, D.H. Lawrence are purely prewar in spirit.”1 An historian's unease with the anachronistic spirit of...

(The entire section is 3582 words.)

G. H. Newsom (essay date March 1984)

SOURCE: Newsom, G. H. “‘Sea Constables’ and the Blockade of January 1915.” The Kipling Journal 58, no. 229 (March 1984): 12-29.

[In the following essay, Newsom places Rudyard Kipling's “Sea Constables” within historical context—English-American relations before America's entry into World War I and the sea blockade off the coast of England in 1914.]


“Sea Constables” was first published in the American magazines, Metropolitan and Nash's, in September and October 1915.1 It was not published again until Debits and Credits in September 1926. I have compared Nash's with...

(The entire section is 4571 words.)

Robert Edward Murray (essay date spring 1990)

SOURCE: Murray, Robert Edward. “Wyndham Lewis and His Fiction of the First World War” Journal of the Short Story in English 14 (spring 1990): 41-62.

[In the following essay, Murray views Wyndham Lewis's body of World War I short stories as “an original type of war literature” and “an integral part of his development as a writer.”]


The Great War of 1914-18 was the single most important influence on the development of many European intellectuals, including the English Modernist writer and painter Percy Wyndham Lewis. The general effect of this influence was political in the sense...

(The entire section is 10464 words.)

David Clarke (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Clarke, David. “Rumours of Angels: A Legend of the First World War.” Folklore 113 (2002): 151-73.

[In the following essay, Clarke asserts that Arthur Machen's “The Bowmen” was inspired by the Angel of Mons legend, which offered encouragement to the British troops during World War I.]

It's true, Sister. We all saw it. First there was a sort of a yellow mist like, sort of risin' before the Germans as they came to the top of the hill, come on like a solid wall they did—springing out of the earth just solid, no end to ‘em. I just gave up. No use fighting the whole German race, thinks I; it's all up with us. The next minute comes this...

(The entire section is 10749 words.)

Criticism: French Writers Of Short Fiction

SOURCE: Knapp, Bettina L. “‘You Hear! You Hear! It's War!’.”1 In Georges Duhamel, pp. 46-57. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972.

[In the following essay, Knapp maintains that Georges Duhamel's two short fiction collections focusing on World War I, The New Book of Martyrs and Civilization, express the inhumanity of war and the need for compassion in the world.]

No sooner had hostilities broken out in 1914 than Duhamel volunteered as an army doctor. He served for fifty-one months, he tells us in his biography, in a mobile surgical unit not far from the front. In his four years of service, he performed two thousand operations and cared for...

(The entire section is 5152 words.)

Criticism: Associated Power

Thomas Tulloss (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Tulloss, Thomas. “Et Ego in Arcadia: Death in ‘Resurrection,’ John Peale Bishop's World War One Fiction.” Focus on Robert Graves and His Contemporaries 1, no. 7 (1988): 18-23.

[In the following essay, Tulloss views John Peale Bishop's “Resurrection” as an anti-romantic, naturalistic perspective on the destruction of war and a part of the “post-World War re-evaluation of the optimism implicit in pastoral and romantic traditions in American literature as it had existed before the European conflict.”]

John Peale Bishop, whose literary reputation has settled comfortably within the middle rank of American writers published between the World Wars, was...

(The entire section is 2935 words.)

Vanessa A. Farr (essay date spring 1995)

SOURCE: Farr, Vanessa A. “Keeping the Home Fires Burning: Dorothy Canfield and the Domestic Space of the Great War.” Focus on Robert Graves and His Contemporaries 2, no. 3 (spring 1995): 16-20.

[In the following essay, Farr argues that Dorothy Canfield Fisher's stories set during World War I “deserve a close analysis within the framework of the feminist theories of militancy that have emerged in the last few decades.”]

Dorothy Canfield, who had lived in France for periods as a child and spoke French fluently, returned to that country with her own small children during the Great War, where she worked with the war blind while her husband trained ambulance...

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Julie Olin-Ammentorp (essay date autumn 1995)

SOURCE: Olin-Ammentorp, Julie. “‘Not Precisely War Stories’: Edith Wharton's Short Fiction from the Great War.” Studies in American Fiction 23, no. 2 (autumn 1995): 153-72.

[In the following essay, Olin-Ammentorp traces Edith Wharton's reaction to World War I as viewed through her short stories.]

On June 28, 1915, Edith Wharton wrote to her publisher Charles Scribner regarding both her experiences in wartime France and her plans for writing in the near future. “I have been given such unexpected opportunities for seeing things at the front,” she reported, “that you might perhaps care to collect the articles (I suppose there will be five) in a small volume...

(The entire section is 8245 words.)

Milton A. Cohen (essay date fall 2000)

SOURCE: Cohen, Milton A. “Soldiers' Voices in In Our Time: Hemingway's Ventriloquism.” The Hemingway Review 20, no. 1 (fall 2000): 22-9.

[In the following essay, Cohen identifies the universality of combat experience and the difficulty of adjustment after the war as unifying themes in Ernest Hemingway's short fiction collection In Our Time and contends that different voices in the various stories represent Hemingway's view of war.]

In Our Time echoes with the voices of soldiers—soldiers from different nations, ranks, battle theaters, even wars. Of the fourteen stories, sixteen chapters, and introduction (“On the Quai at Smyrna”), twelve...

(The entire section is 3363 words.)

Patrick J. Quinn (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Quinn, Patrick J. “The Enemy Within.” In The Conning of America: The Great War and American Popular Literature, pp. 101-31. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001.

[In the following essay, Quinn considers several American novels and short stories that functioned as propaganda to turn the United States against Germany and rally Americans to enter World War I.]

Part of the problem with propaganda attempts to generate American interest in the Allied side was that the bulk of the country, rightly, did not see the battles being fought in France and Belgium as particularly relevant to their daily existence The conception of a global village was still decades away. Admittedly,...

(The entire section is 12490 words.)

Further Reading


Aldridge, John W. After the Lost Generation: A Critical Study of the Writers of the Two Wars, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1951, 263 p.

Survey of the writers of the lost generation, focusing on Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Dos Passos.

Blanchard, Lydia. “Lawrence on the Fighting Line: Changes in Form of the Post-War Short Fiction.” The D. H. Lawrence Review 16, no. 3 (fall 1983): 235-46.

Investigates the reasons for Lawrence's lack of short story production during World War I.

Cushman, Keith. D. H. Lawrence at Work: The Emergence of the Prussian Officer...

(The entire section is 975 words.)