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New Scholarship on World War I, 2000–2014: Atrocities & the Culture of War

By Frederic Krome

Atrocities & the Culture of War

The relationship between total war and wartime atrocities against civilians is a controversial one.  For example, it is very easy to read back German activities during the Nazi era into the early conflict and come to the conclusion that Germany followed a Sonderweg (special path) throughout its history, inevitably leading to the Holocaust.  Isabel V. Hull, Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany, follows the course of German civil-military relations from the German army’s colonial campaigns in Africa during the early years of the twentieth century through the Armenian genocide (1915), which took place under the aegis of the Germany military mission to the Turks.  Hull argues that rather than Germany following a special path toward genocide, the lack of control by civil society over the military created conditions that led to a military logic that determined final solutions to problems.

Alan Kramer, Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War, provides an insightful analysis of the interaction of total war with the loss of restraint upon the actions of armies.  Particularly useful is his look across national divides, placing events such as the Armenian genocide into the broader context of total war.  For those interested in the background and events of the Armenian genocide, Peter Balakian, The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, is essential reading.  Balakian reveals how a grassroots U.S. effort to help the Armenians, dating from before 1914, morphed into historical amnesia after 1918.

Larry Zuckerman’s The Rape of Belgium: The Untold Story of World War I examines the genesis and propagation of the image of the “rape of Belgium” (which, after the war, was assumed to be a figment of Allied propaganda) with the reality of events on the ground.  His detailed analysis of the tribulations of Belgian civilians forced to endure mass expropriations, arbitrary and administratively chaotic occupation, and chronic hunger are compelling.  John Horne and Alan Kramer’s German Atrocities 1914: A History of Denial first identifies the actual atrocities committed during the opening phases of the war, primarily by the German army, and then examines both Allied propaganda and German denials.  The authors also consider the impact of these events on later developments in international law and the willingness to discount later atrocity stories.

Works Cited