“The First World War made Hitler possible," writes Ian Kershaw, Hitler’s most recent biographer. One cannot properly understand the rise of Nazi Germany without an appreciation of the physical devastation and cultural impact of the “War to End All Wars." Without it we can’t account for a demoralized and embittered people looking for a savior, a new level of brutality and industrialized killing, and the voices of appeasement in the 1930s. The Great War between 1914 and 1918 set new precedents in the history of armed conflict. It introduced or more fully employed aerial combat, tanks, chemical gas, submarine warfare, and flamethrowers. Like never before, the combatant nations marshaled their industrial resources for war. The battlefield losses were staggering. At the Battle of the Somme in the summer of 1916, the British, French and German casualties numbered well over one million. The Battle of Verdun yielded even more dead and wounded. Like the Second World War, the first one too included a genocide: Ottoman Turkey, an ally of Germany and Austria, deported, murdered and raped about 1.7 Armenians in 1915.
A new violent spirit of antisemitism emerged in the latter half of the war in Germany and the East. The Bolshevik Revolution virtually took Russia out of the war and introduced a savage civil war. The counterrevolutionary White army and Ukrainian nationalist militias killed thousands of Ukrainian Jews in late 1919. The stab-in-the-back legend continued to generate hatred of Jews throughout the Weimar Republic in Germany.
The toll of the war on Imperial Germany was quite high. It bore the brunt of the war on two fronts and had only moderate help from its much weaker allies, the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman empires. Less than a fifth of the population served in the war; 2 million died and 5 million suffered wounds. But the biggest injury came to Germany’s honor, for the Treaty of Versailles blamed the war predominantly on Germany. (In fact, Germany’s role in starting the war is not so clear, unlike World War II that Hitler unequivocally started.) The Allies, particularly prompted by war-torn France, demanded harsh reparations, occupied a portion of the Rhineland, and stripped Germany of its military. Lastly, the Allied powers imposed a new government on their defeated foe, the Weimar Republic, which, as Ian Kershaw has written, was a democracy without democrats. Most Germans despised this weak parliamentary democracy which would come to an end in 1934 when Hitler combined the offices of Chancellor and President and dispensed with the constitution altogether.
Demagogues and organizations from the left and the right sought to fill in the power vacuum with their own vision of Germany’s future. For their part, war veterans of different stripes drew upon their war experience and added to the tensions in the post-war era. Some fought for the Freikorps, freelancing paramilitary squads that provided muscle for any right-wing cause; others became part of the Red Brigades to usher in a socialist revolution.
Let’s hear some of the multifarious experiences and post-war activities of German war veterans. The artist Otto Dix depicted the horror of war visually, as in his 1924 print above, “Machine Gunners Advancing.” Five years later, Erich Maria Remarque coped with his horrific experience of the war through the fictional character Paul Bäumer in All Quiet on the Western Front, perhaps the greatest anti-war novel of all time:
I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another…Through the years our business has been killing; -- it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of us?
Remarque went on to try his hand at writing screenplays for Hollywood. The Nazis condemned and burned his book. Armin Wegener, a medic, secretly photographed the Turks’ brutal treatment of the Armenians in the first genocide of the 20th century. In later years he criticized the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews and was awarded the “Order of Saint Gregory the Illuminator” in Armenia before dying at the age of 92 in 1978.
But not all of them disapproved of the war. Some brought back different experiences and conclusions. The highly decorated warrior Ernst Jünger, who died in 1998 at the age of 102, glorified the war in his published memoir, The Storm of Steel. He would also serve as an officer in World War II but became critical of the SS and Adolf Hitler. Hitler, a dispatch runner who acquired two Iron Crosses, joined the Reichswehr (Germany army) because he had no other prospects in his life and he was ecstatic about fighting for the Fatherland. While recovering from a mustard gas attack in the Pasewalk military hospital, he heard about Germany’s surrender, and, by his own account, had a kind of conversion experience. Thus the radical antisemite was born. The future Führer also learned another lesson from the war. Addressing the SS before the invasion of Poland that would unleash another world war, Hitler remarked:
I have issued the command — and I'll have anybody who utters but one word of criticism executed by a firing squad — that our war aim does not consist in reaching certain lines, but in the physical destruction of the enemy. Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formations in readiness — for the present only in the East — with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?