As war threatened Europe in the 1930s, a physicist turned to a psychiatrist to help understand the impending violence. Albert Einstein wrote to Sigmund Freud because “the normal objective of my thought affords no insight into the dark places of human will and feeling.” Einstein recognized that the machinations of a small group of men partially explain a penchant for war. The men who control the industries, the press and the church gain wealth and power by war. What he could not understand was how the majority, which had so much to lose, succumbed to their ploys so easily. “How is it,” he asks, “that these devices succeed so well in rousing men to such wild enthusiasm, even to sacrifice their lives?”
The question is a good one. The locus classicus is World War I, a war that initially unleashed general fervor. “There were parades in the street, flags, ribbons and music burst forth everywhere,” recalls Stefan Zweig in his memoir, The World of Yesterday. “Young recruits were marching triumphantly, their faces lighting up at the cheering–they, the John Does and Richard Roes who usually go unnoticed and uncelebrated.” Yet the John Does and Richard Roes died unnoticed and en masse. American deaths in the Vietnam War ran almost 60,000 over nine years; the British suffered those losses in two weeks in World War I. In one especially ferocious (and pointless) battle at Passchendaele, British and Germans killed each other at the rate of 5,000 a day for three months, with a total death count of half a million. And yet some soldiers, for instance a corporal named Adolf Hitler, emerged from the violence entranced by war.
The new book by the Paris-based American journalist William Pfaff, who writes widely and sensibly about foreign affairs, bounces off and around World War I, which he views as the decisive event of modern times. He offers a loose series of reflections, mini-biographies and autobiographical snippets that center on war, violence, utopia and ethics. Pfaff is trying to put his finger on a fundamental shift initiated by World War I, what he calls variously the decline of chivalry and virtue, the end of heroism and the rise of romantic or utopian violence. To get at these topics he focuses on a series of individuals, most notably T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”); Ernst Jünger, the German writer perhaps best-known in English for his World War I diary, Storm of Steel; Gabriele D’Annunzio, the nationalist Italian poet and writer, who like Jünger had fascist affinities; Willi Münzenberg, the Communist propagandist; André Malraux, the leftist French novelist who ended up in de Gaulle’s government; Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian-English writer, ex-Communist and autobiographer; plus a few other figures both well-known–like Simone Weil, the French philosopher–and little-known, like Vladimir Peniakoff, a Russian-British soldier.
For Pfaff these figures all exemplify something about twentieth-century violence and the eclipse of chivalry and heroism. World War I inaugurated a nihilism that caused men to seek codes of “individual transcendence” or “utopias based on historical fictions.” His protagonists were not major political figures, but they expose “the inner history of the modern crisis.” He explains that “my individuals all saw in violence or its intellectual counterpart, manipulation, means to redemptive political change and the possibility to impose through action as well as art significant form upon historical materials and experience.” Moreover, these people repudiate “tragedy,” which imposes limits on individual and political life. “The effort to deny tragedy was among the fundamental factors responsible for what happened in the twentieth century. Utopianism defies tragedy–and fails.” By examining these selected writers, Pfaff hopes to illuminate a critical movement from virtuous restraint to utopian violence.