Some Costs of the Great War: Nationalizing Private Life

The costs of the Great War were truly astronomical. As with the number of stars, the final accounting is in God’s hands. The slaughters, the treasure, the faith in some kind of order of society – all of these were costs of the war. As Wilfred Owen suggested in his terrible poem "Strange Meeting," the culture of Europe seemed hell-bent on trekking away from progress toward something that literary historian Paul Fussell would later call the troglodyte world: a kind of Hobbesian vision, one might say, rendered in pen and ink by Otto Dix. Costs indeed.

Yet this essay has to do less with numbers of ended lives than it has to do with altered lives, or rather, with changes in the status of the private life of the modern individual, the modern family, the modern community. This essay is about private property, about the autonomy of the individual, and the disastrous trend, accelerated by World War I, of the state claiming the right to take at whim everything within its territory.

A secondary theme is that this great change in private life was already in process before 1914. The real agent of change was not the war, but the state and its backers and minions. Yet war as an accelerator of change was bad enough. Political and intellectual leaders in all countries welcomed the war for the collectivist changes it would inevitably bring. In the United States, one of the more important figures welcoming the war was John Dewey, a veritable god in the pantheon of our modern civil religion. Dewey saw the war, rightly, as the accelerator of the coming industrial society – a managed positivist society, which he thought of as democracy itself. (More on this below.)

Mere Statistics

Mere statistics do not tell the whole story, but they can begin to show the outline. Fifty million men worldwide were mobilized for military service in the war. Just over a fifth of them died. Civilian deaths are more difficult to calculate, but many millions died of starvation (as in the case of Germany, where between half a million and 700,000 civilians died from malnutrition), deliberate mass murder, and forced migration, while others were shot in reprisal or as spies, killed accidentally by either friendly or unfriendly fire, the victims of deliberate violence of individual soldiers (friendly or unfriendly), etc.

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January 24, 2009

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