Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Great War and Mass Death Cults

Over a decade ago, commentator Paul Berman shared this view on the Great War's influence.

It becomes ever more obvious that the First World War was the great trauma of modern civilization. Something huge cracked in the First World War and has never been repaired. Out of the First World War came a series of rebellions against liberal civilization. These rebellions were accusations that liberal civilization was not just hypocritical or flawed, but was in fact the single great source of evil or suffering in the world. . .Behind all the movements that made these proposals was a pathological fascination with mass death. Mass death was itself the principal fact of the First World War, in which 9 or 10 million people were killed on an industrial basis. And each of the new movements proceeded to reproduce that event in the name of their utopian opposition to the complexities and uncertainties of liberal civilization. The names of these movements varied and the traits that they displayed varied — one was called Bolshevism, and another was called Fascism, another was called Nazism . . . My argument is that Islamism and a certain kind of pan-Arabism in the Arab and Muslim worlds are really further branches of the same impulse.

Paul Berman, 2003 Interview

Editor's Note: I occasionally try to present thought-provoking ideas for our readers without either disputing them or endorsing them.  MH


  1. The Cult of Mass Death goes back to the ILiad by Homer. Societies worshiping the supposed glory of the Sacrifice. Etc. Masking some darker bloodier event. .

  2. There is, of course, evidence of mass death in cultures and civilizations that pre-date WWI; however, WWI reopened the cult of industrial killing methods that are with us today. Hundreds, if not thousands, routinely murdered for a cause, to cleanse a population, to assure the power of a single religious or political thought over a population. To me the sadness is that so many are willing to participate in the elimination of other human beings for a cause--whether just or not. We have now been engaged in a world war for over 13 years, the Russia-Ukraine dispute is reminiscence of the early stages of WWI and WWII. Islamism is a form of Fascism with worldwide goals of dominance, reminiscent of 19th and 20th century imperialism. Nothing seems to change no matter how much change there seems to be.

  3. 'Twas always thus. The difference was that the massacres and genocides in ancient and medieval times where not about imposing ideas, but imposing the power of one tribe over another, sometimes amplified by one strong leader such as Alexander or Genghiz Khan. Sometimes the wars were ostensibly over resources; sometimes pure power and domination such as the Roman Empire: but the unconscious driving force was to replace the genes of the defeated people by your own genes "the Selfish Gene". Sometimes literally: One in Eight of the people in Central Asia are said to have Genghiz Khan's genes.

    The period of the Enlightenment, from the end of the Religious wars in the 17th Century until 1914, was a Golden Age when wars were largely fought by what became the Rules of War, and genocide was far less frequent. Of course these rules were much less observed when the enemy did not have a white skin.

    After 1914, then certainly the contempt of the powerful and intolerant for woolly and tolerant liberalism would seem to be good way of explaining history.