Symbol of industrialised war: a German railway gun during World War I.
Symbol of industrialised war: a German railway gun during World War I. U.S. National Archives

Men under heavy bombardment

In 1914, men marched off in a rush of euphoria to join the fighting in World War I. They were following an ideal of masculinity that would be torn to pieces in a blaze of automatic gunfire. The ideal of the glorious knight turned out to be a cruel mirage.

Alexander Rechsteiner

Alexander Rechsteiner

Works at the PR department of the Swiss national museum and holds an M A in modern English literature and political science.

‘War! It was purification and a relief which we felt, and an incredible hope,’ wrote Thomas Mann in 1914, shortly after the outbreak of World War I. The German writer put into words what many in Germany, but also in France, Great Britain, Russia and Austria, were feeling. ‘War at last!’: what sounds odd more than 100 years later was a widely held sentiment in 1914.
The time between 1870 and 1914 was a period of exceptional political stability in Western Europe. The last major war ended in 1871, with a German victory over France. By the start of World War I, around 40 years later, Western Europe had undergone an unprecedented transformation. In Germany the steel industry was gaining momentum, Great Britain was continuing to expand its influence overseas, and new inventions such as the telephone and the lightbulb were changing people’s lives. During this period, armed conflicts occurred in the distant colonies. Filtered through the rose-tinted lens of literature, these war experiences became heroic tales that, in Europe, shaped young people’s ideas of what war was like. They were stories of fearless ‘gentlemen’ with well-groomed moustaches and splendid uniforms, who brought the ‘long-awaited progress’ to the natives, by force if necessary.
‘Forward!’: This British propaganda poster from 1915 depicts the war as many men had imagined it: a soldier bristling with heroism, mounted on horseback like a medieval knight, brandishing a sabre.
‘Forward!’: This British propaganda poster from 1915 depicts the war as many men had imagined it: a soldier bristling with heroism, mounted on horseback like a medieval knight, brandishing a sabre. Imperial War Museum
In 1914, thanks to a chain of events, various alliances and as a result of fears and animosities in Europe, war broke out. It wasn’t just in German cities that cheering students marched through the streets. While there were also sceptical and cautionary voices alongside the euphoria that greeted the outbreak of war, in all the countries that were involved in the war hundreds of thousands of men volunteered to take up arms in the first few months. They had no idea that they were marching into humanity’s first war of industrial extermination. We’ve all seen the photos of cheerfully waving soldiers in railway carriages with ‘Excursion to Paris’ chalked on the side. They were expecting an entertaining, honourable war, more of a brawl than a bloodbath.
German soldiers leaving for the front, August 1914.
German soldiers leaving for the front, August 1914. Wikimedia / German Federal Archive
In the minds of those young soldiers, the ideal of the knight riding off to battle in his magnificent suit of armour still existed. The colourful uniforms with shiny helmets, eye-catching headgear and traditional sabres are evidence of this. Military attire was intended not to protect, but to celebrate the wearer’s masculinity, as it had done for hundreds of years. But the image of the glorious warrior quickly turned out to be a mirage. For what awaited the soldiers on the battlefield was not a hand-to-hand fight, man against man, but a highly specialised and brutally efficient war machine bred by industrialisation. The men were mown down in the barrage of the machine guns, torn to pieces by grenades and choked in the fog of poisonous gas.
French soldiers in August 1914. The French uniform of 1914 took no account of how modern warfare was conducted.
French soldiers in August 1914. The French uniform of 1914 took no account of how modern warfare was conducted. Pinterest
This industrial-scale war made one thing clear: the ideal of masculinity was at the mercy of the machine that brought it into being. What remained was corpses, artificial limbs, and shells of men driven mad by the thunder of the bombs. Men with physical mutilations and psychological damage were the very antithesis of the old ideal of manliness. These ideals have been renegotiated and redefined over and over again since ancient times. But a look at Western European history shows that the man will never live up to these ideals, and collapses under their weight on a regular basis. For all his dominance, he remains tragically enmeshed in role models. The experience of World War I also led to a change in the male role model. The art of the interwar period is evidence of this. And although the man continues to go to war, he is now not only better protected, but also usually much less euphoric.

The exhausted man

16.10.2020 10.01.2021 National Museum Zurich

For centuries, ideals of masculinity have swung back and forth between invulnerable strength, and weaknesses laid bare. The fourth exhibition by the two guest curators Stefan Zweifel and Juri Steiner at the National Museum Zurich takes a stroll through the European cultural history of mankind.

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