George Mosse, “Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars” (1991) – this is a solid but relatively minor work from one of the great historians of the 20th century- and for my money, the greatest intellectual historian, though there’s stiff competition. Wouldn’t that be a fun radio show, like those sports radio shows where they argue who was the best shortstop based on obscure stats and get all heated about it, except about historians? I think it would be fun.
Anyway! In “Fallen Soldiers,” Mosse continued his examination of the cultural and intellectual trends that eventually fed into fascism. He sees these trends as a Europe-wide phenomenon, and talks a fair amount about France and Britain, but in the end, Germany and the way Germans memorialized their war dead, especially those from WWI, are his subjects here. Preexisting modes of prettifying death (Mosse writes a lot about cemetery design in the early chapters), already rife with conservative Christian and pastoral themes, get supercharged by nationalism and revanchism after the war. Again, this is more in Germany than anywhere else, but is also prominent in Italy and elsewhere the war touched.
War memorialization became a way not just to ennoble the chaos and slaughter of war, but a promise of a kind of secular deliverance. The new thing of total war would create the new man prophesied by the fascist right (and, to a lesser extent, the communist left), hard and fearless, shorn of the flabby lies of bourgeois civilization. Even conventional war monuments, Mosse argues, contributed to this gestalt, but nowhere was it more potent than I Germany, with results we all know. Ultimately, these are variations on the themes Mosse established in such earlier works as “The Crisis of the German Ideology,” but it’s a welcome additions to his project. ****