War Fever

The dawn of the twentieth century had all the conditions necessary for an outbreak of war fever. The great nations and empires of the previous centuries were struggling to hold onto their power and status. New nations were expanding and seeking empire status in the wake of shifting colonial control and changes in markets. Revolution and nationalistic zeal challenged and destabilized the status quo. War was an opportunity to demonstrate national strength and military superiority. It was viewed as both a means to hold onto power and a means to gain power. War fever spread simply because those with power did not wish to see it dwindle and those without it wanted to gain what they believed was being denied to them. Modern technology made war destructive beyond measure, but technology also helped spread the propaganda necessary to enflame populations and maintain war fever.

During the mid-1800s under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck, Germany became a unified nation and strived to become a great industrialized power. Yet while Bismarck sought unification and political strength, Kaiser Wilhelm II longed for military glory and a strong German state which could withstand a simultaneous attack by its neighbors. Leading Germany on a path of militarization, the Kaiser ignited the sparks of flame that would lead to war fever in 1914. In a recent article, Professor Holger Afflerbach wrote that war was both dreadful and “glorious” with soldiers being granted “high social prestige” especially in nations were a militarization movement had taken root.[1] Germany was not the only nation to experience war fever or to glorify the honor of soldiering. Prior to World War I, war had been limited in its scope, at least for the most part. Armies battled armies and the civilian population as a whole was relatively unaffected by combat. Total war was a concept few had experienced directly. Technology and ease in transportation had begun to change warfare during the 1800s, but it would take World War I to bring these changes to public light. So in August 1914, when the call to war was made, men signed up for what they hoped would be a quick, glorious war. The armies of Europe swelled as a patriotic fervor fanned the flames of war fever.

Strangely enough, despite entrenched combat and the undeniable horrors of modern warfare, war fever spread to the United States in 1917. In an age where media was sympathetic to the nation and national causes, little of the true nature of war made it into the far-off homes of U.S. citizens. An ocean away, the horror of war was overshadowed by patriotic notions of rallying around the flag and racing to the aid of allies. In a great crusade to defend democratic liberty, the United States promoted war fever in order to fill its military ranks. In doing so, it demonstrated the value of industrial might in world affairs, and propelled itself to great power status in a world where the traditional balance of power was shifting. Germany had disrupted the balance of power established under the Concert of Europe when it unified and became an industrial force. Fearing its closest neighbors, Germany industrialized and militarized its nation making it a rival, and a threat to European stability and status quo. The United States, on the other hand, feeling less threatened by its neighbors had dedicated its energies to industrialization. Germany recognized the danger the United States posed as a major industrial nation, but calculated that the weak U.S. military structure would hinder a U.S. response to European war. Their calculations were wrong. The United States surprised the world with a rapid response. Due in part to a propaganda campaign which not only ignited war fever but used modern technology to spread it quickly and widely throughout the U.S. population, the United States went from anti-war to pro-war overnight, albeit the actual preparations involved in having an army ready to fight took a bit longer to manage.

War fever was a contagion that benefited from the notion that a limited war produced little disruption to the home front and would grant the nation, and its warriors, prestigious accolades. While World War I would demonstrate the brutality of modern war and introduce to Europe the horror of total war in a modern age, the lessons would not be universally comprehended. Deprivations of war would be greater understood by the end of World War II when aerial bombardment turned the home front into the frontline. The realities of modern war should have eradicated war fever entirely; however, the threat of war fever returned as total war became part of history and the notion of limited war reemerged as a prominent strategy during the Cold War. Much like a viral contagion, war fever could rage for a period and then die down until once again conditions were right for its return.

[1] Holger Afflerbach, “The Soldiers Across Europe Who Were Excited About World War I,” The Conversation, August 4, 2014, (accessed October 24, 2014), http://theconversation.com/the-soldiers-across-europe-who-were-excited-about-world-war-i-29807.

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