The Violence of War: Images and Experiences of Conflict

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: German


Wars have played a fundamental part in modern history. This project investigates their impact in a novel way. Its working hypothesis is that soldiers' and civilians' experiences of military conflict during an age of conscription and mass warfare created fears of and resistance to war that, though they were rarely acknowledged, altered the conditions under which wars were imagined, declared and waged. Nationalist imperatives of defence and taboos surrounding the realities of combat have obscured much of this opposition to war. My findings will have implications for other disciplines and fields such as historical sociology and international relations.
My own research on Germany (The People's Wars) argues that the Napoleonic wars, or 'wars of liberation', the wars of unification and the First World War decisively altered the distribution of power and relations between states on the Continent, and affected the construction and stability of a series of German regimes. The study explores how such conflicts were experienced by soldiers and civilians during wartime, and how they were subsequently represented and understood during peacetime. Without such an understanding, it is difficult to make sense of the dramatic shifts characterising the politics of Germany and Europe over the past two centuries. I argue that the ease - or reluctance - with which Germans went to war, and the far-reaching consequences of such wars on domestic politics, were related to long-term transformations in contemporaries' conceptualisation of conflict. My research reassesses the common view in the historiography of modern Germany that war in the age of the nation-state was seen as a glorious, necessary or inescapable collective endeavour, justified by Darwinian competition or the anarchy of great powers. It asks how such a view can be reconciled with soldiers' own horror and fear of war, their unwillingness to demonize the enemy and their readiness to question traditional reasons of state during a period of mass conscription.
Both the individual and collaborative components of the project investigate the tension between the persistent, supposedly heroic and increasingly indiscriminate use of violence abroad and the expanding regulation and prohibition of violent acts and killing at home. As cabinet warfare turned into national conflict during the first half of the nineteenth century, civilians-as-soldiers were asked to kill on behalf of their nations, yet as citizens they were expected to live peaceful, respectable and restrained lives. In wartime, nineteenth and twentieth-century supporters of progress, civilization or culture were confronted with death, immorality and the futility of existence. Technology, although distancing the killer from his victim, increased the extent, randomness, and destructiveness of killing and maiming. This research aims to shed new light on these disparities of experience and representation.
The collaborative component of the project will test these hypotheses about the impact of warfare and the public portrayal of military conflicts. Two workshops and an international conference, leading to the publication of an edited volume on experiences and representations of violence and combat (The Horrors of War), have been designed to facilitate an interdisciplinary agenda: the first workshop will concentrate on the approaches and findings of literary criticism, cultural studies and the history of art, together with relevant sub-disciplines of history; the second workshop will focus on history, historical sociology, international relations and war studies. The conference and edited volume will disseminate the results of this interdisciplinary collaboration.
The project's overall aim is to transform the study of soldiers' and civilians' experiences of warfare in relevant academic disciplines and to establish longer-term research networks and groupings that will continue beyond the period of the award.

Planned Impact

The international conference of the collaborative project and the publication of my own study will take place in 2014, coinciding with the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. Heightened public and press interest in the Great War will make it easier to disseminate the findings of the research beyond academia. It is designed to have an impact in three respects:
1) Representations of warfare and the causes of the First World War
I plan to organize a series of five public lectures and a roundtable about the outbreak of war in 1914 in conjunction with the Institute for Historical Research and the German Historical Institute (both in London). Both institutes have a successful record of organizing events for wider, non-academic audiences and they both have extensive and regular contact with interested members of the general public. I have close connections to both institutions and I have already organized events there. Examining the disjunction between experiences and representations, they will be given by leading historians of Britain and Germany and will focus on militarism, war scares and the topos of an 'unavoidable war' in the United Kingdom and in Germany (lectures 1 and 2), German and British conceptions of the states' system in an era of empire and world powers (lectures 3 and 4), and decisions for war in July 1914 (lecture 5). The final lecture will be broad in scope, looking at decision-makers in the principal states. Its emphasis - and claim to originality - will be on continuing areas of uncertainty in the historical account of the outbreak of war: it will show how key decisions are still 'unexplained', allowing a variety of interpretations. The roundtable will be made up of two historians and two experts from the related disciplines of international relations and war studies, which - as disciplines - have tended to underline structural constraints on policy-makers' actions (the arms race or the alliance system, for example). By contrast, many historians have paid more attention than scholars of international relations to the 'unspoken assumptions' of statesmen and the relationship of such assumptions to discourses and representations in the public sphere. I have already published in this field (including a monograph on Germany and the Causes of the First World War) and I have extensive contacts with experts on international relations and the outbreak of war.
2) Soldiers' and civilians' experiences of warfare during the First World War
Public events in this field, which I shall coordinate, are of interest to a wide range of governmental institutions (for example, the German Embassy and the Imperial War Museum) and civic associations (the British Legion, the Western Front Association and the Bund Deutscher Veteranen). I am already in contact with these organizations and associations.I plan to organize three public lectures on soldiers' experiences of the First World War: two by leading British and German historians; one by close relatives of British and German veterans, arranged with the help of veterans' associations in both countries. An international symposium on combatants' and non-combatants' experiences of the First World War will also combine panels of specialist historians of the UK, Germany and Europe, and panels of carefully selected relatives of veterans, commenting on their relatives' correspondence and diaries. The respective veterans' associations have their own extensive programme of events and lists of contacts, including members who have already given public presentations, which makes organization of this type of symposium straightforward.
3) Memory and memorialization of wars
The study coincides with some of the themes addressed by the AHRC-funded collaborative research project at UCL on 'The Reverberations of War' and, consequently, it is well-placed to benefit from the links and instances of public engagement created by them.
The public events are planned for January and July 2014.
Description My own research for this project has been published by Oxford University Press in the form of two monographs: i) Absolute War: Violence and Mass Warfare in the German Lands, 1792-1820 (Oxford, 2017), 292 pages; ii) The People's Wars: Histories of Violence in the German Lands, 1820-1888 (Oxford, 2017), 567 pages. I submitted the typescripts of both volumes in November 2015. The volumes were published in 2017. The review in CHOICE describes Absolute War as 'An important acquisition for research libraries....Highly recommended.' CHOICE describes The People's Wars as 'luminous....A work of remarkable originality and scholarship. One of the best books this year on modern German history....Essential.'

The international symposium on the Violence of War, which constituted the collaborative component of the AHRC award, has issued in three special issues in history journals:
i) Combatants, Civilians and Cultures of Violence, published in History, 101 (2016), 333-479. My own contribution consists of an extended Introduction and an article on 'German Soldiers and the Horror of War in 1870 and 1914'.
ii) Making Sense of Military Violence, published in Cultural History, 6 (2017), 1-118. My contribution consists of an extended Introduction and an article on 'The Violent Art: The Caricature of Conflict in Germany'. The special issue is in press.
A third proposal for a special issue on textual representations of modern warfare has been accepted for publication by the European Review of History.

I also published three articles during the period of the award on the same subject (in the English Historical Review, Historical Journal, and War in History).

The single-authored projects investigate the impact of wartime violence on soldiers - mainly conscripts - and assesses how such direct experiences of violence affected the discussion of military conflicts during peacetime. Although I had expected to find that the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars would have a significant effect on early nineteenth-century debates, given the scope and severity of the fighting, they in fact served mainly to reinforce a widespread romanticization of combat. These romantic images of warfare were ambiguous but also crucial in legitimating the military and the declaration and prosecution of wars by German states after 1848. The use of photography and the publication of graphic descriptions of suffering, violence and death in contemporary and historical conflicts did little to alter the public's conception of conflicts. By contrast, the impact of actual fighting in a series of three 'German' wars between 1864 and 1871, in which many conscripts took part, did transform veterans' attitude to combat, helping to establish competing and sometimes contradictory visions of war during the imperial period.

Two workshops were held in December 2013 on the violence of war between 1853 and 1918 and during the Second World War, respectively, attended by 31 academics from the UK and continental Europe. The discussions considered the following research questions:
1) The social context of violence:
- To what extent were specific forms of radicalization and brutalization during the Second World War predetermined by pre-war social experiences; that is, by specific forms of domestic politics, by violence in civilian societies, by concepts of social cohesion, public discourses and values.
- Were there different cultures of violence in the belligerent societies before the outbreak of the Second World War?

2. Armies
- How significant were armies themselves as institutions and how relevant were their military codes and the laws of war in setting limits to acts of violence and killing before and during wartime?
- What impact did changing technologies of warfare have on combatants, some of whom were more detached from acts of killing at the same time as being exposed to a random or horrifying death?
- How far were the specific conditions of air, sea and land warfare responsible for the alteration of conceptions of and constraints on acts of violence?

3. Warfare and ideology
- To what extent were situational factors like group loyalty, revenge for the deaths of comrades, fear, obedience, coercion and brutalization responsible for killing? How do such factors differ from army to army, group to group and from one individual to another?
- How far was 'ideology' - political belief, religious faith or national sentiment - responsible in motivating combatants and encouraging them to overcome peacetime taboos and prohibitions placed on killing and violence in peacetime?

These questions were useful in structuring the international conference held in June 2014 on the same theme. 65 scholars from around the world and from the disciplines of history, literary criticism, history of art, international relations, psychology and sociology gave papers in three parallel sessions (meeting, in addition, for joint sessions) over two days. Matthew D'Auria (who was the Research Fellow on the project) and I collected contributions, which are being published in three separate special issues (in History, Cultural History, and the European Review of History).

The public event on 1914 and the causes of the First World War was the source of inspiration for further research into the outbreak of the conflict, which extends and builds on my previous study of Germany and the Causes of the First World War, published in 2004. I am writing a monograph entitled 1914: Why Europe Went to War, the proposal for which will be submitted in due course to Bloomsbury. The volume criticises the theses advanced in much of the recent research on the topic, which has effectively downgraded the significance of declarations of war, Germany's granting of a 'blank cheque' to Austria on 5 July 1914 and Vienna's ultimatum to Belgrade on 23 July. Instead, authors such as Chris Clark have emphasized the importance of Russia's mobilization, the assassination at Sarajevo itself and earlier shifts within the states' system. My study, of which I have written four out of seven chapters, starts by considering what might be meant by 'causes' in this context and proceeds to refocus attention on the linkages between longer and shorter-term causes of war and between agents, institutional structures and wider sets of cultural and political conditions. It argues that recent literature on the outbreak of the war has tended to focus on the decision-making of cliques of statesmen, diplomats and generals in European capitals over a relatively short period. Their actions have generally been incorporated into exhaustive but narrow narratives, supplemented in some instances - as in the case of Clark's The Sleepwalkers - by more extensive reflections on the workings of the states' system, which itself has become the object of a welter of specialized studies by diplomatic historians and political scientists. The articulation of leaders' actions and the mechanisms of the European states' system with the conventions, traditions and policies of relevant institutions - courts, military hierarchies, Foreign Offices and other ministries - as well as less easily identifiable norms and assumptions in a wider public sphere has been much less extensively studied. 1914: Why Europe Went to War shows how such study could be carried out by re-examining seven critical questions concerning the causes of the conflict. Its purpose is to resurrect questions and to put forward answers which are at once contingent and suggestive.
Exploitation Route The findings reveal unexpected cultural, social and psychological impacts of violence with long-lasting effects. The historical and the interdisciplinary aspects of the project serve to relativize and to deepen our understanding of contemporary warfare and the relationship between warfare, diplomacy and other aspects of policy-making.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Security and Diplomacy

Description The findings of the project are linked to the public roundtable and public lecture which took place in the summer of 2014.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Other
Impact Types Cultural

Description Jean Monnet/Erasmus+
Amount £30,000 (GBP)
Organisation European Commission 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 09/2015 
End 08/2016
Description Leverhulme Research Fellowship
Amount £52,341 (GBP)
Funding ID RF-2018-118\3 
Organisation The Leverhulme Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2018 
End 08/2019
Description 1914: The Causes of the First World War 
Organisation German Historical Institute London
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I co-organized a roundtable on '1914: What Historians Don't Know about the Causes of the First World War' with Dr Felix Roemer from the German Historical Institute, London, where the event was hosted in June 2014. The event was by invitation only, attended by a broad cross-section of officials from embassies, civil servants, journalists, academics and interested members of the public. I chaired and introduced the roundtable, which was made up of some of the main experts in the field: Professor John Roehl (Sussex), Professor Margaret MacMillan (Oxford), Professor Soenke Neitzel (LSE) and Dr Annika Mombauer (Open University). I selected and invited the speakers and publicized the event.
Collaborator Contribution The GHIL hosted the event and helped coordinate it.
Impact Monograph: M. Hewitson, 1914: Why Europe Went to War
Start Year 2013
Description The Violence of the Second World War 
Organisation London School of Economics and Political Science (University of London)
Department Department of International History
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I co-organized a workshop with Professor Soenke Neitzel of LSE, where the event took place. We jointly approached eighteen world-renowned experts on this subject, with experience of different armies, combatants, irregulars and theatres of war. Some of the participants went on to participate in an international conference on The Violence of War from the mid-nineteenth century onwards.
Collaborator Contribution LSE hosted the event.
Impact The event was one of three workshops/conferences leading to an edited volume on The Violence of War, edited by Matthew D'Auria and myself.
Start Year 2013
Description Public Lecture: 'An Avalanche of Terror'. Bombing Imagined and Real, 1919-1945 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact An audience of 150-175, drawn from schools, academics and members of the public, attended the public lecture, which generated questions and discussions in a subsequent session.

Sixth-form students attending registered their intention to apply to study history as a consequence (among other reasons) of being stimulated by the lecture.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
Description Public Roundtable: What Historians Don't Know about the Causes of the First World War 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact An invited audience of embassy staff, civil servants, journalists, academics and interested members of the public attended a roundtable, where four experts from UK universities discussed current debates about the outbreak of the First World War, revealing which questions remain unanswered. Given that the event took place on the centenary of 1914, after a large number of dramatizations, documentaries and narrative histories of events leading to war, the audience was interested to hear specialists disagreeing about the causes of the conflict and showing in the process how many aspects of causation in this respect are still disputed. The roundtable was followed by a large number of questions and further discussion.

The event led to further enquiries from those who attended about the causes of the First World War.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014