ONE of the defining features of German society in the immediate aftermath of the first world war was an ongoing debate about what the conflict had really meant.
Conservative writers such as Ernst Junger argued that the war had had an ennobling effect, in that it strengthened masculine values and the need for sacrifice in the interests of the nation.
Far-right elements such as the nazis took this one stage further by claiming that Germany had in fact been stabbed in the back by internal enemies and that she could only regain national honour by going back to war and fighting for what was hers by right.
Fortunately, these were by no means the sole voices. Working-class internationalists like Ernst Friedrich were determined to expose not only the whole reality of the war years but also the lies, corruption and hypocrisy of a ruling elite that had happily butchered millions in the interests of profit.
Originally a member of the social-democratic SPD, Friedrich had done time for acts of sabotage against the army and then became active in a whole range of communist groups.
Aware of the dangers of war happening again and that the working-class movement had all too often sided with the ruling class rather than their brothers and sisters abroad, it’s not surprising that anti-militarism continued to be a central part of his political activity.
And that’s very much the context in which this horrific collection of photographs in War Against War! ought to be seen — a call to revolutionary action on the part of an aware and organised working class.
Originally published in 1924, the book was printed in countless languages and millions of copies were eventually distributed.
It became an enormously influential work and, although it couldn’t prevent the resurgence of war and fascism, its republication by Spokesman is very much welcome in that its ability to shock and inspire is as much needed today as it was then.
Mixing in Expressionist circles with the likes of playwright-activist Ernst Toller, Friedrich was determined to use the medium of photography as a weapon against war and much of the material he chose had unsurprisingly never been seen before.
Some of the close-ups of facial injuries are so terrible that they need to be seen to be believed, while propaganda pictures of happy, hearty young men setting off to the front sit side by side with photos of the very same young men lying dead and mutilated in a muddy field only days later.
Class distinctions remain to the fore. The Kaiser is seen walking along a specially made wooden platform so as to avoid the filth of the battlefield and huge crosses for dead officers tower above those of lowly privates in a tsarist war cemetery.
Friedrich was just as keen to illustrate the results of war away from the trenches. Mass executions of civilians and sneering soldiers inside a brothel show that the conflict brutalised women as much as it did men.
Text-wise, Friedrich’s introduction is wonderful.
Noting that “there will always be wars as long as capital rules,” he argues that if huts are burnt down “so also shall palaces and castles be set in flames.”
And the solution? Refuse to support the culture of militarism, refuse to serve in the armies of the rich and call a general strike so as to bring the Establishment to its knees.
Wonder what the chances are of getting this one on the national curriculum?