World War I Centennial: Imagining the Demise of France


The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 26th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

July 10, 1912: Imagining the Demise of France

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One of the big questions facing historians of the First World War is the role played by popular nationalism in the outbreak of hostilities. While conventional historical wisdom has stated that “most” ordinary Europeans embraced nationalist ideals, and that national rivalries and hatreds therefore contributed to the outbreak of war, revisionist historians have questioned that assumption, pointing out that there is actually little evidence what most ordinary people thought.

Historians can (maybe) get some idea of how people felt from the products or documents of popular culture, including newspapers, magazines, descriptions of concerts and festivals, music, and books. The latter category includes any number of volumes, of varying quality, predicting what the “next war” would be like. These books were almost without exception wrong in their predictions about how the war would be fought, but they nonetheless yield some interesting clues about how at least some Europeans felt going into the war.

One example is Frankreichs Ende bis Jahre 19??, or The Demise of France in Year 19??, by Major Adolf Sommerfeld. No literary gem, The Demise of France, as the title indicates, was largely an exercise in German wish-fulfillment: set in the not distant future, it imagined that France would alienate its allies, Britain and Russia, then foolishly provoke a war with Germany in which it would be totally destroyed.

Indeed, in addition to its generally low quality, The Demise of France got a number of important predictions wrong. Britain and Russia didn’t remain neutral in the Great War, and Italy didn’t join in on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary as imagined in the book. Some other predictions are sadly ironic: Sommerfeld imagines Franz Ferdinand succeeding Franz Josef as the Kaiser and King of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then energetically expanding the Dual Monarchy’s navy and army in preparation for war. Sommerfeld also shared the general belief that the next war would be short, as all the events (including the fall of France) take place in a single, unnamed year.

A Bolt From the Blue

In other ways, however, the book was remarkably perceptive. Sommerfeld predicted that the Balkan states “were working secretly to carve up Turkey” – a prediction that would be proved right far sooner than he probably expected. He also accurately captured the widespread feeling of shock and surprise at the outbreak of war, which came “like a bolt from the blue” – a description that would be repeated almost verbatim in countless memoirs written after the war was over.

More importantly, The Demise of France provides documentary evidence of strong nationalist feeling in Germany, which expressed itself in extreme hostility to the age-old rival France – and her people. While not every German bought the book, and not every reader necessarily subscribed to Sommerfeld’s views, his casual denigration of Germany’s neighbor was, at the very least, not particularly shocking or off-putting, judging by the success of the book: after a first edition quickly sold out following its release on April 1, 1912, a second edition was rushed to the market on July 10, 1912.

Interestingly The Demise of France would be cited by Allied propagandists during the Great War as proof of Germany’s intentions to dominate Europe and eventually the world. This included producing a map showing Europe as Sommerfeld imagined it after the German conquest of France, with France divided between Germany in the north and Italy in the south.

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