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If Only This War Would End : : German Soldiers in the Last Year of the First World War

  • Author(s): Zroka, Ryan Edward
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation is concerned with questions of combat motivation in the First World War. Why did soldiers fight for so long, under such difficult and dangerous circumstances? Existing work on this subject understands the decision to fight primarily at the individual level; it attempts to reconstruct the soldiers' attitudes and motivations. This approach has proven increasingly problematic, however. As a means of advancing the debate on this topic, I have examined a case which the existing approaches cannot explain - the case of the German army in the last year of the war. In the first part of the dissertation, I argue that individual-centered arguments cannot explain the behavior of these soldiers. After three years of difficult and costly warfare, they were profoundly weary of the war. They no longer cared about seeing the war through to a successful conclusion, and in any case, they increasingly realized that victory was impossible. These men had no discernible "motive" for continuing to fight. And yet they did continue to fight, even through the last and most terrible phases of the war. In the second part of the dissertation, I develop a new approach to the study of combat motivation. Drawing upon the methods of labor history, I argue that any understanding of soldiers' behavior must account for the social processes that mediate between attitudes and actions. A soldier who was weary of the war could not simply stop fighting. Purely individual forms of resistance would be easily suppressed. Resistance could be effective only when it is collective. And collective action requires some level of social cohesion - mutual trust and shared goals. Such cohesion was increasingly absent from the ranks of the German army. Partly, this was due to the nature of industrial warfare. Heavy casualties caused enormous turnover, and material shortages exacerbated preexisting social conflicts. Subjective factors also played a role. The energy needed to sustain social connections was drawn off by family commitments. At the same time, soldiers had fewer common experiences with which to fashion a sense of group identity, as the army grew larger and more internally complex

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