The Great War and Urban Life in Germany

The Great War and Urban Life in Germany: Freiburg, 1914-1918

By Roger Chickering

Cambridge University Press   £ 55   ISBN 0521852560

Total war in a lovely place – that would have been the perfect title for Roger Chickering’s masterpiece on the dynamics of the homefront in First World War Germany. Freiburg, the subject of his study, with a population of 85,000 in 1914, still has the reputation of being one of the nicest German towns. With its romantic city centre under the impressive tower of the cathedral, close to the Black Forest and blessed with extended sunshine hours, it is the place where everyone would like to live. But on August 2nd, 1914, Freiburg was less than thirty miles away from the Western front. The inhabitants could thus hear the constant rumble of the artillery battles. Every aspect of their individual lives and the social fabric of the town as a whole was affected by the war. If we are ready to accept the common wisdom that the Great War was the first total war, argues Chickering, we have to write total history.

This premise marks the difference between the recent plethora of books on economic mobilization, industrial relations and food riots in Germany 1914-1918, and this superb study. Inspired both by Fernand Braudel’s vision of a ‘total history‘ and by the micro-history of Carlo Ginzburg, this is the first full and detailed account of the all-encompassing nature of the First World War. Freiburg provides the stage for a narrative focused on the war itself. As the key actor, war is both the subject and the object of the story, and thus capable of boundless ‘self-realisation’ and the ultimate ‘fulfillment’ of its predicament to be ‘total’. It thus appears that also the philosophy of German idealism and the idea of a ‘world-spirit’ has inspired the author.

But this is not only a work of intellectual sophistication. It is also packed with an abundance of gripping anecdotes and stories. In many of them figure the academic luminaries who taught at the local university. One example is the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who famously surrendered the university to the Nazis as its rector in 1933. Earlier in 1916, he had a rather ordinary assignment as a military censor at the local postal censorship office. In this capacity, he had to sift through thousands of letters written by common soldiers from Freiburg or their relatives. War letters were also pivotal for the work of the literary historian Philipp Witkop. Commissioned by the Foreign Office, he gathered letters from uni­versity students who had been killed at the front. Due to the ‘glowing, unerring patriotism’ of these letters, his collection has become a prominent point of reference for German war remembrance ever since its first publication in 1916.

Not quite an intellectual, but rather a young officer was Hermann Goering. He was based at an air-station established near the town in December 1914, in order to guard the city from the repeated strategic bombings by French and British aeroplanes. But the presence of German aircraft only complicated the business of the anti-aircraft battery installed atop the Schloss­berg. In August 1915, the civilians running the battery shot down Goering’s plane while he landed, but the pilot – survived. The twenty-five air raids, during which 289 bombs were dropped on the city, added only thirty-one civilians to the city’s much larger death-toll of 3,353 local soldiers. But the bombing-war caused not only widespread fear, as Chickering demonstrates in a brilliant chapter, it also created nocturnal communities in the cellars of those houses where people sought refuge from the raids. In addition, the bombing fuelled the escalation of warfare, although still on a modest scale. Already in 1915 the councillors had contemplated the idea to discourage further air raids with a POW-camp in the middle of town. After a big raid in April 1917, 250 British prisoners, most of them officers, were transferred to quarters in the old university building near the city centre. Amidst the growing fuel shortage, the city returned at the same time to its medieval visage and kept the street lights switched off. Only the university building, where the British officers lived, remained a lone beacon in the night.

Chickering’s attention to detail is unsurpassed, as is his eye for the seemingly circumstantial but actually pivotal detail. One example is his description of the city‘s re-ruralization amid severe food shortages. In 1918, he tells us, over a third of the households were farming their own allotment. In Freiburg, the first total war affected not only class-relations and civil administration; it was an attack on the senses, affected human bodies, triggered languages of sacrifice and mourning, and it ended, finally, in exhaustion.

Benjamin Ziemann is the author of War Experiences in Rural Germany: 1914-1923 (Legacy of the Great War) (Berg Publishers, 2006).

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week