I recently saw the excellent 2016 film Frantz, now freely available to Amazon Prime viewers. An adaptation of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 antiwar film, Broken Lullaby, it is about a former World-War-I French soldier (Adrien) and his relationship with the fiancé (Anna) of a German soldier (Frantz) killed in the war. At the beginning Adrien is spotted by Anna lying flowers at Frantz’s tombstone, and the Frenchman’s mysterious true relationship with Frantz is gradually revealed to her. Both Anna and Frantz’s parents eventually become closer to Adrien, though the parents continue to be misled about the real story of their son’s relationship to him.
Much of the film is set in a small German town where Anna and Frantz’s parents live, and some of the townspeople are hostile to Adrien. This is not surprising since he first makes his appearance in the town in 1919, and the Germans and French were still killing each other until November of the previous year.
As the film proceeded, I kept thinking of Thomas Hardy’s poem, “The Man He Killed.”
“Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!
“But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.
“I shot him dead because —
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That's clear enough; although
“He thought he'd 'list, perhaps,
Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
No other reason why.
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“Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You'd treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.”
He was struck by the recently concluded war [World War II] not as a historical, geopolitical fact but as a multiplicity, a near-infinity of private sorrows, as a boundless grief minutely subdivided without diminishment among individuals who covered the continent like dust. . . . For the first time he sensed the scale of the catastrophe in terms of feeling; all those unique and solitary deaths, all that consequent sorrow, unique and solitary too, which had no place in conferences, headlines, history, and which had quietly retired to houses, kitchens, unshared beds, and anguished memories.
All those unique deaths and sorrow that “conferences, headlines, [and] history” too often fail to convey. Indeed! As a historian, I have read much about World War I, but no historical work can come close to conveying the multiple tragedies of that senseless war.
David Stevenson’s Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy does an admirable job and reminds us that “the essence of war lies in injury and suffering, in the capture, maiming, and killing of human beings and the destruction of their property. . . . Characteristically also, warfare is a reciprocal process, a competition in cruelty, which may turn even the most peaceable of men into killers as well as victims.” And novels like Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, poems like the Hardy one quoted above or Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” or films like Frantz help us feel some of the anguish that so many suffered a century ago.
Some details about all the killings leave us shaking our heads at the cruelty of war. I think, for example, of the poor parents of Owen, who an hour after the war ended at the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month of 1918, with bells still ringing in celebration, received a telegram informing them of their son’s death—he was machine-gunned to death a week earlier.
If we take a few moments to let them sink in, some of the war’s statistics are also mind boggling. In To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, Adam Hochschild provides the following information. “More than 35 percent of all German men who were between the ages of 19 and 22 when the fighting broke out, for example, were killed in the next four and a half years, and many of the remainder grievously wounded. For France, the toll was proportionately even higher: one half of all Frenchmen aged 20 to 32 at the war’s outbreak were dead when it was over.” On “the first day of the Battle of the Somme . . . . British forces suffered 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 fatalities. They gained just three square miles of territory.”
But all the words and images that history, literature, and film provide remind us of only a small part of the overall cataclysmic tragedy that was World War I. And for what? What were the great and noble reasons for so much suffering?
Some Serbians felt frustrated because the Austro-Hungarian Empire (AHE) was blocking their desire to unite all Serbs into an expanded Serbia. So in late June, 1914 Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian of Serbian nationality, assassinated the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand. The angry Austro-Hungarian government then made harsh demands upon Serbia and when Serbia rejected them invaded it. Because Russia did not wish Serbia to be weakened or even crushed, it backed its fellow Slavic country, and Germany did the same for its ally AHE. France had an alliance with Russia and hoped to gain back the Alsace-Lorraine provinces it had lost to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. So it backed Russia. When because of its war plans, Germany attacked France by going through neutral Belgium, on August 4 Great Britain declared war on Germany. Thus, by that date all of the major European powers except Italy, which entered later, were at war.
Before it was over in late 1918, 65 million people from 35 countries served in the armed forces, as fighting occurred on three continents and on the oceans. The United States entry into the war occurred in April 1917 in reaction to the German renewal of unrestricted submarine warfare—its attempt at curtailing valuable U. S. and other goods from reaching Great Britain.
The losses of life, ruined lands, and broken families and spirits were immense. Even the political leaders who led Europe into war suffered. Tsar Nicholas II and his family lost their lives after his government fell; Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany was forced to abdicate and went into exile; the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed; German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg and British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith each lost an oldest son in the war.
As Stevenson indicates, all those who died in the war “owed their fate to deliberate state policy, decided on by governments that repeatedly rejected alternatives to violence and commanded not merely acquiescence but also active support from millions of their peoples.” I have indicated elsewhere why many average citizens support wars. In an anti-Vietnam-War speech author Wendell Berry once stated, “We have been led to our present shameful behavior in Vietnam by this failure of imagination, this failure to perceive a relation between our ideals and our lives. In his book Moral Imagination, David Bromwich makes a similar point about how our lack of moral imagination helps lead to many wars.” Or as the poet Langston Hughes once wrote:
We do not care—
That much is clear.
Of us care
We are not wise—
For that reason,
Is much against
At a time when the 10-part PBS documentary The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick is reminding us of the evils of that war and President Trump is saying “If [the US] is forced to defend ourselves or our allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea,” we need to take seriously the words of Berry, Bromwich, and Hughes. And we need the reminder that the film Frantz and good imaginative literature can bring to us—war is a human tragedy—perhaps millions of individual tragedies—that we have not done enough to prevent.
Walter G. Moss