chapter  5
86 Pages

Death

War is about strategy and tactics, about politics, technology and culture, about class and sex; war is about everything, but above all it is about killing and being killed. This chapter focuses on physical death, in other words not the metaphorical death of the old pre-war world, whether its passing was mourned or not, nor the symbolic death that flowed from defeat, as described by Alfred Hoche, for example, a German nationalist professor of psychiatry and one of Hermann Oppenheim’s earliest and fiercest opponents, who would become famous several years later as one of the authors of Die Freigabe der Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens (Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life). In a talk entitled ‘Vom Sterben’ (On Dying), which he gave shortly before the war ended, Hoche argued that only with the approaching defeat would German soldiers killed in the war truly die. He claimed that to die at that moment would mean a different kind of death, a more terrible death, than in the advance of summer 1914.1 The obvious question here is whether the reverse also applies. Was the death of a French or British soldier in the final months of the war a death more glorious, a death with a smile on the lips, compared to an ignominious death in August and September 1914?