Academic journal article Kritika

The Last "War in Lace" or the First "Total War"?

Academic journal article Kritika

The Last "War in Lace" or the First "Total War"?

Article excerpt

Reading the articles by Nikolai Promyslov and Victor Taki made me think of an heirloom from my grandparents, an old three-mark coin from imperial Germany. One side shows King Frederick William III of Prussia surrounded by his people, beneath the famous patriotic verse: "Der Konig rief, und alle, alle kamen" (The king called, and everyone came). On the other side, we see the Prussian eagle crushing the snake of Napoleonic tyranny. The coin was issued in 1913 to mark the centennial of the War of Liberation. We all know what happened a year later.

With hindsight, 1914 appears to us as the beginning of an era of uniquely modern calamities, but at the time many saw the new war as the latest in a chain of earlier conflicts that stretched back to Napoleon. "With the declaration of war," an American author wrote in 1914, "the world turned back to Trafalgar, to Waterloo, to Koniggratz, to the Franco-Prussian War.... The names are a little different, the battlefields a few miles apart, but the same principles are there." (1) The French and the Germans picked up where they had left off in 1870-71, when Germany had taken revenge on Napoleon III for the evils of Napoleon I. The British, by contrast, viewed Wilhelm II as the second coming of Napoleon. As for the Russians, who had just recently celebrated the anniversary of the "Patriotic War" of 1812, they dubbed the new conflict the "Second Patriotic War."

Our current transition from the bicentennials of 1789-1815 to the centennials of 1914-45 offers an opportunity to ask what the events of 200 years ago may have meant for Russia's entry into the modern age. Were the Napoleonic Wars, to borrow the title of David Bell's book, "the first total war," an anticipation of Verdun and Stalingrad? (2) Or was this the last of what the French call les guerres en dentelles, "the wars in lace," fought by aristocrats in lace-trimmed uniforms whose decorum on the battlefield matched their gallantry with the ladies? Last, did the wars influence Russia's domestic history by inflecting educated society's experience of what Norbert Elias called the "civilizing process"? (3) The articles by Taki and Promyslov offer a wealth of material for reflection on these questions.

Looking Ahead to 1914?

Taki and Promyslov provide considerable food for thought about parallels between the Franco-Russian conflict of 1812-14 and the two world wars of the 20th century. At times, the two articles bring to mind the analysis of World War I in Modris Eksteins's Rites of Spring. Eksteins argues that Germans and Britons supported war in 1914 out of fundamentally different motivations: the Germans went to war in search of spiritual experience, while the British fought to defend a rules-based order of society. (4) Both of these tendencies are discernable in Russia's war against Napoleon.

In both articles we find a conception of war as an ineffable experience of the individual spirit, not unlike that which Eksteins attributes to the Germans. Taki argues that some Russians aestheticized the spectacle of battle and death by rendering it "sublime"--a term that described "any awe-inspiring yet delightful sight, object, or phenomenon that challenged the representative capacities of language and art by virtue of its incommensurability with the viewer" (271). Promyslov detects a similar pattern in French memoirs, which portrayed the French army as "seriously wounded at Borodino, subjected to inhuman suffering, yet managing all the same to tear itself from the clutches of death" (262). Combat, in this view, was an end in itself and provided its own justification.

The attitude that Eksteins attributes to the British--the desire to uphold a conservative sense of order in both individual behavior and international relations--is also present in the two articles, although to a lesser degree. Taki argues that Russian officers were determined to uphold the traditional conventions of war to show Europeans that Russians were civilized people. …

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