When a general war finally came in August 1914, some Europeans rejoiced that the tension and uncertainty of the July crisis were now finally dispelled. To them the war appeared to offer a golden opportunity for each nation to put aside whatever internal disputes had troubled it in the past, to supersede ethnic, religious, and class divisions, and to focus instead on the nation’s higher purpose, namely the defeat of its more immediate external enemies. Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II evoked the unity of the fortress under siege, the Burgfrieden, in stating that he no longer recognized competing political parties, only Germans. The French invoked the notion of a union sacrée, or sacred union, in which all citizens were bound together in a common pursuit of victory. The corollary to a sacred ideal was the idea of sacrifice, and so life itself might, under the stimulus of war, be nobler, more exalted, more infused with a sense of purpose.
Europe’s rulers had recognized, however, that it would be foolish to count upon universal support for any war. In particular, they worried that socialists would persuade many potential soldiers that ordinary working people had more in common with their laboring comrades in other countries than with the middle and upper classes in their own nation. Would German workers refuse to bear arms against France, for example, because they abhorred the idea of killing other working men who just happened to be French?
In the end, the leaders’ worst fears never materialized. The vast majority of people, even the socialists, in all the major powers rallied to the war effort. Habit, tradition, patriotic instruction, imperialist tales of conquest and adventure, a sense of duty to one’s friends and family, all played a role in persuading civilians to accept their nation’s entry into conflict, and for so many men, their induction into uniform. In many cases, they accepted military service with a sense of resignation,