WWI: the nationalist jihad

July 4, 2014
The “war enthusiasm” of 1914 was grounded in a sense of profound nationalist fervour.

The Tony Abbott government has recently been at pains to emphasise that it is “protecting” the community from Australian-born “jihadists” returning from participation in conflicts in the Middle East.

Having learned the tools of the terrorist trade in zones of sectarian strife, they argue, these “extremists” might well embark on a campaign of politically-motivated civil slaughter in this country.

Citing this as a motivating factor, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has recently cancelled several Australian passports.

The message is clear: if you leave Australia’s shores to fight for radical causes, engaging in acts of extreme violence, you are no longer a worthy citizen. You are “un-Australian” and should be kept out, lest the contagion of your ideological fanaticism infect the body politic. And without many exceptions, the media has endorsed this official attitude.

This is the same media that will, of course, be urging Australians to endorse the sectarian impulse that motivated volunteers to sail away to a foreign war in khaki-clad droves 100 years ago.

Yet in many respects, the “diggers” of 1914 were remarkably similar in their world view to the Islamists who today pledge their lives in the service of a “higher cause”. The fundamentalist “faith” they followed was the ideology of Britannic imperial nationalism, a creed that filled them with as much crusading, murderous zeal as any official religion.

Responding to the clarion call of empire, these children of White Australia were as prepared to kill the followers of other nations with as much self-righteous fervour as any of today’s media-labelled “sectarian fanatics”.

The outbreak of a general European war in August 1914 was the outcome of several long-term causes, the most fundamental of which was the clash of competing nationalisms. Nationalism is the idea that all members of an ethnic and linguistic group naturally comprise an organic community, the “nation”, and should therefore be united as citizens under one flag.

In the rapidly changing world of the nineteenth century, the myth of the supposedly ancient national community became the prime focus of loyalty for most Europeans, a surrogate religion of sorts. Crucially, nationalism provided its followers with a sense of shared identity in the midst of sweeping and often traumatic changes brought about by industrialisation, scientific advance and increasing secularisation.

By the early years of the 20th century, Europe was divided into two hostile camps, each armed to the teeth. The culture of ethnocentric nationalism had convinced each side that their cause was just and holy. Mutual hostility simmered, leading to numerous crises and war scares. In such an atmosphere, negotiation and compromise were impossible. Instead, there was a general acceptance of the idea that a titanic military showdown was inevitable.

Many welcomed the prospect of an all-out war as the solution to Europe’s woes. Along with that came an unchallenged celebration of violence as the great cleanser of the future.

Elite interests, fearful of the spectacular rise of socialist internationalism, did much to foster the cause of belligerent nationalism among their working classes. It was useful for a French worker to hate a German worker on the grounds of national grievance, rather than these two workers join together in a bond of solidarity to overthrow the capitalist class.

When war came, nationalists all over Europe flooded the squares of capital cities, falling to their knees and thanking Providence for the opportunity they now had to take up arms for their nation. Murder, forbidden in peacetime, was now sanctified, unleashing bestial instincts. The idea of sinking a bayonet deep into the ribs of an enemy created a thrill of expectation. Men thronged to depots and recruiting offices, women placed flowers in their rifle barrels.

While some on the left held out against the apocalyptic madness, the fact is that most of the European socialist parties (such as the German SPD) fell in with their national governments and supported the war. The cause of bourgeois nationalism had won out over socialist internationalism.

In Australia, the “war enthusiasm” of 1914 was equally grounded in a sense of profound nationalist fervour. Australians felt a connection with the British Empire, a sprawling international super-state with frontier outposts on various continents. In spite of its dubious human rights record, the Empire was viewed by most as a force for good in the world, carrying out a civilising mission. At all costs, the supremacy of the “British race” had to be maintained. Collective acceptance of these axioms was, for the most part, blind, passionate and irrational in its exuberance.

“Our duty is quite clear”, announced then-Prime Minister Joseph Cook, “to gird up our loins and remember that we are Britons”. His sentiments were echoed across the mainstream political spectrum and repeated by community, church and educational leaders.

Within a few weeks, more than 20,000 men had volunteered for an expeditionary force. By year’s end, the recruitment figure had reached 50,000.

More than 400,000 Australians (or nearly 10% of the total population) would eventually volunteer for the Australian Imperial Force. If this were repeated today, that would translate into more than 2 million Australians serving as “foreign fighters” in far away conflicts.

For Australia, clearly, this was nothing less than a “holy war”. The petty issues of day-to-day life no longer counted in this moment of exultation. Individual identity was subsumed in the mass. One’s personal survival no longer mattered, all that counted was national victory in the great struggle.

In order to win that victory, prolific killing of the hated “Hun” enemy was considered necessary, even desirable. And for those who fell (some 60,000 in total), national martyr status was guaranteed, an offer of eternal life of sorts.

In so many respects, the emotional climate of the Great War corresponded with the definition of “jihad” popular in the Western media. It was a bloody, hate-filled enterprise involving mass slaughter on an unprecedented scale. Far from creating a better world, its battles became bywords for sheer horror. “I died in hell”, as Sassoon put it, “they called it Passchendaele”.

The war enthusiasts of 1914 were victims of an ideology as bitterly sectarian and fundamentalist as any contemporary extremist willing to kill and die for their version of an imagined “better world”.

So if we are, as a nation, going to criticise the “extremist” impulse, perhaps we should start by developing a more critical attitude to the Anzac “jihadism” that we continue to celebrate as a prop for our national identity.

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