Döblin's "Nothing"


On from the dramatical beginnings at the Paris Conference, a virtual return to the casus belli 1914–1918 was brought into being. In this essay this hypothesis is being approached from the contemporary's literary point of view.

1,450 words ⏵

"Nothing happened"

Subsequent to Weimar Germany's years of catastrophe (1922–1923), a new currency was successfully introduced just before Christmas 1923. Though apart from these domestic achievements, nothing seemed to come as a relief to the Germans being the collectively subdued object of the Treaty of Versailles with a devastating impact on generations to come. In 1924 Alfred Döblin's novel "Berge Meere und Giganten" (Mountains, Oceans and Giants) was published. As a starting point, this German doctor and novelist took the First World War, which had just ended leaving an exhausted Europe in complete disarray. Since many historians and political commentators have contested the ending of its timeline until today, this blogpost is highlighting Döblin's literary centenary by focussing on a single passage about the supposed end.

"Es geschah nichts," as the then 45-year-old was quoted in the Aufa100 founding manifesto (2020). Readers may thus be triggered by various reflections. Apart from the commemorative event, our four-year-old quotation is being reflected on.

The first reflection is targeting history. Amid the horrendous experiences of the 1922–1923 occupation and hyperinflation, Döblin's words may well be regarded as symbolizing the most crucial episode of what would become known as the "seminal catastrophe of the twentieth century" (George Kennan, 1979). In contrast to unilateral and exclusivist use of symbols such as the poppy – think of the often disregarded Vergissmeinnicht –, this term was adopted in every language domain. Largely leaving the events and developments between the summer of 1914 and autumn 1918 to military historians, the crux should definitely be regarded in connection with the covert and predominantly colonial and imperial power play over the Great War's fifth and final year. For Germany, it went along with the first and second revolution. Nothing happened? Not from the United States delegation's and the allied point of view: on the fifth anniversary of the Austrian archduke's violent death in Sarajevo, i.e. 28 June 1919, the three-time prolonged armistice was terminated.

„Es geschah . . .

. . . nichts.“

„Es geschah nichts.“ Siehe Gründungsmanifest.

As a matter of fact, their initial, winter-time decisions cannot be interpreted as anything but a massive assault on the ceasefire agreement. The well-known summer-time clauses, first of all the attribution of war guilt, added up to it. The real question to investigate ever since is: was the state of war from the perspective of all the armistice signatories lifted on the grievous Sarajevo murder's fifth anniversary (28 June 1919)? Apart from the "Weimar/Russia" analogy, Aufa100's mission in memory and history is being defined by this question. A subordinate one is what the German writer had wished to express with these epic words. One may argue that, from his viewpoint, the conservative forces managed to survive and keep control in spite of the many breath-taking events abroad and back home. Though nobody seems willing to refute the narrative that the hierarchy of Germany's princes collapsed in the aftermath of emperor William's 1918 abdication. Furthermore, for what reason should a critical writer argue that nothing happened when the nation's ways of access to the outside world were completely cut through. Obviously the British took care of this total ban: first, Germany's river mouths shut. Second, the self-inflicted scuttling of its interned navy on what was being thought the Armistice's final day: 21 June 1919. In the wake of London's few-months-old confiscation of Germany's merchant navy, a similar fate for the disarmed Kriegsmarine in Scottish waters was being anticipated. Third, before the one-month break of the Anglo-American conference leaders at the end of the winter, the German colonial empire was secretively destroyed as an immediate result of their decrees (diktat). Not until May or June, this violation of a nominally retained 1918 ceasefire became known among the Germans. Suffice to say, other German businesses beyond Europe were vainly hoping for post-war continuation.

A second reflection centres on commemorative cultures. At the end of the 2014–2019 anniversaries, something peculiar could be observed. On 10 and 11 November 2018, the whole world arrived in Paris. All heads of state and government commemorated the armistice' hundredth anniversary. Since the end of the Great War (1914-1919) took on a firm form through the conclusion of the Versailles Treaty seven months later, it seemed logical, despite the temporal proximity, to cultivate memory again or to promote historical consciousness together. However, the follow-up event on 28 June 2019 was characterized by collective abstinence from Europe's dignitaries. On the Treaty's centenary day, only guests from the United States commemorated the formal end of the ceasefire on the historic location. They were invited by the US World War One Centennial Commission (WWICC), whose insightful podcasts on the events of Paris were to be continued until late autumn. It would have been exciting not only from an academic point of view to ask the well-travelled participants whether it seemed strange to them that none of the European partners seemed to care about a corresponding culture of remembrance.

Definitely, it was no peace. While the war may have been lost by Germany, the peace was lost by its enemies and about a dozen of their invitees, first and foremost by the predominant British and their colonists. Neither war nor peace, "nothing happened" may well reflect this intricate standstill.

The final of three reflections centres on historiography. The German author's impression of immovability may be indicative of the still contended history of the seven-month armistice period. Even past the late anniversaries, the Anglo-Saxon narrative has prevailed ever since. Thus, if one was socialized in countries such as Canada or Great Britain, open-ended interpretations, be it a novelist's one, may not be shared at all. To the detriment of Woodrow Wilson – the first United States president visiting and sojourning in Europe (from 13 December 1918) –, British delegations took to postpone the peace conference. The acclaimed visitor's dwellings in Paris and London were thus dragged on. In the new year, when David Lloyd George and Jan Christian Smuts travelled to the French capital in the footsteps of the other allies and the associated American, the highly opportunist and colonially preoccupied duo overpowered them by presenting a second delegation under the Union Jack. It comprised five sections of Empire colonists under the lead of the South African general turned politician. To make this work, the overburdened conference agenda was unilaterally reversed by prioritizing the colonial question. Five months later, having left the floor to their French ally and conference host from mid-March onward, the concluding act in Versailles was certainly not set-up with the intention of leaving the 1914–1919 global war open-ended.

Over the past decade covering the Great War anniversaries, a new interpretation of this world war's events has developed. Historians in the Anglo-American hemisphere invented the thesis of the "Greater War". A few colleagues from Germany joined them. According to Robert Gerwarth (Ireland/Germany), Jay Winter (England), Erez Manela (United States), Elisabeth Piller (GER/USA) and Jörn Leonhard (GER) a.o., the world war was not terminated in 1919 respectively in Compiègne/Rethondes the year before, but in 1923–1924, ten years after the Sarajevo murder. Thus, following a decade of global warfare, peace was finally restored when Döblin's intriguing novel was published. Actually, this would mean the commensurate 2024 centenary can right now be celebrated all over.

Our transnational commission's core focus is to contest the Anglo-American hypothesis to which clearly Anglo-Saxon embedded historians with a German background are contributing. Leonhard was the latest to join them. Obviously, we did not dispose of anything near the substantial resources they were allocated. We need both time and resources to counter their western-centric thesis. Anticipating forthcoming research results, a major critique is that the position of Weimar Germany is simply being disregarded, for example in contrast to Turkey's. In Döblin's partially futuristic scenarios, there are no wordings from which actuality reflecting perceptions of an impending peace (1923–1924!) could be deduced. Surely, "nothing happened" may well be interpreted as an analogy to the world war's respectively state of war's continuation. In the end, history's mainstream narrative remains to be questioned and consistently challenged. When it is argued by historians or in educative textbooks that the "first post-war order" (Versailles) was a peaceful one and the Paris suburb's treaties with Germany, Austria, Turkey, Hungary and Bulgaria dictating an altogether hard peace, transnationally coordinated argumentation pro a completely different analysis of the facts need to be brought up. If the arguments of the German delegation leader and the first chancellor of post-Wilhelmine Germany were not to convince the pundits, Smuts' letters may be recalled in alignment with the best-known critic from the Anglo-Saxon world: John Maynard Keynes.

Peter de Bourgraaf