The Place of War in Modernity

Is war not the antithesis of "modern"? Isn't modernity synonymous with peace and humanity-the Good, the True and the Beautiful?

When you think of "modernity", many themes instantly come to mind. Give it a try! The colorful images of Surrealism are surely among them. Maybe even the skyline of New York. Perhaps you see the billowing smokestacks of the Ruhr region or the dernier cri at the fashion shows of Paris and Milan. And let's not forget emancipation, freedom, progress, acceleration. Modernity is linked with a multitude of icons and slogans. But what about war? Is war not the antithesis of "modern"? Isn't modernity synonymous with peace and humanity-the Good, the True and the Beautiful?

Let's first of all move beyond the emotional associations and normative prescriptions and imagine modernity as a polyphonic whole. Modernity then appears as a way of thinking that had a formative influence, in particular on the European-North American world from the late eighteenth to the end of the twentieth century. Perusing the pages of history books dealing with these 200 years, we discover not only great ideas and achievements but also wars and violence. Yet in the normative understanding of a modernity committed to progress, peace and non-violence, war would seem to have no place.

From this perspective, war as a fundamental evil needing to be eradicated is attributed to faulty or insufficient modernization. Terms such as Prussian-German militarism in their deficit-concept connotation were therefore powerful explanatory models. They identified these destructive forces as a "contemporanity of the noncontemporaneous" and thus defined them out of existence within the project of modernity (Jürgen Habermas).

Contextualizing war in modernity and modern thought requires its historicization, however. In the 1990s, with the demise of the communist utopia and the weakening of modernization theory as a source of self-assurance for the West, historical hindsight gave rise to a sense of ambivalence with regard to modernity (Zygmunt Bauman), especially in grappling with National Socialism. The dream of a peaceful modernity was over (Hans Joas) and the dark side of its Janus face was becoming ever more clear.

This change in perspective made modernity seem more and more like an age of war. Trench warfare, cities in ruins, Nazi extermination camps and mushroom clouds are terrible witnesses to modernity's destructive power. Fundamental processes of modernity-such as the invention of nation-states as a means to organize people and resources, the rise of science, the standardized serial production of industrial products paired with the French Revolution's promises of participation and democratization-released not only positive but also negative energies.

Nationalism, scientification, industrialization and mass mobilization reached their peak no later than the First World War. The boundaries between civil society and militarism became more and more porous, eventually dissolving entirely on the battlefields of world war. It was then evident that war included the whole of society, even at home and in peacetime. War advanced in the modern mind to a guiding principle of collective systems of meaning. A competitive reading of Darwinist theory made the "struggle for existence" the origin of life and applied it to society. War, divorced from the rambling of guns and the rattling of sabers, took on diffuse meanings as an idea of order in virtually every area of society-regardless of whether the respective systems were defined by a bourgeois-liberal, a communist or an authoritarian-fascist worldview. The societies of the twentieth century, in particular, were largely structured with the threat of war looming over them. War became the measure of all things during this period; every action, every subject, every object was questioned and evaluated with respect to its relevance to war.

Yet modernity can be neither good nor bad, and war is not the father of all things. Interpreting war as one voice of a polyphonic modernity and a modern way of thinking means taking modernity seriously and understanding it for what it is, without the encumbrance of normative categories. Then we can better grasp André Breton's notion of shooting at random into a crowd as the most basic Surrealistic act. Then we will see the nuclear shelters beneath the Art Déco skyscrapers of New York. Then we will notice the tanks rolling off the assembly lines of factories and know why the officer's tunic became the trend-setting uniform of modernity. In our age of exhilarating transformations, in which the categories of modernity that determined our thoughts and actions for two centuries are fading and the new is not yet discernible, it is more appropriate than ever to say: Let's historicize modernity! (Frank Reichherzer, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, www.atomiumculture.eu)

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