The August Madness
2 August 2014
A Century of Industrialized Warfare:
Europe Erupts in Popular Support for War
Sunday 02 August 1914
With the general mobilization of the great powers of Europe — news once again rapidly broadcast around the world by the mass media — it was now obvious that the July Crisis was no longer merely a crisis but that a European-wide war was in the near future. With mobilization, men in the millions were moving around their respective countries, and preparing to be transported to the frontier, where battles would soon commence. What was the response of the European populace? Elation. The capitals of Europe erupted with celebrations that we now call the “August Madness.”
Many photographs of the spontaneous demonstrations of public support for the just-declared war can be found at And so it begins… Images from 1914. The most famous image from the August Madness (reproduced above) was of Hitler, seen in a crowd of thousands in Munich. The photograph may be a forgery, but the outpouring of public enthusiasm at the Odeonsplatz in Munich on 02 August 1914, which Hitler did in fact attend, 25 at the time, was real enough.
Bertrand Russell provided some of the most interesting commentary on the August Madness in his Autobiography. Will Durant called Bertrand Russell, “…an almost mystic communist born out of the ashes of a mathematical logician… He impressed one, in 1914, as cold-blooded, as a temporarily animated abstraction, a formula with legs… the Bertrand Russell who had lain so long buried and mute under the weight of logic and mathematics and epistemology, suddenly burst forth, like a liberated flame, and the world was shocked to find that this slim and anemic-looking professor was a man of infinite courage, and a passionate lover of humanity.” (The Story of Philosophy, Chapter Ten, 3, I-II, the whole passage goes on for several pages and is well worth reading) It was as a passionate lover of humanity that Russell found himself repeatedly shocked by the war hysteria of August 1914. The same day Hitler was celebrating in the Odeonsplatz in Munich, Russell recounted his evening stroll around Trafalgar Square:
I spent the evening walking round the streets, especially in the neighbourhood of Trafalgar Square, noticing cheering crowds, and making myself sensitive to the emotions of passers-by. During this and the following days I discovered to my amazement that average men and women were delighted at the prospect of war. I had fondly imagined, what most pacifists contended, that wars were forced upon a reluctant population by despotic and Machiavellian governments. I had noticed during previous years how carefully Sir Edward Grey lied in order to prevent the public from knowing the methods by which he was committing us to the support of France in the event of war. I naively imagined that when the public discovered how he had lied to them, they would be annoyed; instead of which, they were grateful to him for having spared them the moral responsibility.
Bertrand Russell, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, Chapter 8 “The First War”
Russell was both horrified and unable to comprehend the celebratory atmosphere:
The first days of the War were to me utterly amazing. My best friends, such as the Whiteheads, were savagely warlike. Men like J. L. Hammond, who had been writing for years against participation in a European War, were swept off their feet by Belgium. As I had long known from a military friend at the Staff College that Belgium would inevitably be involved, I had not supposed important publicists so frivolous as to be ignorant on this vital matter.
With the advent of mass society, the mass support of population was necessary for a major war effort, and the European public obligingly provided this support to every nation-state that declared war and began mobilization. This public support for and vicarious participation in the war (at least in its early days) may be considered an additional trigger or escalation that allowed what might have been just another localized Balkan war into a global conflict.
Russell admitted that he did not foresee how destructive the war would be, which is as much saying that he, like everyone else, had no idea what a global industrialized war would be like, but already as the war was beginning he was learning lessons from the experience and changing his views on the humanity, the love of which defined his pacifism:
Although I did not foresee anything like the full disaster of the War, I foresaw a great deal more than most people did. The prospect filled me with horror, but what filled me with even more horror was the fact that the anticipation of carnage was delightful to something like ninety per cent of the population. I had to revise my views on human nature. At that time I was wholly ignorant of psycho-analysis, but I arrived for myself at a view of human passions not unlike that of the psychoanalysts. I arrived at this view in an endeavour to understand popular feeling about the War. I had supposed until that time that it was quite common for parents to love their children, but the War persuaded me that it is a rare exception. I had supposed that most people liked money better than almost anything else, but I discovered that they liked destruction even better. I had supposed that intellectuals frequently loved truth, but I found here again that not ten per cent of them prefer truth to popularity. Gilbert Murray, who had been a close friend of mine since 1902, was a pro-Boer when I was not. I therefore naturally expected that he would again be on the side of peace; yet he went out of his way to write about the wickedness of the Germans, and the superhuman virtue of Sir Edward Grey. I became filled with despairing tenderness towards the young men who were to be slaughtered, and with rage against all the statesmen of Europe.
Bertrand Russell lived through the August Madness and saw its direct effect on friends and colleagues that he supposed would share his pacifism; rapidly disabused of this notion, he continued with this activism nevertheless and was eventually jailed. While in jail he wrote An Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, which the governor of the prison was obligated to read for seditious tendencies before it was allowed to be published.
By the end of the war, many shared Russell’s gloom, but it took years and the death of millions to happen, and by this time gloom had changed into something different that would ultimately shape twentieth century Europe in a way not unlike how the Black Death shaped fourteenth century Europe. One may think of such events as mass extinctions in miniature, that give a kind of intimation of what human extinction would look like.
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A Century of Industrialized Warfare
8. The August Madness
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