Denis de Rougemont on Verdun

A million soldiers died at Verdun, including the German painter Franz Marc who was 36 at the time.

Before Verdun, says Denis de Rougemont toward the end of L’Amour et l’Occident, it was possible to find parallels between codes of chivalry and codes of war; with total war, this comes to an end. (My research questions here would be on some earlier wars outside Europe, including the Boer War.)

In this situation, war suppresses the passions as opposed to serving as an outlet for these, as it had done in the past. Also, in (mechanized) total war, the soldier is used by machinery and not the other way around. These two things are part of why total war is so dehumanizing.

The objective of total war is not the mere defeat, but the death of the adversary. Starting in 1920, the rules of war no longer mattered and war more or less had to become sadistic. To translate to sexually related crimes: it is no longer only the rape of a country, but also its torture and annihilation.


One has noted by now that de Rougement is a bit behind the times, or if we think of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a bit French, since in his paradigm rape is in a set with love and sex, not with murder and violence. Still, we see his point: total war is not an expression or exaggeration of any form of passion, but the extinguishing of passion and perhaps of the “human.”

He is thinking of rape as, stealing someone for yourself; you have them, perhaps against their will, but they are alive and they are an object of desire. In total war, you end up not with a living object of desire, but with a dead body. It is not the scale of the massacres that makes total war new, but the fact that it “turns upon passion.”


Machinery was very important at Verdun, and the Germans called it “The Battle of War Material.” In total war generally, you fight a whole population, not just an army; you kill civilians, women and children.

The Great War provided the peasant masses of Europe with their introduction to mechanical civilization. There were daily demonstrations of death dealing arts, on live subjects. In fact, it was like a guided tour of a World Exposition of such arts.

War was no longer cathartic or based upon a “fighting instinct;” it suppressed these in favor of mass brutality and mechanized death.



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