World War One as European potlatch

– Kristan Horton, “Drawing of a History of World War One“, 2008.

I stumbled across something whilst reading which I have to share, briefly. Potlatch is the indigenous American system of giving and returning gifts, exceeding the original value of the first gift. It is a competition of honour and rivalry, where among the Haida and Tlingit it took on the form of destroying huge amounts of wealth in order to beat the rival who could not possibly reciprocate this. The Great War of 1914-18 killed very roughly 16 million and achieved pretty much nothing aside from this, with the only victory of the war occurring at Versailles in 1919, which led onto another batch of atrocities in World War Two. That’s another story though. I’ll form my thesis using Walter Benjamin’s excellent idea of composing a history of German Romanticism entirely out of quotations. Here goes:

“Nowhere is the individual prestige of a chief and that of his clan so closely linked to what is spent and to the meticulous repayment with interest of gifts that have been accepted. […] In certain kinds of potlatch one must expend all that one has, keeping nothing back. It is a competition to see who is the richest and also the most madly extravagant. Everything is based upon the principles of antagonism and rivalry”. – Marcel Mauss, The Gift, p. 37


“The political status of individuals in the brotherhoods and clans, and ranks of all kinds, are gained in a ‘war of property’, just as they are in real war, or through chance, inheritance, alliance, and marriage. […] …so as not to give the slightest hint of desiring your gift to be reciprocated. Whole boxes of olachen (candlefish) oil are burnt, as are houses and thousands of blankets. The most valuable copper objects are broken and thrown into the water, in order to put down and ‘flatten’ one’s rival.” Mauss, The Gift p.37.


Illustrious General, the expectation of mankind is upon you—the ‘Hungry Haig’ as we call you here at home. You shall report 500,000 casualties, but the Soul of the empire will afford them. And you shall break through with the cavalry of England and France for the greatest victory that history has ever known. Drive on, Illustrious General!”

– letter found amongst General Douglas Haig’s papers, quoted by Richard Koenigsberg.

Leendert Jordan, “Happy New Year” in De Notenkraker, 22/12/1917.

“A noble trade…replete with etiquette and generosity”. Mauss, The Gift, p.37.

“If I should die, think only this of me;
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore…”

– Rupert Brooke, “The Soldier” 1914.

“The victimized crowd of attackers in no man’s land has become one of the supreme images of this war. Attackers moved forward usually without seeking cover and were mowed down in rows, with the mechanical efficiency of a scythe, like so many blades of grass. “We were very surprised to see them walking,” wrote a German machine gunner of his experience of a British attack at the Somme. “The officers went in front. I noticed one of them walking calmly, carrying a walking stick. When we started firing we just had to load and reload. They went down in the hundreds. You didn’t have to aim, we just fired into them.”

– Modris Eksteins, The Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, p.145.

– Frank Hurley, “Surrounded by Invisible Death”, taken in Autumn 1917, Flanders


“I saw our men get their machine-guns into action, and the right side of the living bar frittered away, and then the whole line fell into the scorched grass. Another line followed. The German soldiers were tall men, and did not falter as they came forward. But it seemed to me they walked like men conscious of going to death. They died.”

– Philip Gibbs, Now It Can Be Told, 1920.


“At the Battle of the Somme that began on July 1, 1916, 60,000 men were killed or injured on the first day on the British front of the 110,000 who got out of trenches and began to walk forward along a thirteen-mile front. One would imagine that the British would have received the message and abandoned this disastrous strategy shortly thereafter, but they did not. Day after day, week after week, month after month, soldiers got out of trenches, advanced toward the German line, and were slaughtered. Over 416,000 Britons were killed at the Somme, but the battle lines did not change.

Even the best historians are mystified, struggling to explain what was going on—the perpetual, senseless carnage. The problem is that their thinking is too conventional. They continue to assume that nations were trying to “win” the war; that it was a question of “victory or defeat.” When pressed to explain the suicidal battle-strategies, commentators say that Generals were held in thrall by an antiquated battle strategy or that they underestimated the power of the machine-gun. Frequently, people throw up their hands in despair and declare that the Generals simply were “stupid.”

In our conventional way of thinking, we say that a soldier has died because the enemy has killed him. When French and British soldiers got out of trenches to attack and were mowed down by machine gun fire, we say that they were killed by Germans. Likewise, when German soldiers moved forward en masse and were slaughtered by the opposing forces, we say that the French or British killed them. Wouldn’t it be more parsimonious to say that nations and leaders—by putting their soldiers into such an impossible situation—were killing their own men? “

– Richard Koenigsberg “The Soldier as Sacrificial Victim: Awakening from the Nightmare of History”

– 2nd Ltnt. T.L. Aitke, “Gas casualties of the British 55th Division, awaiting treatment at an advanced dressing station near Bethune, France”. Taken 10/04/1918 during Battle of Estaires.


“Let us beware of saying that death is the opposite of life. The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 1882.

“The last sixteen months have been the most glorious in the history of Europe. Heroism has come back to the earth. It is good for the world that such things should be done. The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefield. Such august homage was never before offered to God as this, the homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of country.”

– Padraig Pearse, 1916


If you will now observe what is happening in this war – the cruelties and injustices for which the most civilized nations are responsible, the different way in which they judge their own lies and wrong-doings and those of their enemies, and the general lack of insight which prevails – you will have to admit that psycho-analysis has been right in both its theses’.

– Freud, letter to Frederik Van Eesen, Dec. 28 1914

– Flanders, somewhere. Possibly British soldiers. See http://www.greatwar.nl/ for more. There’s an excellent quote about train-timetables which I cannot recall or find – reader you’re welcome to add your quotes to this.


“This western-front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time. The young men think they could do it but they couldn’t. They could fight the first Marne again but not this. This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes…This kind of battle was invented by Lewis Carroll and Jules Verne and whoever wrote Undine, and country deacons bowling and marraines in Marseilles and girls seduced in the back lanes of Wurttemburg and Westphalia…This was the last love battle…All my beautiful lovely safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high explosive love.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, ‘Tender is the Night’, 1934.


“The gift is therefore at one and the same time what should be done, what should be received, and yet what is dangerous to take” – Mauss, The Gift, p.59.


War may appear to be a voluntary destruction of previously accumulated reserves of human capital, an act performed with the implicit intention to sacrifice a certain number of lives. Proceeding from the empirical statement that every war causes the deaths of young men, Bouthoul arrives at the conception of war as deferred infanticide, a voluntary destructive institution, the aim of which is the elimination of young men. War thus appears to be a recurrent social function, characterized by the accumulation of human capital, a part of which, at a given moment, is brutally ejected.” – Franco Fornari, The Psychoanalysis of War p.7.


“Thus the clan, the tribe, and peoples have learnt how to oppose and to give to one another without sacrificing themselves to one another” – Mauss, The Gift p.82.


– After the Battle of Passchendaele, November 1917, taken by unknown Canadian soldier. It is hard to say whether Passchendaele, Verdun or the Somme (used by Koenigsberg) is the best example of potlatch or sacrifice in WW1. They’re all equally appalling.


“It wasn’t worth it. No war is worth it. No war is worth the loss of a couple of lives let alone thousands. T’isn’t worth it … the First World War, if you boil it down, what was it? Nothing but a family row. That’s what caused it. The Second World War – Hitler wanted to govern Europe, nothing to it. I would have taken the Kaiser, his son, Hitler and the people on his side … and bloody shot them. Out the way and saved millions of lives. T’isn’t worth it.”

– Harry Patch, one of the last surviving British servicemen from the Great War, speaking in 1998

–  Wootton Bassett 2010, more potlatch, ad nauseam.

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One thought on “World War One as European potlatch

  1. Excellent.

    Thank you for developing this idea: warfare as a form of loss or self-destruction.

    In some way, this is an obvious truth, but in another way it’s the most difficult idea for human beings to accept and embrace: that we create and valorize our own self-destruction.

    Why is this the case? Why are human beings proud of their capacity to destroy themselves.

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