Experience suggests that if men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause because that just cause was victorious in an earlier generation, then they will struggle against the just cause. They will struggle for the sake of struggle. They will struggle, in other words, out of a certain boredom: for they cannot imagine living in a world without struggle. And if the greater part of the world in which they live is characterized by peaceful and prosperous liberal democracy, then they will struggle against that peace and prosperity, and against democracy.
The pro-war demonstrations that took place in the different capitals of Europe in August 1914 can be seen in some measure as rebellions against that middle-class civilization, with its security, prosperity, and lack of challenge. The growing isothymia of everyday life no longer seemed sufficient. On a mass scale, megalothymia reappeared: not the megalothymia of individual princes, but of entire nations that sought recognition of their worth and dignity.
In reading German justifications for the war, one is struck by a consistent emphasis on the need for a kind of objectless struggle, a struggle that would have purifying moral effects quite independently of whether Germany gained colonies or won freedom of the seas. The comments of a young German law student on his way to the front in September 1914 were typical: while denouncing war as “dreadful, unworthy of human beings, stupid, outmoded, and in every sense destructive,” he nonetheless came to the Nietzschean conclusion that “the decisive issue is surely always one’s readiness to sacrifice and not the object of sacrifice.” Pflicht, or duty, was not understood as a matter of enlightened self-interest or contractual obligation; it was an absolute moral value that demonstrated one’s inner strength and superiority to materialism and natural determination.