You are here

Featured topic: Conflicts » Fusion of man and machine

Fusion of man and machine

The First World War from a literary perspective

by Raffaela Römer  

September 25, 2015


The First World War is widely regarded as having sparked technological innovations. The relationship man – machine changed drastically. Two PhD students from the Mercator Research Group "Spaces of Anthropological Knowledge" have researched in what way those changes were reflected in literature.

Kevin Liggieri (left) and Felix Hüttemann

Kevin Liggieri and Felix Hüttemann share not only an office, but also a passion for literature. The 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War inspired both PhD students from the Mercator Research Group "Spaces of Anthropological Knowledge" to look into the complex issue of man – machine. Both wish to find out how that relationship changed in the course of the First World War and if that era set the course for the way we think about machines today. While media scholar Felix Hüttemann focuses mainly on documents authored by the officer and author Ernst Jünger, philosopher Kevin Liggieri takes a closer look into the depiction of military aviation. Both approaches complement and overlap each other, seeing as Ernst Jünger also discussed aviation in his texts.

Ernst Jünger was one of the central figures of post-war literature. He was born the son of an apothecary in Heidelberg in 1895, and volunteered for military service in 1914. After the war, in which he gained renown as a shock troop leader, he studied natural sciences and philosophy. Jünger championed the ideas of "Conservative Revolution", but he was not a Nazi sympathiser. His writings were even then criticised for their glorification of violence. All the same, distinguished writer colleagues attested his importance for German literature.

Published in 1920, his war diaries "Storm of Steel" are considered one of the best-known representations of attrition warfare in the First World War. Attrition warfare was thus called, because it was the first time that materials such as bombs, tanks and supplies were deployed en masse (fig. 1).

Fig. 1© Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin

The First World War as attrition warfare: for the first time, munitions, machines and human beings were deployed en masse. 

"'Expendables' also included soldiers," says Felix Hüttemann. "In this respect, the First World War differed from wars that had been led hitherto. 65 million soldiers were deployed, 20 million died, 21 million came back with injuries. In all this, the individual remained almost invisible. In previous wars, for example, soldiers had used to wear uniforms in different colours, whereas in the First World War, they were for the first time dressed in identical camouflage colours, their faces partly concealed by gas masks."

Due to the First World War, people's relationship with technology and machines had changed. Horse and bayonet were replaced by tank and rapid-fire guns. "There was a shift in perspective: from a mere instrument to the decisive factor, almost an autonomous partner in combat," says Hüttemann. This is how Ernst Jünger phrased it in his essay "The Machine": "We had meant to make them work for us as iron warriors, but we got caught in their wheels instead." Later, others such as the German philosopher and logician Gotthard Günther picked up that thought again: "A machine is nothing but a – within certain limits – tool rendered autonomous," as he wrote in 1963. His technology and philosophy-focused ideas made Ernst Jünger a pioneer of his era – this is Felix Hüttemann’s conclusion drawn on the basis of his research into post-war literature. "Jünger's works include approaches which we connote with ideas that are relevant today, such as the Actor-Network Theory. It deals with the so-called symmetrisation between man and machine. According to this theory, everyone is an actor, there is no difference between subject and object, no hierarchy between man and machine."

In the First World War, the lines between man and machine also became blurry in war aviation, whose depiction in literature Kevin Liggieri has studied in-depth. In addition to books about that era, he also used historical documents such as pilots' records, field reports and diary entries for research purposes. "My starting point was the question if the symmetry man – machine did indeed exists or if it was merely represented in literature," says Liggieri. His thesis: "I think literature has a classifying function. It wants to engage with new things, which we don't quite understand yet. To this end, it points out analogies and images that are meant to help us understand. It retains traditional stylistic devices, in order to come to terms with the new situation." According to Liggieri, as far as depiction of war aviation was concerned, this meant that aviator novels often followed the same structure as adventure novels. With the pilot in the part of the hero, who tames the "wild" machine – just like a wild horse – and eventually fuses with her to form one entity in order to defeat the enemy.

In the First World War, the airplane played a crucial role. Even though airplanes had been used exclusively for reconnaissance purposes at the beginning of the First World War, the potential of this new weapon technology soon became apparent. A war industry arose, which attracted engineers and scientists in large numbers. The new technology soon triggered aviation fever among the population. The credit goes partly to the way aviation was represented in literature, believes Kevin Liggieri: "The media at that time described aerial warfare using similar terms as for horse warfare. The pilots were the knights among the soldiers. Many of them were of noble birth." Accordingly, the probably best known war pilot in the First World War, Manfred von Richthofen, was also known as "the Red Baron." As fighter pilot, he achieved the highest number of aerial victories with his machine, a red-painted Fokker-Dr.I triple decker. The unique features of airplanes of this type were their agility and speed, thanks to which the pilots experienced a brand new flight and fight sensation.

Fig. 2© Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-2004-0430-501 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Manfred von Richthofen, also known as “the Red Baron“ with his fighter squadron.

The problems started when the interaction pilot – plane didn't work smoothly. When the machine, in a manner of speaking, "revolted angrily", as author Antoine Saint-Exupéry wrote – for example due to engine troubles. "All in all, two tendencies regarding the technological development in the First World War have emerged," says Kevin Liggieri. "On the one hand, the machine was imbued with autonomy as an actor, because it was the decisive factor in aerial fights and gave birth to heroes like Richthofen. On the other hand, the pilot-plane network constituted a hybrid that did not necessarily always work smoothly." Essentially, the problem revolved around "trust/connection" on the one side and "distrust/awe" on the other. Frequently used in literature, the traditional animal resp. man-machine analogy was an option for dealing with technology as a new form. In the same way that the machine transformed into an organism through its movements, man was mechanised with his "nerves of steel". "Acceptance of awe-inspiring technology happens via annexation," says Liggieri. "As a classification system, literature is thus the negotiator who attempts to bring man and machine closer together."

About the Mercator Research Groups

In a joined project with the Mercator Foundation, the Ruhr-Universität Bochum set up two Mercator Research Groups, namely MRG 1 und 2, in 2010. In each group, three to four junior professors form an independent research team. The young researchers are the sole managers in charge of the MRGs.

The second Mercator Research Group “Spaces of Anthropological Knowledge – Production and Transfer”, examines forms of production and circulation of human knowledge within their respective cultural and historical context. Under the umbrella of this project, research in the fields of knowledge history, philosophy, literary studies, media studies, and cultural psychology is carried out.

Contact faculty

Kevin Liggieri
Mercator Research Group
"Spaces of Anthropological Knowledge"
Ruhr-Universität Bochum
44780 Bochum, Germany
Tel. +49/234/32-29299

Felix Hüttemann
Mercator Research Group
"Spaces of Anthropological Knowledge"
Ruhr-Universität Bochum
44780 Bochum, Germany

Download of high resolution images

Please select the images you wish to download and accept the terms and conditions.
The images will be available as zip file after download.

Terms and conditions
By downloading images from this website, you obtain the right to use the images for media coverage in the context of RUBIN – Science Magazine of the RUB only. Usage of the images outside of this context is not permitted. Images may be used by the press at no charge, provided that the copyright holder is properly cited.

I accept the terms and conditions.