Outbreak of the war
End of the war

The First World as the ‘Original Catastrophe’ – Narrative I

There is probably hardly any other phrase which is mentioned more often in Austria and Germany in connection with the First World War than ‘original catastrophe’. The term is derived from the words of the George F. Kennan, an American historian and diplomat for the United States, who in 1979 spoke of ‘the great seminal catastrophe’. This was shortened in German translation to Urkatastrophe (original catastrophe), and this word has meanwhile become a frequently used narrative, but one which generally does not bear in mind its origin, meaning, and above all its effect.

The phrase which Kennan coined shows that his strategy is to present the First World War as a historical fault line and to see the Second World War as its direct consequence. This means that referring to the First World War as the ‘original catastrophe’ marks it as the beginning of a series of catastrophes that followed, thus emphasizing the outbreak of the war and the seminal nature of this event.          

The use of the concept of the ‘catastrophe’ as the basis for explaining the First World War had, according to the Germanists Jahraus and Kirchmeier, already become established shortly after it ended, in the early years of the Weimar Republic. It was the first time that the word, which until then had been used only to describe natural phenomena and their consequences, was used in connection with an event that had been caused by human beings. In the discourse of the time it was, however, often not clear what the ‘catastrophe’ of First World War actually referred to: Was it the war itself or was it Germany’s defeat? According to Jahraus and Kirchmeier three central fields of meanings of ‘catastrophe’ can be found in German literature of the early inter-war period: nature/technology, religion and decadence. The destructive potential of natural phenomena is transferred to the war and is paraphrased in suitable metaphors. In his novel Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain), published in 1924, Thomas Mann uses the figure of Lodovico Settembrini to reflect on the period before the war:

It seemed to him as if ‘all that’ could not end well, as if the end would be a catastrophe, an insurrection by an impatient Nature, a thunderstorm and a cleansing whirlwind which would break the world’s spell, sweep life out of its ‘standstill’ and prepare a terrible ‘judgement day’ for this ‘silly season’.

The two other categories can be discerned here: religion in the shape of ‘judgement day’ and decadence in ‘standstill’ and ‘silly season’.

From the nineteenth century on technology had repeatedly been the cause of catastrophes, for example in railway accidents. However, these were one-off events and people could make sense of them. Then, in the First World War, the use of technological innovations led to such ‘catastrophes’ taking on a hitherto unknown dimension – from then on no insurance company was willing or able to provide cover for damage caused by ‘acts of war’.

Jahraus and Kirchmeier confirm that during the inter-war period there was a tendency to move away from seeing the question of guilt in terms of individuals:

What remains is thus merely a complex network of connections where what is cause and what is effect, who is guilty and who is only affected, can no longer be made out in a plausible manner. And it must at least be supposed that such an exculpation is not the least important social function of the metaphor of catastrophe.

After 1945 the concept of catastrophe generally referred to the Second World War. Using the concept of the ‘original catastrophe’ and taking it over as a topos of historical scholarship for the First World War was thus only made possible because the responsibility of Germany for both wars could no longer be called into question. When Eric Hobsbawm calls the time between 1914 and 1945 the ‘Age of Catastrophe’ in order to establish the continuity between the wars, historical scholarship will counter this by pointing out that this narrows the view of the Weimar Republic, whose early years were in fact also marked by perspectives for the future that were definitely optimistic. This is also true of Austria and the First Republic.

Translation: Leigh Bailey


Jahraus, Oliver/Kirchmeier, Christian: Der Erste Weltkrieg als „Katastrophe“. Herkunft, Bedeutungen und Funktionen einer problematischen Metapher. Unter: (20.06.2014)

Kennan, George F.: The Decline of Bismarck’s European Order. Franco-Russian Relations, 1875-1890. Princeton 1979



„It seemed to him as if ...“: Mann, Thomas: Der Zauberberg, Frankfurt am Main 2002, 960, zitiert nach: Jahraus, Oliver/Kirchmeier, Christian: Der Erste Weltkrieg als „Katastrophe“. Herkunft, Bedeutungen und Funktionen einer problematischen Metapher, unter: (20.06.2014) (Translation)

„What remains is thus merely ...“: Jahraus, Oliver/Kirchmeier, Christian: Der Erste Weltkrieg als „Katastrophe“. Herkunft, Bedeutungen und Funktionen einer problematischen Metapher, unter: (20.06.2014) (Translation)

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    After the war

    The First World War marked the end of the “long nineteenth century”. The monarchic empires were replaced by new political players. The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy disintegrated into separate nation states. The Republic of German Austria was proclaimed in November 1918, and Austria was established as a federal state in October 1920. The years after the war were highly agitated ­– in a conflicting atmosphere of revolution and defeat, and political, economic, social and cultural achievements and setbacks.


Persons, Objects & Events