Outbreak of the war
End of the war

From ‘Powder Barrel’ to ‘Universal Conflagration’ – Narrative II

The observer cannot but get the impression that in the struggle of the publicists for sales and attention it is the interpretation which comes up with the pithiest and most memorable labels for historical periods that finds favour.

In treatises and reports about the First World War the same concepts and labels crop up time and time again. Many of them have been taken over from the period of the war itself or from the years immediately after it. They represent – in most cases unthinkingly – a point of view which does not do justice to the present state of historical research. At the same time they repeat a narrative which appears problematic from a present-day perspective.

The term ‘First World War’ – thirty-six states were involved in it – can be found in publications from as early as 1914. However, it did not become widespread until it was used by the British officer Charles à Court Repington as the title of his best-selling book published in 1920. Even today, though, the conflict is still widely referred to as ‘The Great War’ in Britain and ‘La Grande Guerre’ in France. At least from a historical point of view it is not possible to give a convincing explantion of why ‘Der Erste Weltkrieg’ (The First World War) has become the usual name in Austria and Germany. After all, the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) and the Coalition Wars against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France (1792–1815)  were not fought only in Europe.

The global aspect is also emphasized by the term Weltenbrand, ‘universal conflagration’. This is derived from Norse mythology, as in the collection of myths and legends known as the Edda, where Surt the flame giant throws his flaming sword and thus destroys all life. This motif is used by Richard Wagner at the end of his operatic cycle The Ring of the Nibelungs. Weltenbrand is also the title of a series of (severely criticized) documentaries on the First and Second World Wars by the German television historian Guido Knopp; the same title has been chosen by the ORF, the Austrian public broadcaster, for its three-part television documentary series within the framework of its focus on the First World War.

A ‘universal conflagration’ can be ignited by a ‘fuse’ on a ‘powder barrel’, to use another frequently employed phrase in connection with the origins of the war. The motif of the ‘powder barrel’ is also one that has been in use for a long time. As early as 1919 the German author Wilhelm Doms wrote the following reflection:

Time and again I have come across the very strange idea – and the childishness of journalists is spreading it every day, that this war is the work of individuals. As if a catastrophe of such a general kind could have been conjured up by the will of individuals, however powerful they might be. To be sure, anyone who throws the spark into the powder barrel will become the immediate cause of the explosion. However, the essence of the matter is the fact that the powder barrel is there at all.

Translation: Leigh Bailey


Jahraus, Oliver/Kirchmeier, Christian: Der Erste Weltkrieg als „Katastrophe“. Herkunft, Bedeutungen und Funktionen einer problematischen Metapher, in: Werber, Niels/Koch, Lars/Kaufmann, Stefan (Hrsg.): Erster Weltkrieg. Kulturwissenschaftliches Handbuch, Stuttgart 2014. Unter: (07.06.2014)

Neitzel, Sönke: Der Globale Krieg, 2014. Unter: (07.06.2014)



„The observer cannot but get ...": Reimann, Aribert: Der Erste Weltkrieg – Urkatastrophe oder Katalysator? In: Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte B 29/30, 2004. Unter: (7.6.2014) (Translation)

„Time and again I have ...“: Doms, Wilhelm: Raum für alle hat die Erde!, München 1919, 16, zitiert nach: Jahraus, Oliver/Kirchmeier, Christian: Der Erste Weltkrieg als „Katastrophe“. Herkunft, Bedeutungen und Funktionen einer problematischen Metapher. Unter: (07.06.2014) (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