Hamburg, Rathausmarkt, in the late afternoon of July 31, 1914: Infantry soldiers of the Hamburg Regiment march through the Alster metropolis. At its head: an officer on horseback, who stops in all public places and announces the imposition of the so-called siege, the final stage in the war.
First World War: The "Great Catastrophe of the 20th Century"
Austria-Hungary had already gone to war with Serbia three days earlier, an unofficial and secretly agreed procedure with Berlin. Serbia's largest ally, Russia, is to be forced to mobilize, which is expected to happen. This seems to confirm that an attack by Russia is imminent. The Germans believe they are going to wage a just defense war. General mobilization begins at 6 a.m. on the morning of August 1st across Germany. Russia is officially declared war. The First World War, the "Great Catastrophe of the 20th Century", has begun.
Collective war frenzy: the "August experience"
In the summer days in July and August 1914, enthusiasm for war first spread. A frenzied, collective nationalism, which is later mystified as an "August experience", affects large parts of the population. So also the citizens of Hamburg who come together in the elegant "Alster Pavilion" on Jungfernstieg. As the "Hamburger Nachrichten" reports, "the chapel has to play incessantly, and then the sounds of 'Germany, Germany above all' came to the ears of those who had to wait outside because the sound of thunder and roaring was not there for anyone would have been more space ". Such scenes of spontaneous war euphoria take place in almost all northern German cities.
"Battle of the Jungfernstieg": Euphoria turns into violence
From the beginning, nationalistic enthusiasm also includes carnivalesque scenes, hooliganism and brutal violence. Even the landlord of the "Alster Pavilion" is not spared: When he tries to prevent a guest from repeatedly reading out an extra sheet, he is hit by the crowd when the café is turned into a heap of broken glass. The advancing police had to pull the sabers to stop the "Battle of Jungfernstieg". Something similar is repeated in Kiel: When the imperial anthem sounds there on July 28, students beat up other café guests who don't get up spontaneously, sing along and "Hooray!" roar.
"Spyitis" and mass hysteria are spreading
A kind of mass hysteria seizes the people: On August 4, 1914, at Bremen Central Station, the slogan "Stop the spy!" Is enough to trigger a mass psychosis, as a result of which a man is almost killed by a fanatical mob. When the police finally get the victim seriously injured, it turns out that he is a German soldier on the way to his unit. The Hanoverian philosophy professor Theodor Lessing, who is arrested on the same day because of his long beard on a platform as a "Russian spy", is finally saved only by a Prussian officer who turns out to be his former student. "How much abuse, how many malice, acts of revenge, bestialities were practiced in these hideous days," Lessing notes later, "nobody was sure of his life."
"Clouds are mistaken for planes, bicycle handlebars for bombs"
In the first days of August alone, 28 civilians were shot dead at wild roadblocks because there was a rumor that French gold would be smuggled from France to Russia by car. A police chief speaks of a "fool's house" in which "the population" is starting to go crazy: "Everyone sees a Russian or French spy in their fellow man and believes that they have a duty to bloody him and the policeman who takes care of him Clouds are mistaken for airplanes, stars for airships, bicycle handlebars for bombs and spies are shot legally. There is no telling how all this will work out when times get really difficult. "
The beginning of the war: ordinary people are skeptical
Contrary to the myth of the "August experience", according to which all sections of the population were equally enthusiastic about the war, this phenomenon primarily affects the nobility, the bourgeoisie, many intellectuals and of course the political leadership. In contrast, the mood is often very different in the working-class areas of the big cities and in the country. The agents of the political police note on their sneak tours through Hamburg workers' pubs that those present ask loudly what they are concerned with the Austrian heir to the throne and why they should give their lives for it. In Bremen, a social democrat observed on August 1 the "miserable mood" he "has ever experienced": "Mothers, women and brides get the young men to pull and cry. Everyone has the feeling that they are going straight to the slaughterhouse. "
Not prepared for years of World War II
However, hardly anyone expects how quickly times will be more difficult. Most soldiers believe that Christmas will be back at home, and the state is in no way prepared for a long war.
For the majority of the northern German civilian population, the outbreak of war does not pose any military threat, but in many villages there is "sudden horror" after the declaration of war, as a contemporary witness notes. Many farmers fear harvest and livelihood. In addition, horses and wagons are often confiscated by the military. Siegfried Jacobson, editor of the magazine "Schaubühne", writes during his summer vacation on the North Sea: "Bring the enthusiastic Berliners here between our 15 farmhouses and they will fall silent."
Hunger and unemployment are spreading
The war is particularly noticeable in the northern German ports. Due to the British naval blockade, shipping practically comes to a standstill. Despite the general mobilization, mass unemployment already prevailed in August. Shipowners, shipbrokers, trading and port companies in Hamburg, Bremerhaven and elsewhere lay off their employees. Although the men subject to military service go to war, 30,000 unemployed people are registered in Hamburg alone at the beginning of September 1914, many of them dockers. Already on August 21, the "Hamburger Echo" reports that "in the poorer districts, the need is infinite, yes, that in many cases there is already starvation". Many families can no longer pay the rent, the number of homeless increases from 7,000 to 16,000 within a month.
Ten million soldiers die in the First World War
With the first terrible front-line experiences, the "baptism of fire", disillusionment and disillusionment spread to the war volunteers. Theodor Reil from Oldenburg wrote to his teacher from Belgium at the end of August: "After a 33-hour train journey and a seven-hour wait, our people had a strenuous march. On the way, the first destruction, the horror of the war, burned-out houses, villages were completely destroyed . "
At the latest with the defeat in the Battle of the Marne in September 1914, which made a quick victory against France impossible, many things are like the grocer Johanna Boldt. At the beginning of October, she wrote to her husband Julius on the Eastern Front: "People want nothing more than the end of this unfortunate war. And there is still no prospect." It is still four long years before this wish comes true in the course of the November Revolution of 1918, which begins in Kiel and Wilhelmshaven. By the end of the war, ten million soldiers had died on the battlefields of Europe - including Julius Boldt.