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A Monstrous Paradox: From Shining Example to Ruthless Invader, 1914

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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German infantry occupying a shallow trench in what had recently been a farmer’s field (note the piles of mulch), August 1914. The man on the extreme right is digging, a task that became more common as the war progressed. Credit: Scientific American, August 29, 1914

Reported in Scientific American, This Week in World War I: August 29, 1914

In the late 19th and early 20th century before the Great War broke out, Germany (which had become unified only in 1871) could be held up as a shining example of how science and the arts (philosophy, music, painting) could help a country prosper, grow and become civilized. Early on in the war, therefore, there was some puzzlement at how to reconcile these positive attributes with the ruthless military efficiency displayed by Germany after its armies invaded Belgium and France.

This editorial from the issue of 100 years ago: August 29, 1914, tried to reconcile these disparate qualities:

The Great Paradox

The huge war now raging in Europe is the inevitable outcome of the unsymmetrical development of the mind of man. Perhaps the leading country of the world in the sciences and the arts is Germany. Certainly the leading country in the world in developing an aggressive and militarist policy is Germany. She is at once the most enlightened and the most reactionary of the greater nations of the earth. She is, above all other countries, the living embodiment of that monstrous paradox we call the advancement of science. Our progress in the control of nature for the benefit of mankind has been equalled only by the splendid intelligence with which we have perfected means of slaying one another. We learn how to abolish a disease and simultaneously invent a dreadnought. As scientific men, while half of us work for the establishment of heaven upon earth, the other half strengthens the possibilities of an increasingly ghastly hell. We approach the millennium and Armageddon along parallel roads.

This towering paradox will now be resolved. The destructive half of mankind have beaten their brethren in the race. The war lords triumph over the apostles of peace. For the moment the service of the devil takes precedence over the service of God. But only for the moment.

To see a full archive of our coverage of World War I—military, economic, social, technological—view our archive package, Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, at

Dan Schlenoff About the Author: Dan Schlenoff edits the “50, 100 & 150 Years Ago” column for Scientific American. He is a keen student of the role of science in history.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. stanem 8:56 pm 11/9/2014

    Polititions should be on the front lines

    Link to this

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