Modern science changes war, warfare and society. , 10 April 1918, Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek - Austrian National Library, Public Domain Mark

Introduction 

The First World War also brings about changes in the sciences and the humanities and their practice in labs, universities and scientific institutes. An international research and science network works for the „national cause“, resulting in the restructuring of personnel, institutional and content areas. The scientific institutes and their employees are used as instruments and are subordinated to the military. Many start to do independent warfare research. The spiritual world begins to exhibit nationalist sympathies, calling for war. The scientist’s work is increasingly military in nature and he becomes a soldier.

Mental Mobilisation

As the First World War begins many intellectuals participate in the war effort. A “mental mobilisation” follows military mobilisation. European writers, philosophers and academics argue in favour of the war in published appeals and in speeches at universities. Professors appeal to their students to join the army. The general population is encouraged to help and feed war invalids. Academics conduct research to support the war. Intellectuals even go as far as to write memoranda to headquarters and to army command.

This mental mobilisation is intended to justify and support the war through recourse to culture and tradition. A new nationalism grows in Europe, and internationality is repressed and there is increasing emphasis on national culture. The social sciences and the humanities, like all academia, devote themselves to war propaganda.

But not all scientists and intellectuals support the war: some publish critical statements. A “war of minds” breaks out in which academic disciplines from philosophy to physics are turned into weapons.

Lectures about the war were also held at schools., 15 September 1916, Salzburg, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek - Austrian National Library, Public Domain Mark
Lectures about the war were also held at schools., 15 September 1916, Salzburg, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek - Austrian National Library, Public Domain Mark

Research for the front

The First World War has an increasing impact on research: more and more it supports the war effort. The military does not make requests of the academic world. Rather academics themselves offer their services to the military leadership. Scientists want to solve problems like the supply of raw materials, which in the case of the Central Powers is disrupted by the allies. Consequently, research is devoted to the finding of substitute synthetic commodities which will enable the continuation of the war.

Once science has thus demonstrated its interest in supporting the war and its potential impact, military command issues contracts to research institutes to develop technology for warfare. The most famous result of this research is the production of poison gas which is developed in Germany and which goes on to kill and cripple thousands of soldiers. The Allies bring tanks into action for the first time in 1916. Aeroplanes begin to be used in a military capacity and many new weapons are developed. Thus science is responsible not only for the continuation of the war but also for a new kind of mass slaughter.

Working in a chemistry lab during the war, Istituto centrale per il catalogo unico , Biblioteca Universitaria Alessandrina, In Copyright
Working in a chemistry lab during the war, Istituto centrale per il catalogo unico , Biblioteca Universitaria Alessandrina, In Copyright
Increased killing capacities: Warfare becomes more and more mechanical, Reparto fotocinematografico dell'Esercito 1915-1917, Contributor: Museo Centrale del Risorgimento, Public Domain Mark
Increased killing capacities: Warfare becomes more and more mechanical, Reparto fotocinematografico dell'Esercito 1915-1917, Contributor: Museo Centrale del Risorgimento, Public Domain Mark
Civil society is also affected by the "war of the labs"., 1918, Agence Rol. Agence photographique , French National Library - Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Public Domain Mark
Civil society is also affected by the "war of the labs"., 1918, Agence Rol. Agence photographique , French National Library - Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Public Domain Mark

The change from independent research institute to military department

Not only are research results marked by the war, but the management of scientific institutes in countries throughout Europe is also subject to change. One of the most famous examples is the “Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut für physikalische Chemie und Elektrochemie” which is placed under military administration and thus organised as a military unit. All employees are given military ranks and have to act on military orders. The laboratory coat and the military uniform are amalgamated to form the new clothing of the scientific military expert. This transition from independent, scientifically-oriented research institute into organisations of warfare typifies the militarisation of science.

With incorporation into the military juggernaut comes new funding and new staff. The research institute grows, in contrast to other institutes of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Society which lose employees to conscription. But the autonomy of the institute is lost and it has to put its “unimportant” prewar research on hold. At this point the war prevents innovation and ideas.

Recruting call adressing Hungarian students, 17 September 1914, Debrezin, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek - Austrian National Library, Public Domain Mark
Recruting call adressing Hungarian students, 17 September 1914, Debrezin, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek - Austrian National Library, Public Domain Mark
Courses for the civil population about survival in times of war are offered., March 1915, Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek - Austrian National Library, CC BY-SA
Courses for the civil population about survival in times of war are offered., March 1915, Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek - Austrian National Library, CC BY-SA