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Hearing History of the 19th and 20th Centuries

In a newly published collection, editor Daniel Morat and his contributors approach historical analysis in an uncommon way — by using their sense of hearing. The authors examine the way modern history sounds in Sounds of Modern History: Auditory Cultures in 19th- and 20th-Century Europe. Following, the editor gives a brief introduction and shares an excerpt from his chapter. The excerpt is accompanied by a recording from 1914 Germany.




When Europe went to war in the summer of 1914, scenes of vociferous war enthusiasm have been reported from many European cities. Historiographic research of the last twenty years has shown that these scenes were not representative of the general mood in the warring nations. Still, they have long dominated our perception of the outbreak of World War I.


Why have the images of the war-excited crowds been so influential in the memory and historiography of the war? Because these crowds not only produced images, but also sounds that already at the time drowned out the voices of those opposed to the war.


This is the argument of my own chapter in “Sounds of Modern History. Auditory Cultures in 19th– and 20th-Century Europe,” which examines the role of collective singing and cheering in the streets of Berlin in July and August 1914. By so doing, the chapter hopes to contribute to a better understanding of the mechanisms of political mobilization and of historical perception. It is one example of how studying sounds in history can add to our comprehension of supposedly well-known historical phenomena. The other twelve chapters present other examples, from 19th-century literature and science to 20th-century media and war experience.


The mobilization in the summer of 1914 has only been captured in written reports and photographs, but a year later, a studio recording has recreated the mobilization sonically. In the following excerpt from my chapter on “Acoustic Mobilization and Collective Affects at the Beginning of World War I,” I briefly discuss this recording. You can also listen to an excerpt of the recording (courtesy of the Deutsche Grammophongesellschaft).


Click to listen: Mobilmachung 1914


“The special affective quality of acoustic mobilization was also exploited for propaganda and commercial purposes. In 1915, for example, the Deutsche Grammophongesellschaft produced a number of Hörbilder (sound scenes), as they are called, which it marketed as ‘patriotic zonophone recordings’ (vaterländische Zonophonaufnahmen—the zonophone was a device that competed with the gramophone). These Hörbilder involved scenes that were reenacted acoustically in the studio and can be considered the predecessors of the later radio plays. Alongside scenes such as ‘The Storming of Liège’ (‘Die Erstürmung von Lüttich’) and ‘Welcoming U 21’ (‘Begrüßung der U 21’—the submarine U 21 sank the British cruiser HMS Pathfinder on 5 September 1914), these patriotic recordings also included one with the title ‘The Mobilization of 1 August 1914’ (‘Die Mobilmachung am 1. August 1914’). In it, we hear first the address of a mayor to a departing regiment at the railway station. His address gives way to shouts of ‘hurrah’ and the collective singing of the ‘Wacht am Rhein,’ accompanied by a military band. Further shouts of ‘hurrah’ and the response of the regimental commander follow, then cheers to the Kaiser and ‘Heil dir im Siegerkranz,’ and finally a tangle of voices, the sounds of the train as it leaves, fanfares, and a final song, ‘Muss i denn, muss i denn zum Städtele hinaus.’


“As it is a reenactment after the event, the value of this recording as a source is problematic. It does not, of course, provide an authentic reproduction of the mood of August 1914. But we can see in it something resembling a retrospectively constructed prototype for the patriotic demonstrations and ceremonies for departing troops in August 1914, one that contains all the elements with which we are familiar from the newspaper reports: speeches, shouts and cheers, and patriotic songs. The interpretation proposed here is not necessarily concerned with how real the patriotic emotions of the singing and cheering actors in this recording were, or with how ‘authentic’ the scene they portrayed can claim to be; what it does provide, though, is a document of the significance of acoustic mobilization in August 1914, which, it was assumed, would still be able to arouse patriotic feelings in later listeners to the zonophone.”




Daniel Morat is a Research Fellow and Lecturer in the History Department of the Free University Berlin. He currently holds a Dilthey Fellowship from the Fritz Thyssen Foundation, and since 2012 has directed the international research network “Auditory Knowledge in Transition: An Epistemic History of Listening in Modernity.” His publications include Von der Tat zur Gelassenheit. Konservatives Denken bei Martin Heidegger, Ernst Jünger und Friedrich Georg Jünger 1920-1960 (Göttingen 2007).