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Title:Synthesizing the chemical subject: Poison gas, gas masks, and collective armoring in Germany, 1915-1938
Author(s):Thompson, Peter Brydon
Director of Research:Fritzsche, Peter
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Fritzsche, Peter; Micale, Mark
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Liebersohn, Harry; Canales, Jimena; Sepkoski, David
Department / Program:History
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):poison gas
gas mask
aerial bombing
chemical weapons
Abstract:During World War I, German scientists and engineers were the first to develop the modern gas mask as well as many of the weaponized gases that are still stockpiled in the Middle East today. In the wake of their first use on the Ypres battlefields in 1915, German soldiers quickly realized the insidious nature of poison gas, frequently fearing its unseen creeping dangers more than traditional bullets and explosives. This distinct fear carried over into the interwar years when Germans across the societal spectrum dreaded the use of these chemical weapons in a future European conflict that distinctly targeted civilian populations through aero-chemical bombardment. The historical development of modern chemical weapons through the first half of the twentieth century is thus intricately intertwined with the German people. For this reason, the gas mask became a particularly present and significant symbol in early twentieth-century German culture and society. The mask was not only present in novels, films, and visual art (both popular and otherwise), but it was also a common item that individuals faced in their everyday visual field between the two world wars. “Grasping for the Mask” argues that the gas mask, while often seen as a purely protective technological artifact, proved to exacerbate fears of chemical warfare among Germans in the 1920s and 30s. Not only did daily interwar encounters with the mask visibly present the possibility of aero-chemical attack, but the object itself became a symbol of the very nature of German futurity. From 1915 to 1938, however, a select group of German scientists and engineers who referred to themselves as gas specialists insisted that chemical weapons were not an existential threat to soldiers or civilians. Based on their firsthand experience in World War I and their later scientific experiments, they argued that poison gas could not achieve sufficient density to blanket entire urban centers, and that a properly applied gas mask was an effective protection against most chemical weapons. These men believed that technologically-augmented, self-disciplined Germans could live, if not thrive, in a world permeated by poison gas. Thus, they envisioned a “chemical modernity” in which daily life would be defined by the constant concern for the chemical construction of the environment. Using German-language government and military documents, scientific writings, philosophical texts, novels, art, and gas protection journals, “Grasping for the Mask” narrates the contestations over this vision of the future, and the ways in which the gas specialists’ calls for gas mask distribution aligned with the Nazis’ appeal to a protected and disciplined Third Reich that extended into each German household. By revealing the ways in which a seemingly protective 20th-century technology maintained its own violent politics and existed within a perversely self-justifying technological order, my project underscores the ways in which technological objects exert their own agency and become intertwined in human history. In this way, the dissertation adds to the history and philosophy of technology by resisting the blackboxing (or obfuscating) of twentieth-century technological development. Many early twentieth-century German military technologies were not apolitical objects, but rather agents of an imagined human genocide. Given this fact, my project speaks to German historical scholarship by expressing the importance of these interwar technological debates for eventual national rearmament and the employment of chemical technologies in the Holocaust. “Grasping for the Mask” speaks to broader histories of science, technology, and the environment by employing the concept of “chemical modernity” in two ways. In the first sense, the term is used for the historically-bounded German development and theorization of chemical weapons that was unsurpassed by other industrialized nation-states, largely due to Germany’s globally dominant chemical industry. However, in its second formulation, “chemical modernity” refers to the increasing concern for the chemical construction of the human environment since the Industrial Revolutions. In this vein, “Grasping for the Mask” narrates one of the most significant points of escalation in this long historical process of chemical reckoning, thus projecting forward to contemporary concerns such as the atomic bomb, harmful pesticides and fertilizers, advanced biological and chemical weapons, and even the troubling accumulation of greenhouse gases.
Issue Date:2021-04-13
Rights Information:Copyright 2021 Peter Thompson
Date Available in IDEALS:2021-09-17
Date Deposited:2021-05

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