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Paper 18: Europe since 1890

Dr.

Topic 1: The social and cultural impact of the First World War


War is the locomotive of history.’ (TROTSKY) Was this judgement borne out by the impact of the Great War on European culture and society?


The First World War is widely understood as the seminal event of the Twentieth Century, ‘the axis on which the modern world turned’ (Modris Eksteins).

Often taken to mark a fundamental watershed in European social and cultural history, the war is credited with sweeping away the old order and catapulting Europe headlong into the ‘modern age’. The association of war with progress is not limited to that conflict, as Trotsky’s assertion indicates. Through increasing the level of state intervention in the economy and society, and stimulating demand for democratic policies in recognition of citizen participation and sacrifice, wars often have been regarded as progressive forces, despite – or even because of – their inherent destructiveness.

However, the idea of the war as a ‘locomotive of history’, driving social and cultural change resolutely and uniformly forwards, or indeed in any one direction, risks oversimplifying a highly complex situation. The direct impact of the war was significant and wide-reaching in some areas, but at the same time it was not uniform, pointed in reactionary as well as progressive directions, and was underpinned by strong continuities in both the social and cultural sphere.

The real impact of the war, I argue, was determined far less in its direct effects on society and participants than on the mythology and memorialisation which subsequently grew up surrounding it.

The short-term social upheaval provoked by the war was certainly significant, yet despite the widespread perception of contemporaries to the contrary, the essential social and economic structures survived the war surprisingly intact throughout most of Europe.

For example, while the immediate demographic impact was huge, with around 8.5 million military deaths and a further 6.8 million civilian deaths, including those from the Spanish Flu pandemic, in the longer term important trends, such as the birth rate and nuptiality, were not significantly affected. In France, Germany and Britain, for example, the birth rate, after some fluctuation during and immediately after the war, continued the secular decline which had set in at the end of the 19th Century.

Research by Jay Winter has suggested that the dominant image of the young woman forced to remain single by the ‘male deficit’ was largely a product of popular imagination; in both Britain and France, at least, higher overall marriage rates and increasing variation in the age between partners ensured that the percentage of single women was actually lower in the interwar than in the pre-war years.

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The collapse of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian monarchies, and the social and cultural transformations this released, can be seen as a more immediate effect of the war.

Here it might indeed perhaps be pertinent to see the war as a ‘locomotive of history’, in that it accelerated processes that were already underway. The collapse of Tsarist rule in Russia in 1917 was certainly precipitated by the disastrous progress of Russia’s military campaign, but war revealed and exacerbated rather than caused the deep flaw in the country’s political, economic, military and administrative structures, which proved utterly unequal to the strains of modern warfare.

Violent resistance to the regime, moreover, had been apparent since as early as the 1860s, and incidents such as the abortive revolution of 1905 revealed the depth of existing opposition and hostility. The strike of 1914 - which had political as well as economic overtones - was so severe that many observers doubted the feasibility of the country even mobilizing for war in the first place.

Elsewhere, the war’s social impact was far more limited.

Such effect as it did have on social class and the position of labour - Patrick Fridenson has, for example, argued that the experience of war led a diversification of the French working-class, and in general the relative position of the working class tended to improve– was frequently temporary. In both France and Britain, the upsurge of working-class organisational strength during the war did not survive long into peacetime, as the improved bargaining position of labour was based largely on the importance of their participation in the war industries.

There may have been a narrowing of income differentials in many countries and a consequent compression of the class structure but in few countries was there a sweeping redistribution of wealth or land.

In nearly all belligerent countries the experience of war led to increased state involvement in public welfare which benefitted the working-classes, some of which survived into post-war policies, for example article 151 of the Weimar constitution enshrined the state’s central welfare duties, but again in practice the delivery often fell short of the high hopes which had been raised for post-war reconstruction and improvement.

Many traditional accounts stress the war’s emancipating impact on women, arguing that their employment in war-industries challenged conventional gender stereotypes, ultimately resulting in their enfranchisement throughout much of Europe, but this analysis has been increasingly discredited.

The image of the liberated “new woman” who used her new-found income and independence to drink, smoke and wear short skirts has been decisively deflated by historians who have underlined the temporary nature of women’s wartime gains – by 1926 there were fewer women working in France, Germany and Britain than in 1906 – their limitations, as income differentials between men and women narrowed only marginally, and above all the exaggeration of its scope, pointing out that many of the women who entered war work were in fact only redistributed from other sectors of the economy, or were returning to work after an interlude of unemployment.

Indeed, in many ways, the war may have ultimately served to reinforce traditional values and social structures as much as to disrupt them.

Feminist historians such as Margaret Higgonet have indeed proposed a ‘backlash’ against women’s wartime emancipation in response to a ‘crisis of masculinity’. But whether or not men really faced ‘emasculation’ rather than a heightened sense of masculinity in battle, as Sandra Gilbert claimed, it is very probable that the majority of men and women desired above all to return to the traditional status quo after the upheaval of war.

Most women seem to have conceptualised their war work more as a duty and burden than as ‘liberation’. Furthermore, demographic fears resulting from wartime losses boosted pronatalist ideologies and the cult of motherhood across Europe.

In other areas, too the perception of social change unleashed a strong desire to return to ‘normalcy’.

Whilst Modris Eksteins assumed a receptivity to what he dubbed the ‘birth of the modern age’ during the First World War, accompanied by a loosening of traditional morality, Richard Bessel, has indicated that such attitudes belonged to a small avant-garde. The majority regarded those developments that accompanied the disruption of war, such as more open prostitution, higher divorce rates and rising illegitimacy, with outright alarm.

What we can claim instead is the largest ‘social impact’ of the war had more to do with popular fear of change than with any change itself emerging as a direct response to the war.

Thus the position of women did not change significantly, yet the impression that it had shaped part of the post-war determination to reinstate traditional gender roles. Similarly, Richard Bessel has convincingly argued that in Germany fears about ‘moral deterioration’, feckless pleasure seeking ‘wild youths’ were greatly exaggerated, and the imagined pre-war stability largely as illusion, yet this perception of moral decline and a breakdown of social order had a powerful impact on contemporaries.

The impact of exposure to modern warfare on the psychology of those who fought, and the impact of these experiences on subsequent social and cultural developments, has similarly been grossly oversimplified.

The ‘brutalization thesis’, most prominently expounded by George Mosse, which holds that the experience of warfare reared a generation of young men, the ‘generation of 1914’, in violence and extremism, may apply to some individuals, yet can hardly represent the inevitable reaction of combatants to front line fighting. Certainly it is wholly inadequate as an explanation for the brutality of interwar political culture in Germany, Italy, and Russia, for example.

Antoine Prost’s research undermines a key assumption of the brutalization theory by suggesting that perhaps less than 15% of combatants were aware of having killed personally.

Similarly, he argues persuasively that when this did occur, reactions were very individual; for every Ernst Jünger who glorified in the experience of war, there were many for whom it was traumatic and who experienced feelings of guilt.

Similarly, the idea of a ‘Front Generation’ bonded by their experiences seems likely to have been more a phenomenon created in later myth and memory than corresponding to the actual experience of the war itself.

Richard Bessel has noted the heterogeneity of war experience, undermining the idea of one united war generation. Antoine Prost, studying the French experience, has commented that, while punctuated by moments of intense brotherhood and solidarity, which were subsequently recalled by veterans, the everyday reality appears to have been more mundane. The irritations of communal living and a forced companionship prevailed on a day-to-day basis.

Of all societies to participate in the war, Germany might at first glace appear to provide the strongest case for wartime radicalisation, but even here the evidence does not stack up.

Richard Bessel has pointed out that only a minority of ex-soldiers in Germany – 400,000 out of six million mobilized – joined paramilitary organisations such as the Freikorps. While many individuals felt very strongly that they had been irrevocably changed for their experiences, the notion of an entire generation of young men brutalized and unable to reintegrate back into civilian life simply does not seem to stand up to scrutiny.


Just as the war may not have been quite the chasm in soldiers’ lives that it is often presented as being, so initial cultural responses to the war shows many signs of continuity with pre-war traditions.

Modris Ekstains is perhaps right to highlight the spur given to some avant-garde art and literature by the experience of warfare, but such rupture is all but absent from the era’s popular culture. In Britain, the disillusionment and bitterness of ‘war poets’ such as Sassoon and Owen, reflected in their rejection of the ‘Big Words’ like Duty and Honour, represented the exception not the rule: the most popular poetry, such as that of John Oxenham, remained patriotic and traditional in form.

Memorials and mourning rituals frequently linked back to religious and classical themes, from the crosses on headstones to the pietas in French communes. Moreover, he argues that even the supposed heralds of the Modernist sensibility in reaction to the war incorporated more traditional themes, pointing, for example, to the mythical and redemptive dimensions of Abel Gance’s supposedly culturally radical film J’accuse (1919).

Religion and spiritualism, in fact, were both strengthened by the experience of war as people struggled to find meaning. They incorporated new themes, such as the vogue for heterodox patripassionist explanations of the conflict, with soldiers often seen as having died ‘for’ a higher cause.

Nietzsche’s proposition in Zarathustra that while ‘the battle is justified by a cause […] a cause is justified even more by battle’ rings true when considering the paradoxical strengthening of traditional values and cultural forms in the wake of war. Adrian Gregory, in this vein, commented on the inherently conservative nature of warfare and its tendencies to strengthen attachment to the values for which the war was popularly believed to have been fought; German ‘Kultur’, British ‘Civilization’, French ‘Liberty and Justice’, for example.

Yet the experience of 1914-1918 did nonetheless profoundly influence later cultural, social and political developments – but because of the ways in which the memories of it were later instrumentalized and formulated in response to postwar developments, rather than because of its direct impact on participants, which was, as I have shown above, far less dramatic than frequently assumed.

In Britain, disillusionment with the war and widespread perception of its futility was only in a limited number of cases, such as the war poets, a response to life on the front line. Rather, it developed into a significant force only at the end of the 1920s, once the limitations of the emerging peace-time world were exposed. Furthermore, this new, more critical memory and interpretation of the meaning of the war was articulated and moulded by a handful of influential anti-war ‘memoirs’ which appeared from 1929, such as Robert Graves’ Goodbye To All That (1929).

These were instrumental in constructing a new and much more critical public memory of the meaning of the war which contrasted strongly with the actual experience of most ordinary soldiers and with the collective memory of the war in its more immediate aftermath.

These memories were in turn mobilized by the far Right for their own political advantage. Thus, for example, the idea of a ‘Front Generation’ – while not corresponding to the reality of most men’s war experience – was invoked to oppose parliamentary democracy. In fact, Richard Bessel has argued that most potent impact of this myth in Germany was on those too young to have fought in the the 1914-1918 conflict, but who were powerfully attracted by its message.

Similarly, Emilio Gentile has emphasised the centrality of myths surrounding the war, such as the ‘cult of the fallen’, in the creation of what he terms the ‘civil religion’ of Italian Fascism. Militarism and the legitimation of violence were not made inevitable by the war, but the intensification of both was facilitated by the way in which the memory of the war was mythically invoked.

In France, the memory of conflict was mobilized in a very different way, as veterans’ organisations became foci of pacifist sentiment, with the ‘veterans’ spirit’ (a similar post-war construction) used to oppose war and social conflict. The differences in the way in which the memory of war was used in different countries, and its cultural repercussions, had as much to do with the outcome of the war, post-war conditions and pre-existing trends, as with the experience of warfare itself, which did not vary significantly for front-line troops of different nationalities.

Its direct impact was too ambiguous, diffuse and contradictory to be called the ‘locomotive of history’, showing strong elements of continuity and even entrenchment of earlier trends as well as of change. A teleological search for ‘progress’ in analysing the war’s impact, leading to a focus on those trends which foreshadow later developments, such as emancipation of women or the emergence of avant-garde culture, but which ignores strong contradictory developments, such as the boost to pronatalism or to religious sentiment, does not do justice to the complexity of the war’s impact.

Similarly, the impulse to attribute later change directly to the experience of warfare, such as rise of Fascism and National Socialism, must also be resisted, since it becomes clear on closer examination that many of the aspects of the war which these movements drew their strength from, such as the concept of the ‘Front Generation’, were far more potent in memory and mythologizing than in their direct impact on participation.


Bibliography

Ian F.W Becker: The Great War

Richard Wall and Jay Winter (eds): The Upheaval of War: Family, Work and Welfare in Europe 1914 – 1918

Richard Bessell: Germany After the First World War

Modris Eksteins: Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age

Robert Wohl: The Generation of 1914

Jay Winter: Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning

Bernd Weisbrod: Military violence and male fundamentalism: Ernst Jünger’s contribution to the conservative revolution’ in History Workshop Journal

Ian Kershaw: ‘War and political violence in Twentieth-Century Europe’ in Contemporary European History

Antoine Prost: In the Wake of War: ‘Les Anciens Combattants’ and French Society 1914 – 1918

Antoine Prost: ‘Les limites de la brutalisation: tuer sur le front occidental, 1914 – 1918’ in Vingtieme-Siecle Revue d’Historie

Emile Gentile: The Sacralization of Politics: Italian Fascism as a Political Religion

George Mosse: Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars

Michael Howard, The First World War: A Very short introduction

Adrian Gregory, The Silence of Memory: Armistice Day 1919-1939



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