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University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK

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2011, Dr Koenczoel

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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.

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 stra.....[read full text]

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Ute Daniels has calculated, for example, that only 28% of German war workers were entering the labour market for the first time. Furthermore, it appears that women were often unable to profit from their husbands absence to gain greater autonomy; Reinhard Sieder has argued that in wartime Vienna, for example, patriarchy was upheld by the installation of a male relative as heads of households.

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.

It is highly telling that the sources approvingly cited by many historians to illustrate the pace of social change in fact often come from concerned contemporaries lamenting the perceived decline in standards; whatever the new behaviour of a minority, the majority clung resolutely to pre-war value systems.

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 t.....

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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. The status of the war as a ‘cultural watershed’ relies heavily on the canonical texts of Modernism, such as Eliot’s The Waste Land. Meanwhile, according to Jay Winter, ‘traditional’ languages and symbols prevailed in public commemoration of the war.

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 .....

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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.

In conclusion, we can see that attempts to impose a single narrative on the social and cultural impact of the Great War are deeply unsatisfactory. 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.

The ‘legacy’ of the war was thus in many cases contingent upon the experience of the peace, which varied greatly f.....

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

Adrian Gregory, The Silence of Memory: Armistice Day 1.....



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