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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

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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 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 Eastern Europe and the Baltic states land confiscation undermined the position of the old elite, but even here change was often more limited than had been envisaged, for example in Bulgaria only 82,000 out of a projected 230,000 hectares had been placed in a state land fund by 1923. In the successor states the position of peasants changed little in reality.

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.

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 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.

The psychological impact of battle and its memories for a society cannot ‘naturally’ have led to radicalisation in Germany, as Mosse suggests, and to political moderation in Britain and France. Antoine Prost summed up the dominant stance of war veterans in interwar France as one of ‘patriotic pacifism’. Mazower’s claim that the legacy of war was a state of ‘inner war’ in the minds of its veterans must therefore be taken with treated with scepticism.

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.

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