In six more years, we will mark one hundred years since the beginning of the Great War, the First World War, the War to End All Wars, and the beginning of the modern era. At least according to Wikipedia, there still remain a few living veterans of that war, but it seems likely that by 2014 there will not be.
In some ways, however, the Great War (and more especially, the period before it) has seemed a century away for quite some time. The trauma which the Western World experienced in the great war seems to have quickly colored all perception of the time before it, such that discussion of 1900 in works written in the 1930s seems to put that time (a mere thirty years before) much farther in the past than we would put the 1930s, which are 70 years distant from us.
During the decades immediately after the war, the turn of the century seems to have receded very quickly into "the past", while to us anything in the last seventy years seems fairly recent, in that it is, as we are, part of "modern times".
And yet, the Great War is seldom discussed in our culture. A great many movies and books are set in the Great Depression or in World War II, and even the 20s are fairly familiar cultural territory. But over the Great War has been cast a pall -- and the period before it is "the past". Perhaps, as this has been on my mind lately, it's time that I dig out Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory
As the centenial of the Great War draws near, however, I hope that perhaps we will see a bit of a cultural re-evaluation of the Great War and the period before it. Because so far as I can tell, though the Great War is often seen as the precursor to the modern era, the period before was in fact much more familiar territory than we would perhaps normally realize. And for all that the nations which vanished or were radically restructured as a result of the war were often ancient kingdoms and empires in name and structure, the problems that they and their people faced in the wider world were not necessarily so very different from those that still drive international politics.
Perhaps it's time that we look again at the Great War, and the decades that led up to it, not as an iconic contrast of "past" and "modern", nor simply as an irrational, meaningless conflagration of humanity, but as a real event that swept up real people for reasons that seemed rational enough at the time.
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