Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Great War and Modern Memory

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.


Kyle Cupp said...

Ever read Mark Helprin's A Soldier of the Great War?

Darwin said...

No, it's sitting in a box right now waiting it's turn. (Actually, in the last month I've managed almost no reading because so much non-work time has been taken up with flooring.)

Pro Ecclesia said...

"... 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 ..."

The Great War has been the subject of at least one fairly recent comedy series: Blackadder Goes Forth.

It tackles the subject of The Great War with some very dark humor (humour?). It is my favorite of the Blackadder series.

David said...

Dear Darwin,

I think you are quite right (my own research would make me go further and suggest that actually, the conventional wisdom on WW I is deeply problematic -I've completely rewritten my lecture notes for Modern Western Civ after reading and researching for my course on WWI).

The new history of WW I is moving much more along the lines you are suggesting (and in many ways has a very different take on the kind of "bunglers and butchers" style of describing British war making than that of Black Adder - a good example is Hugh Strachan's The First World War, a condensed version of his magnum opus). Do read Offer's book - "The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation" (and yes, it is more gripping than that) - it is simply one of the best books on history I've read in the last 10 years (oh, and then get on to Timothy Snyder's Sketches From a Secret War in your spare time).

Greetings from Warszawa by the way,


Anonymous said...

Siegfried Sassoon's fictionalized Memoirs of an Infantry Officer are first rate as is Robert Graves' Good-Bye to all that. The best one volume history of the Great War is the recent one by Martin Gilbert. An excellent revisionist history in defense of the performance of the British Army on the Western Front is the powerful Blood, Mud and Poppy-cock.

David said...

Another, priceless book (and it is short) is Ernst Junger's Storm of Steel. (Oh, and just to be eccumenical and all - with Sarkozy a great deal has been forgiven - Stephan Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker have written a wonderful book, 14-18: Understanding the Great War - also short, but exceedingly good as well).

Darwin said...


I hope all of you are well in Poland! Do email some time, especially with pictures.

I have actually started Offer's book, but that was just as the great floor project was started, and the book got packed while I was away at work some day. So in another week when the books are all back up I should be able to resume. The first little bit certainly seemed interesting and I'm looking forward to more. Also coming shortly I have Carrington's Soldier from the Wars Returning which I'm rather curious to read from some of the references to it I've read. (Something of a revisionist history, I gather, by a veteran of both world wars -- who disputes somewhat the Sassoon/Graves approach to the war.) I'll have to take a look for the others you mention.


I've read a great deal of Sassoon and Graves' war poetry, and I have read Goodbye to All That, but I haven't yet read Memoir of a Foxhunting Man (which as I recall was Sassoon's book.) I'll have to take a look for the others you mention as well at some point.

Literacy-chic said...

An excellent book. More literary than historical, in some ways, as a historian might tell you... The Great War is a personal interest of mine as well as a scholarly one--part of my reason for doing early 20th C Brit Lit.

LogEyed Roman said...

...Wow, I now have several very promising books for when I can read more on World War I. Let me add some of my own: By Barbara Tuchman, there's "The Guns of August", of course, and the less-well-known "The Proud Tower."

An excellent documentary series from 1996 was aired on PBS, providentially titled "The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century" (how about that for being on topic?) You can find out more here:

The video is available starting at, eek, $139.95. But as tht title suggests, it goes into great detail and depth about the history, and the social, political and economic effects of the war.

Tuchman's book "The Guns of August" includes an excellent examination of how the war got started at all. Her closing thesis, which I find very plausible, is that the failure of the belligerents to settle the war quickly ended up drawing the whole world into a tangle of interlocking hostilities from which we have yet to extricate ourselves.

Her book "The Proud Tower" is a description of the Western European social and political order which was in place when the war began. She paints a picture of complacency in parallel with uncertainty and anxiety which, well, explains a lot. Her portrayal of, above all, the perceptions of the world that were around and that were so utterly extinguished by the war. Wealthy English society folks taking 99-year leases on opera boxes.

In other sources, it's striking to find out how widespread and "respectable" Socialism, eugenics and anti-Semitism were.

And yes, I have run into persuasive arguments that the generals were not nearly so doltish as the popular wisdom has held. There had not been a general war for over 40 years and the military technology had advanced to a surreal degree. Nobody had any real experience to go on. And when your opponents are really good, it's hard for your generalship or the valor and skill of your troops to shine over much. It may well be that most of the unavailing slaughter was due to this combination of inexperience and diamond-cut-diamond fighting between approximate equals.

There's one book I've heard of I'd like to track down. A few years before the war started, a man published a book which asserted that in fact war was impossible due to the destructiveness of the new weapons. Especially high explosives. He researched it in excruciating detail, and concluded that absolutely nobody would ever begin a general war because nobody could afford the consequences. It was a best seller. Pleasant dreams.

LogEyed Roman

Anonymous said...

Good of Don McClarey to bring up Sassoon. I had indulged very deeply in Wilfred Owen's poetry before I came to Sassoon, and didn't think I could have been astounded any more than I had already been. He doesn't have much that can go one-on-one with a poem like "Anthem for Doomed Youth," but his whole life and the work he produced is a sterling example of how vast were the transformations and disillusionment left by the war.

Pat Barker's "Regeneration" trilogy of novels, the first of which is about Sassoon, Owen and Dr. William Rivers at Craiglockhart War Hospital, fills a needed place in late-20th Century historical fiction, dominated as it was by WW2 and the rise of the boomers.

Although good works of history, like Fussel and Tuchman's many excellent volumes, are always indispensable, poetry and fiction for me are far better at cutting to the heart and the humanity of a matter. Whitman's Civil War poems and a novel like "All Quiet on the Western Front" are far more valuable to me than any documentary or nonfiction book I've ever encountered.


David said...


There is a very good film based on Barker's novels - Behind the Lines with Jonathan Pryce is quite good. Also, very well worth your time about the aftermath of the war are A Very Long Engagement and Capitaine Conan.

Also, Long Eyed Roman, the book you are referring to is Norman Angell's The Great Illusion. Another worthwhile book is David Herrmann's The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War - it is very, very solid stuff, and also quite gripping (and even somewhat short) about the interrelationship between the arms build up and diplomatic crises prior to the war (spoiler alert - he's part of the growing consensus, that, yup, the Germans started it).

Take care gentlefolk, and do treat yourself to Behind the Lines - it is really a fine film.