One too many

April 06, 2004

I taught the Great War on Monday. I broke down in second section, made it through the first section OK.

One of the students asked me after class why I was more likely to break down in the Great War than in World War 2 - about 2 in 3 against perhaps 1 in 2. My answer was that while the second war had more total deaths, more destruction, and was a more total war, the first was in many ways the death of hope and the death of optimism. I buy enough of the myth of the Lost Generation to argue that the Great War blew apart nineteenth-century optimism, and that saddens me. I almost want to call it the death of innocence, but that is not quite right. I want to say rather that it was the tipping point where a society of individuals was replaced by a mass society, and where the notion of human consequence was buried under human numbers, but that is not it either.

I need to think on this more, other than to say that the Great War marked the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, from the Victorian to the Age of Steel, and that change saddens me even though I get frustrated with Victorian hypocrisy.

In any case, I was still shaken up from class and turned on my book on tape on the ride home. Mystic River is wonderfully written. It is also both sad and permeated with an aura of tragedy to come. I could not continue listening to it. So, after waiting months for it to come to me through the library I returned it before finishing the first tape. Perhaps I will try again sometime when my emotions are not so fragile.

It was one too many sadnesses.

Posted by Red Ted at April 6, 2004 08:58 AM | TrackBack

If there is a reason to break down while discussing the great war it is because of the utter stupidity that brought it to fruition and subsequently the Russian Revolution.

Had Wilhelm not had a diminutive arm and an inferiority complex the size of the Rhein, perhaps he wouldn't have mobilized on the Russian border. Had Tsaritsa Alexandra not been related to Wilhelm and been born Russian the charges of treason would never have even started.

Stupidity can be saddening. One must learn from the past so as to not allow ignorance and petty family squabbles and dislikes to create a worldwide holocaust.

However, for all the evil that the war brought, there is always a balance. Aeroplanes, motorcars, radio, shipping and all industries were accelerated. The World League, that Nicholas II pushed unsuccessfully at the turn of the century, was reborn as the League of Nations.

No, when one sees it in perspective, the world always balances things out. Hate breeds not only hate but compassion too. From the largest dung heap the fairest lilies grow.

Posted by: SDAI-Tech1 at April 9, 2004 05:48 AM

What gets me is not the stupidity, for there is always a LOT of stupidity, but the notion of the Lost Generation.

The Lost Generation is, as you say, only one of the stories of the war, but when I explain it to the kids, or dig through Wilfred Owen's poetry, or listen to And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda, it gets me.

I would like to believe that things always balance out, but sometimes a bad decision just keeps building on itself.

Posted by: Red Ted at April 9, 2004 11:37 AM

But who exactly is the lost generation? The Victorian era was already drawing to a close. In St. Petersburg, Russia and in Paris, France there was enough debauchery going on to equal in many ways what is occurring today.

The motor car created a mobile freedom for youth that had never before been realized in quite the same way. And while in 1914 the number of kids with cars in Europe and Russia were near nil, there were already the starts of youth movement in the US. The telephone also spread gossip and rumor with newfound ease.

The conditions that led to The Great War were already in place and in some ways the war was the byproduct of a certain rot which had already set into Europe. Queen Victoria, too, can't be underestimated in her influence in keeping the whole dysfunctional family together. If one looks at the immediate events after her death (such as Wilhelm as well as Nicholas' uncles encouraging the Russo-Japanese war in 1905) we see that she probably was the great force that kept Wilhelm's racism and conquest dreams in check.

In some ways one wants to romanticize the lifestyle and innocence of the pre-war period, but I have the feeling that if one were transported back in time it would not be quite so romantic. In the US, the major cities were choking under industrial-era smoke.

Yes, a Gibson girl beats Britney hands down, and the Tsar's daughters outclassed any of this era's royal families but there were many downsides to the era as well. Child labor was almost everywhere. Poverty was rooted deep all over the world. If one were well off, yes there was probably a more relaxed lifestyle with time for leisure, education and travel, but for the rest they were worked very hard. (though perhaps had a much shorter work week and a weekend to spend with their family)

I do know where you are coming from. I sometimes feel the lost generation is the one which had reached adulthood slightly prior to WWII, who listened to radio for entertainment in the background while still keeping active, had seen enough of war and who would go down to the park to dance to a live band on friday evening. WWII and the fifties would see a boom of materialism, in some ways a reduction in education and TV. TV was the worst. It still is, and I think the internet (while not perfect and bringing its own ills) is helping a generation become more inquisitive and creative again.

Again, I'm sure in fifty years there will be folks lamenting the innocence of our era and our generation. We could tell them a thing or two though and I'm sure we would get an equal earful from someone from 1913!

Posted by: SDAI-Tech1 at April 10, 2004 04:50 AM

The lost generation is the tranche of young men who came of age between about 1912 and 1919, who went to the trenches, and in far too many cases, never left again.

Remember that in France one man in ten in the ENTIRE NATION died during the war, and these losses were concentrated among the young. England, with its much smaller total and proportionate losses, recruited soldiers geographically and so in some cases entire villages would see, and did see, an entire class of school leavers remain on Flanders' fields while other villages saw most of the boys come back home. The loss of human potential is the lost generation and, for many, they had trouble adjusting to the new world afterwards.

The nineteenth century believed that things were always getting better, that through science and education and (not as attractively) European racial and cultural supremacy they were making a better world and fixing their problems.

That optimism died with the Belle Epoche sometime in 1916.

So while I would much rather live in the world of 2004 than in the world of 1913, and while it is very easy to romanticize the Victorians and project our own imagined past onto them, there was still a meaningful change in human optimism and human thought that dates from the war.

When you consider that the aftereffects of the Great War include not only the obvious villains like Hitler and Stalin, but the less obvious like Saddam Hussein - ruler over a region that did not exist until the victors chopped up the old Ottoman Empire and that had no national consciousness until the British tried to faux-colonize it, you see that the the Great War had great consequences.

So no, I do not believe that it was all for the best. There were better ways to have negotiated modernity; we are still living with the aftermath of the Great War.

Posted by: Red Ted at April 12, 2004 10:08 AM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?