September 1, 2014
It is often said that the primary existential or spiritual effect of the war was disillusionment. Barbara Tuchman, for example, notes in one of her classic studies of the Great War that the war had many results but that the dominant one was “disillusion.” She quotes D. H. Lawrence, who observed that “All the great words were cancelled out for that generation.” Honor, Nobility, Valor, Patriotism, Sacrifice, Beauty: Who could still take such abstractions seriously after the wholesale slaughter of the war?
But it’s worth interjecting two points. First, it is sometimes said that the Great War, because of its body count, the tactics of its generals, the as-it-turned-out false promise that it was “a war to end all wars,” was therefore meaningless. I submit that, on the contrary, it was instinct with significance. As David Fromkin put it at the end of Europe’s Last Summer, “it was fought to decide the essential questions in international politics: who would achieve mastery in Europe, and therefore in the world, and under the banners of what faith.”
Second, on the matter of culture, it is worth noting that most of the primary innovations in form and sensibility that we associate with that spirit of disillusionment predated the war.
If the general culture becomes pervaded by a sense of disillusionment and “meaculpism” perhaps it’s worth looking at who has the greatest influence on the culture and asking cui bono?