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'We Have Never Recovered from World War I'


This sea change in intellectual worldviews during that period would have profound ramifications for Europe’s future, Claire Berlinski wrote in her review of Dalrymple’s book:

Europeans, then, “are fearful of the future because they fear the past” and are desperate to secure material comfort, for it represents the purpose of their existence. So important to them is this that they “see children not as the inheritors of what they themselves inherited, as essential to the meaning of life, but as obstructions to the enjoyment of life, as a drain on resources, an obstacle to next year’s holiday in Bali or wherever it may be.”

Larger efforts to find transcendence in brief, meaningless, mortal lives have failed. Marxism has been discredited. Thus the rise of “small causes”-environmentalism, feminism, and anti-nationalism, too, in the form of enthusiasm for the European integration project.

Patriotism in Europe has been discredited. Like most observers, Dalrymple locates this loss of confidence in World War I, which shattered the belief that European history was a form of natural blossoming toward a garden of peace, rationality, and material advance. Whether in fact the war was “senseless,” as commonly accepted, is immaterial. His analysis of the change of perspective on the war is particularly interesting. The assignation of the epithet “meaningless,” he notes, emerged after the war, not during it: “not as a direct and spontaneous consequence of the war, but as the result of intellectual reflection on its meaning.” It is, again, well known among psychiatrists that victims of trauma are best able to recover if able to assign meaning to the experience they have endured. To have retrospectively understood the war as “meaningless,” in other words, is to have adopted the psychological strategy least likely to lead to emotional recovery. If even the victorious countries concluded that the war had been meaningless, there was no hope whatever in the defeated countries of making a meaningful narrative of events, “no way of incorporating it into a memory that could be other than humiliating to national self-esteem.” We all know the consequences: “In Germany, disillusion bred a mad militarism; in Britain and France, a blind pacifism.” World War II then “destroyed European self-confidence once and for all.”

In her post, Neo-Neocon concluded, "Whether people are aware of the details of the events of WWI or not, they are part of a culture of profound cynicism that has taken hold the Western world afterward and has been part of the reason for its decline. Simply put, the West lost a great deal of its boundless confidence in itself."

Leftwing intellectuals recovered it for a time after World War II, but since the mid-to-late 1960s have been effectively stuck in a permanent malaise, and their cynicism infects millions directly and indirectly, occasionally with hilarious results, when true believers have drunk a little too much of the Kool-Aid, such as the classic headline yesterday in the London Daily Star: "Sir Bob Geldof: 'All humans will die before 2030.'" But for the most part, it's not much fun sharing the country with those who have effectively given up hope and replaced it with a toxic mixture of cynicism and doomsday rhetoric.

Does the left have a way out of such box canyon thinking? They certainly could use it, particularly now.


Cross-posted from EdDriscoll.com