Sarah Hoyt has been reading a lot about the 1920s, and–in a post which encompasses both Agatha Christie and Robert Heinlein–she does some thinking about the impact of Word War I on the twenties and on Western civilization generally.
World War I was terrible, and for many reasons, including the prevalence of pictures and news, the fratricide/civil-war quality of it, the massive number of casualties. It shocked an entire generation into … writing an awful lot about it, and into trying to tear down the pillars of civilization, believing that Western Civilization (and not human nature, itself) was what had brought about the carnage and the waste.
A thought-provoking post, well worth reading, with an interesting comment thread. I very much agree with the comment by William Zeller:
Here’s my quick version of the test I use to determine if a speaker is doing the WesternCiv teardown:
If the argument begins with the phrase: “American…” or “America…” and proceeds to identify a horrifying cultural or political trait.
Absolutely…and this happens all the time…people observing something bad and discrediting it to America (or, less frequently, to Western civilization as a whole) without making the slightest attempt to consider whether the bad thing they are talking about might be something like a cross-cultural human universal rather than something specific to Americans or the West.
There’s no question in my mind that the First World War did do immense harm to Western civilization, as we’ve often discussed here. Erich Maria Remarque’s excellent and unfortunately-neglected novel The Road Back, which I reviewed in this post, is very helpful for understanding just how powerful and malign that impact was.
Sarah’s post reminded me of a particular passage in Remarque’s book. Ernst, the protagonist, has returned to Germany after the end of the war that killed most of his classmates and fellow enlistees. He has accepted a job teaching school in a small village:
There sit the little ones with folded arms. In their eyes is still all the shy astonishment of the childish years. They look up at me so trustingly, so believingly–and suddenly I get a spasm over the heart.
Here I stand before you, one of the hundreds of thousands of bankrupt men in whom the war destroyed every belief and almost every strength…What should I teach you? Should I tell you that in twenty years you will be dried-up and crippled, maimed in your freest impulses, all pressed mercilessly into the selfsame mould? Should I tell you that all learning, all culture, all science is nothing but hideous mockery, so long as mankind makes war in the name of God and humanity with gas, iron, explosive, and fire?…Should I take you to the green-and-grey map there, move my finger across it, and tell you that here love was murdered? Should I explain to you that the books you hold in your hands are but nets in which men design to snare your simple souls, to entangle you in the undergrowth of fine phrases, and in the barbed wire of falsified ideas?
…I feel a cramp begin to spread through me, as if I were turning to stone, as if I were crumbling away. I lower myself into the chair, and realize that I cannot stay here any longer. I try to take hold of something but cannot. Then after a time that has seemed to me endless, the catalepsy relaxes. I stand up. “Children,” I say with difficulty, “you may go now.”
The little ones look at me to make sure I am not joking. I nod once again. “Yes, that is right–go and play today–go and play in the wood–or with your dogs and your cats–you need not come back till tomorrow–”