Turning Point

My daughter and I are watching and very much enjoying the period splendors of Downton Abbey, showing on the local PBS channel here over the last couple of weeks – just as much as my parents and I enjoyed Upstairs, Downstairs – the original version, yea these decades ago. Of course, the thrust of this season is the effects of WWI on the grand edifice of Edwardian society in general. The changes were shattering … they seemed so at the time, and even more in retrospect, to people who lived through the early 20th century in Western Europe, in Russia, the US and Canada. In reading 20th century genre novels, I noted once that one really didn’t see much changing in book set before and after WWII, save for the occasional mention of a war having been fought: people went to the movies, listened to the radio, drove cars, wore pretty much the same style of clothes … but in novels set before and after WWI, the small changes in details were legion.

England, France, Germany, Austria, Russia – they were the epicenter, seemingly – the place where it hit hardest, and afterwards nothing was ever the same. Of course, in Russia with the Red Revolution and all, things were quite definitely never the same, and Austria lost the last bits of empire … and the other nations were gutted of a whole generation of young men. In the American experience, the only thing which came close was the Civil War, where a single battle in Pennsylvania, or Virginia or Tennessee could be the means of casually extinguishing the lives of all the young men in a certain township or county… just gone, in a few days or hours of hot combat around a wheat field, a peach orchard, a sunken bend in a country road. The Western front (not to negate the war in the Italian Alps, at Gallipoli or the Germans and Russians) went on more or less at that horrendous rate, week in, week out – for years.

The marks of it are still horrifyingly visible, even though the numbers of living veterans of it can be about counted on the fingers of a pair of hands. Because it’s not only the survivors’ trauma – it’s the mark and void left by the fallen. So many that I remember a college textbook of mine – I think that it was a required sociology or statistics course – had the population breakdowns by age of various European countries. In all cases, there was a pronounced dip in the numbers of males who would have been of early adult age in 1914-1918. This is reflected again in the acres and acres of white crosses in Flanders, on the tight-packed lists of names carved on memorials large and small; not too much marked in the United States, but in the Commonwealth nations, and in Britain itself, that sense of loss must have seemed suffocating. Even low and middle-brow genre novels showed the scars that WWI left, especially if they were written by contemporaries to the conflict. Memoirs, histories, memorials and all… there was loss written large, by people who looked at the ‘before’ and then at the present ‘after’ with an aching sense of the void between, a muddy void into which friends, schoolmates, lovers, husbands, fathers, uncles, brothers and certain illusions had all vanished.

Nothing was the same, afterwards.

Although perhaps the war wasn’t directly the change agent, it pushed some developments already in the works farther along than they would have been. The war served as a handy delineating point for those who lived through it … electricity everywhere, motor cars ditto, airplanes as something more than a toy for enthusiasts, women voting and wearing short skirts and routinely forgoing corsets, half a dozen live-in servants in a big house which once had been staffed by three times that many … all that. The worst loss was something a little less concrete – and that was, I think, a certain sense of confidence and optimism. I like writing about the 19th century because of that very thing: generally people believed with their whole hearts and without a speck of cynicism, that the conditions of their lives were steadily improving, that conditions which had plagued mankind for centuries were fixable, and that their leaders were able and well-intentioned. All those beliefs were deeply shaken or utterly destroyed during those four years – and that is why that war still casts a long shadow. And makes for an interesting and evocative television show – like Downton Abby and Upstairs, Downstairs.

(Crossposted at www.ncobrief.com)

12 thoughts on “Turning Point”

  1. Some historians like to talk about the “long XIX Century” and the “short XX Century”. If we look at what was happening during the whole of the XIX Century, we can see that it was all about how to adapt/react to the changes that the French Revolution brought to Europe (Nationalism, Industrial Revolution, etc); in that sense the XIX Century started in 1789 and WWI was the culmination of all the tensions that were built since 1815 (end of the Napoleonic Wars). Looking at it in the same way, the XX Century was about adapting/reacting to the changes that WWI brought; it started in 1914 and ended in 1991 (Fall of the Soviet Union, the last surviving consequence of WWI). The changes caused by WWI were more noticeable than those of WWII because it was a completely new century.

  2. WWI was the suicide of the European elite. WWII was just the confirmation that the baton had passed to the new world.

  3. In one day (1915 I think)during the battle of the Somme 50,000 were killed. It was these horrendous loses that led to Hitler – Britain and France had no stomach for confronting him when the cost (1936) would have been small.

    I never will forget visiting Vienna all those years ago walking around “The Ring” – that walkway that takes you by all these magnificent half-empty (well 40 years ago) palaces from the Hapsburg family – Vienna seemed at the time like an empty shell of what it once was.

    WW1 defined Europe – and brought the cold war – for the next 100 years…well, we are still living in its aftershocks (trouble with Putin?)

    Countries like Czechoslovakia – formed from the Hapsburg Empire – still evolving (its break up into 2 countries recently)

  4. One major effect of WWI was the extent to which it broke the chain of trust between generations. Remarque, in All Quiet on the Western Front, has his narrator say of the parents and teachers of the older generation:

    “We often made fun of them and played jokes on them, but in our hearts we trusted them.”

    …but afterwards:

    “We had to recognize that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs…And we saw that there was nothing of their world left.”

    Remarque develops this theme further in his unfortunately-neglected novel The Road Back, which I reviewed last year.

  5. This one will get replayed.

    ““We often made fun of them and played jokes on them, but in our hearts we trusted them.”

    …but afterwards:

    “We had to recognize that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs…And we saw that there was nothing of their world left.”

  6. Sometimes, I do wonder if our own elite – what Codevilla calls the American ‘ruling class’ aren’t also committing suicide – right now, even as we sit on the sidelines and watch, and think about the ways that we might be able to carry on with the best of our own traditions.
    I honestly feel betrayed – by the mainstream media, intellectual and political elite. There is a chain of trust broken, as David says. The ‘ruling class’ is busy feathering their own nest, and figuring out the best way to turn the rest of us into serfs, or at best, into house servants. They talk a good talk about the middle class – but deep down, they actually would like the middle class to be demolished, so that they can have their principalities. And when trust is gone, and confidance and hope, too … what is left?

  7. Love Downton Abbey, Sgt. Mom. Very Anglosphere-ish….The writer wrote Gosford Park and has got a novel I’d like to read sometime called “Snobs.”

    – Madhu

  8. The ‘ruling class’ is busy feathering their own nest, and figuring out the best way to turn the rest of us into serfs, or at best, into house servants.

    You are so, so right.

  9. If you are turned into servants, you are unlikely to be treated with the amiable paternalism depicted for the Earl of Grantham.

  10. Oh, I know that, Dearieme – in fact, in the event of the established elite succeeding in demolishing the middle class, we will probably all be treated rather like the more out-of-control Hollywood divas treat their personal assistants.
    Or like Michael Moore is reputed to treat his employees … badly.
    This is why so many of us are Tea Partiers…

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