The first culture war
How the First World War sowed the seeds of identity politics.
As we mark the hundredth anniversary of the end of the First World War, it is clear that the moral wounds it inflicted on Western culture have not healed. Recent incidents, such as the rejection of Remembrance Day poppies by Cambridge University Students’ Union (CUSU), or Southampton University Students’ Union’s (SUSU) threat to paint over a mural dedicated to war heroes, are symptomatic of the sense of malaise and confusion regarding the memorialisation of the First World War.
In a sense, however, this hostility towards the memorialisation of the war, as an expression of antagonism towards a cultural legacy, has its roots in the First World War itself. Because although it was principally a military conflict, it also served as a catalyst for the emergence of a powerful mood of alienation from the values and cultural practices of the past.
This should not be underestimated. The Great War, as it was then called, fundamentally undermined the cultural continuity of the West. Disconnected from the past, Western societies found it difficult to develop a compelling narrative with which to socialise young people. As a result, the phenomenon known today as the ‘generation gap’ acquired a powerful significance — precisely because it was not simply a generational gap. Rather, it was a cultural gap that opened up between the post- and pre-war eras which, in the decades to follow, was experienced through generational tensions as the problem of identity.
It is worth noting that both the Cambridge and Southampton student activists invoked contemporary identity politics to justify their distaste for remembering those who sacrificed their lives on the battlefield of Europe. Embracing the anti-white affectations of contemporary identitarians, Emily Dawes, the SUSU president, took exception to a mural that depicted an ex-soldier receiving a degree on graduation day. Dawes declared that this ‘mural of white men’ should be taken down or daubed over.
In today’s political landscape, where the obsession with identity is so prominent, it is easy to forget that the politics of identity is a fairly recent development. Concern with identity first emerged in response to the cultural confusions that took shape during the increasingly bloody but apparently pointless slaughter on the battlefield of the Great War. The traumatic upheavals unleashed during the course of this four-year-long conflict called into question the moral and intellectual premises of Western culture and civilisation. For many, the war served as the ultimate symbol of moral exhaustion and Western decline. In the immediate aftermath of the war, writes a contemporary historian, we can see the ‘gradual disintegration of Christian confidence in Western cultural values’ (1).
Moreover, assumptions of white superiority were dealt a deathblow on the battlefields of the Great War. In The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler warned that the ‘unassailable privileges of the white races have been thrown away, squandered and betrayed’. Spengler added that ‘the exploited world is beginning to take its revenge on its lords’. Spengler’s views resonated with a wider mood of cultural pessimism. Those who had previously taken the superiority of the white race for granted now talked of the war as an exercise in racial suicide.
Of course, from the vantage point of military history, the Great War can be interpreted through the battlefield narrative of winners and losers. Yet the devastating impact of the conflict on the self-consciousness and authority of the different national elites involved meant that all felt something important had been lost. German sociologist Max Weber, in his pessimistic 1918 lecture ‘Politics as Vocation’, grappled with a new world bereft, as he saw it, of authoritative leadership. ‘Not summer’s bloom lies ahead of us’, he lamented, ‘but rather a polar night of icy darkness and hardness, no matter which group may triumph externally now’, he lamented (2). In projecting a future without hope, Weber expressed the existential insecurity and anxiety of Europe’s elites.
As society began to doubt itself, people began to feel uneasy about their place in the world and started asking questions about who they were
One of the most momentous and durable legacies of the Great War was that it disrupted and disorganised the prevailing web of meaning through which Western societies made sense of the world. Suddenly the key values and ideals into which the early 20th-century elites were socialised appeared meaningless. As the psychiatrist Patrick Bracken writes, they experienced a ‘dread brought on by a struggle with meaning’. In circumstances when the ‘meaningfulness of our lives is called into question’, he continues, people become painfully aware that they lack the moral and intellectual resources to give direction to their lives (3). ‘Europe was exhausted, not just physically, but also morally’, writes a contemporary historian of the ‘crisis of confidence among European elites after the war’ (4).
The existential and moral crisis that unfolded after the war ruptured any continuity with the pre-war past. The taken-for-granted assumptions about civilisation, progress and the nature of change lost their capacity to illuminate human experience. As the prominent English historian Herbert Fisher acknowledged in 1934, it was no longer possible to discern in history the ‘plot’ or the ‘rhythm and ‘predetermined pattern’ that had, until 1914, appeared so obvious to observers (5). The cultural historian Paul Fussell claimed that after the First World War, it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine the future as the continuation of the past: ‘The Great War was perhaps the last to be conceived as taking place within a seamless, purposeful “history” involving a coherent stream of time running from past to future.’ (6)
The disruption of the sense of historical continuity had a confusing and disorienting impact on people’s sense of self. As society began to doubt itself, people began to feel uneasy about their place in the world and started asking questions about who they were. It was to this moment, then, that we can trace the origins of the modern ‘problem of identity’.
This sense of rupture and the loss of a meaningful self, was most forcefully and eloquently expressed by artists and imaginative writers. According to a study of the history of the idea of identity, avant-garde European writers ‘came to doubt [the] benefice and viability of the identities connected with those corrupted ideals: the moral bourgeois, the cultivated person, the patriotic nationalist’ (7).
Yet, the interwar cultural elite was far better at discrediting received roles and identities than developing new ones through which they could endow their personal experience with meaning. Roles and values associated with the past were hastily rejected as redundant. At this point, confusion about identity was sublimated through a one-dimensional renunciation of the values and cultural practices of the pre-war world.
An awareness of its absence is what turns identity into something that has to be self-consciously developed
Rites of Spring, Modris Eksteins’ fascinating study of the cultural and aesthetic impact of the Great War, highlights the war’s disruptive, indeed destructive, effect on the prevailing system of meaning. The radical loss of cultural continuity called into question the prevailing system of values without offering any plausible alternatives. ‘Old authority and traditional values no longer had credibility’, yet ‘no new authority and no new values had emerged in their stead’, asserts Eckstein (8). In this sense, the Great War called into question everything and solved nothing.
Disenchantment with what was seen as a system of bourgeois values was widespread, according to one of its defenders, and ‘novelists, humorists and low comedians helped to bring it into contempt’. The poet and literary critic Michael Roberts described the corrosion of traditional norms in Britain in the following terms:
‘Because some old loyalties were false, the idea of loyalty itself was discredited: and attacks on the British Empire which began as generous movements on behalf of subject peoples merged in a general subversiveness that included everything from the English Public Schools to marriage, parenthood, and family life.’ (9)
Frequently, the years after the Great War were labelled an ‘age of disillusionment’. Although rarely elaborated, the term disillusionment referred to the transformation of pre-war norms and values into mere illusions. It suggested that the pre-war outlook was at best a product of self-deception, and at worse of cynicism and dishonesty. Once this system of values lost meaning, everything, from democracy to the sanctity of the family, could be interpreted as illusory. Over the decades to come, the rejection of such apparently illusory or false norms would gain significant cultural support. By the 21st century, many of these values and norms came to be rejected, not so much because they were illusions but because they were deemed to be repressive and wrong.
The silent culture war
For most historians the interwar era is best understood as an age of ideologies, where new totalitarian regimes threatened to overturn the global order. However, while this hideous drama unfolded, leading to the Second World War and the Cold War, many of the values and traditions associated with Western culture had become targets of an unthinking form of uncritical criticism. This was because, behind the scenes, cultural authority was now a source of constant contestation.
In his memoir, My Early Life (1930), Winston Churchill drew attention to the estrangement of his society from the legacy and the values of the past. He observed:
‘I wonder often whether any other generation has seen such astounding revolutions of data and values as those through which we have lived. Scarcely anything, material or established, which I was brought up to believe was permanent and vital, has lasted. Everything I was sure, or was taught to be sure, was impossible has happened.’
Lord Eustace Perry echoed Churchill, when he wrote in 1934 that there was ‘no natural idea in which we any longer believe’. He added: ‘We have lost the easy self-confidence which distinguished our Victorian grandfathers.’ (10)
That the values into which Churchill was socialised in the late 19th century had lost much of their cultural influence was echoed by a significant portion of the teaching profession. Like many sections of the cultural establishment, teachers felt reluctant and uncomfortable about educating young people to embrace the values of the pre-war world. Confusions about the normative foundation of authority were internalised by educators, many of whom believed that the traditional modes of classroom interaction needed to be revised. As Geoffrey Bantock, a philosopher of education, recalled in the early 1950s, ‘the widespread revolt against authority came after the First World War, partly as a reaction against the supposed bungling of the “old men” and partly in general depreciation of “public spiritedness” fostered by the intellectuals of the day’. Bantock’s main concern was with the ‘downgrading of the teacher’s “authority”’, which, he claimed, was ‘symptomatic of a waning confidence in adult values among the liberal “enlightened”’ (11).
The clearest expression of the waning of confidence in adult values, therefore, was a perceptible hesitancy and reluctance to take responsibility for the socialisation of younger generations – a reluctance especially pronounced among progressive educators in the interwar era. As RJW Selleck noted in his study English Primary Education and the Progressives: 1914-1939, this group of educators was ‘distressed by and alienated’ from the values that prevailed at the time, and ‘they shied away from imprinting the future generation with the marks of the present’. This sentiment was forcefully articulated by JH Nicholson, a professor of education at the University of Newcastle. He lamented that ‘we are an uneasy generation, most of us to some extent ill-adjusted to present conditions’, before adding, ‘we should therefore beware of passing on our own prejudices and maladjustments to those we educate’ (12).
Once adult society has lost the capacity to recognise itself through the values in which it was itself socialised, its capacity to educate children into a new system of meaning becomes compromised. Yet instead of confronting the problem, many in Britain evaded it.
A similar pattern of adult irresponsibility was evident in the United States. Writing in 1943, during the Second World War, the American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead highlighted the reluctance of the interwar generation of parents to give clear moral guidance to their children. She noted that millions of young Americans were the first generation to be reared by parents who ‘did not present themselves as moral role models’ (13).
In subsequent decades, the failure to take responsibility for providing the young with a sense of continuity and meaning would crystallise into a phenomenon that would be diagnosed as an identity crisis. Erik Erikson, who formulated the concept, noted that, ‘true identity… depends on the support which the young individual receives from the collective sense of identity characterising the social groups significant to him: his class, his nation, his culture’ (14).
The failure to provide young people with a ‘collective sense’ of where they belonged deprived them of a narrative through which they could confidently develop their identity. An awareness of its absence is what turns identity into something that has to be self-consciously developed. In many instances, the young actually embark on a quest for identity, a quest that, in recent decades, has merged with wider conflicts over cultural authority. In such circumstances, identity is not only problematised, but also politicised.
No end in sight
The moral crisis that emerged in the aftermath of the Great War called into question the prevailing cultural consensus in Western societies. During the interwar era, the implications of this loss of cultural authority were obscured by the more dramatic ideological conflicts that dominated the world. Differences and conflicts over values appeared to be far less significant than where one stood in relation to the ideological struggles that divided the globe.
It was not until the 1960s that the convergence between the quest for identity and the rise of a new countercultural movement would create the conditions in which eventually identity politics could compete on equal terms with ideology. The current conflicts over culture indicate that the Armistice signed in 1918 was only a temporary ceasefire.
Frank Furedi is the author of First World War: Still No End in Sight, published by Bloomsbury.His latest book, How Fear Works: the Culture of Fear in the 21st Century, is published by Bloomsbury Press.
(1) The Bible and the Flag, by B Stanley, Apollos, 1990, p135.
(2) ‘Politics as a Vocation’, by M Weber, in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, edited by HH Gerth & CW Mills, Galaxy Books, 1990
(3) Trauma: Culture, Meaning and Philosophy, by P Bracken, Whurr Publishers, 2002, pp14 & 207
(4) ‘The triumph of what (if anything)? Rethinking political ideologies and political institutions in twentieth-century Europe’, by JW Muller, Journal of Political Ideologies, vol14, no2, p24
(5) Cited in Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, by Eksteins, Houghton Mifflin, 1989, p291
(6) The Great War and Modern Memory, by P Fussell, Oxford University Press, 1975, p21
(7) Identity: The Necessity of a Modern Idea, by Gerlad Izenverg, University of Pennysylvania Press, 2016
(8) Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, by Eksteins, Houghton Mifflin, 1989, p256
(9) The Recovery of the West, by M Roberts, Faber and Faber, 1941
(10) Cited in ‘Imperial Decline and the resurgence of British national identity’, by P Rich, in Traditions of Intolerance, edited by T Kushner and K Lunn, 1989
(11) Freedom And Authority In Education: A Criticism of Modern Cultural and Educational Assumptions, by GH Bantock, Faber & Faber, 1952, p184
(12) See English Primary Education And The Progressives: 1914-1939, by RJW Selleck, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972, p94 and pp118-119
(13) And Keep Your Powder Dry: An Anthropologist Looks at America, by M Mead, Berghahn Books, 2000, p74
(14) ‘Identity and Uprootedness in Our Time’, by
EH Erikson, Insight and Responsibility, Faber and Faber, 1964, p93