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The Lost Generation of 1914

On the Generation of 1914
"What allowed European intellectuals born between 1880 and 1900 to view themselves as a distinct generation was that their youth coincided with the opening of the twentieth century and their lives were the bifurcated by the Great War. Those who survived into the decade of the 1920s perceived their lives as being neatly divided into a before, a during, and an after, categories most of them equated with the stages of life known as youth, young manhood, and maturity. What bound the generation of 1914 together was not just their experiences during the war, as many of them later came to believe, but the fact that they grew up and formulated their first ideas in the world from which the war issued, a world framed by two dates, 1990 and 1914. This world was the "vital horizon" within which they began conscious historical life.

The primary fact of this world - and the first thing that young people noticed about it - was that it was being rapidly transformed by technology. Europeans were being freed increasingly from the traditional constraints imposed on mankind by nature. Life was becoming safer, cleaner, more comfortable, and longer for most sectors of the population. Death had not been vanquished but its arrival was now more predictable, and the physician, along with the engineer, had been elevated to the priesthood of the new civilization.

"At the same time that life was becoming more secure, its pace quickened and the sense of distance among people shrank. Even rest became recreation. Instead of picnicking or strolling on resort boardwalks, Europeans began to pedal, swim, ski, and scramble up the sides of mountains. The great events of the era, from a technological point of view, were the invention and diffusion of the automobile, the motorcycle, and the airplane. Speed still implied romance and adventure and had yet to be connected with traffic fatalities, tedium, and pollution. It is difficult to determine the precise effects that these changes of velocity had on the sensibility of intellectuals growing up in early twentieth century Europe. Certainly, though, the acceleration of movement enhanced the feeling of novelty and encouraged the conviction that the twentieth century would be fundamentally different from its predecessor, if only because it would be faster.

[SOURCE: Robert Wohl, The Generation of 1914 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979)]

On Technological Innovation
From around 1880 to the outbreak of World War I a series of sweeping changes in technology and culture created distinctive new modes of thinking about and experiencing time and space. Technological innovations including the telephone, wireless telegraph, x-ray, cinema, bicycle, automobile, and airplane established the material foundation for this reorientation; independent cultural developments such as the stream-of-consciousness novel, psychoanalysis, Cubism, and the theory of relativity shaped consciousness directly. The result was a transformation of the dimensions of life and thought.

[SOURCE: Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983)]

On the Great War
The more revolting it was the more people shouted with laughter. It was…the laughter of mortals at the trick which had been played on them by an ironical fate. They had been taught to believe that the whole object of life was to reach out to beauty and love, and that mankind, in its progress to perfection, had killed the beast instinct, cruelty, blood-lust, the primitive savage law of survival by tooth and claw and club and ax. All poetry, all art, all religion had preached this gospel and this promise. Now that ideal was broken like a china vase dashed to the ground. The contrast between That and This was devastating. The war-time humor of the soul roared with mirth at the sight of all that dignity and elegance despoiled.

[SOURCE: Philip Gibbs, Now It Can Be Told (New York, 1920)]

The "Official" Meaning of the War

BENEATH THIS STONE RESTS THE BODY
OF A BRITISH WARRIOR
UNKNOWN BY NAME OR RANK
BROUGHT FROM FRANCE TO LIE AMONG
THE MOST ILLUSTRIOUS OF THE LAND

AND BURIED HERE ON ARMISTICE DAY
11 NOV: 1920, IN THE PRESENCE OF
HIS MAJESTY KING GEORGE V
HIS MINISTERS OF STATE
THE CHIEFS OF HIS FORCES
AND A VAST CONCOURSE OF THE NATION

THUS ARE COMMEMORATED THE MANY
MULTITUDES WHO DURING THE GREAT
WAR OF 1914-1918 GAVE THE MOST THAT
MAN CAN GIVE LIFE ITSELF
FOR GOD
FOR KING AND COUNTRY
FOR LOVED ONES HOME AND EMPIRE
FOR THE SACRED CAUSE OF JUSTICE AND
THE FREEDOM OF THE WORLD

THEY BURIED HIM AMONG THE KINGS BECAUSE HE
HAD DONE GOOD TOWARD GOD AND TOWARD
HIS HOUSE

[SOURCE: Inscription on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Westminster Abbey, London, 1920]

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