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World War One Resources

ww1.jpg (8276 bytes)At the turn of the century most Europeans were optimistic about the future, some even believed that European civilization was on the threshold of yet another golden age. Few suspected that European civilization would soon be gripped by a crisis that threatened its very survival. The powerful forces of irrationalism, illuminated by Friedrich Nietzsche, psychoanalyzed by Sigmund Freud, and creatively expressed in modernist culture, would erupt in a conflict that would ultimately make this century an age of anxiety.

Disoriented and disillusioned people searching for new certainties and values would turn to political ideologies that openly rejected reason and praised war. Utilizing what they understood about insights into the nonrational and unconscious mind, men like Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin succeeded in manipulating the minds of the masses to a degree never before witnessed in human history.

These currents began to coalesce toward the end of the nineteenth century but World War One brought them all together into a tidal wave. The Great War accentuated the questioning of established norms and the dissolution of Enlightenment certainties and caused many people to regard Western civilization as dying and beyond recovery. The war not only intensified the spiritual crisis of the late 19th century, it also shattered Europe's political and social order and gave birth to totalitarian ideologies that nearly obliterated the legacy of the Enlightenment. Paul Fussell has written that the Great War "was a hideous embarrassment to the prevailing Meliorist myth which had dominated the public conscience for a century. It reversed the Idea of Progress." Or, as the British journalist Philip Gibbs remembered:

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 humour of the soul roared with mirth at the sight of all that dignity and elegance despoiled.

More information
The Great War from PBS
The Great War Series
Internet Modern History Sourcebook
Treaty of Versailles
Trenches on the Web
World War One Document Archive

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Last Revised -- April 13, 2012
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