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READ: A Lost Generation

The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. Why were people enthusiastic about the war when it first began?
  2. How did nation-states and their rulers try to convince people, in particular young men, to join the war effort?
  3. What is disillusionment and why did people begin feeling disillusioned by the war?
  4. The author explains how these feelings of disillusionment weren’t confined to just soldiers’ thoughts about the war. Why did civilians also experience disillusionment?
  5. What is the double meaning of the term the “Lost Generation”?
  6. How was disillusionment represented in post-war art, literature, and philosophy?
  7. How was disillusionment experienced in European colonies in Asia and Africa?
  8. How did different regions of the world respond to the end of the “Great War”?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. This article argues that the experience of the war changed how many people understood the Enlightenment values and the idea of industrialization as progress. Do World War I and the Lost Generation also challenge any of the frame narratives you’ve learned thus far in the course?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

A Lost Generation

Photo of a man kneeling before a large group of freshly dug graves. Wooden crosses mark each grave site.
By Bennett Sherry
When World War I started, people cheered in the streets. Their enthusiasm was soon dampened by the reality of war. The disillusionment that followed the conflict shaped our modern world.

You smug-faced crowds

In 1914, nationalist passions, imperial greed, and diplomatic complexities ignited the flames of the First World War. There were those who feared war, in particular some socialists. But in general, much of Europe strode confidently to a war that they believed would be short and easily won. Of course, that's what the other side thought too. In London, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna, confident crowds cheered for war in the August heat. The British newspaper, the Daily Mirror, featured the picture below on August 6, 1914. They reported that, following the declaration of war on Germany, the British royal family were met with "wild, enthusiastic cheers" from a "record crowd". In every European capital, governments and newspapers tried to rally the public to the cause of the war by calling on their loyalty to king and queen, to the nation, to their tsar, or emperor. On August 5, The Birmingham Daily Mail featured a call to arms on its front page: "Your King & Country need you," the advertisement started. "In this crisis your Country calls on all her young unmarried men to rally round the Flag and enlist in the ranks of her Army. If every patriotic young man answers her call, England and her Empire will emerge stronger and more united than ever."
Photo of a large crow outside of Buckingham Palace waving their arms and hats in the air cheering.
Crowds cheer outside Buckingham Palace for the king and queen after the declaration of war on Germany. Public domain.
But the optimism that united people from some European nations in killing people from other European nations soon collided with the realities of industrial war. Disillusionment—that feeling of disappointment when something turns out to be not nearly as good as you thought it was—set in. Soldiers who encountered the horrors of trench warfare and poison gas every day were especially disillusioned. Look again at the hopeful picture and quotes above. Then read these two poems, each written by young men who fought on the Western Front in France:
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
Siegfried Sassoon, 1918
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires
Wilfred Owen, 1917
Photo of wounded soldiers walking down a dirt road. A few of the more seriously injured are shown leaning on the other men to help them walk.
A German prisoner supports a wounded British soldier after the Battle of the Somme, 1916. Public domain.

You are a lost generation

The experiences of Sassoon and Owen were far from unique. Forty million people were killed or wounded during this conflict. All over Europe, young men trudged home when the armistice (declaration of peace) was finally signed. But the optimism of the early days of the war was gone forever.
Soldiers weren't the only ones traumatized by World War I. Nearly half of the forty million casualties were civilians, which is why they called it "total war". It was unprecedented in its scale and its destructive power. As communities tried to recover after the war, civilians and soldiers looked around—at the destruction of their countries and at the places once occupied by friends and family killed in the fighting.
One group of authors in particular gave voice to the disillusionment of those who came of age during the First World War. Their numbers included several American authors living in Paris. The poet and novelist Gertrude Stein is credited with giving them their name: The Lost Generation. In The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway quotes Stein as saying, "All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation… You have no respect for anything. You drink yourselves to death."
"Lost Generation" has a double meaning. While it refers specifically to the generation of writers and artists disillusioned after the war, it can also refer to the post-war generation more broadly. That generation found the cultural lessons they had learned in childhood irrelevant; they were "lost" in the modern world. But the term also refers to the large percentage of that generation that had been lost to the violence of war. J.R.R. Tolkien, who you probably know as the author of The Lord of the Rings, also fought in the war. It took a toll on the young man, and echoes of trauma appear in his writing. He later reflected that, by the end of the war "all but one of my close friends were dead." Experiences like his were common. Britain and Russia lost around two percent of their total population in the war. Germany, France, and Austria lost about four percent. Some nations, such as the Ottoman Empire, Serbia, and Romania lost nine to fifteen percent of their prewar populations.
Painting of a war-torn landscape. The land is barren and painted black to show the devastation it has undergone. A sole, dead tree remains.
A landscape painting by Paul Nash, 1918. Before the war, landscapes were generally meant to be beautiful reflections of an idealized nature. After, the war… From the collection of the Imperial War Museum, public domain.
The costs of the war changed the mindset of many. Before the war, European culture embraced Enlightenment ideas of rationality and progress. After the war, writers and artists turned to new forms of expression that questioned a world that had allowed such a conflict. The German historian, Oswald Spengler, wrote The Decline of the West. The psychologist Sigmund Freud wrote about the struggle within human minds between ego and id—between the rational and irrational mind. F. Scott Fitzgerald critiqued the extravagance of the rich in The Great Gatsby. In many facets of life, people were challenging the received wisdom of earlier generations.
Meanwhile, new styles of art and architecture rejected everything that people had depended on before July 1914. They rejected the notion of reason and wholesomeness, and instead embraced irony and the general irrationality of the world. These artistic movements, often grouped together under the title of "modernism", were a reaction to the horrors of the conflict.

Alien graves

Disillusion with the war was not confined to Europe. All over the world, British, French, and German colonial subjects fought and died for a war between their colonizers thousands of miles away. Hundreds of thousands of colonial troops served in the war. In 1915, the Indian independence activist and poet, Sarojini Naidu, reflected on the price India had to pay its colonizer:
Lo! I have flung to the East and West
Priceless treasures torn from my breast,
And yielded the sons of my stricken womb
To the drum-beats of duty, the sabres of doom.
Gathered like pearls in their alien graves
Silent they sleep by the Persian waves,
Scattered like shells on Egyptian sands,
They lie with pale brows and brave, broken hands,
They are strewn like blossoms mown down by chance
On the blood-brown meadows of Flanders and France.
Sarojini Naidu, 1915
All over the colonized world, new nationalist sentiments emerged in the wake of World War I. You've read about how imperialists justified their colonial control over people in Africa and Asia. They spoke about the "white man's burden" to take charge. They argued that they were bringing "civilization" and new technologies to the rest of the world. But during World War I, the colonized subjects of Europe's far-flung empires had watched as European "civilization" tore itself to shreds in a high-tech war. As Asian and African soldiers died alongside British and German troops, many colonized people wondered why they were fighting a European war. This disillusionment led many in Asia and Africa to adopt and adapt European ideas about nationalism and begin their long march toward independence—a march that would not end until after another, even deadlier world war had taken place.
Photo of Gandhi sitting on a couch, flipping through the pages of a pamphlet. Indian activist Sarojini Naidu is leaning over the back of the couch to speak to him.
Sarojini Naidu with Mahatma Gandhi in 1942. Public domain.

Rejecting the past

All over the world and in many aspects of life, people challenged and rejected old ideologies. They argued that the old ideologies of the Enlightenment, imperialism, and capitalism had sent the world into a devastating war. And for what? The Great War had been billed as "the war to end all wars". But people looked around in 1918 and found that while it had ended plenty of lives, the war hadn't ended any of their problems.
As artists and writers embraced new forms of art that highlighted the irrationality of life in a modern, industrial world, many politicians sought to rebuild the world. Internationalism became popular in the 1920s as the League of Nations sought to preserve peace. International agreements, such as the Kellogg-Briand Pact "renounced war as an instrument of national policy." But as we all know, these attempts failed to end conflict.
Others also sought to overturn the global order. In Russia, the Bolshevik Revolution overthrew the imperialist tsar and rejected the global capitalist economy. In Italy, many people grew disillusioned with the Versailles Peace Treaty. They had fought with the Allies, but the peace treaty failed to reward Italy with new territory. Japan had also fought with the Allied powers. They too felt betrayed. They resented that the Europeans did not treat them as equals and failed to embrace racial equality. In the defeated Germany, many Germans saw the peace terms as overly harsh and resented the victors. In Italy, Japan, and Germany, authoritarian leaders would later exploit these feelings of disillusionment to seize power.
The First World War was a watershed moment. It killed millions and restructured global power. But for the people living through it, it was hard to see past what was lost. The lost lives, the lost sense of progress and, and perhaps the worst effect of disillusionment, lost hope. People reacted to the disappointments of the modern world by rejecting aspects of society. Artists rejected old stories and styles to create new ones. Anti-colonial movements rejected foreign control. Revolutionaries rejected the capitalist global economy. And authoritarians began to reject the global order as a way to increase their own power. The disillusionment that came after the war did as much to shape the world as the fighting had.
Author bio
Bennett Sherry holds a PhD in History from the University of Pittsburgh and has undergraduate teaching experience in world history, human rights, and the Middle East at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Maine at Augusta. Additionally, he is a Research Associate at Pitt's World History Center. Bennett writes about refugees and international organizations in the twentieth century.

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