Catching up on my reports of the plenaries at Canadian Literature of World War One, a conference sponsored by U Ottawa, UBC and the Canadian War Museum. Part 1 covered Tim Cook’s presentation, Canada and the Commemoration of The Great War, 1918-2018.
Margaret MacMillan talked about The Great War in Literature, examining the contexts that shaped literature before, during and after the war. She applied many of the contrasting themes from The War That Ended Peace to the writings about the war.
The period before WW1 saw Europe in relative peace and prosperity, at the centre of the world. Many thought of peace as the natural state. Progress was viewed as a natural trajectory and science could solve all problems. Broader communications fed a growth in attachment to nation rather than a smaller community. Social Darwinism was influential, feeding beliefs that struggle was natural and nations have natural enemies. A classical education was the norm for the elites, with a nostalgic view of war as a noble calling. Others saw war as a tonic to cure a society getting too soft and a fear that self-preservation would prevail over self-sacrifice. Modernism saw experimentation in the arts (writing, music, dance, painting and sculpture, for example).
During the War
The writings of the time reflect an initial rush of enthusiasm about the war, followed by shock about the barbaric actions people thought they had moved beyond. The nature of war had changed: the developments of “progress” resulted in the stalemate and made it possible to keep going. This was met with horror and despair that they couldn’t stop it. Writing and painting from the front reflect that surrealism (in marked contrast to those at home). But that was not the universal reaction. We see patriotism as well.
From the late 1920s, anti-war writers dominate. There was a growing concern that the war didn’t solve things and history was about to repeat itself. The Great Depression fuelled anti-democratic feelings. Views of the war as futile fed the desire for appeasement before the Second World War. That view also grew after WW2: it was the “good war”, so WW1 must have been the wasteful war in comparison.
1914: Day by Day, MacMillan’s daily BBC broadcasts chronicling the events leading to the war, ended earlier this month. But they are still available online. You can listen in five minute chunks, or take in the whole series in six 30 minute omnibus recordings.