Chapter 26: The Age of Anxiety Postwar Pessimism

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Chapter 26: The Age of Anxiety

Postwar Pessimism

As we saw in the last chapter, everyone – victors and losers – lost the Great War and the unjust Treaty of Versailles satisfied no one. Most European economies were strained by the war and/or by the peace. Great Britain had lost her control of world trade. The French got their revenge but still feared Germany. Italy felt ignored and cheated in that she did not get enough territorial gains. In spite of Wilson’s idealism, the United States retreated from world affairs and refused to join the League of Nations. The League of Nations was doomed before it started since it had no power to enforce its decisions and relied on collective security to keep the peace. China was suffering from internal chaos and Japanese aggression. Japan was slighted because, like Italy, she felt ignored and did not receive more territory. Germany was in shock from loss of territory and the brutal severity of the treaty.
The Ottoman Empire was in chaos and dismembered; and both the Mandate System and the Balfour Declaration left the Middle East resentful and bitter. Austria and Hungary were now second class nations and the division of their empire created new nations struggling with economic and social problems. Russia was a singleton (isolated from other nations) having lost much territory, fighting a bloody civil war but determined to spread its socialist message. Latin America struggled under social inequality, foreign debts and authoritarian governments. Mahatma Gandhi was leading the way for India’s independence and the struggle to solve Muslim-Hindu tensions. The world did not seem safe.
All of this led to the phenomenon of Postwar Pessimism. The American writer and feminist Gertrude Stein (1874-1976) coined the expression The Lost Generation for a group of mostly American expatriates [exiles; here self-imposed] intellectuals, poets, artists and writers who fled to France in the aftermath of WWI. Full of youthful idealism, these individuals sought the meaning of life, drank excessively, had love affairs and created some of the finest American literature to date. They used their talents to express their disillusionment with materialism, nationalism and the brutal realities of modern, industrialized warfare. In Europe, they were often called the Generation of 1914 and in France, they were sometimes called the Génération au Feu, or the Generation in Flames.
In Great Britain the term was originally employed to describe soldiers killed in the war; and most often to the upper (aristocratic) officers who were perceived to have died disproportionately (out of proportion; unfair), robbing the country of future leaders and leaving uncounted “war widows.” As we saw in the last chapter with the English poet Wilfred Owen (1893- 1918) and The Great Lie, many Britons came to feel "that the flower of youth' and the 'best of the nation' had been destroyed."
The American expatriate, Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), who moved to Paris in 1921, popularized the expression The Lost Generation and quickly became their leader. He had volunteered to fight with the Italians in World War I and the defeat at the Battle of Caporetto shattered his Midwestern American naiveté [innocence]. In 1929, he drew on these experiences to write A Farewell to Arms in which he graphically showed the meaningless deaths and suffering caused by the war.
F. Scott Fitzgerald portrayed the spirit of the Jazz age and the social and moral rebellion that followed WWI. Though not strictly speaking an expatriate, he roamed Europe and visited North Africa and chronicled the prohibition era. In his novel, Tender is the Night, in 1934 he succinctly expressed the pessimism of the Lost Generation. "This land here cost twenty lives a foot that summer...See that little stream--we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk it--a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs. No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation."
On the German side, Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen Nichts Neues) recorded the daily horrors of war in the trenches of the Western Front from the point of view of ordinary soldiers. Remarque became a spokesman for a generation that was destroyed by war, even though they had survived the killing. His book was banned by the Nazis, but was turned into a highly successful American film in 1930.
Another German, Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), published The Decline of the West in which he postulated that all societies pass through a cycle of birth, growth, decay and death from which he concluded that European society had entered the final stage of its life. Many felt that Spengler’s gloomy predictions were a harbinger for the entire world and all its peoples. On a more positive take on Spengler’s ideas, the English historian, Arnold J. Toynbee (1889-1975), in his classic, A Study of History, began to write history as a study of how nations of the world developed and declined over time. In all, he chronicled the birth, life and collapse of twenty-six nations.
Postwar Pessimism also jolted religion. In 1919, the German/Swiss theologian, Karl Barth (1886-1968), published Epistle to the Romans in which he suggested that modern religion had become enslaved to science, culture, mysticism and art. He wanted a return to the reformational ideal that God’s truth is found only in God’s revelation. Barth’s theology came to be called neo-Orthodoxy and reflected disillusionment with modern religion and culture as he attacked the Enlightenment ideas of progress and limitless improvement and called for a return to a belief in the supremacy and transcendence (extending beyond the limits of ordinary experience) of God. In other words, people had strayed from God and had made a mess of things, and only by following God’s word could people clean up the mess. He stressed the wholly otherness of God and reminded people that God’s kingdom is not of this world.”
Barth was echoed by the Russian philosopher and theologian Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948), who criticized the institutional church and Bolsheviks both of whom collectivized and mechanized society and religion. He too felt that mankind had made a mess of things when he said, Man’s historical experience has been one of steady failure, and there are no grounds for supposing that it will ever be anything else.” And he believed that mankind’s only hope was not in God’s justice, but in God’s love which allows man to be transfigured in the godhead (i.e., be one with God).
In 1922, the English poet and playwright, T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), echoed Barth and Berdyaev. In his poem, The Wasteland, the “Great War” became a symbol of the breakdown of Western Civilization in a world which had become barren and spiritually empty.
Attacks on the notion of progress were also characteristic of Postwar Pessimism. Many people had not forgotten that science and technology had given them the horrors of WWI. How could science and technology help them, they reasoned, if science was responsible for poison gas and machine guns? Democracy as well, was questioned at a time when the franchise to vote was extended to women. Many intellectuals attacked democracy as weak and ineffective. They idealized the rule of the strong and elite. This would be part of the explanation for the rise of totalitarian states in Italy and Germany.
In 1930, the Spanish liberal philosopher and essayist, José Ortega y Gasset (1885-1955,) wrote a wildly popular essay, Revolt of the Masses, in which he asserted that society is composed of masses and dominant minorities. His work echoed the warnings of 19th-century liberals (especially Alexis de Tocqueville) that democracy carried with it the risk of tyranny by the majority. Both Bolshevism and Fascism were symptoms of usurpation of power by the "Mass Man,” which Ortega described as demanding nothing and living like everyone else, without vision or compelling moral code. Ortega warned his readers that the mass people or the “masses” could be unduly swayed by demagogues and that without moral code they might destroy the highest achievements of western culture.

Postwar Pessimism caused a new kind of optimism which is better said to be escapism. People wanted to put the horror of war behind them and sought avenues of escape. At the Washington Naval Conference of 1921 the major nations naively agreed to reduce the size of their battleship fleets and in 1928 a number of nations signed the Kellogg-Briand Treaty, coauthored by the French and Americans, which (with almost comical naiveté) outlawed war forever. Many people naively hoped that the League of Nations would solve the world’s international tensions. But, as was noted, the League was ineffectual because it had no powers of coercion (force) and relied on Collective Security to maintain peace.

Lastly, even Capitalism was attacked. The best known attack came from the British economist, statesman and author John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), who had been a member of the Bloomsbury Group which advocated modernism around the turn of the century. Keynes advocated that governments replace strict Laissez-Faire with a mixed economy (the state and private enterprise working in unison) coupled with aggressive interventionist policies when confronted by economic recessions. In the last chapter we saw that in 1919, he argued that forcing Germany to pay reparations would bankrupt Germany and lead to another war. He is considered the founder of Macroeconomics (studying the economic as a whole and not its parts) and predicted an end of Laissez-Faire, but could not say what would replace it.

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