Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / The First World War – known as the Great War before it became necessary to number them – is one of history’s most celebrated lessons on two subjects in particular: how ominously easily it can be for a major war to arise, and the senseless cruelty and calamity of armed conflict between well-equipped adversaries who are determined not to lose. The war began with a Serbian nationalist’s assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austria-Hungary throne, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. This was seemingly a containable act, but Austria-Hungary secured Germany’s support for the armed suppression of Serbian nationalism while Serbia gained Russia’s support for armed resistance. What ensued was the reactive, often opportunistic, and spiraling mobilization of two pre-existing military alliances – the Triple Entente between Russia, France and Great Britain (the United States would ultimately join them), and the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and eventually the Ottoman Empire. The war did not end until November 11, 1918, exactly a century ago. In a little more than four years of combat, over 14 million died. Europeans and their leaders commemorate the armistice with fitting solemnity.
Germany and its allies had to fight enemies on two fronts: the eastern front, where it faced mainly Russia, and the western front, where it confronted the armies of France and Great Britain, mostly in French territory. On the western front in particular, trench warfare, sometimes involving the use of chemical weapons, produced nightmarish, industrial-scale carnage. For literally years, in agonizingly slow campaigns of attrition, troops fought and died in the tens of thousands over incommensurately small swathes of territory. In Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, her book about the aftermath of the war, Margaret MacMillan wrote:
A quarter of French men between eighteen and thirty had died in the war, over 1.3 million altogether out of a prewar population of 40 million. France lost a higher proportion of its population than any other of the belligerents. Twice as many again of its soldiers had been wounded. In the north, great stretches of land were pitted with shell holes, scarred by deep trenches, marked with row upon row of crosses. Around the fortress of Verdun, site of the worst French battle, not a living thing grew, not a bird sang. The coalmines on which the French economy depended for its power were flooded; the factories they would have supplied had been razed or carted away into Germany. Six thousand square miles of France, which before the war had produced 20 percent of its crops, 90 percent of its iron ore and 65 percent of its steel, were utterly ruined.
Historically bloody battles took place in France. Some, like the First and Second Battles of the Marne (1914 and 1918, respectively), were very close to Paris, whose inhabitants felt under siege for the entire war. In the countryside, farmers tending their crops could hear artillery in the distance; the young men of the family serving in the army would come home on leave, dimly hopeful, until they didn’t. In Europe, an entire generation not only in France but also in Germany and Great Britain was hollowed out demographically and spiritually. Governments preoccupied with war efforts were also more vulnerable to revolutionary political movements: both the Russian Revolution, stemming from an ideological impulse, and the Anglo-Irish War, from an anti-colonial one, began during the First World War.
In the wake of such comprehensive devastation and instability, the pre-war Belle Époque (“beautiful era”), which had been singularly optimistic and peaceful, obviously could not pick up where it had left off. And any notion that war might somehow be cathartic – the Italian Futurists had momentarily embraced it – was thoroughly invalidated. Despair and disaffection, and the urge to condemn, inter, and escape a grim and tragic reality, would inevitably have profound impacts on art of all types. The postwar period was one of disruption and iconoclasm that turbocharged Modernism. Resolutely frank and acerbic German Expressionists like Otto Dix and George Grosz, who had served in the German army and emerged from the Weimar Republic, were immediate and vivid examples, while Dada embraced the comprehensive rejection of the cultural tropes that had nourished the war. Surrealism was perhaps the most intuitive reaction to the carnage. Implicit was the hope that the conflict was, as it was called, “the war to end all wars.” Peace, of course, would not endure.
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