The Great War and a century of modernityWritten by Subby Szterszky
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Over a century ago, in a railway car in the forest north of Paris, representatives of the United Kingdom, France and Germany signed the Armistice that ended the First World War. The ceasefire went into effect on November 11, 1918, at 11 a.m. Paris time – the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – and its anniversary has been kept in many countries ever since, in honour of those who died in the Great War and in the wars that followed.
It had been a long, horrific four years since that summer day in Sarajevo, when a Bosnian Serb named Gavrilo Princip assassinated the archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Austria-Hungary retaliated by declaring war on Serbia, and like a set of dominoes, all of Europe’s major powers invoked a series of interlocking treaties to declare war on one another. Within a matter of weeks and for the first time in history, the whole world was at war.
By the time the Armistice put a stop to it, 16 million people were dead, including seven million civilians, plus countless millions wounded and maimed. The European landscape was scarred with trenches and artillery craters, the populace ravaged by famine and disease. Political maps were shredded and redrawn, the old social order shattered.
And in the aftermath, public opinion began to embrace what skeptics had been claiming for years: God was not in his heaven, and all was not right with the world.
From the immediate postwar perspective, the sunny optimism of the pre-war years was as distant as the salons of the Edwardian Era from the jazz clubs of the Roaring Twenties. The turn of the century had seen a blossoming faith in human progress. Industry, science and learning were growing apace, as were general prosperity and quality of life – at least for the privileged classes. There was a feeling in the air that a new age of unparalleled human flourishing was just over the horizon.
Even the outbreak of war did little to dampen that happy outlook, and was in fact met with a surprising degree of enthusiasm. Truth be told, most of the leading nations had been itching for a fight. Each of them hoped a short military campaign would redraw the maps and tilt the balance of power in their favour. The assassination of the archduke merely provided the pretext for war. Nationalistic fervour ran high. Young men on all sides enlisted in droves, most expecting to be home by Christmas.
Four years of mud and blood and the first modern, mechanized war in history ground that optimistic zeitgeist into the dirt. It not only destroyed lives and lands, but also faith in the old world, its institutions and certainties, its morals and traditions.
Not that that was entirely bad, all things considered. A plethora of social ills – imperialism, rigid class structures, child labour, marginalization of women and the poor, exploitation of colonial subjects, to name a handful – had been tarnishing the veneer of the Belle Époque for decades and crying out for change.
However, change born of disillusion is bound to be extreme and in the end destructive. In Eastern Europe and the Balkans, as ancient empires fell apart, they were supplanted by new authoritarian regimes, often through revolutionary force of arms – regimes that were just as oppressive as the ones they had replaced.
On the rest of the Continent, a world-weary stoicism settled over the culture, especially among its intellectual and creative elites. Artists, musicians, writers and philosophers, many of them part of the “Lost Generation” that had survived the war or come of age during it, produced dark works marked by irony, bitterness and alienation.
In the West, primarily North America and the United Kingdom, postwar prosperity led to a lighter, more spirited escapism via the flapper culture of the Jazz Age. Four decades before the sexual revolution of the 1960s, young men and women cast off the fashions and morals of their elders and embraced transient pleasure with an epicurean shrug: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
Underneath it all, perhaps for the first time, public sentiment began to question the goodness – and even the existence – of a God who would permit horrors like the ones visited on that generation.
Birth of the modern
The roots of modernity as a cultural development run old and deep, back through the Enlightenment, the Reformation, the Renaissance, and well before that. But the specific modern brand of popular secularism can be traced, in very large part, to the aftermath of the First World War.
Strictly speaking, postwar society wasn’t turning its back on the God of the Bible per se. It had already done that, many years earlier. For a century and more, skeptical thinkers had been attacking the truth claims of Christianity and the authority of Scripture, and those ideas had been filtering down to the informed public. By the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, religion was quite typically seen as little more than a civic duty and a moral code for social order, particularly among the affluent and educated. Supernatural realities such as Christ’s deity, virgin birth, miracles, atoning death and bodily resurrection were considered outmoded beliefs, untenable to the modern reasonable mind.
The popular religion of the pre-war era wasn’t so much a faith in God as it was a faith in humanity. It was grounded in a belief that people were basically good, could solve all their own problems and eventually perfect the world through education and scientific advance. God was simply not an essential part of that equation. He had been pushed to the periphery for the utopian idol of human progress – an idol that had been brought crashing down by the worst war in history up to that point. And many people blamed God for that.
The upside of modernity
Contrary to popular belief, however, God had neither vanished nor turned his back on the world. After all, modernity as a cultural movement hadn’t sprung to life fully formed from the ashes of the Great War. By God’s providence, it had been growing over decades and centuries, and was in essence a sweeping positive development in human history.
Modernity’s basic tenets of intellectual inquiry, personal freedom, social reform and technological innovation were in fact rooted in a scriptural view of the world – human beings made in God’s image, possessing equal value and dignity, plus a good creation worth exploring and harnessing for the benefit of all. Most of the modern advances in scientific knowledge and social justice had been set in motion generations before the war, driven by men and women of faith who were committed to those scriptural truths.
But as with all good things, the fruits of modernity had the potential to be abused. The era’s technological progress – trains, planes, cars, electricity, radio, telephones, photography, modern medicine – had created a quantum leap in human thriving. But it also made possible a war marked by unimaginable carnage – people burned alive inside and out by chemical attacks; men mowed down in the thousands by machine guns at the trenches; bodies of civilians (and entire villages) torn to shreds by colossal artillery shells.
The sense of horror in the wake of the war was understandable, as was the disillusion with the old world order that had led to the war in the first place. And yet by the grace of God, even that disillusion proved to have long-term positive effects, accelerating the process of social change that had been percolating for decades. It hastened an end to rigid class systems and imperialistic regimes, improved living standards for the poor and gave political voice to the marginalized. Notably it was in the years following the war that women gained the right to vote in most Western countries.
Much of the era’s music, art and literature has left an impression of being dark, chaotic or even despairing. This trend was already evident well before the war years, as cultural leaders turned away from the idea of a divinely ordered world. But it became much more emphatic as a response to the social, physical and psychological scars left by the war. Even so, from the perspective of common grace, many of these works display a remarkable honesty and integrity. They avoid superficial sentimentality and grapple with the pain and anguish of their time. In so doing, they show that great art doesn’t always have to be pretty or pleasant, but it should always tell the truth.
Lest we forget
There’s always a danger of oversimplifying past events and their effect on history as a whole. This is especially so with an event as disruptive and far-reaching as the First World War. In reality, its causes and effects were numerous and complex, the attitudes toward it multifaceted, then as now.
And yet, there remains a lingering popular perception of the war as a sharp black line, four years thick, separating the world that was from the world that now is. Although lacking in nuance, that perception is not devoid of truth.
Styles may have changed many times in the years since the Great War, but the people and outlooks from those years all appear modern and familiar somehow, as if sharing cultural DNA with the present. By contrast, even the generation just before the war seems archaic and distant, its fashions, values and language belonging to old paintings and period dramas more than to the real world.
Before the First World War, military conflicts were remembered primarily in terms of the leaders who waged them. But ever since the Armistice, war memorials have focused instead on the myriads of common soldiers who have fought and died, many of whose names have been lost to history. The politicians and generals who sent those soldiers to their fate are rarely if ever memorialized.
Beyond the lives lost and the cost in human suffering, the anniversary of the Armistice is a reminder of the kindness and the severity of God, to borrow a phrase from the Apostle Paul. For a culture swamped in hubris, the war was a most graphic reminder that the world was indeed fallen, as were the people in it, and desperately dependent on the grace of God.
At the same time, the advent of popular secularism weakened the cultural religion that had become prevalent, and it drew a sharper line between genuine and nominal Christianity. And the widespread disillusion with the old order sped up the social, political and economic changes that have characterized modernity and aided human flourishing ever since. Nostalgia aside, most moderns likely would not trade their lives for the pre-modern world, upon sober consideration.
During the first years after the war, stoic fatalism as well as epicurean hedonism settled into the air like dark (or deceptively bright) clouds. But as Paul reminded the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in Athens, there is a God in heaven who reigns over human affairs, and who has determined the allotted time span and boundaries of every civilization in history. The purpose, according to the Apostle, was so that people might seek and find God through faith in his resurrected Son.
Of all the things the Great War might call to remembrance, there is surely none more valuable than that.
Sources and further reading
Canadian War Museum, “Canada and the First World War,” accessed October 17, 2018.
Veterans Affairs Canada, “World Wars commemoration #CanadaRemembers,” accessed October 17, 2018.
The Vimy Foundation, “1918-2018: Centenary of the First World War’s end,” accessed October 17, 2018.
BBC Online, “World War One,” accessed October 17, 2018.
Imperial War Museums, “First World War Centenary Partnership,” accessed October 17, 2018.
Government UK, “First World War Centenary,” accessed October 17, 2018.
Anzac Centenary, “100 years of Anzac: the spirit lives 2014-2018,” accessed October 17, 2018.
“1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War,” accessed October 17, 2018.
“Centenary News: First World War 1914-1918,” accessed October 17, 2018.
“Europeana Collections 1914-1918,” accessed October 17, 2018.
“FirstWorldWar.com: a multimedia history of World War One,” accessed October 17, 2018.
“The United States World War One Centennial Commission,” accessed October 17, 2018.
May Bulman, “First World War Centenary: UK to stage events throughout 2018 to mark 100 years since end of conflict,” The Independent, January 1, 2018.
Ana Carden-Coyne, “Wounded visionaries,” The Guardian, November 13, 2008.
J.J. Goldberg, “Brutal modernity turns 100 with anniversary of First World War,” The Forward, January 6, 2014.
Toby Helm, “Bells will ring out: world to mark end of First World War, 100 years on,” The Guardian, August 12, 2018.
Suzanne Lynch, “Out of the wasteland: the First World War and modernism,” The Irish Times, May 5, 2015.
Ara Merjian, “How World War I gave birth to the modern,” CNN, November 9, 2014.
Alan Taylor, “World War I in photos: Introduction,” The Atlantic, April 27, 2014.
Klaus Wiegrefe, “Why WWI still haunts Europe a century later,” Spiegel Online, January 8, 2014.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2018 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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