And I fear we never shall.
When I was in school, World War I was hardly touched on in my history classes, so eager were the teachers to get to World War II before the year was over. It was only though reading a review of the Paul Fussell book The Great War and Modern Memory when it first came out in 1975, and then being intrigued enough to read the book, that I first learned what a cataclysmic event the First World War was, both in terms of death rates and in its psychological and even spiritual, as well as cultural, effects.
The first hint was this quote by Henry James, from a letter he wrote to a friend the day after Britain entered the war:
The plunge of civilization into this abyss of blood and darkness… is a thing that so gives away the whole long age during which we have supposed the world to be, with whatever abatement, gradually bettering, that to have to take it all now for what the treacherous years were all the while really making for and meaning is too tragic for any words.
If you hack through James’ typically convoluted syntax, you’ll see a perfect encapsulation of the effect of the war: blood and darkness, giving the lie to what people of that age thought “civilization” had meant. The war caused people to look back at all the years of seeming progress and regard them as a cruel, tantalizing, misleading illusion, a sort of trick played on naive people who now looked back at the history they themselves had lived through, tearing off their previous rose-colored glasses and now seeing a stark and terrible vision.
We have been stuck with that vision ever since. Whether people are aware of the details of the events of WWI or not, they are part of a culture of profound cynicism that took hold of the Western world afterward and has been part of the reason for its decline. Simply put, the West lost a great deal of its boundless confidence in itself.
This article that appeared in American Heritage goes over much the same territory:
This almost unimaginable destruction of human life, to no purpose whatsoever, struck at the very vitals of Western society. For this reason alone, among the casualties of the First World War were not only the millions of soldiers who had died for nothing, most of the royalty of Europe, and treasure beyond reckoning but nearly all the fundamental philosophical and cultural assumptions of the civilization that had suffered this self-induced catastrophe.
For there was one thing that was immediately clear to all about the Great War—as the generation who fought it called it—and that was that this awful tragedy was a human and wholly local phenomenon. There was no volcano, no wrathful God, no horde of barbarians out of the East. Western culture had done this to itself. Because of the war, it seemed to many a matter of inescapable logic that Western culture must be deeply, inherently flawed.
The pre-WWI ethos was quite different. The American Heritage article uses author Edith Wharton’s world as an example, but Henry James would have done just as nicely:
Because of this fantastic record of progress, the people of Edith Wharton’s world believed in the inevitability of further progress and the certainty that science would triumph. They believed in the ever-widening spread of democracy and the rule of law. They believed in the adequacy of the present and the bright promise of the future. To be sure, they fought ferociously over the details of how to proceed, but they had no doubt whatever that the basic principles that guided their society were correct.
Then, all at once, the shots rang out in Sarajevo, the politicians bungled, the armies marched, the poppies began to blow between the crosses row on row. The faith of the Western world in the soundness of its civilization died in the trenches of the western front.
Seventy-five years later, richer, more powerful, more learned than ever, the West still struggles to pick up the psychological pieces, to regain its poise, to find again the self-confidence that in the nineteenth century it took entirely for granted.
Subsequent events played a part, as well. World War II was a very different war fought for very different reasons; unlike its predecessor, the lines of good vs. evil were crystal clear. But that didn’t make the carnage and the profoundly wearying nature of the war any less disillusioning, it’s just that it was disillusioning in a different way, this time about the human race’s propensity for cruelty and hatred and violence. And of course there’s been the long Gramsician march of the left through the West’s basic institutions such as the church, education, and the media, working constantly to undermine the West from the inside. What we see now are the results of all of this. It’s a miracle there’s any vigor left at all.