The Generation of 1914

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

During the late 1960’s in the United States, there was considerable discussion of the so-called “generation gap” between those who had reached maturity just before World War II and those who had come of age during the Vietnam War. In his scholarly, carefully reasoned new book, The Generation of 1914, Robert Wohl, a Professor of History at the University of California at Los Angeles, looks closely at another period in which theories of generational uniqueness were widely held among intellectuals: the years from 1900 to 1933. Since these theories appeared simultaneously in more than one country, the author has used a comparative approach, conducting research in the literatures of five languages. Wohl has, for the first time, applied the methods of intellectual history and collective biography to the study of the problem of generations. In so doing, he sheds light on the origins of World War I, on the effects of the war on those who fought it, and on the rise of Communist and Fascist movements in Europe during the period between the two world wars.

The outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914, which shattered more than forty years of peace among the Great Powers of Europe, has often been seen as a turning point of modern European history. Among European intellectuals of the first three decades of the twentieth century, it came to be widely believed that all those who had lived through the Great War of 1914-1918, and who had been born in the years between 1880 and 1900, constituted a cohesive bloc with a consciousness radically different from that of their elders. What was the reality behind this belief?

To determine what reality lay behind the idea of a “generation of 1914,” the author has studied the writings of the young intellectuals of France, Germany, Spain, England, and Italy. These men, some of them well-known, others obscure, were all born between 1880 and 1900. They all belonged to the tiny elite of educated Europeans, those who had a secondary or higher education. They were almost all males from the middle strata of society who made their living by writing, chiefly as journalists and poets. The chosen writers either explicitly set forth theories of generational consciousness, as did the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset and the German sociologist Karl Mannheim, or reflected such consciousness in their writings, as did the French war writers Henry de Montherlant and Pierre Drieu de la Rochelle, the British war poet Siegfried Sassoon, and the German war memoirist Ernst Jünger. The sources used by the author for the study of their thoughts are novels, poems, memoirs, autobiographies, philosophical essays, university lectures, recorded conversations, and interviews with surviving intellectuals of the period and with the friends and families of those intellectuals already deceased.

Wohl has excluded some countries that did participate in the Great War, such as Russia and the United States. He has included Spain, a country which remained neutral throughout the conflict, because of his belief that the economic dislocations produced by the war accelerated the coming of a political crisis in that country. While maintaining a European perspective, Wohl is careful not to ignore the national peculiarities of generational thought. Thus, he shows that, while Continental Europeans produced much theorizing about the problem of generations, the Englishmen produced none. Instead, generational consciousness in England was expressed solely through poetry, novels, memoirs, and letters. In Spain, the only major proponent of generationalist theory was the renowned philosophy professor, José Ortega y Gasset, who relied chiefly on lectures and speeches to spread his ideas.

Since his subject does not easily yield to a straightforward narrative form, Wohl’s book is organized topically rather than chronologically. Chapters One through Five deal with the phenomenon of generational thinking in each separate country, while Chapter Six presents the author’s general conclusion. The idea of a cohesive “generation of 1914,” Wohl concludes, was a myth, albeit one that was both widely believed and politically significant. As much divided the men of this generation as united them.

Generational consciousness, Wohl points out, had already begun to grow among the intellectual youth of major European countries during the decade prior to the outbreak of war in 1914. During the decade prior to the war, the rise of a new avant-garde culture, the speed of technological change, and the growth in numbers of young people whose parents could afford to send them to secondary school and university, had all contributed to this new sense of separateness among youth. Throughout Europe, poets and social critics such as Henri Massis in France, José Ortega y Gasset in Spain, and Giovanni Papini in Italy had all hailed the arrival of a new generation which would carry out the task of regenerating the hopelessly decadent society bequeathed by its elders.

Although the coming of the war did not create generational consciousness, it did, the author believes, “fortify and strengthen” it. For it was, by and large, the young males who fought the Great War, while it was the men of the older generation who headed the warring governments. The old division between young and old was reinforced by the new division between the combatants of the front and the noncombatants of the rear.

Paradoxically, however, it had been precisely the young intellectuals of Europe who had greeted the coming of the Great War with the greatest enthusiasm. This may seem demented to the modern reader, but Wohl succeeds in making such a response seem comprehensible. Young European intellectuals, accustomed to long years of peace and material comfort, had seen in war the only hope of renewing a tired old society and of creating a new sense of national unity. Since 1815, all European wars had been brief and progressive in their effects. Accustomed to safety, the intellectual young had longed for risk and danger. Only a general war, they had believed, was capable of creating the new man, more heroic and less materialistic, whom they had wished to see replace those two self-seeking creatures of the existing society, the bourgeois and the proletarian. This enthusiasm for war was found among the intellectual youth of all major European countries.

When young intellectuals, arriving at the front as junior officers, began to experience the reality of trench warfare, some disillusionment did set in. The prolonged agony of the Western Front bore little resemblance to prewar fantasies of knightly courage. Dugout upon dugout faced each other, year in, year out, separated by miles and...

(The entire section is 2746 words.)