What impact did war in 20th century Europe have on the development of existentialism?

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rrteacher | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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One of the major themes of twentieth-century existentialism was that western faith in both rationalism and religion was misplaced. After the First World War, which saw millions of young men destroyed in a conflict that most later recognized should never have happened, many were convinced that they institutions they had previously held as sacred, including the nation, religion, and others were morally bankrupt. Additionally, they saw that the forces of modernity and "progress" had been put to work for the sole reason of destroying people's lives. The horrors of the Second World War convinced many of these themes, but also introduced a new aspect of personal responsibility fostered in large part by the thought of French existentialist Jean-Paul Sarte. Sartre, who was a member of the French resistance during the war, argued that the absence of God as a moral compass, which seemed manifest after the carnage of the war, gave people absolute freedom to act, with the caveat that they alone were responsible for their actions. In short, the enormous destruction wrought by the two wars caused many to question the foundations of Western society, and for many, reflection on these questions pointed to the philosophical positions of existentialism. For many intellectuals, they destroyed the idea that life has any inherent meaning.

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