Surrealism Analysis

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Historical Context

(Literary Movements for Students)

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World War I
On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, made a fateful trip to Sarajevo, capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he and his wife were assassinated. The occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Austria-Hungary led to growing unrest among people in the region who wanted to become part of Serbia once again. The assassination was staged with the help of Serbia, which also wished to reclaim Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Norman Davies notes, in Europe: A History, the quick consequences of the assassination, and the revelation that Serbia was involved. “Within four weeks, the gunshots of Sarajevo brought Europe’s diplomatic and military restraints crashing to the ground,” Davies writes. On July 28, exactly one month after the assassination, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. An extensive system of preexisting alliances swiftly pulled most other European countries into the war, escalating the conflict. Eventually, Europe, parts of Asia, and the United States joined the war, aligning themselves either with the pro-Serbian Allies or with the Central powers, which supported Austria-Hungary.

When World War I began in August 1914, both sides believed that with their modern weapon technologies like hand grenades, tanks, long-range artillery, and poison gas, the war would be over quickly and with minimal casualties. Davies notes the prevailing logic that dominated people’s thinking: “It was going to be over by Christmas. Conventional wisdom held that modern warfare would be more intense than in the past, but more decisive.” In reality, however, the war raged for four years, leading to an estimated eight million dead and even more wounded.

One of the two main lines of fighting, the Western Front, ran through France, which experienced some of the bloodiest battles in the war. The front was defined by the extensive trench that ran along its entire length on both sides. Allied and Central soldiers occupied their respective trenches—which were often close to each other— and with a series of battles, each side attempted to drive their opponent out of his trench and force the line back, with a flurry of grenades and machinegun fire. The results were horrific. Davies observes of the three most bloody battles, “the loss of life could be counted in tens of thousands per hour or hundreds per square yard.”

For years the battle in the trenches was a virtual stalemate, and the body count rose as both sides added reinforcements to maintain the trenches. “Here was a mindless tragedy which no one had foreseen, and which no one knew how to stop,” says Davies.

Dadaism and Sigmund Freud
After World War I, the dadaists tried to fight fire with fire. They believed that logic and other organized systems of thinking had created the horrors of war and responded to the war’s meaningless slaughter with literature and art that was equally meaningless and created intentionally without logic. The dadaist movement, which had been founded in Switzerland in 1916 by a group of European artists and writers, spread to other areas in Europe, including France, where Breton became one of the willing converts.

As a medical student drafted to work in the psychiatric wards during the war, Breton had seen firsthand the effects of war on the human mind and wished to rebel against the logic that had caused the war. However, Breton soon became tired of the negative, meaninglessness of Dadaism, and sought a more positive and constructive means to stage his rebellion. Breton had studied the work of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, and was particularly interested in Freud’s theories of the unconscious mind. Drawing on Freud’s studies, Breton and others formed the surrealist movement. In 1924, Breton defined the group’s guiding principles in his Manifesto of Surrealism.

Communism and World War II
Although the surrealist movement initially began as a form of literary expression, political unrest in Europe...

(The entire section is 3,813 words.)