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What We Lost In The Great War
Seventy-five years ago this spring a very different America waded into the seminal catastrophe of the twentieth century. World War I did more than kill millions of people; it destroyed the West’s faith in the very institutions that had made it the hope and envy of the world.
July/August 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 4
A few years ago I wrote a book called The Scarlet Woman of Wall Street about a place and a people that flourished in the nineteenth century: the New York City of the 1860s and 1870s. We might call it Edith Wharton’s New York. Mrs. Wharton herself wrote late in her life, in the 1930s, that the metropolis of her youth had been destined to become “as much a vanished city as Atlantis or the lowest level of Schliemann’s Troy.” To those of us who know the modern metropolis—what we might call Tom Wolfe’s New York—that city of only a century ago seems today as far away and nearly as exotic as Marco Polo’s Cathay.
What happened to Edith Wharton’s world? Why does the society our grandparents and great-grandparents lived in seem so very much a foreign country to us today?
To be sure, Edith Wharton’s New York was a still-provincial city of horses and gas lamps, Knickerbockers and Irishmen, brownstones and church steeples. Its population was characterized by a few people in top hats and a great many people in rags, for in the 1860s grinding poverty was still thought the fate of the majority of the human race.
In contrast, Tom Wolfe’s New York—far and away the most cosmopolitan place on earth—is a city of subways and neon, Korean grocers and Pakistani news dealers, apartments and skyscrapers. If poverty has hardly been expunged, the percentage of the city’s population living in want has greatly diminished even while society’s idea of what constitutes the basic minimums of a decent life has greatly expanded.
It was constant, incremental change that brought about these differences, a phenomenon found in most societies and all industrial ones. Indeed, one of the pleasures of growing old in such a society, perhaps, is that we come to remember personally—just as Edith Wharton did—a world that has slipped out of existence.
But this sort of change comes slowly and is recognized only in retrospect. As the novelist Andrew Holleran explained, “No one grows old in a single day.” Rather, something far more profound than incremental change separates us from Edith Wharton’s world, and we look at that world now across what a mathematician might call a discontinuity in the stream of time.
Only rarely in the course of history does such a discontinuity occur and turn a world upside down overnight. When it does happen, it is usually as the result of some unforeseeable cataclysm, such as the volcanic explosion that destroyed Minoan civilization on the island of Crete about 1500 B.C. , or the sudden arrival of the conquistadors in the New World three thousand years later.
Edith Wharton’s world suffered just such a calamity. The diplomat and historian George Kennan called it “the seminal catastrophe of the twentieth century”: the First World War.
Certainly that war’s influence on subsequent world events could hardly have been more pervasive. Had there been no First World War, there would, of course, have been no Second, and that is not just playing with numbers, for in geopolitical terms the two wars were really one with a twenty-year truce in the middle.
But for the First World War, the sun might still shine brightly on the British Empire. But for the war, there would have been no Bolshevik coup and thus no Soviet state. But for the war, there would have been no Nazis and thus no genocide of the Jews. And, of course, most of us never would have been born.
Far more important, however, than its effect upon the fate of great nations, and on our own individual existence, was the First World War’s influence on the way that we heirs of Edith Wharton came to question, and for a while even to dismiss, many of the basic values of the culture she lived in. Because of the war, the word Victorian became a term of opprobrium that extended far beyond the ebb and flow of fashion.
The reason for this is simply that the First World War, more than any other in history, was psychologically debilitating, both for the vanquished and for the victors. Indeed, there really was no victory. No premeditated policy of conquest or revenge brought the war about—although both those aims had clouded the politics of Europe for years. Therefore, no aims, beyond national survival, were achieved.
Indeed, relations among the Great Powers of Europe were better in the early summer of 1914 than they had been for some time. The British and Germans had recently agreed about the Berlin to Baghdad railway and a future division between them of Portugal’s colonies. Even the French, still bitter over their ignominious defeat at the hands of Prussia in 1871, were moving to improve relations with Germany, a move that Germany welcomed.