WW1’s Impact on European Society Essay

World War I’s impact on European society would probably come as a shock to society from the prewar era. Rather than revert to old normalcy, societal ideals changed. Young people craved a newness that could not be found by returning to prewar customs. They wanted to move on and quickly. Every aspect of society began to transform, from political beliefs to literature and morality to clothing style and even architecture. In Modris Eksteins’ Rites of Spring and Jay Winter’s Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning, the authors discuss how the Great War required all people to reevaluate what was important in their lives.Although Winter made valid points, especially about mourning, Eksteins’ Rites of Spring properly explains how the trench warfare experience so drastically transformed the mindset of postwar Europe. The changes of society were of more importance than the continuities of prewar Europe.

According to Winter, the mourning process is a key factor in society’s ability to move forward. Each country felt the need to commemorate the Great War with memorials, monuments and museums. Winter believed that people felt “the need to express the indebtedness of the living to the fallen” (Winter 86).People believed they owed the lost soldiers something; these men had protected them and their country and paid the ultimate price.

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Winter’s use of the word “indebtedness” emphasizes the fact that these mourners can never truly repay the soldiers who gave their lives. Those men are gone forever, while the rest of society can live on. The problem was that society felt stuck, and with a strong grip on the past.

Winter highlights this idea of immobility when he says, “the harsh history of life and death in wartime is frozen in public monuments throughout Europe and beyond” (Winter 78).Wartime monuments surround society everywhere, and therefore society can never truly escape them. That specific history is “frozen” in time. The word frozen is defined as, “to become fixed, stuck, or attached” as well as “to stop functioning properly” and “to become motionless or immobile” (the free dictionary). The word frozen is also associated with winter, [the season] where nature becomes lifeless and the world is cold and dark. Society is stuck and cannot move past the death from war.

The author further explains, “For anyone living in Europe, these ‘documents’ are part of the landscape.To find them one must simply look around” (79). He incorrectly concludes that society is entrapped in the outcome of the Great War and unable to properly bereave, as they feel indebted to the men who sacrificed their lives.

In Rites of Spring, Eksteins correctly counters that society is able to both bereave and to move on. He opens part nine of the book with a series of quotes that make this clear. As we see in the first quote, by Harry Crosby, “We who have known war must never forget war. And that is why I have a picture of a soldier’s corpse nailed to the door of my library” (Eksteins 275).This quote shows bereavement, while the next quote by Jose Germain in 1923, shows society attempting to move forward. It says, “Let us in turn be the spring, which brings green new life to the gray terrain of death, and with the blood we gave for justice let us, after sleepless nights full of horror, give rise to new days of beauty” (Eksteins 275).

This is about empowerment, not regret or guilt. It is also about renewal and life looking forward. With the combination of these two quotations, Eksteins suggests the idea that remembering the war should not bring on remorse.Instead, the war should empower and inspire society to move on and forward.

People were fragile minded, but each country would find its way to rejuvenate, renew, and to grow. Another ramification of postwar society’s “craving for newness’ was political change (Eksteins 257). Eksteins states, “Wilson, Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Orlando, Ludendorff, Hindenburg, they were all soon forced into frustrated retirement or opposition” (Eksteins 254). All left wing parties grew greatly in size and strength, sparking political polarization.

Accordingly, “The war was the critical stimulant in the political sphere, not social issues nor economic problems” (Eksteins 255). The issue at hand was defining the war. No one could grasp the exact meaning of the war, creating a “crisis of values” (Eksteins 257). European society knew that it was time to rebuild, but the question was how and into what? The newer and younger generation began to take control and evoke changes.

Eksteins states that, “In the quest for a new fluency and harmony was involved a profound rebellion against an older generation” (Eksteins 259).They blamed their elders for the chaos in which they were raised. They believed that nothing could be worse than how it was then. Their influence spread and these youths began to dominate in all aspects of society, from literature, film, advertising, and politics. Eksteins explains, “The social code was like an atom with its components in constant motion and in an ever-changing relationship to one another” (Eksteins 128).

The older generation had lost their control. Winter also discusses the dispute between the old and young.He says, “the accusation that the young had died while the old stood back was a commonplace during and after the war” (Winter 220).

Some soldiers expressed their anger by writing poetry. The young men indicted the old for standing by and letting the young, their sons, sacrifice themselves in battle. Very few reactions from fathers have been documented. However, Rudyard Kipling, whose son died at the Battle of Loos in 1915, wrote a couplet ‘The common form’, “ If any questions why we died, / Tell them, because our fathers lied” (Winter 220).

Kipling clearly identifies with the accusations the young soldiers.Winter believed that after the war, when society began to adjust, they fundamentally did not discard their old important ideals. This belief is misguided, as the youth of society remained bitter, about the war and their elders. Society of the prewar era brought on the war, but they were not going to be able to keep the old rules and successfully reconstruct Europe after the war. The problem was, “the devastation [of the war] was so wide and the task of reconstruction so staggering that notions of how this was to be accomplished dissolved often into daydream and wishful thinking”(258).

It was a lot for a young generation to handle, but they desperately wanted to move forward, and they did. The times were changing and it evoked new styles in clothing and attitude. After soldiers returned home, they would often act out in public and get themselves into trouble. Eksteins explains, “When these young ‘heroes’ went on binges in local taverns, broke windows and chairs, assaulted girls, or caused an incipient scandal, the invariable response of the citizenry was to hush up the outrage, to show tolerance” (Eksteins 258).People became more lenient to the immoral and inappropriate behavior because they were “heroes”. These people were not sure how to respond to these incidents and, so instead, made excuses and tried to move on, ‘These are our war heroes. We must be lenient and try to understand’ (Eksteins 258).

This relaxed mindset was the beginning of society’s transition. The Great War had just ended, a time of economic hardship and emotional hardship, money was tight and people were fragile minded. Many people had suffered from starvation during the war.

These factors brought on the change in women’s clothing. Before the war, dresses accentuated a woman’s curves with floor-lengths, high collars and cinched in waists. After the war, the new look was considered boyish; “curves were abandoned in favor of straight lines, lines that suggested movement, a new simplicity, and a new beginning” (Eksteins 259). Not only was this a reference to clothing, but it also refers to the lifestyle that this younger generation wanted to live. They wanted to begin brand new and they wanted a simpler life. They portrayed these desires through design.The new look was loose-fitting and lacked definition of the female form.

Hemlines were shorter and necklines were lowered. Belts were lightly worn around the hips and dieting became in fashion “since the slightest suggestion of a curve was derided as evidence of nutritional incontinence” (Eksteins 259). Women even began to adopt shorter hairstyles. The trend was to appear “poor” and thin. Nobody wanted to stand out or look too fat or too happy.

Because of the current style, “Opulence was associated with decadence” and people did not want to appear garish (Eksteins 259).While before the war it was alright to be individualistic and over the top, now was the time to conform. To return to opulent dress was to appear inapt and was looked down upon since so many people were suffering. It did not seem right to dress so decadently and appear so healthy after so much pain, stress, and suffering. In a way, one could say it was society’s way of coping with the Great War strife. It showed respect for those who had suffered.

Architecture also began to change. The twenties marked the start of a new “international style”. Like women’s dresses, architecture adopted the straight lines and sleeker style.Apparently, “by employing glass and lacquer, the style suggested, through transparency and reflection, that the barriers between man and nature, subject and object, were less rigid than the old order had insisted” (Eksteins 259).

This highlights the new simpler lifestyle this young generation so badly wanted to attain. The architecture was simple and modern. This also emphasizes the battle between old and new. The new styles avoided the excesses of prior generations. In conclusion, the changes of society were of more importance than the continuities of prewar experience. Winter’s belief that the people took some of their old ideals ith them when rebuilding society is not correct. The young generation of post war Europe did not want to continue with old customs. They did not respect the leaders of the prewar era and soon replaced them.

The most important thing was to move on and forward. People did not want to wallow in the past. The end of the Great War sparked a change. The young generation changed rapidly and adapted new styles and ideas in all forms.

They adopted new political parties, new leaders, new fashions, new architecture and social codes. They became less bound by strict rules and were more free-spirited than the prewar era.


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