Grand Disillusions

The Generation of 1914

by Robert Wohl
Harvard University Press, 307 pp., $17.50

Are there such things as generations? Are they political, or literary, or an expression of youth, and how does one separate one cohort from another? It is typical of the good judgment, well-informed scholarship, and liveliness of mind which characterize Robert Wohl’s work that he wisely consigns such questions to the footnotes of his book, where they belong, before beginning his inquiry into the young men of France, England, Germany, Italy, and Spain before 1914. However much scholars insist that the historical process is a seamless garment and that at no one minute can the babies born before it be separated from those after it, men and women remain convinced that they belong to a generation. They talk of the way things were done “in their day.” Whether it is the Psalmist or Homer’s Glaucus reminding Diomede that, as the generation of leaves, so that of men, people accept that they follow and are followed by others who lived, or will live, in other times. And sometimes they see themselves with gargantuan self-consciousness as generically totally distinct from their seniors.

In our own time in America and in Europe two generations of the young, in the 1930s and the 1960s, have seen themselves as such. Mr. Wohl argues that the 1914 generation both before the First World War and after it were also convinced that they were something separate, something apart and different from anything which had gone before. Here is a passage from Giovanni Papini, the young poet-philosopher, which might have been written to describe what Young Marxists thought in the Thirties or young radicals in the Sixties.

Every time a generation presents itself on the terrace of life it seems that the world’s symphony is going to have to attack a new tempo. Dreams, hopes, plans of attack, the ecstasy of discoveries, the scaling of height, challenges, fits of arrogance—and a journal. Every article has the thunder and the sound of a proclamation; every polemical thrust and witty remark is written in the style of a bulletin announcing a victory; every title is a program; every criticism is a taking of the Bastille; every book is a gospel…. For the twenty-year-old man, every old man is the enemy; every idea is suspect; every great man is there to be put on trial; past history seems a long night broken only by lamps, a grey and impatient waiting, an eternal dawn of that morning that emerges today finally with us.

But the generation of 1914 was also convinced that it was a doomed generation, doomed not only to see sickening numbers of their contemporaries die in battle but to see the ideals which had inspired them die too. And in the struggle to keep their ideals alive they wandered into strange paths after the war. Some of them turned to fascism. Others became like Ortega y Gasset the prophets of their times but so out of tune with them that they could find no movement …

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