• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

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 to inspire. But wherever they ended they were always certain that they belonged to a unique generation. In so doing they created a myth; and Mr. Wohl wants to transform this myth into history.

Why did the idea of generationalism capture the minds of the young in the years before World War I? Robert Wohl suggests that since industrialization had multiplied the divisions in labor fathers could no longer guarantee jobs for their sons. As the birth rate grew the proportion of young to old increased, and competition to tread the still relatively few paths to fame and fortune got tougher. As the masses began to vote and the old aristocracy palpably could not rule, where and how was an elite to be found? Surely only in what was new and most full of vitality—in a word the rising generation.

The French Revolution gave birth to the idea that history is discontinuous and that the young is the new; but the idea took hold only in this century, so Wohl believes, though he quotes Hannah More as predicting the rift between parents and children the French Revolution brought about. (For that matter one could look back further. Who can forget Gloucester in King Lear lamenting, “in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘twixt son and father…. There’s son against father…there’s father against child. We have seen the best of our time.”)

Be that as it may, the pre-1914 youth movement in Germany, the nationalist revival in France, the revolt of young socialists against the party leadership in Italy, and the contempt of young Spanish intellectuals for all parties were revolts of youth against the corruption of their elders, revolts against commercialism, equivocation, and all those evils which militate against nobility in life.

Very properly Mr. Wohl starts his exploration with France, because since the Frankish invasion of Clovis the history of Europe is more the history of France than that of any other country. In a sense all generations which become obsessed with their singularity are the same. The young critics Henri Massis and Alfred de Tarde in 1913 complained, “At an age when one is anxious for notions that have some application to life, at a time when we looked to our teachers for the prestige of a spiritual authority asking them to help us find ourselves, what did we discover? An empty science…a pedantic materialism, a skeptical mode of inquiry that degrades and diminishes. Everything in their teaching forced us to serve as inert slaves or to exasperate ourselves in rebellion.” Again these words echoed in the lecture rooms of the 1930s and over the campuses of the 1960s.

The new generation of Massis, de Montherlant, and Drieu la Rochelle hated Durkheimian rationalism and the icy scholarship of the Sorbonne. The older members of this generation burned with ideals and those who survived often spent the rest of their lives trying to re-create the comradeship of the trenches. The younger ones lost all their ideals in the slaughter and became nihilists contemptuous of intellectuals and the world of ideas. Speed, movement, and violence obsessed them. Of such a one Mr. Wohl writes: “Airplanes, automobiles, and football attracted him more than books.” If he did read, Bergson, Sorel and the Catholicism of Péguy, and above all Barrès, were more likely to be his guides.

The author draws a sinister distinction between the right-wing Catholic critic Massis, who went to the war overflowing with the spirit of self-sacrifice, and Montherlant. Ten years younger, conscripted, because of a weak heart, only after the slaughter of Verdun, Montherlant risked his life willingly precisely because he believed that the Third Republic was an evil society. Similarly he admired Catholicism because he was unable to believe in God. From there the next step was to maintain that violence and cruelty were merely ways of expressing contempt for the values of other men. And perhaps it was this nihilism that saved Montherlant from the fate of his contemporaries Drieu and Luchaire who, still retaining some ideals, became fascists and collaborators with the Nazis during World War II. But both the old and younger members agreed that France could be saved only by the idea of generation—the sudden flash of understanding that here at last was a generation that had seen through the hypocrisy of society.

Their German contemporaries felt in the same way that their teachers were inadequate. They too yearned for the rejuvenation of their country. But there was a difference. In Germany youth, as a concept, as a movement, had for long existed. The theme of the young revolting against the oppression of the old was so ingrained in German culture that Max Weber, Wedekind, and Heinrich Mann could be taken as throwbacks to the days of Sturm und Drang. What appeared to the young to be new was the notion that the common suffering of those who fought in France would—somehow, sometime—purge society of its corrupt politicians. A generation which had endured the torture of the trenches was all the better fitted to transform the world by its knowledge and example.

The writer Ernst Jünger, wounded fourteen times, veteran of the Somme, of Cambrai and Passchendaele, a lieutenant holding Pour le mérite, the equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor or the Victoria Cross, ended the war loving the killing and death, and arguing that the life of religious or moral sanctions was an illusion. What place had they in the African jungle? The jungle was one of Jünger’s symbols of existence: it was the place where creatures of whatever species had no other law than to prey on others. The front fighter, who formed the elite among the common soldiers, was the hero of the future. Neither Jünger nor Gründel, another generationalist, understood or wanted to understand anything about the realities of politics; and so both could claim that Hitler did not express their ideals. But the distinction between theirs and his in retrospect is unpleasantly narrow.

The generationalist in Germany whom Wohl finds most interesting is Karl Mannheim, partly because he shares Wohl’s delight in the theory of generational thinking and partly because Mannheim’s habit of sociological and cultural analysis is a relief from the Hegelian variations on Idealism which dominate German thought: indeed his famous essay on generations is the high-water mark of scholarly concern on the subject. Mannheim explained theoretically why the war generation had failed, as Jünger predicted it would, to revolutionize society. He explained that generations were mere chronological fashions unless they could exploit existing intellectual and political forms. Youth so often claimed to have carved a new message upon a tabula rasa. But the claim was alway false. What was true was that the perennial struggle was between youth and age, not between the classes. The only way a younger generation could seize the scepter and dethrone its elders was to exploit some current ideology and make it its own.

And yet by far the most impressive figure whom Wohl studies came from a country which was virtually untouched by World War I. Ortega y Gasset lived in a country which was waiting, as he saw it, to be reborn. Ortega despised current nihilism; and he despised it because in the Spain of his youth, well behind the times, Durkheimian rationalism or the crushing anti-rationalist but highly disciplined criticism of Dilthey was not the real enemy. The real enemy was the apocalyptic visions that were being held up as mirrors to youth. Ortega praised science, loyalty, intellectualism. He praised the Germans for their scientific skill—not for their socialism or theories of freedom, still less for their visionary nationalism. To him that was barbarous. Europe stood for science and culture—and Spain did not seem to be a part of Europe.

Ortega believed that history was a series of epochs. Either a generation considered itself heir to a heritage or to be born to destroy it. It was ideas, tastes, and customs that changed politics and the economy, not, as Marxists believed, the reverse. Each generation had its own historical mission. The “Theme of Our Time”—the title of his famous lectures—urged the subordination of self-destructive reason to vitality: the one sin in politics was to become ideological. Far from declining, as so many intellectuals seemed to think, Europe was on the verge of an immense expansion which would owe nothing to communism or fascism. These ideologies might destroy liberalism; yet it was out of liberalism that the new movement would come. The aims of revolutionary parties were admirable: what was disastrous was their belief in revolution. Yet at the same time spontaneity and vitality, so lacking in middle-class parties, were even more important than public order.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print