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.

The most acute critic of the generationalists was their contemporary Gramsci, who was a student of Croce before he became the leading Italian Marxist theoretician of the century. He would have considered Ortega as typical of the “aristocracy of the toga.” The crisis which his generation kept on analyzing was nothing more than its own weakness in failing to provide new leadership. But, as Mr. Wohl accurately notes, the generation to which Gramsci belonged, though full of revolutionary ideas, also longed for order, culture, and some spiritual values higher than those to which the masses aspired. And Gramsci too believed that intellectuals would be the shock troops of the proletarian revolution because they alone fully understood how ignominious were the fourteen years of Giolitti’s bourgeois rule before World War I. Gramsci was wrong. Marxism had a serious indigenous rival. Croce was enormously influential, and behind him stood a liberal all the greater for being unsuccessful and betrayed—Mazzini. Mussolini noted Mazzini’s maxim, “Great things are achieved…by guessing the direction of one’s century.” Croce’s method could discover which way it was going.

When Ortega y Gasset began to describe how spontaneity and vitality were to infuse and inspire society, he and his Italian contemporaries sounded uncommonly like the fascists they were later to condemn. Perhaps Professor Wohl is a little slow, however, to issue the warning sounded by Isaiah Berlin in his studies in the history of ideas or by Eric Bentley in 1944 when he examined in A Century of Hero Worship the heroic vitalists—Carlyle, Nietzsche, Wagner, and Shaw. The genealogy of ideas so often leads the undiscriminating into making foolish judgments. To say that this or that thinker is the forerunner of totalitarianism in general, or fascism in particular, is, as Berlin suggested, nearly always false. Is it in Hegel’s notion of the Real Will, or in Rousseau’s concept of the General Will, or in the ideas of the Enlightenment that the origins of totalitarianism are to be found? Only those searching for scapegoats will believe so. What matters is what the individual thinker actually wrote and how his ideas relate to the condition of mankind.

This is particularly true of radical conservative thinkers—writers who are dissatisfied by the limitations which rationalists impose upon discourse. The reader needs to open his mind to tunes and themes other than to logic. Just as Shaw told Mrs. Patrick Campbell that in playing Shakespeare she should not “worry about the character, but go for the music. It was by word-music that he expressed what he wanted to express; and if you get the music right, the whole thing will come right,” so when reading Ortega we must think what was it in his times that this man thought was lacking, was false, was corrupt; and what were the values which he believed must animate human beings if life is not to be inexpressibly dingy and ignoble.

I must admit that I find Ortega y Gasset in a different class of intellect from any of the generationalists in France, Germany, and Italy (with the exception of Gramsci). But Professor Wohl really finds himself in a fix when he visits England. Where are the analogues among the off-shore islanders to these brilliant Normaliens, these earnest Germans, these inspired Italian thinkers? The disturbing answer is that there is none. So Wohl picks upon the poet Rupert Brooke. This is clever because Brooke undoubtedly was a dissatisfied, irritable, “golden-haired Apollo, magnificently unprepared for the long littleness of life” as Frances Cornford described him.

Robert Wohl himself is not quite at ease with him. Virginia Woolf could hardly be described as one of Brooke’s special friends: the woman with whom he had a long unhappy love affair was her friend Katherine Cox. It is true that he stood somewhat apart from the generation at Cambridge before his own, the generation of Bloomsbury, by seeking girls as intellectual companions, by enjoying camping (in the original sense) with the Olivier sisters, and by being a Fabian socialist. But could anything be more dissimilar to his Continental contemporaries than this Georgian poet writing about the English countryside and advocating changes in society with the typically English intellectual’s belief in gradualism and pragmatism? There is a resemblance to his Continental contemporaries in the welcome he gave to the war as something that would cleanse society, just as much as his fellow war-poets Owen (killed in 1918) or Graves and Sassoon (who survived) certainly resembled those Europeans who emerged exasperated by jingoism and bitter that the war had killed their generation. But the resemblance ends here.

The truth is that neither before the war nor after it were there intellectuals in England comparable to Massis, Ortega, or Gramsci. England was the one supremely optimistic country in 1914. Even the younger Asquithians such as Julian Grenfell and his friends, though they had intimations of discontent, wrote nothing until the war came. Nothing of T. E. Hulme had been published before the war, and in any case he belonged to the pre-1914 generation; Eliot and Pound were almost unknown; Saki could be considered, yet perhaps the only serious candidate for the part of visionary spokesman is Wyndham Lewis.

Very naturally Mr. Wohl makes as much as he can of T. E. Lawrence in the postwar world, and it is true that the disillusion with the war and the aftermath was as evident in England as in any Continental country. But not as potent. Certainly the mood was deflationary, hectic, bleak, cynical, but it was not self-destructive. Nor was it positive. Some committed themselves to pacifist causes, others entered the labyrinth of socialist politics, a politics which until 1945 had no real possibility of realization; but most withdrew into their own private lives to mock, laugh, or to devote themselves to the arts.

This is not strange. In Consciousness and Society, one of the finest studies in ideas to appear on the intellectual history of these decades, H. Stuart Hughes showed how the demolition squads on the Continent who were exploding the positivist theory of society found no support in England or America. Sorel, Weber, and Croce had for years little influence in the lands where logical positivism or pragmatism were the dominant philosophies.

How does Wohl deal with this dilemma? He skillfully avoids running onto the rocks and, sailing away on a new tack, asserts that although the British too claimed to have “lost” a generation, they never did. The legend of the lost generation was created by the war poets and the upper classes. The British Isles lost 700,000 men; France with a comparable population had lost twice as many; if British losses had been the same as the German losses they would have had to be 1,200,000. Nor did the “best” men die. Only something over 37,000 officers were killed. What really had happened was that British world power had diminished; businessmen and trade unionists were shouldering aside the landed gentry and the gentleman scholars. It was not men of ability who were missing in England between the two wars. It was the position of being the first power in the world that had gone. None of the “lost” generation was willing to shoulder the task of discovering new ideals and accommodations.

Robert Wohl, then, seems to me to be saying: “My evidence for including England may look a bit thin: Rupert Brooke and T. E. Lawrence hardly compare to the Continental intellectuals. But for this there is a good reason. The British escaped the wounds of war quite lightly and therefore one must expect that, although people believed that they belonged to a lost generation, they were really covering up for the fact that Britain had lost world supremacy.” Yet to imply that the British experience was more like the American—the losses of the United States were genuinely small in proportion to its total population—is misleading. The shock of the losses stunned the British. They had not fought a great Continental war since 1815. You have only to enter any village church in England to find a memorial to men killed in 1914-1918, long lists of names, and you will often search in vain for a similar inscription of those killed in the Second World War. The emotions of a nation are not to be measured by counting heads.

It was the British who conceived after the war the idea of commemorating an “Unknown Warrior.” Soon country after country that had suffered was exhuming a soldier who had been unidentified when buried in the vast cemeteries and who was now to be reinterred in some national shrine. The sense of loss was there, the contempt for war and the hatred of the old men and their ideals were as intense. But the British did not conjure up visions of transformation, transfiguration, heroic abnegation, and regeneration. They became far more influenced by American than by European culture. Precisely because Wall Street rather than the City of London called the tune in finance, Britain floated into the mid-Atlantic, and under the influence of American movies, theater, and language proved immune to the European diseases of fascism and communism.

Whether it is legend or fact, there is nothing odd about the way the English interpreted the First World War. All generationalists believe their own generation is lost. Barrès believed so, and so did Hemingway. Robert Wohl acutely remarks that nothing draws people together quicker than a sense of common grievance. The new generation that emerged in 1918 differed from what previous “generations” had been, a group of intellectuals and writers. They were the thinking and feeling part of an army. The old returned to their wives: but the generation of 1914 were “haunted by the memories of an experience which would overshadow everything that would happen to them during the rest of their lives.”

Yes, they became disillusioned. Yes, they blamed the old men for depriving them of their victory (the old men did not return: they had never left). Yes, the old class barriers sprang up and Versailles confirmed their worst fears. Jobs were hard to find and bosses harshly reminded the veterans that their life in the army seemed to have deprived them of the habits of time-keeping, sobriety, and hard work. They saw themselves as travelers and wanderers and some, such as T. E. Lawrence, set off to travel again. Cars and aircraft were their joys, offices and routine their sorrow. To be on the move liberated. Psichari went to Africa, Lawrence to Arabia, Brooke to Tahiti, Jünger even joined the Foreign Legion before the war; and after it he roamed through the Mediterranean, while Saint-Exupéry flew, and the American expatriates settled in European capitals. The new land of their dreams persistently refused to be born.

The politicians exploited their sense of frustration. Could Mussolini or Hitler have flourished, or appeasement been fashionable in England, or Vichy won such support without this cohort of men who felt betrayed and in the end snatched at any straw which revived their deepest emotions about the war? One of the reasons why fascism flourished was that it promised to abolish a world where money ruled and mass culture submerged the heroic.

Ortega and T. E. Lawrence both believed that mankind was in the grip of the iron forces of destiny. What then could break the chain of necessity? Man’s imagination could break it. The only limits to man’s ability to create were the limitations of his own imagination. If he could shake off the shackles of belief in progress and of his fear of determinism, if he could put his faith in passion and vitality, he would recognize that, paradoxical as it might sound, war could be the foundation of morality—because it was only through war that men acquired the sense of belonging to each other. Comfort, coziness, and predictability spelled death far more inevitably than did war. After the First World War the 1914 generations split. Most of them such as Henri Barbusse and Erich Maria Remarque were to express the widespread revulsion against war. They joined “Never Again” movements. Anglo-German veterans’ associations proved useful to Hitler and may at one time have even ministered to his delusion that Britain would not go to war.

But there were numbers who despised these views, still longed for glory to replace drabness, comradeship to banish selfish group interests. They pinned their faith in the Blitzkrieg which would replace the attrition and squalor of trench warfare. Jünger continued to believe that those who returned from the trenches had become different and better men—and Montherlant could still write that “war would always exist because there will be boys of twenty to bring it into existence, by dint of love.” War gave you the feeling of belonging to something more important than institutions and less vague than society. You found your sense of identity on one level with your comrades and on a higher level with the nation.

What fearful effusions! How fatally wrong-headed! Have we not seen a generation discover in Vietnam that war corrupts and leaves men ashamed of deeds done in the name of a nation? Reading the work of these intoxicated youths who could fail to agree with Emerson “Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet”? And yet Professor Wohl’s book provokes a more disturbing reflection. Pride in being part of the bone of the nation; willingness to owe such speaking allegiance to it that no sacrifice is too great; the notion of acknowledging loyalty to the nation which transcends that given to any institution or group or calling to which you belong; the refusal to identify the nation with the state, still less with that amorphous concept society—these ideals have vanished in the West. They have not vanished elsewhere in the world. So long as in Africa the tribe can identify with the nation, so long as in Asia the ruler can pose as the liberator of the nation from colonialism or from Western economic and cultural domination, nationalism remains a heroic ideal. It inspires the state of Israel. It can even strike sparks among the client states of the Soviet Union. It speaks through the mouth of Islam as well as through Marxism.

Only in the West are the ideals of heroism, vitality, and nationalism discredited; and in distrusting the nobility of the 1914 generation’s ideas, something more than patriotism has perished. What perished was not only the ideal of heroic action but a belief in the importance of ideas. What European social analyst writes today with anything comparable to the sweep and fervour which inspired Ortega? Very skillfully we have treated ideas like labor in the industrial revolution and practiced the division of labor, telling this set of ideas to do that job and another set to perform a different function. To do so is tidier—and less dangerous. God knows if we ought to rejoice.

This Issue

April 3, 1980