Friday, June 02, 2006


One of the memories from college which remains with me most vividly today comes from a 20th Century history class I took as an elective. Our instructor told us about a monument to fallen graduates at the French military academy. According to his story, the monument is made up of stone slabs with a year at the top, and the names of fallen graduates carved on face. There is a notable exception, one slab bears a solitary engraving - 1914. That somber, single marking on the stone exists as a testament to the graduating class of 1914 - all of whom died in the Great War.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton's writings of the wartime era have been called Anglo propaganda by critics, who mistakenly place Chesterton on the same level as the other nationalists of his day, forgetting that GKC was against the Boer War. His writings during the war years show a prescient knowledge that the Great War indeed was a war of ideas. With the closing of every coffin lid, the doorway to a new Christendom was slammed shut. Every clod of dirt which buried an entire generation of Europe's youth buried along with them the honor, dignity, and hope of Christian civilization.

Far from being an Anglo apologist, Chesterton I think provides a wonderful image of Just War.
From ILN Nov21 1914 The Current Scene:

"On every sword that is made by man, while the workshops of the world turn out that terrible kind of cutlery, ought to be graven the two mysterious phrases which were on the fairy sword of King Arthur. On one side was written 'Take me', and on the other 'Cast me away.' If no more than this dim fable recalled the doubtful hero fo Camelot, we should know that he defended Christendom against the heather. For the hightest mark of Chirstian civilization is this capacity for feeling that the sword is at once noble and unnatural; and the more unnatural it is, the more noble it is. "

WWI was the first truly industrial war, with aircraft, machine guns, chemical weapons, and all of the fruits of progress turned to battlefield implements.

What emerged from the ashes of the Great War were National Socialism, Communism, and a cloud of self-doubt and lost identity which still covers the West.


Anders said...

You meant to type "heathen," not "heather," I suspect.

Anonymous said...

It's a common assumption to make, and the narrative of history would make more sense if it were true, but the "cloud of self-doubt and lost identity" originated in the fin de siecle -- its most memorable expressions, bohemianism, art noveau, Dadaism, Expressionism, Stravinsky, whats-his-name that "scientific" Austrian composer -- Schopenauer, I think? -- and arguably even Freud, predate the First World War, most by as much as ten or twenty years -- or thirty, IIRC, if Freud counts. It would make more sense if WWI caused it, but as it is...

Kyro said...

Actually, the idea of self-doubt and identity after WWI is a phrase/concept I borrow from Michael Medved, who even as a Jewish commentator sees something vital dying in Western Culture at that point. All of those forces-and the people who advocated them- did exist beforehand obviously, but the war, I would argue, was the paradigm shifting event. Most of the other individuals existed in somewhat isolated spheres, but the Cataclysm which the Great War was struck into every household in Europe. The House of Hapsburg and the Czars of Russia still managed to exist through the Reformation(granted no large issue in Russia) and the French Revolution, but both were effectively extinguished after this conflict.
Thanks for the reply, and I agree that high drama makes for better narrative than the gradual slipping away and replacement of ideas.

Kyro said...

.....or else we could say that WWI was the exclamation point at the end of some process in society at that time, just as we could say the same about 9/11 in our own day.