The dominant mood in Western Civilization prior to 1914 was one of pride in its heritage, and confidence in its future progress. Advances in science and technology, as well as art and culture, the rising standard of living for all classes, the spread of democratic institutions, and a position of power and influence in the world all contributed to a sense of optimism. Furthermore, Europe had avoided a general war since the defeat of Napoleon in 1814. And the great powers had not waged war on one another since the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.
Over the past 2000 years, Western Civilization had risen to become an advanced industrial civilization spreading democracy and individual freedoms, as well as sharing a vast amount of technology and culture over the entire globe. It was consistently leading the world away from despotism and towards a culture that highly valued the individual. Per capita GDP broke away on a dramatic rise starting around 1820 as a result of the industrial revolution. Advances in transportation and communication were spreading people and ideas across the entire planet. It had broken out of Europe and expanded to other continents. Western Civilization had become the preeminent core of human progress.
The past was not without its mistakes, but there was a sense that the general trend of history was one of continual positive change.
Reflecting on the world he knew before the outbreak of World War I, historian Arnold Toynbee recalled what his generation had expected of the future:
"We expected that life throughout the World would become more rational, more humane, and more democratic and that, slowly, but surely, political democracy would produce greater social justice. We had also expected that the progress of science and technology would make mankind richer, and that this increasing wealth would gradually spread from a minority to a majority. We had expected that all this would happen peacefully. In fact we thought that mankind's course was set for an earthly paradise, and that our approach towards this goal was predestined for us by historical necessity. "
~ Arnold Toynbee, Surviving the Future, 1971
A Great Confidence Eroded
"War is one of the conditions of progress, the sting that prevents a country from going to sleep."
~ Ernest Renan (1876)
"War is the storm that purifies the air and destroys the trees, leaving the sturdy oak standing."
~ Baron Karl Von Stengel (1901)
The Great War of 1914-1918 was called great on account of its size as opposed to having any notable merit. It would later be renamed World War I in deference to its sequel that broke out in 1940. The European wars of the 18th century were also world wars, being fought in India and North America and on the seas for control of new territories or trade routes. But these, not being wars of peoples, did not threaten civilization or close an era as was the case with World War I.
New technology afforded the ability to do damage on a scale previously unseen in warfare. War had become, in a sense, mass production assembly line killing on an industrial scale. The leadership in Europe had thought of war in an honorable, noble, and romantic sense. They saw war as virtuous self sacrifice for the betterment of their homelands. Only after seeing the youth of their countries die for nothing more than a few yards of mud did they begin to loose confidence in their own leadership. This lack of confidence within the upper classes of society contributed to the tone of Western Civilization after the war, and diminished what had previously been a strong sense of pride in previous achievements and optimism for the future.
This lack of confidence still lingers to this day, 100 years later.
Originally published May 25, 2015
From Dawn to Decadence by Jaques Barzun
Paris 1919 by Margaret Macmillan
Western Civilization - Ideas, Politics, and Society