The Great War and Modern Memory

Fussell Cover copyYesterday was the 100th anniversary of Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia—the official beginning of hostilities of what became World War I.  There’s a ton of new books about the Great War (as it was called before the sequel caused a re-numbering), but in many ways my favorite remains Paul Fussell’s treatment of the literary legacy of the war from the 1970s, The Great War and Modern Memory.

A few excerpts from the early, scene-setting parts of the book:

Irony is the attendant of hope, and the fuel of hope is innocence.  One reason the Great War was more ironic than any other is that its beginning was more innocent.  “Never again such innocence,” observes Philip Larkin, who has found himself curiously drawn to regard with a wondering tenderness not merely the victimized creatures of the nearby Second World War but the innocents of the remote Great War, those sweet, generous people who pressed forward and all but solicited their own destruction. . .

The certainties were intact.  Britain had not known a major war for a century, and on the Continent, as A.J. P. Taylor points out, “there had been no war between the Great Powers since 1871.  No man in the prime of life knew what war was like.  All imagined that it would be an affair of great marches and great battles, quickly decided.”

Furthermore, the Great War was perhaps the last to be conceived as taking place within a seamless, purposeful “history” involving a coherent stream of time running from past through present to future. . .

For the modern imagination that last summer has assumed the status of a permanent symbol for anything innocently but irrecoverably lost. . .

Out of the world of summer, 1914, marched a unique generation.  It believed in Progress and Art and in no way doubted the benignity of technology.  The word machine was not yet invariably coupled with the word gun.

More as we go, perhaps, through the centennials of all the Great War’s milestones.

See my previous post about Churchill’s account of that last summer here.

And see my obituary notice of Paul Fussell from 2012 here.


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