• Ujjwala Singh

Cultural Effects of the First World War

Ujjwala Singh

This is a war to end all wars” is one quote out of the multitude that were spread during and after the horrors and magnitude of the First World War. With its advent, it brought chaos, terror, death and irreparable damage to both the cultural and economic fabric of societies around the world. Along with the suffering and the gloom it brought with it, it also served to bring about changes that would alter the fate of society’s working forever.

Britain had maintained its reputation for being an industrial power, and had also preserved the values of its Victorian Era until the First World War began in 1914. Propriety had hitherto commanded women to stay within their domestic roles and take care of the family. Through the First World War however, with the men being called to fulfill their duties to King and Country, it was the women who stayed back and played their part in ensuring the continuity of society. While the men left to fight, women began to take on jobs that were previously ordained exclusively for men, and by 1918, 9 in every 10 workers in the munitions industry were women. Laws were being altered to give women the right to vote, but many women still returned to their pre-war roles after the end of the War. It was not until the Second World War in 1939 that women returned to these industrial jobs.

The First World War inevitably broke down several class-based divisions that had prevailed within Edwardian and Victorian societies. Along with the cultural changes, there were also alternatives in the fashion industry. The appearance of trousers for women came about, and the long-drawn reign of corsets was finally diminishing. Post-war, during the roaring 20s, bobbed haircuts were introduced, and the lively carefree way of life that characterised flappers came into full swing.

The First World War also served to change America’s role in the world, along with several pre-war cultural relations that were held within the country. After 3 years of staying neutral, America finally entered the war in 1917 after Britain’s inception of the Zimmerman telegram. America’s women began taking part in efforts to attain the vote, through protests outside the White House and hunger strikes. There was a mass migration of African- Americans, who upon returning from the War, began to demand equality and Civil Rights. The First World War helped the country to become the superpower that it is today, and shaped modern American society to a great extent.

For Germany, the Great War ushered in the existence of the Weimar Republic, a coalition government that preceded Hitler’s dictatorship in the country and the Second World War that ensued thereafter. Germany had lost 13% of its land- which housed a majority of the country’s coal and iron production- and 12% of its population through the Treaty of Versailles. In 1919, vicious revolutions engulfed the country due to the people’s dissatisfaction with regards to the terms of the Treaty and the Government's incapability to protest it. The uprisings were quashed, but because of the Russian Revolution that had occurred in 1917, there was still fear that the German government could be toppled.

Another fundamental concept that the Great War paved the way for was the creation of the "Lost Generation". This refers to the post-war generation, that were deemed “disoriented, wandering and directionless” and had become adults just as the War came to an end. Through the cultural changes that the world was facing, the values and etiquettes that this generation had inherited had been rendered useless in post-war society, and they were hence “lost” in this aspect. They began to reject older traditions regarding propriety, gender roles and appropriate behavior.

Writers such as Ernest Hemingway and T.S. Eliot often portrayed the lost generation within their works, and conveyed their disillusioned version of the “American Dream” – a concept illustrated beautifully in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The youth began to strive to be decadent and excessively rich by whatever means they deemed necessary. Long standing perceptions of gender roles and sexuality were becoming loose guidelines rather than rules that were to be strictly adhered to and several men were rendered impotent due to injuries they had attained during the war, which led to anguish and sorrow. Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock both depicted the struggles and intricacies of confusion that the Lost Generation underwent.

The First world War thereby provided the world with transitions that it had to face and exposed several fallacies in the workings of society that had gone unnoticed until then. Gender roles were being challenged, and society was being forced to adapt to new, more open mindsets. Along with the grief and the strife that it bestowed upon the world, the Great War ushered in a new age of economic prosperity and began the road of meaningful change in society.

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