The Great War:

Nationalism, Chaos, and Artistic Innovation


May 25, 2009


World War I uprooted the world as people knew it and caused citizens of broken nations to question the very structure and purpose of society. Over the course of four grueling years, aristocratic leaders exploited their people’s nationalistic pride and sent them into the maw of modern warfare, without appreciable gain to their countries. The result was a widespread loss of faith in the traditional structures of society, including the class system itself, the very concept of nations and their political structures, and religion and the meaning of life. This loss of faith and these questions paved the way for a new understanding of art. Artists were compelled to examine what all the devastation meant; some decided that life was nothing and that in a world that contained such suffering inflicted by humans on humans, beauty in any form was senseless. The seismic dislocation of World War I, on levels personal, national and global, catapulted the world into the 20th century, left behind forever structures of human interaction that had been in place for centuries and caused the eruption of revolutionary forms of art.

World War I uprooted the world as people knew it and caused citizens of broken nations to question the very structure and purpose of society. What would evolve into the bloodiest war in living memory started in an ironically casual way, with the opposing powers quite ready to engage. Germany was seeking an opportunity to assert its might and France was not willing to back down. In hindsight, the Great War was a global conflagration that need not have started but that no one knew how to prevent or end. A driving factor throughout the war was the exploitation of citizen’s nationalistic pride by their leaders. Radically modern art, just beginning at the start of the new century, found fertile ground by exploring the decimation, mechanization and loss of humanity caused by the war. The mobilization of millions of powerless citizens, sent to their slaughter by cavalier political leaders, fueled the Great War; out of its horror grew radical new forms of art which questioned the cost of the destruction of a generation.

The immediate cause of World War I, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, was a peripheral act and a mere excuse for nations that had been steeped in nationalistic propaganda to assert their might and reach for worldwide domination. By June 28, 1914, complex treaties and alliances had been formed among egocentric nations; James Stokesbury calls this time in history “the long fuse” . In 1870-71 the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck unified Germany. In 1882 Germany formed a dual alliance with Austria; the two were soon joined by Italy to form a triple alliance. In 1893, Russia and France allied. Britain remained a free floater but began “conversations with France” in 1905. These newly formed alliances guaranteed conflicts, even in the face of minor disagreements. With them came a great deal of theorizing by aristocratic military leaders and some intellectuals about the potential “opportunities” of modern war. In entering World War I these leaders were guilty of disastrous miscalculations about the level of chaos that they were about to unleash on their nations.

That the unforeseen scale of destruction wrought by four years of mechanized war turned into “a disaster no one wanted” is quite clear, but at the outset, in 1914, there were many vocal and influential proponents of war. There had not been a non-regional war in a hundred years and thus people failed to foresee what the effect of such widespread conflict would be . At the start of the 20th century, Germany and France were determined to be great powers and Britain was determined to remain one. Though there were some statesmen who recommended settlement in 1914, political power in the newly economically interconnected world now brought economic power. Thus political rivalry had no limit. The proponents of war and territorial aggression prevailed.

Over the course of four grueling years, aristocratic leaders exploited their people’s nationalistic pride and sent them into the maw of modern warfare, without appreciable gain to their countries. Mechanized killing was so effective that while the political process was paralyzed, millions died. The aristocratic class manipulated citizens’ devotion to their nations and fear of dominance by neighboring countries. Hobsbawm explains that the “19th century principle of nationality triumphed… at the end of World War I” . By 1918, people were so devastated by the war that they had virtually nothing left. Some citizens retreated into xenophobia, which ironically left them vulnerable to future exploitation by leaders, particularly in Germany, as would be seen in the rise of Hitler. At the end of the Great War, a widespread loss of faith in the traditional structures of society, including the class system itself, the very concept of nations and their political structures, religion and the meaning of life left Europe a shattered continent.

World War I marked a cultural and societal rupture from the long period of peace that had preceded it. Eric Hobsbawm identifies the start of the 20th century as the start of the war in his book, “The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991.” The poet Philip Larkin “looks back with pity and some astonishment at the England that greeted World War I… as unbearably innocent” . Larkin’s poem, “MCMXIV,” expresses the loss of innocence that began in 1914. Peoples’ assumptions about their place in society and the reliability of their world changed forever.

Never such innocence,

Never before or since,

As changed itself to past

Without a word - the men

Leaving the gardens tidy,

The thousands of marriages

Lasting a little while longer:

Never such innocence again.4

The break in societal trust expressed in Larkin’s poem would ultimately create a space for artists to fill with their challenging and radical new ideas.

Before the war, far outside mainstream culture, the young century had seen some developments in new forms of art and literature. Some artists, mainly in Paris and Berlin, had begun to expand the range of what was considered art, but in the first decade of the century this was a small and still marginal group of thinkers. By 1905, Picasso, Duchamp-Villon and Braque were exploring new ways of understanding space and form as they began to experiment with Cubist painting and sculpture. In 1911, Marcel Duchamp broke new ground in art with his “Portrait of Chess Players, a painting whose real subject is the process of thought” . T.S. Eliot began his transformation of modern poetry in 1909, but the war was to have a profound effect on his writing. The vast majority of European and American citizens, though, believed firmly in God and country and lived in ways that had been familiar for generations. That familiarity and innocence, so poignantly expressed by Larkin, ended with the assassination of the Archduke.

Ironically and tragically, the war was a stimulus for the dramatic development of modern artwork as a form of political communication and personal exploration of loss and the search for meaning. As World War I dragged to a conclusion and nations wearily began trying to re-build their fractured societies, some artists went into a frenzied period of production amidst the desolation left by four years of slaughter. There was a new era of artistic exploration, much of it appropriately brooding and nihilistic.

Dada was the deliberately meaningless name a group of artists gave to their movement to question the purpose of art itself. “It is no coincidence that the Dada movement was launched in the spring of Verdun, whose combined casualties would number more than 750,000 dead and wounded”5. Dada was anti-art in conception, “organized insanity,”5 and represented a revolutionary break from the history of art. Dada “was a direct response to the nightmare of unending, meaningless slaughter in the trenches”5. Richard Huelsenbeck launched the Dada Movement because “he interpreted the crisis in European Culture as a moral and social rather than aesthetic situation” . Frances Picabia, a Dada artist, created Amorous Parade in 1917, a painting depicting mechanized love-making. If warfare could be mechanized, so could love. “This fantastic complex contraption is primarily intended as a comment on man’s activities and experiences” . Dada was an attempt to undermine art. The world had lost its bearings and meaningless killing had become commonplace. Dadaists created a form of expression that tried to depict that meaninglessness. “Dada opinion of recent German history was expressed by suspending a pig-headed dummy dressed in an officer’s uniform from the ceiling of the main room”6 at the First International Dada-Fair in Berlin in June 1920.

George Grosz turned to grim Realism and used meticulous draftsmanship to produce paintings and drawings that were profound indictments of German society during and after the war. “His unforgettable images of the moral disintegration of German society can be considered a Dada protest in which he exposed the meaninglessness of human activity”6. Seeing the brutality revealed by the horrors of World War I, Grosz was compelled to illustrate the depravity he saw around him. Grosz’ Berlin Streetscene “… scathingly caricatures the appalling social conditions of post-First World War Germany. A satire on the affected patriotism, selfish greed and depraved sensuality of the period”7, the painting expresses the aristocracy’s readiness to avert their eyes from the tortured conditions of ordinary citizens.


Otto Dix, another German artist of the period, created some of the harshest depictions of German society in the wake of the war. “For him…the War was morally and emotionally disgusting, and his anger and revulsion were later visualized in shattering images of pain and cruelty, meaninglessly inflicted on the living, dying, and dead bodies of the common soldiers”6. Dix and Grosz broke new artistic ground by shining the light of artistic representation on the most gruesome events in human memory. Society had been asked not to think about what was happening during the course of the war. Dix and Grosz refused to be complicit bystanders and by reflecting back to German culture the truth of what had happened, forced the public to look at the atrocities. Otto Dix’s aquatint Storm Troops Advancing Under Gas was one of the earliest works of Surrealism.


Music and dance had historically been sources of entertainment for the general public. But after the war certain composers and choreographers felt free to break boundaries and challenge the public to expand their understanding of what dance and music could be by presenting atonal, disturbing works to audiences accustomed to harmony. The war was a “harbinger of modernism. Its destructiveness was foreshadowed by iconoclasts like Stravinsky, whose Rite of spring… turned into shocking ballet by Diaghilev, announced the opening of a terrifying era in human affairs”10. Writers, too, explored radical changes in structure and subject matter. In his seminal poem, The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot creates an alarming parallel between the new growth of springtime flowers and the planting of corpses in the killing fields:

“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,

‘Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?’”

(1922 I. The Burial of the Dead)11

Out of the work of these artists and others who were not only taking on war issues came the concept of the avant-garde; doing challenging new work that questioned conventions became a goal in modern art. The avant-garde broke open the very concept of what art was. Marcel Duchamp could buy a urinal in a plumbing supply store, sign it with a pseudonym and exhibit it in a gallery and because he was an artist, call it art. He challenged the world to question him. He challenged the very idea of art. The Great War had created an environment in which art could be anything.

There were some artists, directly following World War I, who wanted to see art re-establish its traditional role of supporting the power structure in society and also represent “beauty.” In certain cases, “traditional language understood as commonly shared images and ideas derived from classical, romantic, and Christian sources”10 was a source of comfort to grieving citizens. Germany used such art to engender militant nationalism as it tried to recover its lost pride. The Nazi regime would employ traditional art as powerful nationalistic propaganda. The November-gruppe “challenged… colleagues to use their energies for the renewal of the national life though a closer union of artists and public”6. There was a kind of battle between these two opposing philosophies of art. History has shown that the reactionary traditionalists contributed very little of lasting value to artistic production while the avant-garde movements of Dada, Realism, Surrealism, and Modernism changed the course of art. “The war validated the modernist moment in the arts… and provided a mountain of reasons to see 1914 as an irreversible caesura in European and world history”10.

The seismic dislocation of World War I, on levels personal, national and global, catapulted the world into the 20th century, left behind forever structures of human interaction that had been in place for centuries and caused the eruption of revolutionary forms of art. Leaders intentionally avoided compromise and settlement in 1914. Mechanized war brutally slaughtered millions and still individuals remained loyal to their leaders throughout the course of the war. Artists are often outsiders who appoint themselves the role of questioning societal assumptions. Starting during World War I, certain gifted artists used their mediums to explore hard questions about the war: how decisions were made, who was in charge, what life meant. The majority of people, however, followed the path set for them by officials. The world had experienced one hundred years of relative peace between Napoleon’s defeat in 1815 and the assassination of the Archduke in 1914. The 20th century has had frighteningly short intervals between disastrous international conflicts, leaving one with the question of what it will take for leaders to put negotiation before national pride. An examination of the explosion of art after World War I exposes artists and critical thinkers as the conscience of society, reminding people of the costs of their choices.


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