Book Review


It is customary to think of the Great War as having caused a major rupture in European history, as having ended the nineteenth century and begun the twentieth. In culture, it brought about the triumph of modernism and the banishing of tradition, of romanticism, of all comforting myths, religious images and ideas, “sentimental” devices for reconciling oneself with life’s tragedy and absurdity. Instead there was now Dada, surrealism, James Joyce, The Waste Land. A complete rupture. Jay Winter rejects this conventional understanding in Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (1995), arguing that “the rupture of 1914-18 was much less complete than previous scholars have suggested” (p. 3). The “modern” and the “traditional” overlapped and intermixed during the war and afterwards; artists in all media drew on traditional and popular ideas and forms in order to cope with the horrors of the war. Indeed, according to Winter it was the “universality of bereavement” that explained “the enduring appeal of many traditional motifs—defined as an eclectic set of classical, romantic, and religious images and ideas” (p. 5). Pure modernism, with its paradoxes, ironies, abstractions, proto-postmodernisms, could express despair and anger, but it could not heal. “The strength of what may be termed ‘traditional’ forms in social and cultural life, in art, poetry, and ritual, lay in their power to mediate bereavement” (ibid.). Winter therefore structures his argument around analysis of how the dead of the Great War were mourned, in art, poetry, and social practices. It is here that we see clearly the persistence of tradition.


For example, among mourners, between strangers, arose powerful bonds of “fictive kinship,” of community and even surrogate family. Groups were organized to help widows and children; bonds were forged between the wounded and disabled; Catholic priests sponsored housing projects for poor families; the Red Cross gave information and support to local communities worried about their missing sons. There is nothing particularly “modern” about any of this. In fact, Winter goes so far as to say that the Great War “triggered an avalanche of the ‘unmodern’” (p. 54). Spiritualism, for instance, surged during the war, carrying “much of the Victorian temperament” into the war period and beyond. Numberless people participated in séances to speak to fallen soldiers; belief in the paranormal was widespread even among the most educated, including modernist artists. Spiritualism was reflected also in artists’ fascination with the satanic and the Biblical, and in millions of soldiers’ beliefs in supernatural tales (understandable given the hellish, surreal nature of trench warfare). In these and other respects, the Great War actually had a conservative effect on European culture.


In the realm specifically of art, popular culture of course evinced strong connections to the art of earlier periods. In Germany, Hindenburg was immortalized in towering statues just as Marlborough and other military heroes had been in the past. Artists and sculptors of war memorials, too, drew on earlier traditions, in particular late-nineteenth-century funerary art. In religious art, for example, Michelango’s Pietà frequently served as inspiration—the dead soldier lying in his mother’s arms. Films provide many examples of “the twentieth-century revival of popular romanticism” (p. 142). Regarding painting and literature, Winter gives dozens of examples of traditionalism, many involving the use of apocalyptic images, which have a long history in religious and artistic contexts. In fact, it can be argued that “the Great War was, in cultural terms, the last nineteenth-century war, in that it provoked an outpouring of literature touching on an ancient set of beliefs about revelation, divine justice, and the nature of catastrophe” (p. 178). 


All this is fairly persuasive. The culture of the Great War clearly was not a “complete rupture” with the past, nor did modernism “neatly and surgically” leave behind conventions from religious, romantic, and classical traditions. But these statements, after all, should not be controversial. They’re truisms. There are no clean breaks in history. Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning is a good book, but after reading the introduction I was ready to concede the author his main points. The world is complicated, yes, and the “traditional/modern” divide, if taken too literally, can be misleading. One has to treat “binary oppositions” with caution.


On the other hand, some of Winter’s arguments fall flat. It’s possible, in fact, that, while he has hit upon some truths, his thesis is fundamentally misguided in taking the persistence of classical, romantic, and religious forms and images as evidence of genuine “continuity.” His artistic imagination has failed him. In the 1973 Norton Lectures at Harvard, Leonard Bernstein drew the exact opposite conclusion from Winter with regard to the obvious persistence of traditional artistic forms in the twentieth century: he concluded that it illustrated, ironically, our century’s separation from tradition, its agonizing consciousness of being different from, and more anguished than, the past. Even the most modernist of artists, such as T. S. Eliot and Igor Stravinsky, used classical forms and images, not because there was any substantive “continuity” between them and the classical past but because, as modern men, they had become too self-conscious, too anxiety-ridden (reflecting their society), to express emotions directly, unmediatedly, sincerely and subjectively, as was once done. According to Bernstein, neoclassicism was a “security blanket for the whole literary world to clutch at in its sudden death-ridden distress” (Norton Lectures). “Hiding behind the mask of once directly expressed emotion—that is the beginning and essential meaning of neoclassicism.” But the general idea is not limited to neoclassicism: the point is that, while old images and ideas to some extent persisted, their social and psychological content had, arguably, changed. Even the most seemingly conservative reactions, such as the revivifying of spiritualism, can be understood as symptomatic precisely of modernity’s shock, its being shocked out of the old Victorian complacency. There was cultural chaos going on with the Great War and afterwards, flailing around for meanings, for proper forms of artistic expression, for ways to cope with the horrors and uncertainties and anxieties of societal death and decades-protracted birth—hence the desperate grasping at spiritualism, at apocalyptic imagery, Biblical, satanic, romantic imagery. Only after World War II, as Winter notes, would all this turning-towards-the-past-to-cope-with-the-present be left behind, as the old society was finally annihilated—World War I being the first act in the final drama.


Nonetheless, Winter is right that the drama played out slowly, not in a sudden triumphant explosion of modernism and destruction of tradition around the time of the Great War. History happens slowly. Not a very contentious thesis, but worth remembering anyway.


© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright