Philip Jenkins


For Europeans much more than Americans, the First World War was a critical historical turning point, arguably at least as much more as the second. Despite this importance, the war is surrounded by a vast mythology, nicely illustrated in comedy shows like the English BLACKADDER. Eksteins’ book is an older study – almost twenty years now – but is so important because, in addition to describing the admitted horrors of the war, it sets the event in a broad cultural context. It is also invaluable in linking the two great European wars – in fact, the second can usefully be seen as a neat sequel to the first.


I should also say that the book was controversial on its release, so don’t be amazed if you find yourself arguing with it. I rather like the NATIONAL REVIEW response, which ends by quoting and mocking some of the very favorable reactions: " ‘A bold and unforgettable journey’-Alfred Kazin. ‘This bold and fertile book’-Paul Fussell. ‘The start of a new history’-James Carroll. If they'd only read it.” At the same time, “The fact that at crucial moments he doesn't know what he's talking about does not negate his book's great strengths, which include some of the most vivid recreations of Great War experience we are likely to see.”




What is Eksteins’ basic argument?


At first, it seems very strange indeed taking a manifestation of high art like RITES OF SPRING to illuminate something like the First World War. Does the approach work? What are the values of limitations of thus linking high art and “real” politics?


Eksteins sees modernism as a kind of curse of the century - the first world war soldier was an incarnation of modernism, modernism accompanies the revolt against bourgeois civilization, modernism is the other side of political nihilism. In Modernism, art had ''transcended reason, didacticism, and a moral purpose.'' Art had become ''provocation and event.'' One reviewer notes that “Eksteins links the modern avant-garde's penchant for primitivism, abstraction and myth-making to the proto-fascist ideology and militarism unleashed by WW I”. What do you think?


Eksteins suggests that the war resulted in the wider triumph of values he sees as distinctively German, namely estheticism, myth-making and emancipation. Is he right in stressing German distinctiveness?


How did the First World War change ideas about heroes and heroism?


How did the First World War change ideas about maleness and virility?


How did the First World War change ideas about authority?


Tell me about his ideas of primitivism in twentieth century politics – think them through to later eras.


Is Eksteins right in his idea that the war destroyed meaning, and left a society open to cults of political unreason, the apotheosis of the irrational?  ''The burden of having been in the eye of the storm and yet, in the end, of having resolved nothing, was excruciating.''


How far is he actually talking about a generational revolt?


''Nazi kitsch,'' writes Ekstein, bears ''a blood relationship to the highbrow religion of art proclaimed by many moderns.'' Really?


What does he say about the cult of Lindbergh the aviator?


Think through the implications of what he says about the origins and meaning of fascism – what are its links to earlier ideologies, and aesthetic styles?


What does the book tell us about propaganda and the mass media?


What does it tell us about the construction of memory? Why are our constructed memories of the two world wars so different?


Eksteins writes knowledgeably about Germany, France and Britain. What happens though if we shift our perspective to take in the United States? How many of the same points do or do not stand up to examination?


How about taking more account of Russia? Or to take another example, many of his best potential examples would actually come from Spain or Italy.


Assume for the sake of argument that some or most of the linkages drawn by Eksteins are dubious or wrong – which I don’t necessarily think they are. What can we get out of the book anyway?




Besides discussing Eksteins, we will also discuss some more general themes, including the impact of war on society in general. Think of how a great war echoes through the whole society – the economy; culture; the politics.


How does a war changes attitudes to violence in everyday life?


How demands for labor change relations in the workplace, and draw in groups that otherwise would not have been present.


What problems of a adjustment does a society face at the end of a great war? How about military veterans? How do they reintegrate into political and social life?


What was the technological impact of the first world war on the wider society? How did that compare to the impact of the second?


How did each of the great wars transform Europe’s relationship to the wider world, in the great empires?





Finally, one of the most important authorities on the first world war is Neill Ferguson. In his classic THE PITY OF WAR, he frames his discussion around ten critical points, all of which might bee useful in thinking about Eksteins:



1.    Was the war inevitable, whether because of militarism, imperialism, secret diplomacy or the arms race?


2.    Why did Germany’s leaders gamble on war in 1914?


3.    Why did Britain’s leaders choose to intervene when war broke out on the Continent?


4.    Was the war, as is often asserted, really greeted with popular enthusiasm?


5.    Did propaganda, and especially the press, keep the war going...?


6.    Why did the huge economic superiority of the British Empire not suffice to inflict defeat on the Central Powers more quickly and without American intervention?


7.    Why did the military superiority of the German Army fail to deliver victory over the British and French armies on the Western Front, as it delivered victory over Serbia, Rumania and Russia?


8.    Why did men keep fighting when, as the war poets tell us, conditions on the battlefield were so wretched?


9.    Why did men stop fighting?


10. Who won the peace--to be precise, who ended up paying for the war?





One question that interests me is just how similar different the two wars actually were – certainly by 1918 or so, the first world war shows every sign of being on the verge of transforming into what we know as the second! I offer this series of statements of “myth and reality”, about the differences between the first and second world wars. All are controversial, but I hope we can use them as as a basis for discussion – and argument


Comparing The Wars

MYTH:  WW1 was utterly different from WW2. WW1 was a struggle of greedy empires; WW2 was a titanic moral conflict

REALITY: Both wars had very much the same combination of ideology and self-interest, and focused on similar issues


How The Wars Started

MYTH: The nations stumbled into war almost by accident

REALITY: Long-term plans by particular powers – especially Germany – ensured war


Germany’s Role

MYTH: Germany was no more guilty of aggression than any other country (All Quiet On the Western Front)

REALITY: Germany’s war aims in WW1 look very much like those of WW2 – see the treaty of Brest Litovsk


How The War Was Fought

MYTH: Trench warfare and military incompetence (Somme and Verdun)

REALITY: Incredible innovation at every stage, tactical, strategic and technological: chemical warfare, tanks, aircraft, artillery, storm warfare, submarines, long-range bombing


How The War Ended

MYTH: US intervention swung the balance between exhausted European Powers

REALITY: Brilliant and total Allied victory over Germany during the Hundred Days Battle of 1918





In 2004, I published the book Dream Catchers, which addresses a number of the same themes as Eksteins, but in an American perspective. An extract follows:


At the beginning of the century, American bohemian circles had a predilection for non-traditional religions, including Asian faiths, and for New Age and metaphysical beliefs. Primitivist trends became immensely stronger when Americans encountered new European artistic theories that glorified the tribal. Picasso’s Les Démoiselles d’Avignon, with its faces drawn from African masks, dates from 1907; Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, based on tribal images of a lost pagan Russia, debuted in 1913. In 1915, Wallace Stevens’ Modernist poem “Sunday Morning” rejected any religion based on the cold abstractions of Christianity, and imagined instead pagan rituals founded in blood and ecstasy:


Supple and turbulent, a ring of men

Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn

Their boisterous devotion to the sun ….

Their chant shall be a chant of paradise,

Out of their blood, returning to the sky.


Gradually, Americans realized that such a pagan dream-world still existed very close to home: they had a comparable “Africa,” a living pagan society, on their own territory. 15

This was also the great era of the discovery of European cave paintings, which dated back tens of thousands of years yet indicated a thought-world not too different from those of contemporary Indian societies. In 1914 the Pyrenean cave of Les Trois Freres produced an evocative painting of a masked human figure with animal horns, which was known as “the Sorcerer.” As this shamanistic image was widely reproduced in coming years, it suggested the truly ancient roots of American Indian art and religiosity.



The tone of writing about Native cultures shifts dramatically around 1917–1918. Before that point, some authors speak admiringly of Native cultures and the religious practices that lay at their core; but very shortly afterwards, we find frequent suggestions that Indian civilization might actually be superior to its Western counterpart. Far from being a troublesome roadblock on the route to progress and civilization, Indian religions were an essential safeguard against those very curses.

One reason for this change was the presence of the booming bohemian colony at Taos. 37 After the arrival of Mabel Dodge, the ensuing pattern of chain migration meant that a direct highway now ran from Greenwich Village to Taos. She was followed by artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Maynard Dixon, John Marin, Ansel Adams, and Marsden Hartley; novelists like Willa Cather, Aldous Huxley, and D. H. Lawrence, poets like Robinson Jeffers; and activists like John Collier. Culturally, Taos Pueblo itself became one of the most powerful symbols of the newly discovered Indian civilization. New Mexico also became a fashionable literary theme. Alice Corbin Henderson produced collections such as Red Earth (1920) and The Turquoise Trail (1928), and went on to write her celebrated book on the Penitentes, The Brothers of Light.38

The other epochal change around this time was, of course, the Great War. Many of the new intellectual arrivals came from liberal circles opposed to American involvement in the war, which they saw as a cultural disaster. More immediately, the patriotic reaction in 1917 made urban life uncongenial for radicals, socialists, and feminists. It was the war that drove Elsie Clews Parsons to the Southwest, to seek refuge in her research among the Pueblos. But the long-term effects were also obvious. In the aftermath of Verdun and the Somme, claims about the natural superiority of European civilization sounded brittle, if not ludicrous. Perhaps European civilization had maimed itself once and for all. Scott Fitzgerald believed that educated Americans returned from the war “to find all gods dead, all wars fought, all faith in man shaken.” In 1920, Natalie Curtis argued that “the war, with its hideous revelation of barbarism may at last teach us of the white race that we are not so far ahead of the darker races as we thought.” And the war had other implications, given the Wilsonian rhetoric of self-determination. If the United States was fighting for the rights of small nations abroad, Americans should fight at home for “the right of the American Indian to be himself; to express his own ideals of beauty and fitness in his religion, his customs, his dress and his art.” America’s own prospects seemed bleak given the political conditions of 1919–1920, those red years of riots, strikes, race wars, and terrorism.39

Through the 1920s, Native peoples were extolled for resisting the forces of modernity, urbanism, industrialism, and mass society, the evils of bourgeois civilization of which the Southwest seemed so blessedly free. Once again, Indians symbolized those features that the West was losing or betraying. Against a Christianity that worshiped the bourgeois ethic and despised sexuality, the bohemians sought a romanticized pure culture still in touch with nature and with the body, free of the curse of civilization. The rejection of Christianity was accelerated by the churches’ embarrassingly vocal support for nationalism and imperialism in the war years, followed in the 1920s by the excesses of fundamentalism and neo-Puritan moral campaigns. Reinforcing their disaffection from traditional organized religion, the new arrivals lived in a subculture sympathetic to sexual experimentation and unorthodox relationships. Marsden Hartley was gay, while Ruth Benedict, Willa Cather and Georgia O'Keeffe were lesbian or bisexual. Amy Lowell, another popularizer of Indian poetry, was lesbian. When Harry Sylvester’s novel Dayspring presented a hostile picture of Taos’s bohemian world in the 1930s, he held in special contempt the easy tolerance for promiscuity, both hetero- and homosexual. 

After 1917–1918, some writers on Indian culture adopted a tone that would become familiar during the 1970s and 1980s, listing ways in which “we whites” could learn from the Indians. In this view, Western material wealth concealed spiritual poverty. Mabel Dodge experienced a kind of conversion experience hearing Indian music for the first time, in December 1917:


For the first time in my life, then, I heard the voice of the One coming from the Many. . . . The singular raging lust for individuality and separateness had been imperiling me all my years as it did everyone else on earth—when all of a sudden I was brought up against the Tribe, where a different instinct ruled . . . where virtue lay in wholeness rather than in dismemberment.40


In 1918, Natalie Curtis was arguing explicitly for the superiority of Indian religion on grounds that would become mainstream later in the century: “Surely not the least of the lessons that we may learn from the red man is reverence for the earth-mother, giver of life; for no Indian would dream of calling a mountain reaching skyward ‘Old Baldy’ or ‘Pikes Peak,’ nor would he slaughter game, sacred to the needs of man, for sport only.”41 It was while watching “the Indians dancing to help the young corn at Taos Pueblo” that Robinson Jeffers recalled “that civilization is a transient sickness.”42


Influential European visitors agreed that Indians retained what Western society had lost or destroyed. Visiting the Pueblos in the 1930s, Carl Jung discovered that the imperturbable dignity of an Indian


springs from his being a son of the Sun; his life is cosmologically meaningful, for he helps the father and preserver of all life in his daily rise and descent. If we set this against this our own self-justifications, the meaning of our own lives as it is formulated by our reason, we cannot help but see our poverty. . . . Knowledge does not enrich us; it removes us more and more from the mythic world in which we were once at home by right of birth.


Jung’s argument echoes the familiar Romantic notion that the process of maturing can mean losing valuable childlike qualities and perceptions, and that this process of loss applies equally to societies and races as to individuals. As in the work of the folklorists, Indians are again depicted as closer to racial childhood, but in a positive rather than a demeaning sense. Others of the Taos circle reflect this exalted idea of “Indian childhood,” the foolishness that is wiser than the wisdom of Western civilization.45

Another European convert was D. H. Lawrence, who said that New Mexico “certainly changed me forever. . . . [I]t was New Mexico that liberated me from the present era of civilization, the great era of material and mechanical development. . . . It is curious that it should be in America, of all places, that a European should really experience religion.” He saw the Pueblo society as the living incarnation of a paganism rooted in the body and the elements. Lawrence found among the Pueblos “a vast old religion, greater than anything we know; more starkly and nakedly religious. There is no god. No conceptions of a god. All is god. . . . It is the religion which precedes the god-concept, and is therefore greater and deeper than any god-religion.” Their spiritual superiority meant that Native peoples might well endure long after the flawed European world had gone down to ruin, after the transient sickness had passed. “The skyscraper will scatter on the winds like thistledown, and the genuine America, the America of New Mexico, will start on its course again. This is an interregnum.”46

In 1925, The Dial published Lawrence’s story “The Woman Who Rode Away,” about a white woman who transfers her loyalties to the Indians of the Mexican mountains, although she knows that the decision will cost her life. (The character recalls Mabel Dodge.) She is to become a human sacrifice, and in the closing passage of the book, she is lying nude on a stone altar as the Natives await the setting of the sun. Her fair skin and blonde hair contrast with their dark features. She looks into the black eyes of the old priest:


And in their black empty concentration there was power, power intensely abstract and remote, but deep, deep into the heart of the earth, and the heart of the sun. . . . Then the old man would strike, and strike home, accomplish the sacrifice and achieve power. The mastery that man must hold, and that passes from race to race.



This was the new primitivism, the interest in Darkness, whether cultural or racial, the quest for societies more in tune with primal realities and primal spirituality than the corrupted civilization of the West: “Harlem and the Congo profit along with Taos and Cochiti.” Margaret Mead’s imaginative celebration of primitive simplicity, Coming of Age in Samoa, appeared in 1928.13