World War I as a Turning Point
This assignment comes from my "Modern Europe and U.S. II" introductory course. Its goal is to help students assess Barzun's claim that World War I "hurled the modern world on its course of self-destruction." Part of that task involves students appreciating the extent to which Europeans and Americans regarded themselves as having solved, or being on the way to solving, all of the great dilemmas that had plagued humanity. So we look at late nineteenth-century imperialism at some length and especially as the justifications offered. Imperialists, and not they alone, trumpeted that the West had the "purest Christianity," the fairest systems of justice, the most advanced universities, the most inventive populations. It was home to industrialization, democracy, and slowly expanding prosperity. The future looked secure. We go over the longish introduction in class, paying especial attention to John Maynard Keynes' description of prewar Europe. We also pay attention to the nature of the war, especially on the western front, and to the unprecedented carnage. This sets the stage for students to grapple with Barzun's comment that the war "unhinged" the popular mind and destroyed the continuities of western culture. They do so by listening to very different voices: Rupert Brooke, Winston Churchill, Wilfred Owen, and Sigmund Freud. They also choose among a rich collection of art dealing with the war. In preparation for this they have already worked their way through a recreation of 1913 Armory Show at the University of Virginia.
1. Barzun, “The Great Illusion”
2. Rupert Brooke, War Sonnets, especially “The Soldier” (you may find it useful to read the “Introduction” to the site which contains a useful discussion of the notion of “war poetry”).
3. Winston Churchill, Obituary Notice of Rupert Brooke
4. Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” (1917) + related links on this site
5. Sigmund Freud, selection from Civilization and Its Discontents (1930)
6. Stephan Zweig, The World of Yesterday (excerpts)
More than 100 paintings connected to the war are available online at a site put together by a number of European museums, Art of the First World War.
Submit notes addressing the following questions: What would Owen or Freud have made of Winston Churchill’s obituary notice of Rupert Brooke? That is, cite specific passages that might apply to Brooke’s poetry and to Churchill’s eulogy of him.
What would Zweig have made of Winston Churchill’s obituary notice of Rupert Brooke? That is, cite specific passages from Zweig’s analysis that might apply to Brooke’s poetry and to Churchill’s eulogy of him.
What would Freud and Owen have said, if either had read the obituary? Owen, incidentally, almost certainly did read it. It was published in the Times of London, a paper virtually everyone of his education and class read. If you really want to impress your instructor, illustrate your notes with selections from the Art of the First World War and/or the poster art.