7.4: The “Lost Generation”: Disillusionment and Uncertainty in the Interwar Period

Despite its complaints about the costs of the First World War, the United States exited it with very little damage, especially compared to Europe. Thanks to the boost in manufacturing during the war, the U.S. also had best position to grow economically. While the “Roaring Twenties” took place in America, a different “roar” was heard throughout Europe: after millions of people and dollars were lost, Europe was in chaos economically, environmentally, and—perhaps biggest of all—spiritually. Americans who remained in Europe after the war were called the “Lost Generation,” and, like native Europeans, produced writing, art, music, science, and philosophy that threw out all of the old assumptions and embraced the uncertain future.

The Treaty of Versailles was purposefully signed on June 28, 1919—five years to the day since Franz Ferdinand was killed. It was meant to return Europe to a state of prewar security, as if the past five years had not occurred. The treaty instead left countries bitter and vengeful, especially with the way the Allies had “rewritten” history to blame Germany exclusively for the conflict.

As negative as the national effects were, the personal effects on everyday people and their outlooks was even more negative. For the previous 500 years—for the entire history of Europe that we have learned in this course—Europeans devoted themselves to their own sense of progress (even if that “progress” meant other continents’ downfalls). Four years “progressed” in the trenches for a cause which was unclear, even in the middle of the war, and which was resolved in an unsatisfactory way. Those in the trenches who returned were completely devastated. Was “progress” simply developing more and more advanced ways of killing each other and continuing the same human evil? What was “honor” or “nation” if these terms were used to fight such a pointless conflict? Was humanity progressing at all, or was it actually becoming worse and worse morally/spiritually, while technology became better and better?

“The bottom fell out” of the belief in humanism, in Enlightenment, in justice, in honor, in faith, in civilization itself. The interwar period in Europe was a very depressing time, but also a very liberating one. As all of the old definitions and ideas were torn down, exciting and scary questions were asked for the first time. Here is a sampling of the mindset of the interwar period applied across culture:

From Faith to Existentialism

Replacing traditional faith in civilization, humanity’s progress, and religion after World War I was a new and shocking philosophical idea called existentialism. Instead of progressing each generation, the existentialists argued that each generation defines progress for itself: this definition, therefore, only serves individual humans rather than the whole human race. In the wake of destruction of the war, what was the point in starting over? Whatever point you wanted. What does life mean? Whatever you want it to mean. True, this “make-your-own-meaning” concept explains just about every philosophical idea we have studied. However, previously these ideas were usually grounded in the faith that God called us to be our best—in addition to the idea, after the Scientific Revolution, that we would know more and more and improve the human condition. The existentialist view denies God and denies any improvement of the human condition over time. The faith and optimism of the Enlightenment was seen a pipe-dream by many who had survived the trenches.

From Controlling Human Behavior to Uncontrollable Human Behavior: Freud’s Psychoanalysis

The Enlightenment, as you hopefully remember, was all about Reason: using our minds to solve the world’s problems. Another idea that gained hold after WWI that spat in the face of the Enlightenment was the new field of psychoanalysis, developed by the Austrian Sigmund Freud. Freud developed the theory that you learned about with Lord of the Flies in English—that every person is fighting a “war” inside between his/her reason (the superego) and his/her “beastie” (the id). The problem is that the id is sub-conscious, operating below our rational thought to guide and motivate our behavior. Therefore, the id cannot be consciously controlled (while it can be understood through dreams and professional help, Freud argued). The social science experiments of the Enlightenment relied on the faith that people can control their “beasts.” Now, Freud was proposing that the “beasts” control us in ways we cannot consciously understand.

From Newtonian Order to Einsteinian Relativity: Space-Time

Another German-speaking Jew, Albert Einstein, similarly destroyed traditional Enlightenment ideas, though these ideas dealt with Newton’s understanding of gravity. Einstein started from a very simple question: “What is motion, anyway?” This led him to develop the theory of relativity, wherein motion, space, and time are not universal—they do not apply the same everywhere in the universe (as Newton thought). Instead, the effect of gravity “warps” space-time to the extent that time is relative. Einstein theorized that, if one could travel close to the speed of light, then one would experience time far differently than in our frame of reference. (Einstein also postulated that the energy inside matter was very powerful, but we’ll save this idea until we discuss the atomic bomb in the next chapter.)

From Written Music to Improvised Jazz “Riffs”

With the development of the phonograph (record player), music became a lot looser in terms of its definitions, too. Traditional, written music relied on absolute time signatures (called meters) and staying in the same key (which is called tonality). A new style of music, which spread from New Orleans to Chicago to the clubs of Europe, changed all that: “jazz” (originally spelled “jass”). Jazz relies on “riffs,” the same type of riffs that you hear in a “freestyle” rap or in a guitar solo. The instrumentalists were set free from traditional rhythm and traditional key signatures—playing the “off notes” on the “off-beat” became acceptable, if not “cool.” This type of music cannot be repeated, so it captures the liberating, let’s-live-it-up attitude of folks who had survived the chaos of the war—hence the ‘20s is sometimes called “the Jazz Age.”

From Domestic Roles to Women’s Liberation (and All That Jazz)

Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideas would not be fully implemented in the Western world until nearly a half-century after World War I (if then). However, the 1920s paved the way, as this decade saw a greater freedom of gender roles. Women had been used in the work force during the war. Now, they reveled in the new liberties of the time period and created new styles for themselves: short hairstyles, shorter dresses, smoking, drinking, driving (hopefully not at the same time), and more “scandalous” dance moves. While certainly not commonplace, this type of “new woman” was featured as an icon in magazines, movies, and radio programs of the day.

From Capitalistic Progress to the Great Depression

Perhaps the biggest effect of the Treaty of Versailles was economic: the enforcement of a ridiculously-high payment (to the tune of $33 billion) on any country in the world is bound to have repercussions across the globe. By 1923, Germany was experiencing hyperinflation like the Spanish Empire had, but much worse—children were using stacks of German dollars (deutschmarks) as toy blocks and adults were using money as kindling in their fireplaces. One would need a wheelbarrow full of money to go grocery shopping: in the worst months of the inflation, one loaf of bread could cost hundreds of thousands of deutschmarks.

The most prosperous Western country after the war, the United States, helped the German economy with a loan that prevented Germany from sinking into ruin. However, the reckless spending of the “Roaring Twenties” caught up with the U.S. itself in the end: on October 29, 1929, the New York stock market crashed as investors worried that the “Roar” couldn’t last. This was a self-fulfilling prophecy: the market tanked, and the world economy soon followed into the Great Depression. Capitalism seemed to be failing the world over, while the U.S.S.R. outperformed the West in production.

To sum up…

For the interwar period, there were no absolutes: no guaranteed consistency in defining meaning, faith, reason, space, time, music, gender roles, or economic security.

Amidst all these questions, people desperately sought for answers: many in the Western world turned to the theories of socialism and communism. On the other end of the spectrum, many others turned to a political theory that offered absolutes, hope, and certainty: fascism.

[Existentialism—the belief that one’s existence determines one’s views—there is no one absolute meaning for life, as everyone comes up with their own individual meaning for their individual existence—an individual’s meaning will die with the individual

Great Depression—a “depression” is a financial condition which sees both unemployment rise exponentially and economic activity (trading on the stock market) decrease exponentially—the worst case of this in modern times was the Great Depression that started in October 1929 and ended with World War II]