Trauma Without End

The Great War and its Aftermath

A hundred years on the Great War still casts its shadow over our society, and in some ways, even more so over mainland Europe. The legacy of the war was not only the collapse of empires, but also the rise of new ones – most notably the United States and the Soviet Union. It saw the rise and collapse of fledgling democracies across Europe, the rise and eventual collapse of fascism, the advent of the Second World War, the Cold War, the collapse of communism, and finally the emergence of the post-Cold War. But there is another legacy, another shadow, and this is the psychical wound that the First World War has left us.

The idea of a ‘lost generation’ forever damaged and traumatised by the experiences of the Great War has now become an accepted, and central, part of the wider history of the War and its aftermath.  It led, amongst other things, to a politics of pacifism and appeasement, along with an outpouring between the wars of a great deal of art, literature, poetry and film.  However, I would argue that it also helped pave the way for an even greater catastrophe: a war of annihilation, which was most horrifically embodied in the Holocaust.

And I think part of the problem is that in some ways it is all too easy, although perfectly understandable, to focus on the human tragedy of the Great War, and especially on physical and psychical scars that it left.  However, in my view we also need to look at how such trauma has become, for want of a better term, narrativised. In other words, how what are essentially meaningless (and deeply troubling) experiences become articulated into a narrative, or set of narratives, concerning not only the experiences of those who suffered directly but also the wider impact on culture and society of such experiences. And one of the key points here is that the narrativisation of trauma is itself a way to try and ‘detraumatise’ traumatic experiences. In other words, and somewhat paradoxically, the telling of stories about trauma is a way to ‘make sense’ of nonsensical experiences.

It is tempting, I think, to regard the whole process of constructing what we might describe as ‘Myth of the Great War’ as a process of trauma narrativisation.In other words, as an attempt to make sense of the nonsensical.  Furthermore, much of this process, as in individual therapy itself, was retroactive.  Many of the key texts, along with key works of art and films, which went to form the ‘canon’ of the Myth , did not appear until the late 1920s or even later.  I would suggest that in many ways such works are forms of self-analysis or therapy. In other words, writers such as Graves, Sassoon, Blunden and Remarque (just to give a few well known examples), who were clearly deeply affected by the War, used their ‘writing’ of it as a way to make sense of their experiences.

Such trauma narratives , I would argue, were an important cornerstone of the Myth of the Great War, which itself formed the basis of the widely held sentiment that ‘this is terrible and must never happen again’, which in turn paved the way for a culture of pacifism and appeasement across Western Europe in the 1920s and ’30s.  However, I would argue, it also ultimately paved the way for the Holocaust itself.  Perhaps in hindsight it might have been more constructive to have tried to have gained a much deeper understanding of the social, cultural and psychical forces that were at play prior to, during and after the War.

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