Literature and the two world wars

November 7, 2018

I’ve often wondered why there seems to be so much more literature from the Great War than from the Second World War. That’s an impression I have, rather than any carefully calculated conclusion. I also have the feeling, that I think many readers would probably agree with, that the literature from the earlier war is more powerful, and more effective. And no, I’m not forgetting Second World War classics like Catch-22 and Life and Fate

Thinking about this a little more deeply: there was poetry written during the Second World War; I have an anthology (which I don’t dip into very often, I’m afraid) and a few poems collected loose-leaf over the years, but I’ve rarely used any of them in my teaching. They are so different, so much more low-key, with almost an aura of, ‘well, here we are again’ about them, rather than the shock, anger and outrage of the likes of Owen and Sassoon, whose power could not be equalled.

I have read fewer memoirs of the Second World War, although I found Keith DouglasAlamein to Zem-Zem as interesting as those of Sassoon, Graves et al. There is much more humour – novels such as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Evelyn Waugh’s Men at Arms trilogy spring to mind, and again I know of no parallels from the earlier war; Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk is much more slapstick, although as brilliant in its own subversive way as is Heller, I feel. And there is good drama set in the Great War – Hamp, and Journey’s End for starters, but no plays leap to mind from the later war.

And yet, when you turn to look at both wars from a historical perspective, 1939-45 makes 1914-18 pale into insignificance in so many ways: the genocide of the Jews, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the vastly greater casualty figures, especially among civilians, the vileness of Nazism per se…

In many ways the Great War seems to have been so unnecessary, a self-inflicted wound that Europe drifted into, not quite out of boredom, a war that came to an unresolved conclusion out of attrition and left unfinished business that led to the next war a generation later. Recently, I have been reading about how the ending of that war came as such a shock to the Germans: lack of a sense of defeat of their armies made it easier for the Nazis and others to perpetrate the myth of the stab in th eback and the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles…

Reading the literature, what comes across most strongly to me is the utter shock of what the Great War became, the pointless hell of trench warfare in the West, with images that still cannot fail to appal, where the destruction, annihilation even, is actually far greater than that at Hiroshima: look at photographs of what (doesn’t) remain of some of the villages on the Somme or Passchendaele and you will see what I mean. And of course the determination that this should never happen again meant (after 1939) blitzkrieg, swift occupation and plunder of nations, the ability to plan extermination of whole races and peoples. And the weariness and the absolute necessity of putting an end to Hitler and Nazism led to a different kind of war, all-encompassing and far more destructive.

It is so wrong, and so unhelpful to the future of the world, that in the West we do not realise, cannot comprehend, what that war did in the east. If you have stomach, watch Elem Klimov’s film Go and See. I saw it once, over 30 years ago and still cannot face seeing it again. Read Svetlana Alexievich on The Unwomanly Face of War, or the interviews in Last Witnesses if you can. The Second World War cost Britain a great deal, but we got off oh so lightly compared with almost every other nation, and we still behave in a cavalier fashion towards our near neighbours who have striven to ensure that should be the last war on our continent…

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