Was the First World War the End of an Era?

Many people have presented the First World War in books and films as the end of a Victorian ‘golden age’. Even the weather adds to that impression: many people have seen pictures of soldiers up to their knees in thick mud, whereas the years before 1914 – especially the long hot summer of 1911 – seemed to be full of sunshine and hope.

This idea of a lost, more innocent world was reinforced by the memorials to the dead, which seemed to conjure up a ‘lost generation’ of young men, full of optimism and promise, who marched cheerfully off to war and never came home again. The girls they should’ve married often lived into old age, still carrying the memory of their lost loved ones. Their era, their world, had ended in 1914.

The First World War certainly marked the end of an era for four mighty empires: Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Russia. By 1919, the glittering court of Habsburg Vienna and the military pomp of the Kaiser’s Berlin were no more than memories. The Russian Revolutionaries shot the Tsar and cut Russia’s ties with its past to establish the world’s first communist state. It’s easy to see why many historians date the 20th century, as a distinctive period in its own right, from the start of the First World War in 1914 rather than from 1900.

Of course, people at the time would’ve thought you were mad if you’d said they were living in a golden age. The years preceding the war saw desperate poverty and escalating violence. France was deeply split between left and right, and Russia was bubbling with revolutionaries and assassins, while Ireland seemed about to slide into civil war, probably taking the rest of the United Kingdom with it.

In any case, what exactly is an era? Era is a term that historians apply to periods in the past to try to impose some sort of order and shape, but ‘eras’ and ‘ages’ are entirely subjective ideas: just because one historian thinks people were living through a particular era, it doesn’t mean other historians necessarily agree. You can see the Victorian era going right up to 1914, but some historians argue that the Victorian age (or era) had already died: all the main features of 20th-century life were in place long before the First World War broke out.

No one nowadays seriously pretends that the years before 1914 were a ‘golden age’, but exactly when the old world died and the new world began is entirely a matter of opinion.

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