“If the War Didn’t Happen to Kill You It Was Bound to Start You Thinking”: The Great War and Ideology

AHA Session 35
World History Association 1
Thursday, January 2, 2014: 3:30 PM-5:30 PM
Columbia Hall 7 (Washington Hilton)
William R. Keylor, Boston University
The Audience

Session Abstract

In his 1939 novel Coming Up for Air, George Orwell observed, “If the war didn’t happen to kill you, it was bound to start you thinking. After that unspeakable idiotic mess you couldn't go on regarding society as something eternal and unquestionable, like a pyramid. You knew it was just a balls-up." Across the world, the Great War  had done much more than dispatch ailing empires and unravel old alliances. It had also demolished longstanding assumptions concerning virtually every aspect of public life, transforming discussion and debate about a variety of issues, from politics and nationalism to public health and science in the two decades that followed the Versailles Treaty. When a second global conflict engulfed the major powers in 1939, however, the intellectual trends and ideologies of the interwar years would undergo an even more thorough transformation. The purpose of this panel is to reexamine a few seminal intellectual trends and ideologies as they evolved in the interwar years,  before they were subsumed and transformed again by the experience of the Second World War. Xu Guoqi of the University of Hong Kong will discuss the transformation of Chinese nationalism by the experience of Republican China's involvement in the Great War and at Versailles. Annessa Stagner of the University of California at Irvine will discuss the new medical discourse on “Shell Shock" that emerged in the United States during and after the First World War, and trace its evolution to the eve of U.S. entry into World War Two.  R.S. Deese of Boston University will explore how the war revolutionized ideas about the relationship between science, technology and nature on both sides of the Atlantic, giving rise to a multifaceted and influential technocracy movement during the twenties and thirties. Danny Orbach of Harvard University will explore the evolution of a resurgent Samurai ideology that fueled a wave in ultra-nationalist political assassinations in Japan in the two decades following World War One.

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