I was listening to a podcast earlier on the First World War and it got me thinking about societal changes and norms throughout the ages. Specifically, I was thinking about those people who had the misfortune of having lived through both of the world wars, and what effects a lifetime of war would have on the psyche, which would in turn effect societal structuring. Imagine for a moment a young man, born around 1895, growing up within the relative political stability that existed between the Franco-Prussian and first world wars, and then being thrust into four years of living hell having to watch a good majority of his friends and acquaintances get mowed down by machine guns, blown to bits by artillery, or gassed to death. Just enduring that sort of psychic trauma would be enough to drive someone insane. So this very fortunate person doesn’t join their 16 million contemporaries in death, and tries to move past it presumably by starting a family, getting a career going, etc. Now it’s the mid 1930’s and this person again has to watch the political deterioration between countries advance until a second world war break out which will again decimate Europe and again claim the lives of millions upon millions of people.
Regardless of rather this person was British, German, American, French, etc, having to live through two major wars twenty years apart which results in the death of millions of their countrymen has got to skew how you think about all sorts of issues. Existentially speaking life has to be this thing that is overwhelming full of despair and heartbreak, with only the smatterings of happiness to be found here or there. Politically there is probably some serious resentment and even pure hatred pointed at those same enemies faced throughout a lifetime. Even being born forty years after WW2 I grew up learning about the monstrous evils of Nazi Germany and the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. That is something entrenched in our society and it’s a result of all those people who either lived through both wars, or grew up during the second while hearing all about the first. How much worse would it have been to be born German though and had to hear about what your own people did? I wonder if there is a sort of guilt still lying beneath the German social strata.
I think that one of the more negative notions to come out of living through this sort of traumatic period is rampant nationalism. People have felt a special loyalty to the state or nation they belong to probably since there have been states and nations, but that feeling tends to intensify during periods of war, and in this particular example it probably knows almost no limit. And those nationalistic tendencies don’t just go away after the fighting is done. The cold war is a testament to the nationalistic tendencies of peoples who have grown distrustful and suspicious of other nations. Of course that’s not to say all Nationalism is bad, and I would say a certain amount is probably healthy for positive growth, but as with most things, if pushed to the extreme it can become a negative.
Of course, one could not help but see the irony in bearing witness to the rampant nationalism Germany displayed in this entire time period, and being turned nationalist because of it. I suppose it would be different for the Germans as their national identity was razed to the ground and raised out of that rubble completely anew. And if you’re reading this and you are American, Nationalism is really just another way of saying patriotism. This immediately makes me think of the nationalist hard-on we displayed after 9/11, and how those feelings started to ebb only a decade out. Now there are many reasons why societal norms shift back and forth, and to be fair I have been overly simplistic thus far because I really wanted to only focus on this, but that said there is one reason why people start becoming less nationalistic and start doing things like questioning their governments, form alliances with foreigners, etc, and that is because they are not being exposed to outside threats on their lives. Why did people in the 60’s protest Vietnam and preach peace? Because Vietnam is a third rate country that doesn’t represent any sort of threat to the American citizens not forced to go over there. Why has nationalism waned in the wake of the towers coming down? Because nobody really thinks something like that can happen again with all the precautions set in place by the government. And here I find it very ironic that all those people who scream and shout about the government abusing its power with agencies like the TSA and NSA are only able to do that because those agencies exist to protect them. That’s not to say there aren’t abuses going on within these agencies or the government in general, and again there are a whole plethora of things going on here, I’m just trying to follow this stream of consciousness to some sort of good ending. Here looks about right.