Progress and Poison Gas

01 May

“The failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimension, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century. The first of these was World War I, and much of our present predicament can be traced back to it. It was a war (the memory of which seems to be fading) when Europe, bursting with health and abundance, fell into a rage of self-mutilation which could not but sap its strength for a century or more, and perhaps forever. The only possible explanation for this war is a mental eclipse among the leaders of Europe due to their lost awareness of a Supreme Power above them. Only a godless embitterment could have moved ostensibly Christian states to employ poison gas, a weapon so obviously beyond the limits of humanity.”

Who went on this diatribe? Some sort of left-wing pacifist? Hardly. It comes from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Templeton Address. It was a surprise for me to read, actually. I covered World War I in a few too many U.S. History classes, and the war just isn’t the same from an American point of view. We were involved in the war for only a year–and we didn’t spend most of it stuck in trenches. The war had a far bigger impact on Europe. That Solzhenitsyn would trace godlessness back to World War I was food for thought.

I went on to read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Remarque perhaps exemplified his generation. At nineteen he was conscripted to fight in the war, but he was initially eager to fight: “We are going to save the world.” But war was not what he, or many other young Europeans, thought it would be. Some–J.R.R. Tolkien, for instance–emerged from the war emotionally damaged, but with their faith still intact. But for Remarque–however seriously he took his family’s Catholicism during his childhood–the war shattered his world.

“This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession,” writes Remarque, “and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.” Remarque never fought in battle, although he served very close to the front lines and was wounded by long distance artillery. The severity of his wounds forced him to give up his dream of becoming a concert pianist.

Remarque, and many other young Europeans, found the reality of war very different from what they had been taught while growing up. “For us lads of eighteen [our parents and teachers] ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity…to the future…in our hearts we trusted them. The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more humane wisdom. But…the first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces.”

Young Europeans had grown up being taught that scientific progress was going to turn the world into a better place. Then scientific progress was used to kill people more quickly. We might think of nuclear warfare after a sentence like that, but poison gas predated nuclear weapons. Some people postulated that The Lord of the Rings was really about nuclear warfare. The Ring, of course, doesn’t symbolize any specific modern weapon (Tolkien hated allegory). Tolkien was also no fan of nukes–in fact, he commented that the Allies had taken the Ring and used it–but poison gas was what he knew about. Some authors speculate that writing fiction about war in Middle Earth was cathartic for him–it was a way to deal with the horrors he had faced, dealing a blow through literature to the wartime technologies that had worsened the bloodbath.

One benefit of reading fantasy, dystopian, and science fiction literature is that such stories tend to avoid the pitfall that entrapped the young people of World War I. Many of them focus on science’s destructive power. Have we forgotten the lessons that Remarque and Solzhenitsyn were trying to teach? The way that science is usually discussed in the media and in schools makes me wonder. How is it that many of us still believe in infinite progress when we live in a post-WWI world? More to the point, why do we define “progress” as “technological progress”? If we could progress in controlling our abuse of technology, that would be progress indeed.

Remarque’s book isn’t a pleasant read: in fact, the Nazis burned All Quiet on the Western Front for being too anti-war. (Remarque was thankfully out of the country, or they probably wouldn’t have been opposed to throwing him in with it.) The book may not offer a neutral viewpoint about World War I (and indeed, what novel would?). But, if you want to understand the impact World War I had on Europe, All Quiet on the Western Front isn’t a book to pass up.

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Posted by on May 1, 2013 in Realistic Fiction


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