(a reading response by yours truly for a Political Science Class focusing on World War I)
“Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of us?( Remarque , The Lost Generation; Sources, 307”
This solitary sentence was enough to validate the whole of the hard hitting subject matter found in Erich Maria Remarque’s The Lost Generation. Here we find a soldier begging to be answered, what will become of him and his fellow veterans once they’ve shed buckets of blood in the name of nationalism? We find that notions that were once held romantic are now heavy with disillusion as limbless soldiers come home to a nation they no longer recognize, and who does not recognize them. Would Heinrich von Treitschke dare these young men that they must set their pains aside for the good of the nation? I ponder if the youth of France would still hold heroism up so high, they would deem the suffering of veterans a small price to pay for achieving a hero’s honor? Or would they hold their heads down in defeat and admit Freud has the right idea, as expressed in A Legacy of Embitterment? As I ask these questions, I can’t help but analyze my generation and wonder what will become of us?
As farfetched as it may seem, I believe my generation is victim to falling unto principles currently celebrated by society. Unlike the youth of World War I, it isn’t militarism that is pushed upon us, but vanity, complacency and for some, the unnecessary pursuit of a college education. I base my opinions on the fact that we are all taught from a small age that we are all beautiful and special, an idea that the media has taken a hold of and uses in order to sell us things we don’t need. It is because of vanity that we aim to buy the latest gadget, to drive the biggest car, and in term to fall into deeper debt. This ideal further stretches out to force humans into complacency by believing they need a family and a house in the suburbs, which of course they bought with their Visa credit card. The last ideal which I believe has led my generation to feelings of failure and inadequacy is that of attending college. While I find that college is a worthwhile pursuit for many people, its benefits are lost upon certain individuals who would do better exercising their talents at trade school. All these aforementioned principles held by our current society will no doubt lead my generation to a state of disillusionment, not unlike that Freud describes in his essay, A Legacy of Embitterment.
In Sigmund Freud’s essay, he maintains that Europe’s obsession with nationalism and militarism has led to a generation of disenfranchised souls. Freud wrote, “Then a war in which we had refused to believe broke out, and it brought- disillusionment.” This he blames on the people’s misplaced belief that war could only bring about a state of heroism and grandeur as opposed to the suffering and bloodshed it wrought upon the youth of the nation.
To believe that Heinrich von Treitschke would spit the same verses of nation over ego to a limbless veteran would be as foolish as to think that French students returned from their turn in the Great War with the same enthusiasm with which they left. In The Greatness of War Treitschke writes, “The individual must forget his own ego and feel himself a member of the whole.(Sources, 278)” Words I’m sure a defeated German veteran wish he’d never heard. Just as the French students in Henri Massis and Alfred de Tarde’s study The Young People of Today, wished they’d never uttered, “France needs heroism in order to live.(Sources, 279)” But what is living, if it means a broken heart and a missing limb?
While comparing modern society’s crippling views on human ambition to the principles of nationalism and militarism held at the eve of the Great War may seem foolish, I believe they are detrimental in different yet substantial ways. While one leaves an individual physically disabled the other crumbles the youth’s mind, but both succeed in crushing the given generation’s soul.