THE GENERATION OF 1914 by Robert Wohl


Email this review


The apparent transparency of the title conceals the difficulty of coming to grips with the idea, first, of a historical generation, and, second, with this particular generation. Wohl (History, UCLA) is acutely aware of the problem; for him, however, the point is that this particular generational concept was a tool of self-identification for the people to whom it refers: how was it used, then, by whom, and for what purposes? Who used it is relatively easy in social terms; it was a small literary elite, and Wohl is highly conscious that he is writing the history of intellectuals--he wants his work ""to stand or fall on its ability to illuminate the politics of early twentieth century European intellectuals."" Instead of trying to provide a general concept of this generation at the outset, he devotes separate chapters to France, Germany, England, Spain, and Italy, and describes the specific generational concepts developed in each country. In England, for example, the idea of the ""lost generation"" took hold in literature because of the relatively heavy losses suffered in the Great War by the highly self-conscious, tightly knit British upper class. British intellectuals, emphasizing the theme of old powers leading youth into war, tended to congregate on the political left. In Germany, on the other hand, the war generation became a prime force on the right; and the emphasis fell upon the moral strength acquired through suffering in the trenches that would transform Germany and avenge the ""betrayal"" of Versailles. From the example of France, we see that the idea of ""youth"" in spiritual rebellion against their elders predated the Great War. Here, the ""generation of 1914"" actually covers three distinct age groups: those who reached some measure of literary success before the war, those whose experiences were formed by the war itself, and those who were just young enough to miss serving in the war when it abruptly ended, but were affected by it. In discussing the theory-of generations as developed between the wars, Wohl emphasizes that all the variants appeal to common experience for the idea of a historical generation, and that in at least one important case--that of sociologist Karl Mannheim--the concept of generation is explicitly opposed to that of social class. This last point indicates why the idea of generation proved useful to the right, with the elitism of the intellectuals accounting for their collective antipathy to communism. An elegant, engrossing study that stands on its own terms.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1979
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press