What the poppy really means: an elite backlash against civilisation

What the poppy really means: an elite backlash against civilisation. By Mary Harrington.

When we memorialise [WWI], we honour its 10 million dead and 23 million mutilated. But, less obviously, we also mark the start of an ongoing, monumental collective effort of forgetting.

The most visible traces of that forgetting are everywhere around us, in the modernist art, architecture and anti-culture that seemed, to contemporaries, not just necessary but essential in the wake of the Great War: a wholesale reboot of human culture.

At root, the modernists hoped that somehow, if they could only make everything, clean, rational and anti-traditionalist enough, we’d never have to go to war again. …

The modern left goes to work:

It wasn’t until America’s 1917 entry into the fray, under Woodrow Wilson, that anyone talked about “democracy” as a motivating force in the conflict. Wilson’s liberal internationalism blamed an inherently unstable dynamic of “power politics” for the bloodbath, and sought a new way of ensuring peace through “collective security”.

Though it’s widely understood today that Wilson’s efforts helped to create the conditions for a reprise of world war in 1939, recent writers see in Wilson’s project the first germs of the “liberal international order”. The settlement imposed on Germany after 1918 was, after all, America’s first go at imposing democracy at gunpoint.

So from the perspective of grand historical narratives, the poppy marks the end of the 19th-century world of great-power politics, and the long, slow ascent of the supposedly universal Pax Americana.

WWI marked the beginning of the end for European civilization (and its gene pool):

From the perspective of the ordinary citizen, of course, the poppy simply marks an unimaginable loss. You’ll find a memorial in every parish up and down the country, some huge and some simple plaques. They’re markers of a collective grief, all the more unspeakable because so universal.

In some British families, World War I killed every adult man. The memorials where their names are carved remind us that the schemes of statesmen impose a terrible cost, in empty seats at dinner tables in ordinary homes. …

The Great War saw the beginning of the end for faith in the foundations of European culture. By the end of 1918, Tsar Nicholas was beheaded by revolutionaries, Kaiser Wilhelm was deposed and exiled, and George V presided over a broken, debt-ridden empire. The war precipitated a crisis in institutional Christendom. It spawned the first Communist state. And it shattered confidence in Western civilisation.

Patriotism took a hammering; and, perhaps more profoundly, so did institutional Christianity. Most Christian denominations on both sides of the war supported the conflict …

The aftermath saw an elite backlash not just against nationalism, but also traditional religious faith and cultural forms. As historian Anna Neima shows, after the Great War all energy among the world’s avant-garde focused on how human society might be re-imagined, such that nothing as horrifying could ever happen again — by transcending borders of faith or nation.

At Dartington and other communities like it, all traditional practice was to be thrown on the scrap-heap. Classical music; realist painting; traditional architecture. Everything should be new, stripped of the atavistic loyalties that had powered the slaughter of millions and left Europe in ruins.

Very little survives now of the original reasons to mourn, and none of the original mourners. But we go on remembering every year. Because even if there’s no longer anyone alive who feels the real-world loss of those ten million who lost their lives, we still feel the shock of the catastrophe that ended Europe as the heart of world civilisation …

Perhaps we go on remembering, ritually, every year, as a means of acknowledging that the West did in fact once have an astonishing, vivid, remarkable culture — and that we blew it all, along with millions of lives, in two immense bonfires between 1918 and 1945.