At first glance, Furedi’s argument seems extremely well-trodden.
The idea that the Great War ended in 1945 rather than 1918 was clearly enough stated in Maréchal Foch’s mournful warning that the Armistice was merely a 20-year ceasefire. There’s nothing particularly new, either, in the notion that two world conflicts simply segued into Cold War. And it’s nearly 40 years since Paul Fussell in The Great War And Modern Memory showed that the Western Front has become the paradigm of paradigms, the vast collective trauma that shaped the 20th century.
So what’s new? Well, Frank Furedi is an able controversialist, but also a brilliant historical sociologist, and it’s the latter role that predominates here. This isn’t another example of Paxman-like, shouty revisionism about the First World War, but a brilliant essay in the history of ideas, and in the decline of ideas as a shared currency. Furedi makes clear that the war was not just about sovereignty, empire, markets or even militarism, but was a war between cultures which continues today in what we call the Culture Wars. He rather scoots past the obvious point that the Great War, like its successor, should probably be described in the plural, as a concurrent series of conflicts with global implications, rather than a “world war”; and also that nationalism, demonised in just about every schoolbook as one of the “causes” of the First World War, was instead the most dangerous outcome of Versailles.
He does state, though, that the real trauma of the war was what happened after it, rather than what happened at Passchendaele, and he makes clear that the paradigmatic experiences tracked by Fussell were the result of what might be called a cultured exaggeration by an intellectual elite which was losing its “natural” (i.e. post-Enlightenment) role and adopting a tragic and apocalyptic view of life instead.
Furedi’s argument hinges on three main concepts, usefully emboldened in the text. The first is “existential insecurity”, which he sees as extending throughout Western society. The second is “exhaustion”, which is more than battle-weariness and closer to the “end of everything” theses that have fuelled cultural studies since the oil crisis in the 1970s. The last is an “intellectual crisis experience by Western capitalism ... recast as the crisis of the intellectual”.
He could have gone further in identifying the weirdness of the inter-war years, which saw the rise not just of fascism and fortress Bolshevism and Freud, but also of table-rapping and - much more influential than Einstein - JW Dunne’s Brief Experiment With Time, a book that could only have come out of a seriously messed-up society. Furedi points out the oddity of a political landscape in which liberal (actually, neo-liberal) ideas have little or no foundational logic and in which right-wing ideas are criminalised and driven to the “lunatic fringe”, masking the obvious point that while the Western democracies play at being liberal and democratic, they function according to a deeply conservative reliance on the market and on government as gendarmerie.
The emergence of apathy, convergence (“they’re all the same”), political passivity and pragmatism are well covered, as is the fate of capitalism, as both idea and practice. Somewhere in the disconnect between ideologies and actual experience, we live our confused lives.
In fact, there’s too much in this remarkable book to summarise. The text is marred by shaky proof-reading but despite the avoidance of anecdote and historical colour, it’s a riveting read and probably the one essential read of this centenary year.
The impression is of a culture shell-shocked, PTSD on a historical scale. And as Furedi concludes his narrative with 9/11, the “War against Terror”, it’s hard not to think of Chou En Lai’s overquoted response when asked about the French Revolution. The real impact of the First World War? Too soon to tell.