In 1928 Karl Mannheim devised a completely new concept of generation. Not just the natural regeneration of a population, Mannheim theorised that a generation shares a common dramatic fact that influences and forms every concept, every belief, every behaviour of that particular group of people that lives in the same time, place and cultural environment.
There’s no doubt that WWI formed the generation of Weimar. The young people who fought in the trenches thought their elders, their parents, their fathers and mothers, could not understand what that meant. The experience of war was so intense and life-changing that those young men truly believe nobody but others like them could understand. They did know that their fathers’ world was gone forever and its values with it, and so they thought their elder could teach them nothing useful and they had to create their own new world, with their own new values. Besides, they were not scared of experimenting. Any novelty was worth trying.The Front Generation felt that their elder had sent them to fight #WWI and they would never understand what that meant #history Click To Tweet
For women, the war meant emancipation and independence, for young men, the war meant a new ideal, a new way of life and new expectations.
The patriotic soldier became the model to strive for. Strong, brave, physically apt and handsome, noble in spirit, he would give his life gladly for his nation and his people. It seems a very positive ideal, but it often turned on its head. Because this was the virile ideals, the contrary of it – or what it was perceived as contrary – became dispiseable: ugliness, immorality, cowardice, weakness. These characteristics were often attached to ‘the other’, the outcast, like Jews, homosexuals, but also intellectuals and even former soldiers who couldn’t cope with the experience of the war or were permanently disabled.
The 1920s saw the rise of the new woman, but also the strong reaffirmation of masculinity.
The Frontgeneration (The Front Generation)
The Frontgeneration started to come together right after the war, in the messy world of the Revolution and then the Weimar Republic. At first, they gather in organisations that were almost secret societies, to share the experience that non-veterans could hardly understand. These youths sought to create a new world, different from the one which died in WWI. They utterly refused the passivity of their elders and wanted to act. They refused to look back at the past and tradition and stubbornly looked ahead. They felt that they had fought a war that had taken all certainties from them, but had also given them the skills to create a new reality that rested on the values they had learned in the trenches: bravery, courage, camaraderie.
These values of the trenches soon merged with the new nationalism, which brought these ‘secret societies’ to the light. Paramilitary forces of every kind were born, entities that sought to recreate a romanticised version of the experience, the brotherhood of the trenches. The virile affirmation of national pride often turned into violence, since for these youth that had fought in the trenches, violence was a part of life that they were ready to use again.
The Weimar Republic was a heavily militarised society, where the elders came from a Prussian cultural upbringing and the young came for WWI. Seeing a future of peace was probably hard for everyone.
Enzo Travero, A ferro e fuoco. La guerra civile europea (1914-1945), Il Mulino, Bologna, 2008
Walter Laqueur, Weimar, A Cultural History 1918-1933. Weidenfeld and Nicolson Ltd. London, 1971
Gunther Mai, Die Weimarer Republik, C.H. Beck Verlag, Munchen, 2009
Hi Sarah – I’ve been so interested in reading these – you’ve really opened my eyes to history on continental Europe, Germany in particular. It’s difficult to get our heads round this male/ female thing when there is still such a huge degree of separate values … which instead of coming together seem to be getting worse. The posts have been really enlightening and thought provoking – thanks … cheers Hilary
Somehow, I didnt’ expect this dichotomy between male and female and I found it very interesting myself. Though in a way it echoes last year’s theme about Film Noir and the femme fatale and the damaged hero. Not exactly the same thing, but connecting in many places.
It’s so interesting to see how this generation defined itself. And, on reflection, it’s not at all surprising that these young people didn’t want to be passive, and that that view would coincide with the rise of National Socialism. It all makes sense if you look at the so-called big picture.
My idea is that history *always* makes sense if we have the pacience to learn and listen 😉
I never even thought of it in this manner but it is so true. The war like thinking was still in their hearts in some ways and the young were so lost
Yes. And in many ways, though for different reasons, it isn’t so very different today.
The first time I came across the gulf in thinking between the youth who actually had to fight the war and the elder statesmen sending them to fight was in that classic “All Quiet on the Western Front”. It should be required reading for all – so powerful.
A-Zing this year at:
Normally found at:
I havent’ read it, but I have been thinking I should.