The First World War was a truly momentous event; things fell apart rapidly all over the world after it; the centre seemed not to hold anymore; millions died or were traumatised because of it; and innocence seemed to give way permanently to massive disillusionment long after everything had become quiet on western fronts. Life became tragic for war survivors and their families; politically the Russian Revolution and Communism became unavoidable after it; feudalism in Europe was swept away, and the great empires of the nineteenth century now felt clearly for the first time that the sun was about to set on them. The rest of the 20th century would be shaped by this war.
The First World War had decisive impacts on the arts too. Internationally, the movement called modernism gained impetus because of the war; major poets wrote moving poems about the futility of the war; Hemingway declared “a farewell to arms” fictionally; Bernard Shaw depicted a British society drifting towards disaster because of the war in his Heartbreak House. Rabindranath Tagore tried to warn the West and the Japanese of the evil consequences of nationalism and the war-mongering that it had led to; and it was only appropriate that his collection of healing song-lyrics, Gitanjali, would be found among Wilfred Owens' remains. Kazi Nazrul Islam's life showed that colonials too were part of the war effort; their lives and literature would also be changed forever by the war.
In short, the First World War would become known as the Great War. It must be seen as “the defining event of the 20th century” (The Economist, March 29, 2014); surely, a good reason for all of us to remember it and reflect on its consequences in this centenary year.
The writer is Professor of English, University of Dhaka.