Social Change after the Great War


Kazimir_Malevich_-_Painterly_Realism_of_a_Football_Player_–_Color_Masses_in_the_4th_Dimension_-_Google_Art_ProjectDuring the last decade of the Edwardian era, profound social and cultural changes were taking place. Essentially, traditional agricultural societies based on feudal modes of governance were being superseded by industrial, urban-centred societies. Historians call this process “modernity.”

Modernity involves the industrialisation of the workforce, the mass-production of goods-essential elements of early capitalism, the economic emancipation of women and the creation of new social and cultural structures to accomodate technological innovations. It also entails the questioning of traditional moral and social values. These changes rapidly create tensions between workers and employers, as socialist parties and trade unions fight for better working conditions. Socialism establishes itself as an alternative to Liberalism. female labour becomes an established part of the workforce as new modes of distribution and administrative work increase. The traditional home and family focus of women declines and competition between the sexes for work creates further social tensions.

The period 1900 – 1920 was a time of immense innovation in transport and communication, with the advent of the motorcar, aeroplane and telephone to name but several. The city rather than the village became the normal living space for the majority of people. These developments were multiplied by the material demands of the first mechanised “total war” in history.

Modernity also involves the decline of established cultural and sexual norms. New modes of expression and new codes of conduct were adopted by the young in the 1920’s, such as the “flapper” generation of that decade. The First World War saw the establishment of new artistic forms and styles, too: the work of Picass0, the popularisation of jazz, and fresh, innovative literature from the likes of D.H. Lawrence, Earnest Hemingway and James Joyce. All served to shock and progress traditional middle class society during this time.

New sciences, and new ways of perceiving our behaviour and the physical world we live in, were at the heart of change. Einstein’s theories of relativity, nuclear physics and Freud’s psychoanalysis utterly changed the way we viewed our world, and with it caused outrage from the defenders of the “old culture.” The displacement of absolutes, particularly in relation to a belief in God, were especially fractious.

The birth of this new order, then, created complexity and conflict; young against old, class struggle, racial conflict, and notably the revival of pre-war anti-semitism in France and Germany. Decisive, brutal solutions to social and political problems were encouraged in fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Speed and action were plauded over contemplation, introspection and moderation.

Arguably, the pre-war decline in religion and the moral precepts of Christian society, together with the trauma of unimaginable numbers of war dead, reduced the belief in the sanctity of human life, enabling dictatorships to embark on acts of mass slaughter without any thought to morality or individual conscience.

All these developments had their early roots in late Edwardian society, but their impact was accelerated by the demands of the Great War. The society of Europe in 1929 was vastly different from that of 1913.

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Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and "A" level tutor with OOL since 1996.

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