“The Sun Also Rises.” Ernest Hemingway’s early success was published in the mid-1920s when the world was still reeling from the effects of the unfathomable Great War, also known as the War to End All Wars and World War I.
It wasn’t just that an estimated 17 million people died as the direct consequence of the fighting, with another 50 to 100 million dying from the influenza epidemic of 1918 that broke out in its wake.
It was also the precursor to the war that followed just 20 years later, World War II. It was what made World War II an inevitability, at the cost of another 50 to 85 million military and civilian fatalities. The period between the wars was called by sober historians, “The Long Weekend.”
It’s safe to say between the two phases, then, of this one conflict combined for over 100 million dead from combat and another 100 million dead from its collateral consequences.
Compounding the inexplicable horror of this was the fact that the fighting and killing took out the most educated people in the history of the planet to date.
It was fought amid the most civilized currents of humanity. And to boot, it was orchestrated by a “royalty” that was interrelated. King George V of England, Czar Nicholas II of Russia and Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany were, after all, blood relatives, cousins.
Between the three of them, they oversaw all of this, and the average citizen may ask, “How could this have possibly happened? How could these three cousins been incapable of preventing a carnage that would cost over 200 million relatively educated human lives in the 30-year period from 1914 to 1945?
It is inconceivable that it could have come about by accident, that it could not have been cut short at any number of points to prevent the genocide. I contend that the ruling classes did this on purpose, to undo the whole effect of the Enlightenment and the potential of an educated and cultured humanity to overthrow their rule.
So, we are now coming up upon one major inflection point in this whole unspeakably horrid period, the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, changed in the U.S. to Veterans Day in 1954 as a day to honor all military veterans.
The end of World War I became official on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 when the treaty between the Allies and Germany went into effect. What was Armistice Day in the U.S. was known as Remembrance Day in Europe.
But, alas, how few will be in a position to “get it” about the 100th anniversary coming up in just a few weeks, just after, in fact, the momentous November 6 midterm elections.
The realities of what was unleashed in 1914 was best documented in the post-World War I literature of the 1920s and 1930s, the works of those, the likes of Vera Brittain, Virginia Wolff and Ernest Hemingway.
It was all three of these authors who, in graphic, starkly realist and minimalist style, caught the grim mood of the post-war civilization, reeling from the unspeakable carnage, and the rape of modern civilization.
The destruction ultimately led to the rise of fascism on the continent and the beastiality that would fuel and even greater war to come too soon.
The radical hedonism of the Weimar period was only a shallow cover for the internalized horror of what had transpired by a people so wholly unnerved that they could not connect with anything.
Anything of the deeper human cultural bonds that were so obliterated by the war.
Still, standing in the middle of all this, comes the haunting title, “The Sun Also Rises.”
How dare a novelist turn such a phrase in the midst of such chaos. Did it stop the succession of events that veered all too soon to World War II? Of course not.
But it defined an outlook on life that one, no matter how shattered and dismayed, could always resort to.
Now in the throes of yet another crisis, America needs to reclaim this again, and kick the bums out on Election Day.
Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected].