What the poppy really means
The War was followed by an elite backlash against civilisation
Why do modern architects hate humanity? The question echoes around one my favourite corners of the internet, Reactionary Architecture Twitter. Powered by a loathing of the modernist and post-modernist built environment, it’s weirdly popular, signalling an about-turn towards traditional aesthetics, which has even seen Britain’s reactionary-in-chief, Prince Charles, enjoying a (sort of) comeback.
When “Return” seems to be the future, it’s easy to forget that in the 20th century, modernism was popular. The Victorian city centres whose demolition we now mourn were dismissed as relics of the past. Many celebrated their replacement with modern, progressive steel-and-concrete boxes.
But less often asked than “Why is it all so ugly?” is: how did we get here?
This might seem an odd way to start an article about Remembrance Day, and the centenary of the Poppy Appeal. But writing about how we commemorate the Great War, over a century after it ended, is to ask: what, exactly, are we remembering? And why?
Of course, when we memorialise that war, we honour its 10 million dead and 23 million mutilated. But, less obviously, we also mark the start of an ongoing, monumental collective effort of forgetting.
The most visible traces of that forgetting are everywhere around us, in the modernist art, architecture and anti-culture that seemed, to contemporaries, not just necessary but essential in the wake of the Great War: a wholesale reboot of human culture.
At root, the modernists hoped that somehow, if they could only make everything, clean, rational and anti-traditionalist enough, we’d never have to go to war again.
Why, then, did Europe go to war? Popular sentiment todayholds that the Great War was fought for democracy. This is also the story America has always told about its own involvement in the conflict. But it’s far from clear that the modern-day abstraction of “democracy” was uppermost in the minds of British people in 1914, when the war began.
The Europe of 1914 was a place of competing empires, where the word of hereditary monarchs still had meaningful sway. The heads of state of three of the main belligerents were first cousins: George V of Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, and Tsar Nicholas of Russia. As historian Miranda Carter shows, the glittering, solipsistic worlds of these three royal cousins became ever more out of kilter with the industrialising empires they ruled.
Ever more intricate webs of alliances, woven by statesmen in the name of realpolitik and balancing competing interests, drove Europe’s imperial powers inexorably toward disaster. After the assassination of Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand, Britain declared war on Germany partly out of treaty obligations to Belgium, but more broadly to maintain that balance.
It wasn’t until America’s 1917 entry into the fray, under Woodrow Wilson, that anyone talked about “democracy” as a motivating force in the conflict. Wilson’s liberal internationalism blamed an inherently unstable dynamic of “power politics” for the bloodbath, and sought a new way of ensuring peace through “collective security”.
Though it’s widely understood today that Wilson’s efforts helped to create the conditions for a reprise of world war in 1939, recent writers see in Wilson’s project the first germs of the “liberal international order”. The settlement imposed on Germany after 1918 was, after all, America’s first go at imposing democracy at gunpoint.
So from the perspective of grand historical narratives, the poppy marks the end of the 19th-century world of great-power politics, and the long, slow ascent of the supposedly universal Pax Americana.
From the perspective of the ordinary citizen, of course, the poppy simply marks an unimaginable loss. You’ll find a memorial in every parish up and down the country, some huge and some simple plaques. They’re markers of a collective grief, all the more unspeakable because so universal.
In some British families, World War I killed every adult man. The memorials where their names are carved remind us that the schemes of statesmen impose a terrible cost, in empty seats at dinner tables in ordinary homes.
But today even those who remember the fallen are almost all gone themselves. So what, in fact, is the loss we’re left to remember? It’s perhaps most clearly visible in the things we no longer feel able to celebrate, except in subcultures such as Reactionary Architecture Twitter.
For the Great War saw the beginning of the end for faith in the foundations of European culture. By the end of 1918, Tsar Nicholas was beheaded by revolutionaries, Kaiser Wilhelm was deposed and exiled, and George V presided over a broken, debt-ridden empire. The war precipitated a crisis in institutional Christendom. It spawned the first Communist state. And it shattered confidence in Western civilisation.
Patriotism took a hammering; and, perhaps more profoundly, so did institutional Christianity. Most Christian denominations on both sides of the war supported the conflict: according to historian Philip Jenkins many at the time viewed it as “a holy war”. Notoriously, in 1915 the Bishop of London declared it the duty of “everyone that puts principle above ease” to “kill Germans […] not for the sake of killing, but to save the world”.
The aftermath saw an elite backlash not just against nationalism, but also traditional religious faith and cultural forms. As historian Anna Neima shows, after the Great War all energy among the world’s avant-garde focused on how human society might be re-imagined, such that nothing as horrifying could ever happen again — by transcending borders of faith or nation.
Humanity, such visionaries hoped, might be induced to forge links across mere national identity in favour of something higher. In the early Twenties, the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, founder of the utopian Santiniketan-Sriniketan community, expressed this vision in a letter to fellow utopian Leonard Elmhirst as “a great meeting of world humanity”.
The elites who corresponded, shared inspiration and travelled between these and other utopian communities, reads like a Who’s Who of high modernism. Figures as diverse as Amartya Sen, Anton Chekhov and Aldous Huxley were shaped by contact with these attempts to forge humanity anew atop the smoking rubble of the imperial 19th century.
Some went on to found their own visionary communities: in due course, Elmhirst founded his own at Dartington Hall, near Totnes in Devon. In time, Dartington served as a petri dish for further influential modernist innovations, including progressive education and battery farming.
At Dartington and other communities like it, all traditional practice was to be thrown on the scrap-heap. Classical music; realist painting; traditional architecture. Everything should be new, stripped of the atavistic loyalties that had powered the slaughter of millions and left Europe in ruins.
Very little survives now of the original reasons to mourn, and none of the original mourners. But we go on remembering every year. Because even if there’s no longer anyone alive who feels the real-world loss of those ten million who lost their lives, we still feel the shock of the catastrophe that ended Europe as the heart of world civilisation, in the name of realpolitik.
Today, with a century of hindsight, it’s clear that Wilson’s enthusiasm for “national self-determination” itself contained a measure of realpolitik. For in practice, the high American ideal of nations shaping their own destinies meant unravelling the dominions of America’s Old World imperial rivals.
And the liberal internationalism Wilson inaugurated has itself, ironically, come adrift in another set of poppy fields: those of Afghanistan. Now, the American civilisation that took the torch from Europe is itself embattled, under economic and cultural siege in a once-again multipolar world. And as the ghosts of 19th-century style realpolitik stir and begin to mutter, so too the poppy has become a site of culture war.
For some, the poppy is about patriotism, jingoism, an unreconstructed Kipperanschauung. So we get the annual row over wearing a poppy on telly, or a tabloid scandal about some zealot setting fire to poppies to signify their contempt for those who hew to a sense of national identity.
And as we drift ever further through the digital looking glass, so too the byproducts of Remembrance Sunday get steadily more unreal. This year, you can commemorate the end of institutional Christendom, the collapse of four empires, and 100 years of the poppy, with a limited edition NFT inscribed with the names of 118,000 fallen Canadians. Or if you say “Dulce et decorum est” three times into the mirror, the Poppyman will appear (maybe).
But perhaps we go on remembering, ritually, every year, as a means of acknowledging that the West did in fact once have an astonishing, vivid, remarkable culture — and that we blew it all, along with millions of lives, in two immense bonfires between 1918 and 1945.
This week, I’ve watched my small town putting up the wrought-iron soldier silhouettes that mark Remembrance Sunday here every year. Metal outlines round empty air, they’re perfect emblems for how we reacted to that disaster.
They stand as markers for the ghostly persistence of that old Europe, whose spirit burned out in the Great War. And they’re perfect metaphors for the collective decision we made in its aftermath, to evacuate our civilisation of everything suspected of having caused that cataclysm.
It turned out that this meant evacuating our civilisation of, well, everything. And having more or less completed that emptying-out, no one is quite sure what to believe any more. But if history suggests anything, it’s that now the end of history has ended, something will eventually come along capable of mobilising people at scale, for another round of grand historical events.
As ever, when that happens, it’ll be statesmen who shape the bigger story. And no doubt this will be formed of countless little ones. We can only hope these don’t end up told in empty seats, around dining tables in ordinary homes.