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Great War’s Impact on Human Thought


The 20th century can be considered the era of radical changes in the world. Two world wars, revolutions, emergence, and opposition of super states contributed to significant changes in people’s mentalities, the disappearance of past illusions, and the formation of a new world view that was reflected in numerous ideas. Philosophy and literature, as two tools used by individuals to represent their thoughts, also changed under the impact of the Great War and acquired new elements such as a presentiment of a new global conflict and cogitations about the nature of human beings and their need for destruction. The writers and thinkers, such as Freud, Zweig, Orwell, were among individuals who reconsidered their views and offered a new vision shaped by the current context.

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The beginning of the 20th century was characterized by the evolution of philosophic thought and people’s worldviews. People were full of hope for the future and new achievements. At the same time, the global discourse and tension between states also signalized the inevitability of conflict. The situation preconditioned the appearance of the first signs of anxiety in artworks or other works. However, WWI became the event that destroyed all previous representations and cultivated new ones. By that time, it was the bloodiest military conflict with millions of victims and cruelty that cannot but affect thinkers and writers (O’Connor III 2014, 23). For this reason, it is possible to differentiate pre-war and after-war periods in the work of people belonging to these cohorts.

Stephan Zweig is one of the creators whose lives and work were affected by war. He was born in Austria in peaceful times and was sure that stability and security were the basics of society. This idea can be found in the novel, The World of Yesterday. It starts with the description of the early years of the author’s life “When I attempted to find a simple formula for the period in which I grew up, before the First World War I hope that I convey its fulness by calling it the Golden Age of Security” (Zweig n.d., para. 1). Describing that era, Zweig is calm and full of nostalgic feelings “everything had its norm its definite measure and weight,” “the rights which it granted to its citizens were duly confirmed by parliament” (Zweig n.d., para. 1). These traditionally important values were fundamental for the worldview of people at the beginning of the 20th century.

However, after WWI, everything changes for Zweig as he loses the feeling of security, which becomes one of the most important aspects of his life. He experiences a devastating disillusionment that is reflected in his works and ideas. In The World of Yesterday, he states “We of the new generation who have learned not to be surprised by an outbreak of bestiality” (Zweig n.d., para. 4) which means that Zweig accepts that idea of the extreme cruelty of the world and human beings living in it. His next lines demonstrate the critical change and disappointment that emerged as a response to WWI “we who each new day expect things worse than the day before, are markedly more skeptical about a possible moral improvement of mankind” (Zweig n.d., para. 4). Being affected by all horrors of war, Zweig altered his optimistic vision of the future.

Soldiers were another category who witnessed all horrors of war and altered their view of the future and mentalities. For instance, Owen’s war poetry contradicted the public perception of war that was created by multiple patriotic appeals (O’Connor III 2014, 98). Being inspired by the idea to protect his homeland, Owen, like many other soldiers, soon experienced a radical shift in his priorities and mentality. He depicted gas warfare (“Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!”), deaths, and cruelty in trenches to show that the world changed (Owen n.d., 9). The pre-war visions of thousands of people who had to fight altered and became full of hopelessness and disillusionment.

Speaking about the transformation of thought under the impact of WWI, it is vital to discuss Freud and his ideas. Being one of the most prominent German thinkers, he was also impacted by the military conflict that affected his homeland. Before the start of the military conflict, Freud was focused on the investigation of the psyche, civilization, and how the unconscious impacts it. (Freud 1962). He offered the concepts of Ego and Id that regulated the functioning of human beings and their actions, which became the important events in psychoanalysis.

However, with the start of the war, Freud also enters the phase of fundamental change. Because of the reduction in patients, he creates numerous theoretical works that reflect his vision of the current situation. Similar to Zweig, he experiences disillusionment, which is also called the main cause of the mental distress in people “the disillusionment which this war has evoked, and the altered attitude towards death which this – like every other war – forces upon us.” (Freud n.d., para. 3). These two factors are critical now as they affect any individual and contribute to the emergence of a new value system. With the beginning of the war and its development, Freud also starts to realize the nature of human beings and their inability to avoid similar conflicts in the future, which he mainly associates with their unconsciousness (Freud n.d.). In the work Thoughts for the Times on War and Death, he says “we have told ourselves, no doubt, that wars can never cease so long as nations live under such widely differing conditions, so long as the value of individual life is so variously assessed among them” which can be considered one of the first unpleasant forecasts about the future (Freud n.d., para. 5). Freud becomes also disappointed by the state, as the institution that regulates cooperation between people as they “cannot refrain from wrong-doing” and represent people living in them. Under these conditions, he becomes sure that the new war is inevitable, and he suffers from it.

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Orwell is a representative of another cohort as he witnessed both world wars and the rise of totalitarian states along with their opposition. However, his vision of the world and creativity were affected by these military conflicts. He was born in 1903 and did not have the experience of war similar to Freud’s one; his patriotic feelings and the desire to fight against fascism resulted in his participation in the Spanish Civil War (O’Connor III 2014, 145). However, very soon, it turned out to be a great disillusionment, similar to those mentioned by Freud. Cruelty, horrible conditions, multiple deaths, and lack of food in trenches altered the worldview of Orwell and preconditioned the development of a specific approach that was later used in writing his famous novels.

His transformation into an opponent of totalitarianism was impacted by the visions in Spain and his representations of the USSR as the embodiment of war and inhumane qualities. At the same time, he correctly realizes the war is associated with politics and a state “All the war propaganda, all the screaming and lies, and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting” (Orwell 1938, 41). His illusions and ideas of patriotism and the need to resist some global evil lose their relevance as in Spain, he sees the true face of far and becomes impacted by it.

Finally, among issues raised by the war, totalitarianism was one of the most topical ones. In this works, Freud often emphasizes the inevitability of a new crisis and military conflict that will involve multiple states because of the nature of human beings (Freud 1962). In his Thoughts for the Times on War and Death, he warns that the desire for power might result in the appearance of a new type of state with overwhelming power and control (Freud n.d., para. 7). It can be taken as an attempt to warn people about totalitarianism and the horrors of war associated with it. As for Orwell, he is known for his famous 1984 and the idea that “war is peace” (Orwell 2014, 23). However, even before the events of WWII, he was sure that the current state of societies would promote a new global war because of the nature of totalitarianism.


Altogether, the Great War became the event that promoted a critical change in European thought. Thinkers, philosophers, and writers had to reconsider their vision of the future and value systems because of the horrors of war and its impact on society. Freud and Zweig spoke about the disillusionment and disappointment that followed the dramatic events and warned the world about the inevitability of a new global conflict. Orwell also supported this idea and emphasized the danger of totalitarianism that functioned as the main facilitator of military clashes.


Freud, Sigmund. 1962. Civilization and its Discontents. New York, NY: W.W. Norton Company Inc.

Freud, Sigmund. n.d.. “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death.” Panarchy. 2020. Web.

O’Connor III, Charles. 2014. The Great War and the Death of God: Cultural Breakdown, Retreat from Reason, and Rise of Neo-Darwinian Materialism in the Aftermath of World War I. New York, NY: New Academia Publishing.

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Orwell, George. 1938. “Homage to Catalonia.” LimpidSoft. 2020. Web.

Orwell, George. 2014. 1984. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

Owen, Wilfred. n.d. “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Poetry Foundation. 2020. Web.

Zweig, Stefan. n.d. “The World of Yesterday.” University of Washington. 2020. Web.

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