Post-War Disillusionment: The Theology of Crisis

The end of the Great War created considerable disillusionment. Had the vast cost of the war, both in terms of material and human lives, been worth it? The impact of the First World War upon European culture cannot be overstated. The years 1918–22 saw remark- able alterations in western European self-consciousness. Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West (1918) spoke ominously of the death of western culture. Spengler argued that democ- racy is the form of government found in declining civilizations. What was needed, he argued, was strong leadership, if the west was to emerge from this dark and dangerous period. Such ideas also found support from the writings of J. B. Bury (1861–1927), who poured scorn upon the idea of continuous development of human culture, civilization, and ideas in his Idea of Progress, published in 1920.


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The immediate post-war years were widely perceived as witnessing the final collapse of the cultural heritage of the nineteenth century, with shock-waves which were felt in every sphere of intellectual and creative activity. The Russian Revolution seemed to many to confirm the fragility of western culture, and raise questions about the future of democracies in Europe. In an unrelated development, much of western Europe suffered a flu pandemic, which was probably spread so rapidly on account of the Great War, with its mass move- ments of armies, especially aboard ships. It is also likely that widespread malnourishment made people weaker, and less able to recover. It is now thought that between fifty million and one hundred million people died from the pandemic worldwide.

It is very difficult to summarize the situation in which western Christianity found itself following the trauma of the Great War. Some believed that the situation before the war could be restored, leading to international Christian collaboration resuming. Others were more sanguine. It would take a long time to heal wounds and recover from the ruptured relationships caused by international conflict. Others believed that the conflict had exposed deep inadequacies in existing assumptions about the nature of the church and human nature, which would have to be addressed before progress could be made.

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