Liberals continued to dream of utopia on into the twentieth century. Social gospelers also worked to apply social solutions to society's problems. All these dreams crashed to earth with World War I.

I. World War I

Europe was an armed camp at the beginning of the twentieth century. Tenuous alliances built on deception and self-interest tied nations together. Germany, Austria, Russia, and Britain were Europe's strongest nations. On June 28, 1914, a Serbian trained assassin  assassinated Archduke Ferdinand, the heir to the the throne of Austria-Hungaria. Austrian officials held Serbia responsible and sent a stern ultimatum demanding participation in the assassin's trial. Serbia rejected the demand leading to a declaration of war by Austria-Hungary. Russia rushed to Serbia's aid. Germany entered the war to support Austria. France evaded a request from Russia to declare neutrality and Russia declared war. When German troops swept into Belgium Britain declared war on Germany.

The war barely fazed the Liberals. The initial events shocked them but the shock gave way to optimism. After all, despots ruled the Central Powers--Austria, Germany, and Turkey. Their defeat assured democracy's victory so the war became "a war to end all wars" and a "war to make the world safe for democracy." Most Liberals believed it would last only months.

The German army skillfully cut through Belgium towards Paris skirting the French army. Once in Paris, the war, for all intents and purposes, would be over. The Germans made it the city's outskirts where they bogged down. From that point on the battle lines barely changed.

World War I left Europe in shambles. It's terrific cost in men and material devastated Europe. A total of 65 million men wore combatant's uniforms. In 1914, France's population  numbered only 40 million, France's 43 million, and Germany's was 70 million. Eight and a half million perished in battle and another 21 million sustained wounds. Only World War II resulted in greater casualty figures. The war cost the combatants a total of $216 billion pre-inflated dollars. The British alone incurred costs of $1 million a day for four years. During the Battle of the Somme the British launched a four day offensive losing 60,000 a day KIA in the process. When the battle ended the British forces gained on a half mile of territory. At Verdun the Germans lost 500,000 men. In 1916, 1 million men died with no significant change in battle lines. (Photo: German dead at the Battle of the Somme.)

II. The aftermath of the war

When the horrible cost of war hit home most of the Liberals' confidence, optimism and enthusiasm eroded away. Only a few diehards kept the faith. Almost all emphasis on reform ended and no one cared about curing society's ills.

The peace pressed on the Central Powers by the Allies revealed the depth of their own selfishness. President Woodrow Wilson went to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 only to meet European political reality head on. Wilson's "Fourteen Points," which Europeans had earlier hailed as brilliant, were ignored in the Allies' lust for land and vengeance. The victorious Allies carved up Germany itself and Germany lost all of its foreign possessions. The Allies also divided Austria-Hungary and nearly destroyed Turkey.

After the war Woodrow Wilson also pushed for a League of Nations which he believed would provide a foundation for world peace. He could never persuade his own people to join. The United States Senate rejected the whole concept. Wilson tried taking it to the people stumping the country until he had a massive stroke. He spent the last year and a half of his presidency as an invalid. Wilson symbolizes the Progressive Era's optimism and idealism. Progressivism ended up as crippled as Wilson.

Disillusionment set in on both sides of the Atlantic. Hope of bringing in God's Kingdom gave way to individual piety. Individual piety ultimately turned to skepticism and the church lost its influence.

Republican Warren G. Harding ran in 1920 on a platform which called for "a return to normalcy." Harding's election ushered in the "Roaring Twenties," a period cut loose from all religious moorings.

Despair characterizes the aftermath of World War I. Man isn't getting better! War's inhumanity and cost revealed that. Intellectuals expressed this attitude in the period's literature. Ernest Hemingway  and F. Scott Fitzgerald both demonstrate the period's disillusionment and despair in their novels. Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby portrayed the '20s glitter and its emptiness. The book's message: live for the pleasure of the moment. Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises has the book's hero, a sexually impotent World War I veteran, line up his girlfriend with a Spanish bullfighter so she can have sexual satisfaction. Hemingway's message: society is impotent and all is futile. H.L. Mencken writes caustic satires attacking traditional American values in the Baltimore Mercury. He referred to humans as "homoboobians;" classed all clergymen as frauds to be watched, particularly around young girls; openly opposed public education; defended prostitution, war and vivisection. In one column he proposed to dump the Statue of Liberty outside the three mile limit.

In Europe Nihilism, Anarchism, Socialism, Marxism, and Fascism all began their rise. A fusion in art and politics demonstrates Europe's confusion during and after the '20s. Dadaism, an art style, represents the period's despair. Even though it became popular in France, Dadaism had roots outside the country. Dadaism began in 1916 at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. Hugo Ball organized some "literary evenings" to entertain his guests. The "artists" who participated selected the name Dadaism by opening the dictionary and picking the first word they saw. It so happened it was Dada, a child's hobby horse. Those associated with this "art form" are Hans Arp, Tristan Tzara, Pirabia from Spain, and Paul Eluard of France. What is it? Here are its characteristics:

  • 1. An emphasis on the accidental.
  • 2. An emphasis on nonsense (this world is nonsense, so why not write nonsense?).
  • 3. A need to disturb.

One Dadaist said, "Western culture is in ruins and Dadaism is a survey of the ruins." In time Dadaist painting developed into surrealism; in literary circles writers such as Berthold Brecht and Hermann Hesse illustrate the mood.

III. The religious reaction

After World War I, only a few Liberals remained to hold out hope. Looking at the '20s prosperity, they believed this indicated a return to the "right track." In 1925, Bruce Barton wrote a biography of Christ which became a runaway best seller, The Man Nobody Knows. Barton portrayed Christ as a businessman who took 12 fishermen and turned them into the world's premier sales force. Church and business seemed linked during the period.

The Crash of '29 and the Depression which followed destroyed even the die hard Liberals but by then the winds carried something new.

During the war Karl Barth preached in a congregation in neutral Switzerland close enough to the border

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