In 2014 we celebrate the centenary of the First World War. It was the war of the trenches and machine guns, the war that was commonly called “The Great War”.
We believe that, if this war can really still be called great, it is because of the enormity of the horror and the carnage it produced. Nevertheless, the fact remains that it should be also remembered as one of the major initiatory events of the modern era. The Great War stands as a huge point of no return, as one of the facts after which nothing is as it was before. This is true from the historical perspective as well as from the scientific and the cultural ones.
A few examples and a few quotations can clarify this assumption: it was after the Great War – such an unimaginable occurrence only some years before – that four once super-powerful empires (Austria-Hungary, Germany, Ottoman Turkey, and Russia) suddenly dissolved, self-disintegrating into a number of small countries, and giving rise to a series of socio-political tensions that, even if on a smaller scale, are still present in the world of today.
In those years the advances in technology were awesome, particularly with regard to military applications. It can be said that the Great War was the first completely mechanized conflict ever, in which technology began to turn men into machines, or into pieces of machinery. In any case, when the soldiers realized the incredible power of destructions of the new weapons, the pacifist conscience, which is today one of the best features of our society, was born and spread by the most sensitive amongst them. Writer Ernest Hemingway, an ambulance driver on the Italian front, reflected on these issues and, combining horrors with sad amazement, portrayed Catherine Barkley, the nurse protagonist of A Farewell To Arms, remembering an English friend fallen in the battle of the Somme: «I remember having a silly idea he might come to the hospital where I was. With a sabre cut, I suppose, and a bandage around his head… Something picturesque… He didn’t have a sabre cut. They blew him all to bits».
As to the influence of the Great War on culture, the significant sentence by Fernand Legér, an eminent French painter who served in the Argonne front, best embodies the whole issue: «I was stunned by the sight of the breech of a 75 millimetre in the sunlight. It was the magic of light on the white metal… For my artistic evolution, this event taught me more than all the museums in the world». Perhaps a bit overenthusiastic for today’s world, these words clearly express the impact of the conflict – with its load of violently mechanical and coldly energetic experiences – on the most receptive artists, to whom it revealed a new approach to reality. It is not necessary to mention, after Léger’s words, the large amount of writers, poets, painters, photographs, and film-makers – more evidence of the modernity of the Great War lies in the fact that it was one of the first filmed events in history – who used, and keep on using, that conflict as the subject of their works.
During the last one hundred years, the public memory of the Great War particularly in Italy, has always been alive but, shall we say, somewhat unbalanced. Even though it celebrated the places and the people connected to the war events – we have tangible proof in the very names of places in our cities -, it did not often pay proper attention to the cultural heritage we received from the conflict. According to the commitments of Inkroci, we felt that our contribution to the celebration of the centenary should go far beyond the military facts, and rather emphasize the artists’ voices – sometimes critical, sometimes thoughtful and even speechless – which were inspired by these facts. So we will able to meditate, together with our readers, on the sense of the Great War and, above all, on the influence it still casts on our present.
In Inkroci 6 you will find four articles on the Great War: the film reviews on Mario Monicelli’s La grande Guerra (The Great War) and on Francesco Rosi’s Uomini contro (Many Wars Ago), the review on Nathalie Bauer’s novel Ragazzi di belle speranze, and an interview with the author.
Translation by Michele Curatolo (edited by Ester Tossi)