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About the Big Ideas (English)
Social and economic class are among the factors that determine opportunity. People began to challenge the traditional class structure in early twentieth-century Britain. A new political party called the Labour Party was formed in 1900 to fight on behalf of the working class. By the middle of the century, a group of writers known as the Angry Young Men were attacking the snobbery and hypocrisy of the British upper class.
Women also began to seek greater political power in new and bold ways. The once-peaceful suffrage movement in Britain took radical action after Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. British suffragettes began throwing eggs at government officials and chaining themselves to lampposts to draw attention to their cause. Bowing to the pressure, the British government finally gave women over thirty the right to vote in 1918. The voting age for women was lowered to twenty-one in 1928.
Britain had continued expanding its overseas territories during the 1800s. Some British writers, such as Rudyard Kipling, took a pro-colonialism stance. George Orwell, who had served as a colonial police officer in Burma (now Myanmar), opposed British imperialism and its abuse of power.
The British referred to World War I as the Great War. The main battlefield for British troops, known as the Western Front, stretched across a vast portion of northern France. Losses were great during the war, with some 58,000 British soldiers killed or wounded on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. British losses totaled more than 400,000 by the end of the battle.
Poetry of the Great War
Modernism was a literary and artistic movement that developed in the early 1900s and continued through the 1940s. Modernism was heavily influenced by scientific ideas in biology, psychology, and physics, including Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and Sigmund Freud’s theories about human behavior.
During the early stages of Modernism, artists decided to forgo realism in favor of the abstract. Cubism, an art style developed by painters Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, depicted people or objects as angular, geometric, or fragmented shapes. Another style called Surrealism was influenced by Freud’s focus on both the subconscious and the role of dreams in human behavior. Surrealist artists included Salvador Dalí and René Magritte.
Early Modernist writers were influenced by contemporary artists. Around the time of World War I, Imagist poets used techniques that mirrored Cubism, an art form that presented an object from several perspectives. With a world at war, Modernist writing took on a bleak tone that bordered on despair. Poet T. S. Eliot turned away from established meters and experimented with free verse. Psychology influenced the fiction of Modernists James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, who used a literary technique called stream of consciousness to reflect characters’ free-flowing thoughts, feelings, and memories. Joyce’s Ulysses took stream of consciousness to new levels by integrating elements of realism, comedy, irony, poetry, song, and myth into a cohesive narrative.
In a world overtaken by war, technological advances, and greater social freedom, writers considered the dearth of subjects they could write about and realized that nothing was off-limits.
Artists by Movement: Surrealism
World War I left many British citizens, particularly intellectuals, writers, and artists, with a sense of disillusionment. Traditional ideas of military heroism and national honor, once respected, were deemed worthless. Nonetheless, Britain had to continue fighting or risk takeover by ruthless dictatorships.
Only Britain remained standing against Nazi Germany after France fell in June 1940. Germans bombed British cities from the air, but the country remained defiant under the leadership of Winston Churchill. Britain’s Royal Air Force was successful in fending off an invasion. However, the air raids and subsequent rocket attacks took many lives and left major cities, particularly London, in ruins. Fiction writer Elizabeth Bowen became known for her vivid depictions of London during the bombings.
By the end of 1941, the Soviet Union and the United States had joined Britain in the war effort. Together, the Allies defeated Germany and Japan, and the war ended in 1945. However, the wartime alliance broke down, and a Cold War erupted between the Soviet Union and the United States. New threats of nuclear war and global annihilation loomed over postwar Britain.
Britain did not recover quickly from the devastating effects of World War II. With the country virtually bankrupt, food and coal shortages forced strict rationing. The effects of two world wars led to the end of the British Empire and independence for India, Pakistan, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Burma (Myanmar), and Palestine (Israel). The loss of these British colonies was a blow to national pride for some citizens but a relief to others. In peacetime, reformers saw new opportunities to help alleviate economic and social injustice.
The Labour government set out to create a modern welfare state, whereby the government offers basic services to its citizens. With the passage of the National Insurance Act and the National Health Service Act in 1946, funds and health care were provided to those in need. The British welfare program became the model for most of postwar western European.
World War II Resources
Brave New World: The Welfare State
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