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Post WWI France (Fall 2012)

            Throughout the past century, it could be strongly argued that the biggest historical event to happen to the world was World War I. In addition to the large effects during the war like change in global power and high amounts of casualties, many regions of the world went underwent enormous changes that shaped their identity for decades to come, none perhaps a better example than Paris, France.

Keeping Germany Away
            One major problem that France faced was that they never seemed to be able to shake off Germany. Especially in World War I, France was absolutely obliterated by the Germans both in casualties and destruction. In order to ensure this wouldn’t happen again, France had to take some repercussions so that they didn’t always feel the threat of the Germans. In order to make sure this happened, certain actions were taken at the 1919 peace conference. Commander of the allied forces, Ferdinand Foch, made a proposition that would possibly stop this. His idea was that the new separation between France and Germany should be the Rhine River. It was believed by many that based on the patterns of history, Germany would probably attack France again and the way things are set up there’s nothing to stop them from doing so. This belief of course turned out to be correct in the coming decades based on the results of WWII, where Germany did in fact attack France again. Reviewing the terms at the Treaty of Versailles, Foch was quoted saying “This is not peace. This is an armistice for twenty years (“Aftermath of World…”)”.

            One force of history that is examined here is politics and government. Not only in the fact that this all occurred due to World War I, France was politically determined to keep Germany away as a threat to them and that eventually influenced some of their cultural decisions going into the 20s.

Economic Activity Changes
            Immediately after World War I, France struggled to get back on their feet after suffering such a staggering amount of casualties throughout the war. Around six million killed with four million wounded (“WWI Casualty and”). With so many of their workers and such a large part of their general population being completely eliminated from the war, France struggled to return to their once-prosperous state from the beginning of the century. Leading into the twenties however, France slowly began to make progress again as the country began to recover and people started to spend money again. Just as the twenties in America were a time of prosper and a new age of culture, France went through a transformation of their own throughout the 20s as well and began having a high amount of wealth again. The term ‘Franc Poincare’ was coined referring to this time of growth starting in 1926, named after their finance minister at the time. Most analysts believe that the exchange rate and large amount of investments into the country of France by their people led to such a high economic spike (Eichengreen). The economy became much more ‘centralized’ and predictable after 1926. Although exports had some amount of contribution to the economic success in France, when it came down to it, investments within the country led to a slow but firm economic boost for France into the middle and late 20s.

            Obviously in the aspect of post-WWI France, this can be related to the force of history of ‘Economics’. In order for France to go through the cultural and artistic revolutions they had occurring, specifically within the city of Paris, their economy needed to flourish. By the mid-20s, they were able to do so and this enabled them to have one of the world’s most impactful changes seen in the 20th century.

New-Wave Artists
            France has always been one of the most famous, if not the most famous country in the world for producing legendary artists and forms of art. Whether it be the worldwide famous genre of impressionism or the eruption of one of the most famous painters of all time Monet, art in France has consistently been an ideal that the country is extremely proud of. Much of this has to do with the fact France hold arguably one of the most beautiful cities in the entire world: Paris. Known as the ‘City of Love’, Paris’s beauty could be found in both the daytime and night by members of all races, classes, and genders. After the horrific outcome of WWI however where about one tenth of the population was either killed or injured, France’s consistently love-filled country took a large hit. This did not however stop the brilliant minds of France from making art. Around 1916, a group of people met at the Cabaret Voltaire in the capital of Switzerland, Zurich, and discussed their discontent with the war and came up with completely new ideas to be incorporated into the world of art. What they came up with was a form of anti-art called ‘Dada’. Dada was essentially its own ant-war movement with a mix of new and traditional styles of art, including but not limited to visual art, theater, poetry, and literature (Budd). In addition to their anti-war feelings due to bitterness from WWI, the movement was also anti-bourgeois, supporting the lower-class through their work. One prominent artist to come out of this time specifically was Jean Crotti who was the creator of the work Explatif that played in Paris. It was largely controversial for its suggestive content and was a milestone in changing the traditional expectation of art in France to this new up and coming idea of Dada. Another controversial work was Marcel Duchamp, a native of France, who presented a work of art in New York City in 1916. It was a urinal. Duchamp had created this new branch of art called “readymade” where you essentially take an object and twist or tilt or readjust it in a certain way where you can then call it art (“20th Century French…”) 

            Another one of the forces of history is art and new ideas. Obviously this new wave of art fits under this category, but a lot has to be said about the impact art during this time had on the rest of the world, specifically Americans. During this time prohibition was occurring in America and those who once thrived in the business now had no place to go. The law of course didn’t apply in Paris and was an open-alcohol world. This was great news for the ‘lost generation’ as some Americans found sanctuary in Paris due to this fact. There was also the fact that Paris compared to America was an extremely free world to live in for African-Americans. During this time in America, African-Americans had little to no rights and Paris was seen by many blacks as a place with an unbelievable amount of freedom. Only few African-Americans were able to take advantage of this fact, but many French artists of the time found these relations as inspiring topics to create art about.

Entertainment and Change of Culture
            After the war, the people of France desperately were looking for ways to become happy again. New ways of thinking were emerging not only within France but the rest of the world as well. One of these new ways can be seen in the Feminine Emancipation. Since the soldiers in WWI consisted only of men, the women during this time period had to learn to live for themselves. This meant that during the period their husbands were gone, they had to learn to find a life of their own in France, not only finding a job and having to take care of their children, but creating their own identity as well. This was something that had not been seen in France in centuries and the fact women could now have employment and not be treated as a sex symbol was quite revolutionary. When the surviving soldiers came home to their wives, they now had an element of respect that had never been present. In 1920s in specific, the people of Paris were known for knowing how to have a good time. They would often go out even on weekdays, something not very traditional in cultures like America. The range of activities included going to operas, the circus, and music hall shows. It was very popular to be in the know on the most recent popular musical activities like opera, just as a modern-day American would often be knowledgeable about recent movie reviews. Movies were also apart of 1920s French culture, a new phenomenon that although usually the upper-class could only afford to pursue, the people of France loved to dive into this new world. 1920s French silent films are among the more popular foreign films with classic love story settings. Speaking of love, Paris was also such a great attraction for spending leisure time due to its reputation of being the ‘city of love’. Pop culture often portrays scenes that include Paris, specifically the Eiffel Tower due to the fact the city itself was slowly becoming a metaphor for love (Rohan).

            Within this section of history in France, personal identities can be labeled here as one of the forces of history. As mentioned earlier, women received their emancipation during this time and people all across France during this time really were simply trying to find out who they were. Not only was the country itself lost in its identity after being so crushed from the war, but the common man simply wanted to explore the new world available to them to find out what their place is. With the economy going uphill, Paris in the 20s created the impression that anyone could do anything they wanted, and there was this sense of freedom that the generation never had seen before. Historians often argue what the ‘Golden Age’ is for many civilizations, but for the people of Paris and France in the 20s, this undoubtedly was the Golden Age.

            Although France had to suffer another crushing blow from Germany in WWII, the post-WWI France had a spark to it that few cultures have experienced in the 20th century. Whether it unprecedented about of new artists that filled the streets, the common man trying to find his place in the world after finally given a great opportunity, or women slowly making their mark and earning some respect, the 1920s were certainly a magical time for much of France. With a generation of people full of hope, promise, fun, the world can learn from what I would definitely consider the Golden Age of France.

  1. Budd, Dona, The Language of Art Knowledge, Pomegranate Communications, Inc. 09 Dec. 2012
  2. Eichengreen, Barry. "CEPR (the Centre for Economic Policy Research) a Network of over 800 Economists Based across Europe." CEPR (the Centre for Economic Policy Research) a Network of over 800 Economists Based across Europe. Cepr.org, Oct. 1986. Web. 09 Dec. 2012.
  3. Rohan, Annie. "The Parisian Life In The 1920’s." Parissweethome.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2012.
  4. "The Eiffel Tower: Paris' Grande Dame". france.com. Retrieved 24 July 2007.
  5. "WWI Casualty and Death Tables." PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2012.
  6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/20th-century_French_art
  7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aftermath_of_World_War_I#France