Historical story

Cultural elite enthusiastic about war

Last updated:2022-07-25

On November 4, 2011, Ewoud Kieft will defend his thesis on idealistic creatives and their view of the First World War.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, it sparked enthusiasm among a large part of Europe's cultural elite:the war would wake up the decadent and materialistic European society and reduce man to his essence, many artists and intellectuals believed. In his dissertation, literary scholar Ewoud Kieft of Utrecht University follows a number of French and Dutch writers and artists who converted to the Catholic Church from this idealism and who turned out to be the most fervent war enthusiasts.

In the period 1870-1918, a religious revival took place in Western Europe among writers, artists and intellectuals. In the most secularized milieus in particular, the need grew for meaningful stories that should give society renewed spiritual strength. In 1914 this culminated in widespread enthusiasm among the cultural elite about the outbreak of the First World War, which would put an end to decadence and materialism.

Europe's primal spiritual power

Ewoud Kieft sketches a group biography of several writers and artists from France and the Netherlands, who were so carried away by utopian dreams of a new, inspired world order that they converted to the Catholic Church. They wanted to bring about reforms in this church, which they saw as the embodiment of Europe's primal spiritual power. These intellectuals – including Jan Toorop, Max Jacob, Otto and Adya van Rees, Jacques Maritain – turned out to be the most ardent supporters of the war in 1914, and in the war years that followed as nationalist propagandists.

Mental development of the elite

By closely following their lives, Kieft provides a close-up look at the mental development that a significant portion of Europe's cultural elites went through from the late 19th century onwards. Kieft makes visible continuities from the period 1870-1918 that contributed to the emergence of the 'political religions' of the later twentieth century.