I’ve always been very interested in early twentieth century society, with the old ways rapidly giving way to the new. Somewhere along the line I became particularly interested in World War I. Like most teenagers, I read All Quiet on the Western Front in high school (well, I don’t know if most teenagers actually read the book, but I was one of those students who actually did her homework). Maybe it started there. The book follows Paul Baumer as he experiences the horrors of the western front in France. Page after page we read about the deplorable conditions of the trenches, the constant presence of lice and rats and the threat of death by a sniper or an errant artillery shell. Yet there’s one particular image from the book that stands out in my mind all these years later: butterflies.
So why butterflies? Because that is what Paul sees when he returns home on leave: a glass case of butterflies he had collected when he was a boy, a symbol of his childhood. The chapter in which Paul is away from the front stands in stark contrast to the rest of the book. It is a reminder of life before the war, a life which Paul, and all the others who fought, could never return to, at least not easily. Paul feels this keenly:
I imagined leave would be different from this. Indeed, it was different a year ago. It is I of course that have changed in the interval. There lies a gulf between that time and today. At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had only been in quiet sectors. But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it. I find I do not belong here anymore, it is a foreign world…I prefer to be alone, so that no one troubles me. For they all come back to the same thing, how badly it goes and how well it goes; one thinks it is this way, another that; and yet they are always absorbed in the things that go to make up their existence. Formerly I lived in just the same way myself, but now I feel no contact here. ~All Quiet on the Western Front, chapter 7
Four years of war wrought extreme changes on society. It not only left an indelible mark on the men who fought, but had a huge impact on the home front. It ushered in the roaring ’20s, a time of excess as young men and women tried their best to forget the war.
Granted, changes were already occurring as new technologies developed, but the first world war worked as a catalyst, propelling society into the modern age. I find the period fascinating, and that is why I chose it as the backdrop for my first novel.
So here’s my question for you history lovers out there–why is it that you love the time period that interests you? What is it about the period that captivates you in a way that other periods don’t?