Triumph of the Will: The Birth of Memory (1932)

‘Die Eltern’ [The Parents], Roggevelde German war cemetery, near Vladslo, north of Ypres, Belgium. Kathe Kollwitz, 1928; erected 1932. In ‘The Great War’, Jay Winter and Blaine Baggett, p8. (pic. John Parker) (see also ‘Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning’, Jay Winter, p108-114)

The failure of the final, conscious, acceptance of loss can be sensed in a closer look at Ideal House, and most of the similarly black buildings of the late 1920s. They use not only black. They also include, in fact, small-scale, but insistent bands of decoration. Art Deco flourishes are added to a darkly purist idea; like mausolea gatecrashed by revellers. A sort of mourning jazz.

The decade-long process of private, official and community-based mourning had not brought peace of mind. Parents, like the German sculptor Kathe Kollwitz and her husband who had lost a son, were still left in pain. Their rites had not been sufficient to lay the ghosts of war to rest.

This failure happened because several outcomes of the war remained unresolved or unacceptable. These included:

Guilt: Most Britons welcomed the war at first, so survivors were left with the responsibility for so many others’ deaths.

Irretrievable loss of the past: The Edwardian decade, up to the fabled summer of 1914, that easily imagined moment of imperial apotheosis, was gone forever, overwhelmed by images of horror and death.

Unresolvable paradox: Britain had won, but at what cost? She had ceded primacy to the United States. Could the successes of 1918, of Amiens and the Hindenburg Line, ever outweigh the losses of 1916-17, of the Somme and Passchendaele?

Ideological collapse: The nihilistic horror of 20th century trench warfare could not be squared with the earlier 19th century belief in progress.

Loss of faith in social order: Trust in the state, especially as personified by the General Staff, had been grossly undermined. Something other than official mourning rituals would be necessary to start afresh.

Personal repression: Because the experience of the front was so horrific, fathers found they could not tell their children of what they had experienced; so retelling of the story, important in the process of recovery, was repressed; The tradition of repressing emotion for the sake of outward control, of ‘British phlegm’ or the ‘stiff-upper-lip’, was ill-suited to coping with traumatic memory on a wide scale.

Censorship acting as repression: The official government account of the war spoke mainly of victory while omitting details of horrific losses in personnel. The war as disaster rather than as triumph persisted in many minds as a story yet to be told.

Lack of remains: Hundreds of thousands of bodies had never been found, having been obliterated by ordnance, 72,000 Britons from the Somme 1916 alone. A force stronger than art or ritual would be needed to bring those lifeless bodies home in mind. [In France, the story of 'Anthelme Mangin' is a parallel. For 20 years tens of families claimed him as their own as he lived deranged in an asylum, a victim of shell-shock. Only when his identity was confirmed as Octave Monjoin in 1939 did interest subside, the long-held but futile claims a symbol for France's vast grief for its 1.2million lost men (John Lichfield, Independent, 7/1/2005)]

These unresolved issues, largely unacknowledged, were all very much present at the end of the decade. They provide a backdrop, present like a nagging headache, behind the roaring twenties.

Behind them, however, lay another backdrop, intangible though very real: memory. Memory of the front itself, of the trenches and all their horrors. Memory had fed the decade of mourning, but it was tightly focused, on representing soldiers in heroic statues, along with their guns, and sometimes – as with Jagger – their deaths. It had not engaged with the wider canvas, of which the unresolved issues were the more obvious symptoms.

At the end of the 1920s, therefore, a moment of downshifting seems to occur. This is when the predominant, motivating creative force in Britain becomes traumatic memory. The Great Crash of 1929 and its aftermath can be read as that moment when conscious mourning, merely informed up to then by memory, downshifted into subconscious melancholia, this time being driven by memory, by its will to make itself known. The final lurch into the Great Depression in 1932 represents the triumph of the will of memory. It is no coincidence that this was also the time of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, propagandising Hitler as the man of the hour who makes possible the new, and far darker, future.

In terms of architecture, the shift can be sensed in the growth of influence between the founding meeting of CIAM at La Sarraz in 1928 and their next, hubristic, congress in 1932 when the organisation produced the sweeping urban blueprint later published by Le Corbusier as the Athens Charter.