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Conrad and the First World War

Niland, Richard (2009) Conrad and the First World War. In: Joseph Conrad in Context. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 155-162. ISBN 0521887922

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Abstract

During the First World War, Conrad believed himself peripheral to a transitional historical moment. In November 1914, he wrote: 'the thoughts of this war sit on one's chest like a nightmare. I am painfully aware of being crippled, of being idle, of being useless with a sort of absurd anxiety' (CL 5, 427). In August 1915, Conrad felt the 'world of 15 years ago is gone to pieces; what will come in its place God knows, but I imagine doesn't care' (CL 5, 503). The political forces of nineteenth-century Europe that had fashioned Conrad's literature, notably imperialism and nationalism, were undermined and unleashed anew by the violence of the Great War and the uncertain legacy of the conflict. Conrad closely observed Poland's fate throughout the war in his relationship with Polish activist Józef Retinger, which inspired 'A Note on the Polish Problem' (1916) and 'The Crime of Partition' (1919). While 1918 saw the political rebirth of Poland, antagonisms provoked by the redrawing of Europe's historical boundaries made Conrad uneasy. On Armistice Day, he wrote: 'The great sacrifice is consummated - and what will come of it to the nations of the earth the future will show. I can not confess to an easy mind. Great and very blind forces are set free catastrophically all over the world' (CL 6, 302).