It’s hard to overstate the visceral impact of World War I on the nations who were scarred by it. Part of the shock came from the staggering casualties. In countries where fighting took place, over 16% of the entire population was killed (Serbia), with even major nations like France and Germany lost more than 3 or 4% of their populations. The scale of the devastation was compounded by the sense that modernity itself had betrayed civilization, however. Prior to World War 1 disease was always deadlier than human weapons, but this changed in World War 1. With newly invented weapons science–the guiding light since the dawn of the Enlightenment–had betrayed an entire civilization. The governments, churches, and other modern institutions that created and perpetuated the war without any ability to foresee it’s true cost cast centuries of political and philosophical progress into doubt.
Surrealism (along with its progenitor Dadaism and its successor Postmodernism) was the reaction to this horror. With it, Western society recoiled convulsively from the core conceit of modernity: the supremacy of logic and reason. The Surrealist Manifesto advocated expressing thought in the “absence of all control exercised by reason” and took as its core article of faith “the omnipotence of dream.” When confronted with the War to End All Wars, the surrealists decided that if reality had become the the ultimate nightmare, any and all dreams and hallucinations were superior to reality.