T.S. Eliot wrote “The Hollow Men” in 1923, five years after World War I ended in 1918. At the time, Eliot lived as an American expatriate in London, England. His poetry of the 1920s responded to the aftermath of the war, especially its effect on the European ethical and literary tradition.
The First World War changed Europe profoundly. About 10 million people died and 30 million were injured, in horrible conditions made possible by new technology such as poison gas and machine guns. The old empires of Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire collapsed. Socialist, Communist, and Anti-Colonialist uprisings became widespread. Through the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was humiliated and forced to take financial responsibility for the war, fomenting the resentment and poverty that lead to the Second World War. The British Empire and many of its traditions, including class and gender structures, were upended. Diseases spread rapidly; the 1918 flu pandemic killed at least 50 million people. In four years, the world became entirely different. Those that remained were in shock.
Modernist writers including Eliot attempted to create new ways of expressing the disillusionment and devastation brought about by the Great War. "The Hollow Men," published in 1925, is a poem of trauma and despair. Like "The Wasteland," published three years earlier, it struggles to collect the pieces of a shattered Europe, and listens for echoes of meaning. It searches for religious faith—and bears witness to the failure to achieve it. A few years later, Eliot would convert to Anglicanism, and subsequently wrote his first major Christian poem in 1927, “Ash Wednesday.” In 1948, Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.