Thursday, November 06, 2008

The vertigo years

Europe 1900-14

Nov 6th 2008
From The Economist print edition

The Vertigo Years: Europe 1900-1914
By Philipp Blom

Basic Books; 512 pages; $29.95. Weidenfeld & Nicolson; £25

IMAGINE, suggests Philipp Blom, that a “voracious but highly selective plague of bookworms” had deprived us of all knowledge of 20th-century history after 1914. How would the early years of the last century look when taken on their own, rather than overshadowed by the cataclysm of the first global war?

Seen against the backdrop of what followed, the period 1900-14 was a golden evening of civilisation: a time of social stability, peaceful international relations, political reform and economic integration, leavened by startling technological and cultural progress. Yet as Mr Blom argues in his masterly and panoramic history of Europe in the pre-war years, to the “nervous generation” actually living through it, the era felt rather different. For them it was a time of jarring uncertainties, when solid 19th-century conceptions were corroded and eroded. Rudyard Kipling had mourned the already visible (to him at least) fading of British imperial power in his hugely popular “Recessional”. Matthew Arnold, whom Mr Blom quotes in the same passage, wrote of “the long, withdrawing roar” of declining religious faith in his poem “Dover Beach”.

Scientific notions such as radioactivity, and the spooky new business of X-rays, were turning things upside down too. So were philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and Ludwig von Wittgenstein. “If scientific analysis made the world fall apart, philosophical reason poured acid over the remaining truths,” argues Mr Blom. But out of those uncertainties came the age in which we live now.

Mr Blom musters a rich array of details and sources to bolster his argument. His book gives a chapter to each year, stitching together developments in the German-speaking world (his forte) as well as neurotic France, reactionary Russia and self-confident Britain. His themes range from sex to science, from high politics to gruesome crime, from advanced art to popular literature, all dotted with entertaining nuggets of court and other gossip. As the reader reaches the economic and social decline of the English aristocracy after the death of Queen Victoria, it helps to be told that the libidinous King Edward VII was known as “Edward the Caresser” by his disrespectful subjects. Fans of Marcel Proust will be intrigued to know that the French literary titan was obsessed with motorcars: what would now be termed a “petrolhead”. And who will see Walt Disney’s “Bambi” with the same eyes in the knowledge, waspishly passed on by Mr Blom, that his creator, Felix Salten, was the anonymous author of a notorious pornographic novel?

It is a slight weakness of the book that smaller countries are almost ignored. As the narrative sweeps between the great powers of Europe, the reader is left wondering what happened in, say, the Netherlands (then still an empire), in Sweden or in Italy. A second criticism is a possible over-emphasis on sex. The era was indeed marked by an unbuttoning of Victorian sexual mores, by the activities of some brave if marginal feminists (such as the British campaigners for women’s suffrage), by increasing female employment and by a decline in the importance of male muscular strength. It is interesting to see problems ranging from naval shipbuilding to public health viewed through the prism of sexual angst. But it is quite a leap to maintain, as the Vienna-based Mr Blom does, that “all instinct is ultimately sexual.”

A third and more substantial point is that much of the then newfangled thinking that Mr Blom describes would have been regarded by most people at the time as deranged, freakish or irrelevant. Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, Virginia Woolf and Rudolf Steiner all had their followings; their popularity casts revealing light on the cultural and intellectual needs of the time. Their ideas are interesting even today. Yet in his excitement to portray the shock of the new, Mr Blom risks neglecting the fact that the previous century had left a solid legacy. For most people, it was that world—orderly, patriarchal and even devout—that still dominated daily life.

That should not deter the reader from enjoying Mr Blom’s impressive and thought-provoking book. His particular gift is to encapsulate complex historical and biographical events pithily and in an illuminating context. The story of Belgium’s monarchical colonists in the Congo is a gruesome tale of inhumanity (the bit about children’s hands being amputated to punish their parents for slow work is not easily forgotten). It is aptly compared with German and British behaviour in southern Africa. But it also gives the chance to explain how Edward Morel and Roger Casement launched what was, in effect, the first international human-rights campaign, using the mass media to bring an unstoppable torrent of public criticism to bear on the Belgian authorities.

The book brings the fears, enthusiasms and blindspots of the period brilliantly to life. If civilisation lasts another 100 years, perhaps an equally talented historian will one day compare the first decade of this century to its dizzying counterpart before 1914. If so, Mr Blom’s book is unlikely to be bettered as a source.

No comments: