The Vertigo Years: The speed of progress sent us over the edge

Books Philipp Blom wants to counter still-widespread narratives of western innocence shattered by the First World War.

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The Vertigo Years: Change And Culture In The West 1900-1914 
Philipp Blom 

The West in the years before the First World War continues to fascinate. 1914 inaugurated violent destruction on a horrific scale previously unimaginable: millions died and four empires were destroyed - five, if one counts the awakening of demands for independence in the British colonies. There is a strong temptation to look back on the pre-war years - La Belle Epoque, the good old days - with a combination of nostalgia and acute sadness: all that progress, prosperity and bright happiness, blind to the suffering and loss to come.

Of course, the concept of La Belle Epoque is at least in part a post-war construction. Life was anything but belle for most Europeans, who struggled just to get by. And, as Philipp Blom documents in his excellent The Vertigo Years, to whatever extent people's lives were defined by optimism, they were also marked by rapidly increasing anxiety. Blom examines the years 1900-1914, during which speed seemed to define modern life more than ever before. Bicycles (which had exploded in popularity in the 1880s) and cars carried individuals faster than they had ever previously travelled. A German electric locomotive reached the blazing speed of 210 kilometres per hour. The first aeroplanes took off, and in 1909 Louis Bleriot flew one all the way across the English Channel. Early films captured these feats - and an enormous public. More news, information and disinformation flew off printing presses faster than ever. The American engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor developed techniques to measure the time assembly-line workers took to do repetitive tasks, enabling employers to sanction slow performance. This contributed to an industrial speed-up that weighed heavily on labourers; Henry Ford loved it. When a visitor to a factory noticed that most of the workers were quite young, he asked where the older employees were. His hoTeest suggested they step out to see the cemetery.

Science, once thought of as a source of certainties, often generated the exact opposite. Marie and Pierre Curie discovered the power and danger of uranium and radium - then died from overexposure. Ernest Rutherford's finding that matter was in constant movement was followed by Einstein's theory of relativity: neither space nor time nor physical objects were fixed. The old truths seemed to be being knocked off one by one. Avant-garde art, music and literature reflected this by discarding all their old rules. Virginia Woolf worried: "grammar is violated; syntax disintegrated". Was human nature itself changing? What was next?

In his classic The Banquet Years, Roger Shattuck examined La Belle Epoque in France through the lens of four figures he considered to be representative of its innovative culture (Jarry, Apollinaire, Henri Rousseau and Satie). Blom's approach is significantly broader: he considers basically all of Europe, and he does so by reading as much as he can. He has mastered the work of the age's authors - everything from Apollinaire on African art and August Bebel on women and socialism to Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust and even the memoirs of the Russian prime minister Sergei Witte. This helps him convey the experience of elites. But he also wants us to observe how ordinary people experienced the speed of life. To this end, he has read a wide and revealing range of contemporary newspapers and magazines.

Ultimately, Blom, who studied history in Britain but lives in Vienna, covers some very familiar ground while looking at very familiar years, but his wide-reaching synthesis and close attention to the daily life of this "nervous generation" makes The Vertigo Years a significant contribution nonetheless. He is particularly good on Austria-Hungary and Germany, which puts him in a small group of historians writing in English. He is a bit less sure when he crosses the Rhine, but this rarely detracts from his enticing mosaic of the period.

Blom's approach is motivated by his conviction that we cannot understand the years in question by viewing them as a countdown to the shock of Great War. Only by trying our best to forget what came along in the hot August of 1914, he insists, can we gain meaningful insight into "this period which is so massively overshadowed by the events that followed and is too often treated as a hostage to historical inevitability". (Similarly, he writes that he would not have us analyse the 1990s in the US as time suspended before September 11.) This challenge is most difficult, if not impossible. For we do know what came next: Armageddon. The organisation of Blom's book make this hard to put out of mind. Each chapter addresses one year, and despite Blom's best intentions, they march on with relentless predictability built in. No 1915 chapter is needed.

This inevitable psychological obstacle aside, Blom is right that we should avoid simple hydraulic models of history; it is not the case that pressure for war simply built up in the form of entangled international alliances until in 1914 the house of cards inevitably collapsed, ushering in a radically new era with a radically new set of problems. "Modernity," he writes, "did not rise virgin-born from the trenches of the Somme"; part of his project is to suggest that, rather than representing a sharp rupture with the past, the violence of the Great War was embedded in many of the historical events, scientific discoveries and cultural changes he analyses and evokes.

In this time of unprecedented speed, life often seemed to be spinning out of control. As Blom writes: "Velocity can be frightening as well as deeply exhilarating, and it is this fear and rejection of change that echoes." He also quotes the French novelist Pierre Loti's 1917 essay Some Aspects of the World's Vertigo: "Stability no longer exists and we are careen around in that dark void...we have no point of reference which would not be caught up in the vertigo of movement, and this frightening speed can only ever be evaluated relative to other moving things, to other poor little things…which are also falling." Freud suggested that beneath the veneer of "normal human functioning", all was repressed psychic turmoil and sexual desire; to many, that veneer seemed to be eroding. Newspapers brought vivid reports of horrible crimes that seemed to threaten civilisation to public attention. Thousands sought treatment for "exhausted nerves", which became widely known as "neurasthenia".

Feminists seemed to many males and most political leaders to threaten stability. Some threw rocks through store fronts on London's elegant Oxford Street. In 1913, Emily Wilding Davison ran onto a racetrack to stop King George's horse; she was struck and killed. Perhaps it was no coincidence that at a time of vocal feminist challenges and a number of homosexual cause-célèbres, notably the trial of Oscar Wilde in Britain and mean-spirited scandals in German court circles, rates of male duelling - handy as an assertion of virility - reached new heights in many European countries. In France, many obsessed about the country's low birth-rate: when the time came to retake Alsace-Lorraine, would there be enough soldiers?

Those paying attention to the international scene (often, again, with help from the mass press) had even more to worry about. The "entangling alliances" given so much credit for the outbreak of war were basically set with the 1904 Entente Cordiale between Britain and its old enemy France. In Britain, Queen Victoria, who represented the stability long associated with Pax Brittannica, died in 1901 after a dignified reign of more than 60 years. Her son, Edward VII, was another sort of monarch altogether: a rotund, hard-partying lady's man. The presence of "Edward the Caresser" on the throne was hardly reassuring, particularly as the European climate became increasingly tense. In the Austrio-Hungarian Empire, Franz-Josef had been on the throne almost as long as Victoria, but new demands from his constituents (15 nationalities in all) were bringing unprecedented instability. The German Emperor William II was an irresponsible sabre-rattler with a notoriously short attention span (dubbed "William the Sudden" behind his back). Across the continent, militarism became more rampant than ever. Middle-class Germans applauded each time the Kaiser broke a bottle of bubbly over a new ship of war.

Blom's suggestion that the outbreak of war was intertwined with the mood of the era is particularly compelling when he documents the rise of eugenic thinking. "The spectre of decadence, weakness and unmanliness rose everywhere," he writes, "and behind it loomed a machine-power dystopia, in which the masses of the weak and unfit were lulled into artificial sleep by mass entertainments and industrial levelling of all distinctions, all merits and all values. Eugenics appeared to offer a solution to these fears." The British scientist Francis Galton, nephew to Charles Darwin, concluded that the most prominent, superior British families of the finest stock had to be protected from being overrun by the "inferior" classes, and that racial selection could create a race of supermen. As for the rest of us, our reproduction should be limited. Virginia Woolf went even further, writing in her diary of "the long line of imbeciles" she had encountered, one "a miserable ineffective shuffling idiotic creature...[with] an imbecile grin...They should certainly be killed." In 1910, Winston Churchill proposed that 100,000 British subjects of modest means be sterilised.

People from far away were treated far worse. King Leopold I of Belgium held the region now known as the Congo as his personal colony until his country's parliament confiscated it, if not in the name of humanity, at least to end the murderous atrocities of forced rubber extraction. British imperialists roaring about their white man's burden were little better. Blom argues that imperial doings seemed far from the lives of ordinary Europeans, but he underestimates the impact of imperialism in the imagination: the potential thrill of seeing distant places painted in a colour representing one's own country, for example. Even if Blom is correct that William II's subjects, for example, were not actively conscious of their country's expanding empire, it is indubitable that imperial rivalries helped fuel the arms race that helped lead Europe to war.

Thus lots of bad stuff was out there before the Great War, including aggressive nationalism, anti-Semitism, the urge to eliminate undesirables, and the means and will to war. Many Europeans were in varying ways aware of this - and frightened by it. "Madness...had come closer, grown more real." The outbreak of war - which many Europeans had expected since at least 1905 - was a catalyst, not a creator. Blom's fine synthesis makes this clear to readers.

In some ways, as Blom points out but does not develop, we might well be living in a similar period of overlapping, anxiety-provoking uncertainties. Many of the old signposts, most prominently the Cold War balance of power, are gone. "Some of the openness and uncertainty of the Vertigo Years have reappeared, and today it is much more difficult to say what the future will bring for our societies." Perhaps it is fruitless to ask, but perhaps we cannot help it: countdown to what?

John Merriman is the author of Dynamite Club: How a Bombing in Fin-de-Siècle Paris Ignited the Age of Modern Terror. The third edition of his History of Modern Europe will be published in 2010.