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No Man’s Land

Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age

by Modris Eksteins
Houghton Mifflin, 396 pp., $24.95

The Lost Voices of World War I: An International Anthology of Writers, Poets and Playwrights

edited by Tim Cross
Bloomsbury, 406 pp., £14.95 (paper)

Passion and Rebellion: The Expressionist Heritage

edited by Stephen Eric Bronner, edited by Douglas Kellner
Columbia University Press, 468 pp., $14.00 (paper)

Frieden für Europa: Die Politik der Deutschen Reichstagsmehrheit 1917-18

by Wilhelm Ribhegge
Reimar Hobbing, 414 pp., DM48

German Liberalism and the Dissolution of the Weimar Party System, 1918-1933

by Larry Eugene Jones
University of North Carolina Press, 660 pp., $42.50


Each of the two World Wars not only changed the political, social, economic, and ideological structure of the world in a very practical way; they also left behind symbols that have continued to haunt us. These may be place names—Verdun, Gallipoli, Auschwitz, Hiroshima; they may be types—the Unknown Soldier, poilu or Tommy, the Aviator, the War Profiteer (“hard-faced men who looked as if they have done very well out of the war”), the Collaborator or “Quisling,” the Resistance Hero. The wars also seemed to represent symbolic values, both positive and negative—national solidarity (“the Spirit of 1914”), courage, comradeship, sacrifice, but also mass destruction, often for futile ends.

In the case of the First World War several books, notably Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford, 1975) and Eric Leed’s No Man’s Land (Cambridge, 1979), have shown how the war experience entered the language and modified men’s conceptions of themselves. Now Modris Eksteins in an imaginative and ambitious book has set out to show how our modern consciousness, the whole complex of moral, aesthetic, and social attitudes we label as “modernism,” was born out of the Great War, and how, parallel with the war itself, the art of the twentieth century was not only expressing aspects of the war experience but actually, Eksteins seems to suggest, contributing to the creation of that experience. Symbols have prophetic as well as a retrospective force. They suggest the way in which men will act when they perform the roles that history assigns to them.

Professor Eksteins suspends the web of his argument between two symbolic events which he describes in detail: the first performance of Stravinsky’s ballet Le Sacre du printemps in Paris on May 29, 1913, and the arrival, also in Paris, of Charles Lindbergh on May 21, 1927, after his solo crossing of the Atlantic in an airplane. At first sight the juxtaposition of these two apparently quite dissimilar events seems somewhat strained, but the author sees them as aspects of the same phenomenon.

But if we look beyond the immediate excitement, we see a motif that recurs again and again,…a motif that no one discussed at the time, but that runs through the cultural landscape like a black thread. The war.

The first night of the Rite of Spring is an episode of which one seems to have read so many accounts that one wonders whether another is really needed; but Eksteins skillfully uses it to illustrate many themes that he develops later in his book—the challenge of modernism (not just in Stravinsky’s score but in the architecture of Auguste Perret who built the Théatre des Champs Elysées where the Sacre was performed), sexual emancipation, and, above all, a violence and intensity that seemed to some observers a symptom of impending cataclysm. “It was,” one critic wrote, “a Dionysian orgy dreamed of by Nietzsche and called forth by his prophetic wish to be the beacon of a world hurtling towards death.”

No one claims that Stravinsky wrote with an impending war in mind. But the feeling that the war when it came was indeed a “rite of spring,” a ritual both of renewal and violent sacrifice, was at first widespread. Eksteins quotes the German Expressionist poet Ernst Blass:

Wir werden solchen Frühling, bald verschattet,
Nie wieder auf der weiten Welt erleben.

(Such a spring, soon in shadows, never shall we experience in the entire world.)

And the great German historian Friedrich Meinecke wrote,

On the Yser Canal, where the young reserve regiments of volunteers attacked, there now lies our ver sacrum…. Their sacrifice for us signifies a sacred spring for all of Germany.

There are a number of other examples in an interesting international anthology of work by writers killed in the Great War, The Lost Voices of World War I, edited by Tim Cross and with an excellent introduction and conclusion by Robert Wohl. Among the poems quoted are lines such as Wilfred Owen’s “But not / for us vile winter and the need / Of sowings for new Spring and blood for seed.” The Breton poet Jean-Pierre Calloc’h, in a poem that links French victory with freedom for Brittany, wrote, “New Year, year of war! Be blessed, even should you bring, wrapped in the folds of your cloak, alongside springtime, for the world, death for me.” (The editor and publishers of The Lost Voices must be congratulated for printing the original texts, even when they are in Breton or Armenian, opposite the translation.) Perhaps it is not as far-fetched as it at first may seem to regard Stravinsky’s Sacre as a symbol of the war to come.

But the war soon came to symbolize many other things, good and bad. The reason for the extraordinary welcome given to Lindbergh nine years after the end of the war—he was, Eksteins writes, “revered more openly in 1927 than were the astronauts who walked on the moon in 1969”—was that he symbolized an aspect of the war which somehow transcended the horror of the trenches.

The air ace was the object of limitless envy among infantry, mired in mud and seeming helplessness. Soldiers looked up from their trenches and saw in the air a purity of combat that the ground war had lost. The “knights of the sky” were engaged in a conflict in which individual effort still counted, romantic notions of honor, glory, heroism and chivalry were still intact…. The most significant technological achievement of the modern world was thus also seen as a means of affirming traditional values.

The symbols created by the war were, that is to say, politically ambivalent, just as the poets in The Lost Voices were both “modernist” and traditional. The Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci wrote,

The spiritual conquests achieved during the war, the communistic experiences accumulated in four years of bloodshed undergone collectively, standing shoulder to shoulder in the trenches, would be in vain if we do not succeed in placing each individual in the framework of a new collective life.

But the war experience as symbol of social solidarity was much the same for the Nazi who told an American sociologist, “The war had taught us one lesson, the great community of the front. All class differences, staunchly entrenched before the war, disappeared under its spell. Out there it was what a person was, not what he seemed, that counted.”

And the great French painter Fernand Léger was not the only artist for whom the war symbolized a new populism: “The war enabled me to discover the people. It completely changed me.”

Even people such as the poet Siegfried Sassoon who had emerged from the war most convinced of its futility could all the same remember moments when “everyone suddenly burst out singing.” Moreover, even if the memory of the fraternization between British and German troops facing each other in the trenches at Christmas 1914 (vividly described by Eksteins) was soon overlaid by systematic hate propaganda from the authorities at home, it was never wholly forgotten and was revived when, some years after the armistice, a new generation was coming of age who were very aware of the horrors and slaughter of the war.

It is notable that this new interest in the war and the revival of some of its symbols, as exemplified by the adulation of Lindbergh, coincided with the onset of the Great Depression. As George L. Mosse has put it, “Was it that the cumulative disappointment of the peace, now confirmed by the Great Depression, led to a revival of the War Experience, and in a few cases, such as that of Erich Maria Remarque, to a reconstruction of the war as ultimately responsible for the present crisis?”1 Professor Eksteins in his discussion of the flood of war book that appeared in 1929–1930, of which the most famous was Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, writes, in a most interesting chapter analyzing the novel and its reception, “The war boom of the late twenties and early thirties was a product of [a] mixture of aspiration, anxiety, and doubt.” It came at a moment when movements for international understanding were flourishing—the Briand-Kellogg Pact for the Renunciation of War, for example; and Aristide Briand himself described Remarque’s novel as “a beautiful and true book. It has four millions of readers in all countries. Why? Because men have had enough of war.”2 But it also came at a moment when a new strident nationalism, especially in Germany, was deliberately reviving the symbolism of the Great War in its political propaganda.

Remarque’s book, coarse as it now seems, in its vivid and sometimes moving evocation of the humdrum and the horrible typical of life in the trenches or the hospital wards seemed to symbolize the pointlessness of the war experience. As such, it was welcomed by pacifists and denounced by militarists or even simple patriots, so that, as Eksteins tells us, it was banned from military libraries by the Czechoslovak Ministry of War. Its significance lies not so much in what it actually tells us about the war (and in this connection it is worth comparing it with another famous realist novel published while the war was still going on, Henri Barbusse’s Le Feu) as in what it tells us about the state of mind of people some ten years after the armistice. “All Quiet can be seen not as an explanation but as a symptom of the confusion and disorientation of the postwar world.” Eksteins also sees in the book not only revolt against the war and the society that produced it but also the expression of a certain fascination with death and destruction:

Like the Dadaists, [Remarque] was spellbound by war and its horror, by the act of destruction to the point where death becomes not the antithesis of life but the ultimate expression of life, where death becomes a creative force, a source of art and vitality.

Perhaps Professor Eksteins pushes his point beyond what Remarque’s text will actually take, but he brings out clearly the ambiguity of the war experience and of the symbols in which it lived on.

They were symbols that another exsoldier, Adolf Hitler, whose war experience was, Eksteins points out, more genuine than that of Remarque, extrapolating “several months’ experience into a general account of the war,” knew how to exploit effectively. Robert Wohl in his conclusion to The Lost Voices of World War I writes of Hitler,

One cannot help being struck by the fact that the man who plunged Europe into war in 1939 and carried her to the verge of self-destruction…was a veteran of the trenches and a member of the generation of 1914. Hitler liked to say that he was an artist who worked on history, recalling paradoxically the modernists’ pre-war vision of a cultural revolution. But the revolution Hitler had in mind and set out to realize was far from the one that the modernists had dreamed of during the heady years of “intellectual intoxications” before 1914.

  1. 1

    Two World Wars and the Myth of the War Experience,” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 21 (1986), p. 502.

  2. 2

    F. Siebert, Aristide Briand (Zurich and Stuttgart, 1973), p. 508.

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