On the Edge

kirsch_1-043009.jpg
An undated cartoon from the German satirical magazine Der wahre Jacob, in which Kaiser Wilhelm II’s close friend Prince Philipp zu Eulenburg arrives at Liebenberg, his country estate, while his servants extend their rears. Eulenburg had been accused of homosexuality by a journalist who called him ‘the Harpist.’

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word—the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

It is difficult not to share Larkin’s feeling, knowing what the future had in store for the men and women, and especially the children, of 1914. The long nineteenth century was ending, with its self-assurance, its continual progress, its seeming emancipation from catastrophic wars; the twentieth century, with its world wars and holocausts and nuclear weapons, was about to begin. The British foreign secretary, Edward Grey, was more prophetic than he could have known when he mused, on August 3, the day before Britain declared war on Germany: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

In The Vertigo Years, however, Philipp Blom demonstrates that much of the “innocence” we now associate with the pre-war years is the result of an optical illusion. It is only next to the exceeding darkness of what follows that the years 1900–1914 can look beautifully illuminated. Take, for instance, the case of Ernst August Wagner, a provincial German schoolteacher whose story Blom examines at length. “On 4 September 1913,” Blom writes, Wagner “woke up in the early morning, got out of bed, took a bludgeon and a knife and butchered his wife and four children.” Then, after dropping in on his brother’s family for a pitcher of beer, he boarded a train for Mühlhausen, a nearby town where he had worked several years earlier. When he arrived, he set fire to four houses, then took out two pistols and shot twenty people in the street, killing eight of them.

With this crime, the century’s distance between us and The Vertigo Years seems to collapse; Mühlhausen has become a version of Columbine. It is a very effective reminder that, as Blom writes in his introduction, “to most people who lived around 1900 [the] nostalgic view with its emphasis on solidity and grace would have come as a surprise.” It is not enough to say that the pre-war years were a time of transition—so are all times. More important is that they were a time acutely, fearfully aware that the world was changing in ways that could not be halted or mastered. As an epigraph to his chapter “1913: Wagner’s Crime,” Blom quotes Pierre Loti: “Today humanity…sees its evolution accelerating too furiously, just as all long falls into the abyss accelerate.” That dread of acceleration explains why Blom has chosen, for the cover of his book, a Lartigue snapshot of a race car, circa 1912. To …

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