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On the Edge

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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 us the car might look like a museum piece, but to the bystanders caught in its tailwind, it was rushing past at the velocity of modern life itself.

Blom, a German-born historian and journalist who lives in Vienna and writes in both German and English, hopes to make the reader share his subjects’ vertigo by asking us to share their ignorance of the future. He invites us to

imagine that a voracious but highly selective plague of bookworms had attacked the world’s libraries eating through books and photos, films and other records, and devouring all historical information dealing with the time between July 1914 and 2000.

Only in this way, he suggests, can we experience Europe from 1900 to 1914 “just as it was lived by the people of that time.”

Curiously, Blom echoes here the formula of Fustel de Coulanges, the great nineteenth- century historian of ancient Gaul, whom Walter Benjamin quoted in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History”: “To historians who wish to relive an era, Fustel de Coulanges recommends that they blot out everything they know about the later course of history.” But Benjamin quotes this dictum only to refuse it: “There is no better way of characterizing the method with which historical materialism has broken,” he writes. What Benjamin enjoins instead is the “process of empathy” by which the present-day writer turns to the past in order to redeem its sufferings. Against the historian, Benjamin poses a novelist, Flaubert, who said about writing Salammbô, “Few will be able to guess how sad one had to be in order to resuscitate Carthage.”

Blom does not write with a Benjaminian sadness. On the contrary, he brings an appealing energy and curiosity, and occasional humor, to his subject. Some parts of his narrative are familiar—his account of Viennese culture owes a good deal to Allan Janik and Brigitte Hamann, and his treatment of the Edwardian aristocracy to David Cannadine—and there are occasional superficialities, as he attempts to cover every notorious figure in a period fertile in them. Yet Blom has been remarkably successful at synthesizing a wide range of material, creating a panorama of the whole of European culture during this frantic time—and not just high culture, but the transformation of everyday life by revolutions in sex, shopping, science, and sociology.

But while The Vertigo Years does not read like an elegy, inevitably Blom is writing to make sense of past sufferings. For all his insistence that he is trying to make a lost civilization come alive, he is really conducting its autopsy; and we read The Vertigo Years not just for its wealth of stories, but for an answer to the question: Why did Europe commit suicide? The looming catastrophe lends the most trivial pre-war episodes a certain portentous irony. For instance, Blom quotes “the gossipy Abbe Mu- gnier” writing in his diary about the trial of Henriette Caillaux, which transfixed France in the summer of 1914. Henriette was the wife of Joseph Caillaux, the minister of finance—his second wife, and previously his mistress, a fact that Le Figaro was in the process of trumpeting to the world by publishing love letters leaked by the first Mme Caillaux.

Infuriated by the exposure, Henriette went to the office of Gaston Calmette, the newspaper’s editor, and waited for him to arrive. When he did, she asked, “You know why I’m here, don’t you?” and emptied a revolver into him. Remarkably, this cold-blooded act was presented by the defense as a laudable example of wifely loyalty, and Mme Caillaux was acquitted of murder. It was to this news that the abbé Mugnier was reacting when he wrote in his diary, on July 29, 1914: “Ah! How the conservatives, how the Catholics will shout!” This was followed by a whole entry railing against the hard-heartedness of those who wanted Mme Caillaux convicted. Not until the end did the abbé curtly note: “Austria has declared war on Serbia.”

Blom quotes this in the same spirit of dramatic irony that makes historians love to quote Louis XVI’s diary entry for July 14, 1789: ” Rien.” Once again, the complacent French were in for a surprise; within a week, the death of Gaston Calmette would be eclipsed by the deaths of millions, then tens of millions, of soldiers and civilians across Europe. Yet the Caillaux murder does not serve Blom simply to dirty the illusory pristineness of the pre-war years; in its way, it also sheds light on the war about to come.

Gaston Calmette’s hatred of Joseph Caillaux, Blom explains, had nothing to do with the politician’s infidelities. It dated back to the Agadir crisis of 1911, one of the many diplomatic scrimmages that look in retrospect like practice runs for World War I. In that episode, a German gunboat anchored in the Moroccan port of Agadir, ostensibly to protect German citizens during a tribal rebellion. In fact, Blom writes with his usual eye for the telling, absurd detail, there were no German citizens in Agadir—the closest one, “a man named Wilberg,” had to be fetched from a town seventy-five miles away, to keep up appearances.

Instead, Germany was challenging France’s protectorate over Morocco, and testing the strength of Britain’s commitment to its Entente partner. When Britain indicated that it would fight in support of France’s claims, Germany backed down. Caillaux, at that time the French prime minister, was able to negotiate a peace settlement in which Germany granted France’s claims in Morocco, taking in exchange a swath of French territory in Equatorial Africa—what Blom calls “100,000 square kilometers of disease-ridden swamps and grasslands in the Congo.” To Blom, this escape from war at a minimal cost looks like a triumph for Caillaux. But in the eyes of belligerent conservatives like Calmette it was treason—a reminder of the disgraceful loss of Alsace-Lorraine—and Caillaux was driven from office. Three years later, when Calmette had the chance to ruin Caillaux for good by publishing the notorious love letters, he seized it.

In this way, Blom uses l’affaire Caillaux as a window onto the big themes—nationalism, imperial rivalry, revanchism—that he prefers not to treat directly. In fact, it is striking how seldom politics takes center stage in The Vertigo Years. This is especially notable if one contrasts Blom’s book with its famous predecessor, Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower,* which deals with almost exactly the same period (its subtitle is “A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890–1914”). Blom follows Tuchman in many particulars. In both books we learn about Bertha Kinsky, who fell scandalously in love with the heir of the family she served as a governess, married him against his parents’ wishes, and eventually became, as Baroness von Suttner, one of Europe’s leading peace activists and a winner of the Nobel Prize; about General Die-trich Hülsen-Haeseler, chief of Germany’s military cabinet, who dropped dead while clad in a pink tutu, dancing for Kaiser Wilhelm’s entertainment at a hunting party; about Camille Saint-Saëns stalking indignantly out of the premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps (though only Blom quotes him: “If that’s a bassoon I’m a baboon!”).

Yet for Tuchman, these are grace notes decorating a story emphatically about politics: the great-power rivalry that would lead to World War I, and the class conflicts that would destabilize postwar societies and lead to the rise of communism and fascism. She writes at length about the Dreyfus Affair, the anarchist assassination campaign that claimed the lives of kings and presidents across Europe, the Hague peace conferences of 1899 and 1907 that so signally failed to bring world peace, and the Parliament Bill debate of 1910–1911 that deprived the House of Lords of its traditional powers. The Proud Tower is a book for which politics matters, because it was the failure of politics that led to the slaughter Tuchman evokes in her title, which comes from Poe: “While from a proud tower in the town/Death looks gigantically down.” As Tuchman writes in her foreword, “This book is an attempt to discover the quality of the world from which the Great War came.”

  1. *

    Macmillan, 1966.

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