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…

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