In his poem “MCMXIV,” Philip Larkin looks back with pity and some astonishment at the England that greeted World War I, “Grinning as if it were all/An August Bank Holiday lark.” Every trivial detail of the year 1914, described as if it came from an album of old photographs—the hats, the mustaches, the advertisements—strikes the poet, writing in 1960, as unbearably innocent:
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.”
For Blom, who disavows such retrospective prophecy, politics matters much less than culture; or, rather, he writes out of the assumption that everything commences as culture and finishes as politics. In this, he offers what seems like a characteristically twenty-first-century, European perspective. He is writing, after all, at “the end of history,” when fundamental debates over how to organize societies and economies seem less important than questions of identity and styles of living.
What this means in practice can be seen by contrasting Tuchman’s and Blom’s treatment of Prince “Phili” Eulenburg, a German political figure who, like Caillaux in France, was hounded to ruin by the press. The difference was that Eulenburg, a confidant of Kaiser Wilhelm II, was homosexual, a crime that could not be as easily forgiven as Henriette Caillaux’s homicide. Tuchman, whose book appeared in 1966, writes about Eulenburg with obvious distaste, more or less endorsing the view of his persecutor, the editor Maximilian Harden, that the presence of “homosexuals in the immediate circle of the Kaiser” revealed “rottenness in high places,” creating “an impression of perversion everywhere.” She deals with the episode in one long paragraph, just after discussing the premiere of Richard Strauss’s Elektra —another example of what Romain Rolland called “Neroism in the air.”
Blom, on the other hand, devotes seven pages to Eulenburg’s fall, and makes clear that it was the vengeful homophobia of his enemies, not Eulenburg’s sexuality, that was the truly monitory aspect of the affair. Harden, who wanted to discredit the Kaiser’s habit of ruling through favorites rather than through Parliament, launched a nasty campaign of sneers and innuendoes against Eulenburg, who had been one of Wilhelm’s dearest friends for two decades.
The Kaiser immediately broke with Eulenburg and ordered him to return his decorations. A series of libel trials ensued, the stress of which gave Eulenburg a heart attack that confined him to bed. Blom describes how Harden summoned no fewer than 145 men as witnesses, having them file through Eulenburg’s sickroom, “stare at the broken man and pronounce that yes, they had indeed been intimate with him.” It all sounds as gruesome as the Oscar Wilde trial a decade earlier.
Yet in Blom’s telling, this minor episode has wide ramifications. For it illuminates one of the main contentions of The Vertigo Years, which is that pre-war Europe suffered from a profound and threatening uncertainty about sex and gender. In Eulenburg and Wilhelm we can see two interpretations or performances of masculinity, Imperial German–style. The Emperor was notoriously insecure, always needing to impress people with his toughness and energy, which often meant acting like an impetuous bully (his nickname was “William the Sudden”). In part this was the legacy of his brutal upbringing: born with a crippled arm, the young prince was subjected to merciless physical training so that he could cut a proper figure.
“Wilhelm would often amuse himself on his Baltic cruises,” Blom writes, “by summoning all guests for morning gymnastics on deck and then giving a well-judged push to one of the generals puffing on their hands and knees so as to enjoy the hilarity when they collapsed in a heap.” But with Phili, the Kaiser was never so crude. Eulenburg was a deeply cultured man, a composer and playwright, who preferred a life of aristocratic leisure to the pressures of a career. He had a wife and children, and liked to pass the time hunting at his country estate at Liebenberg, where the Kaiser was a frequent guest. “Whenever he came into our Potsdam home,” Wilhelm said of Eulenburg, “it was like a flood of sunshine in the routine of life.” In contrast with his usual roughness, Wilhelm treated Eulenburg with delicate affection. Sergei Witte, the former Russian prime minister, remarked that Wilhelm “sat on the arm of the prince’s chair, his right hand on Eulenburg’s shoulder, almost as if he were putting his arm around him.”
When Harden’s slander campaign began, the Kaiser wrote to Eulenburg asking if he was truly “beyond reproach regarding certain allusions.” But was he really surprised to learn that Eulenburg was homosexual? Or was he simply frightened that once Eulenburg’s homosexuality became known, his own masculinity would be compromised in the eyes of his subjects? This was the same ruler, after all, who insisted on having the biggest fleet with the biggest ships; who started a royal regatta at Kiel because he could never win the one at Cowes; who always appeared in public wearing a military uniform, the more elaborate the better.
There is something symbolic, even novelistic, about Wilhelm’s rejection of Eulenburg. Like Prince Hal dismissing Falstaff, it meant choosing convention, cruelty, and power over loyalty and honesty. This might seem to grant the episode too much importance, but in fact, the same dynamic was at work everywhere in turn-of-the-century German culture. Theodor Fontane’s novel Effi Briest appeared in 1895, a little too early to make an appearance in The Vertigo Years, but it too hinges on the conflict between Germany’s official masculinity and the vulnerable human feelings it stifled. Near the end of the book, Innstetten, Effi’s cuckolded husband, talks with his friend Wüllersdorf about whether he should challenge his wife’s lover to a duel. “I’ve been insulted, scandalously deceived, but in spite of that,” he admits to his own bewilderment, “I feel no hate at all, much less any thirst for revenge.” If it were strictly a matter of his own feelings, he would let the matter go.
But it is impossible for a gentleman not to avenge his injuries; what would people say if they found out?
Wherever men live together, something has been established that’s just there, and it’s a code we’ve become accustomed to judging everything by, ourselves as well as others. And going against it is unacceptable; society despises you for it, and in the end you despise yourself, you can’t bear it any longer and put a gun to your head.
It is amour-propre, not genuine feeling, that drives Instetten to challenge Effi’s lover and kill him. Mightn’t it have been the same with Kaiser Wilhelm and Eulenburg?
Yet not everyone in Germany or in Europe was so convinced of the Moloch-like unappeasability of the “code” that was “just there.” Throughout The Vertigo Years, Blom is particularly interested in people who tried to show that there were other ways of living together, that the dead grip of the past could be relaxed. There were, for instance, the British suffragettes, whose campaign of civil disobedience prefigured those of Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King Jr. in the US. Their great tactical insight was that the same British paternalism that denied women the right to vote would be deeply scandalized by the sight of women—respectable, middle-class women—being manhandled and mistreated when they sought to assert that right.
Thus, in 1905, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney “interrupted a speech by Sir Edward Grey at Manchester Free Trade Hall by constantly shouting: ‘Will the Liberal government give votes for women?,’ only to be first ignored, and then dragged away by police.” Given the option of paying a fine or going to jail, the women chose the latter, and the spectacle of their leaders behind bars helped to further radicalize the suffragettes. Soon they were marching on the House of Commons, vandalizing the Crown Jewels, and embarking on hunger strikes. The vote was not won until after World War I, but in their activism, the suffragettes offered a vision of female empowerment that helped transform British society. As Blom cleverly observes, the women we see in posed photographs of the period now look confined and antique, whereas the police surveillance photos of imprisoned suffragettes—their hair down, their corsets off, without makeup—look strikingly contemporary.
Similarly admirable, to twenty-first-century eyes, are figures like Roger Casement, the Irish diplomat who exposed the genocide in the Belgian Congo; and Marie Curie, whose genius and superhuman industry allowed her and her husband Pierre to discover radium; and Bertha von Suttner, who urged Europe to find a way to make peace, since in any future war “every village will be a holocaust, every city a pile of rubble, every field a field of corpses.” Yet as Blom reminds us, Casement was executed for treason after colluding with the Germans against British rule in Ireland, and his diary, which bore witness to his homosexuality, was used to destroy his reputation. Marie Curie was initially excluded from her husband’s Nobel Prize, until he insisted that she receive it also; after his death, when she fell in love with another, married man, the French press “attacked [her] without mercy as the ‘Polack’ who had ruined a good French family, the woman who did not know her place.” Bertha von Suttner saw her dreams dashed by the outcome of the Second Hague Conference in 1907: “It was not a conference about peace, but about the customs of war,” she observed.
In the end, the forces of enlightenment could not overcome the forces of authority and violence that plunged Europe into war in 1914. Yet the contest between them was sufficiently jarring to wreck the nerves of a generation. We are accustomed to honoring the radically innovative artists and thinkers who registered the shocks of the age, and many of them put in appearances in Blom’s book, from Mahler to Picasso to Marinetti to Freud. But Blom makes clear that, for most Europeans, living in such unsettled times was not an inspiration but an ordeal. “Daily we see neurotics, neurasthenics, hysterics, and the like,” remarked one British psychologist. Blom finds the newspapers in every country full of advertisements for nerve tonics like Beechams Pills and Ambrecht’s Coca Wine. Concerns about virility and potency haunted the editorial pages as well as the art galleries: the French worried about their declining birthrate even as the Viennese trembled before Alfred Kubin’s nightmarish etching Salto Mortale, which shows a tiny male figure diving into a the vagina of a giantess.
To Thomas Mann, of course, the whole of pre-war Europe could be likened to a sanatorium. One might say that The Vertigo Years only makes explicit what The Magic Mountain tells us in the form of parable. For Hans Castorp is deliberately exposed, as in an experiment, to most of the vertiginous influences Blom writes about—the technical-scientific (X-rays, gramophone records, psychoanalysis) as well as the ideological (the democratic humanism of Settembrini, the nihilism and authoritarianism of Naphta) and even the sexual. The result is that he is utterly unfit for life—he becomes a permanent invalid, a condition at once glorious and unbearable. No wonder Hans Castorp, and the civilization he represents, positively welcomed the outbreak of World War I. Mann titled the last chapter of the novel “The Thunderbolt,” as though war could finally clear an atmosphere that had become unbreathable, sultry with too many currents and tensions. In fact, as Blom allows us to see, with the benefit of a century’s distance, the war was not Europe’s redemption from complexities, but the proof of its inability to live with them.
April 30, 2009