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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.