Review of “The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900 – 1914” by Philipp Blom


The French have been crazy about bicycles since day one. No sooner had they produced sleek, new sporting bikes in 1899 than they invented the Tour de France, just four years later, to race them. On machines that looked like ten-speeds still look today, the Tour champions zoomed down hills and mountains at 60 mph. Crowds turned out in the thousands to see them.

And the crowds bought their own bikes too. Not those Victorian contraptions with the comically huge front wheel ridden by men with bowler hats, but new machines that looked like what the champions rode. And just like that, ordinary people could really go places. They might not zoom down hills at 60 mph, but they could get on their bikes and reach destinations of their choice at a fraction of the walking time, and on their own schedule. It was a gusher of freedom. How much freedom?

In 1912 a writer in the journal Je sais tout (“I know all”), a popular science magazine, calculated that you would have to be 15 meters (50 feet) tall to walk as fast as a bicycle would carry you. To match a train’s speed, you’d have to be 51 m (168 ft) tall.

It’s enough to give you vertigo.

In turn-of -the-century Europe, society wasn’t changing in small increments anymore. It was changing dramatically, and overnight. The thing about social change, even when fraught and palpable, is that the people going through it can only have the vaguest sense of what it all means. What, for example, does the current “datafication of everything” portend for us denizens of the early 21st century?–We have no idea.

Although I like to believe that we have such a large, generous, and knowledgeable set of public intellectuals at our disposal that we at least can learn from them what kinds of questions to pose about the future, we are probably not much better off than Europeans were in 1914 when it comes to getting a grip on what is really happening to us and what’s waiting around the corner. You would have to live long enough to read the history books of the future, the books that explain large-scale change.

Philipp Blom’s The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900 – 1914 is an outstanding exemplar of this kind of book. Published in 2010, it makes two wonderfully simple propositions: (1) that social change in turn-of-the-century Europe happened so fast and on such a large scale that it was fundamentally disorienting for European civilization, and (2) that the era of this dramatic change is best understood without the (usual) baggage of hindsight.

Yes, we all know what was waiting around the corner for Europeans in 1914, and we can too easily think of the march to World War One as inevitable. But the years Blom narrates were a dreadfully anxious time, and the thing about anxiety is that it occurs because things are not inevitable. Anxiety is literally a fear of what might happen. We can really only get inside the skins of Europeans in 1914, Blom argues, if we do our utmost to imagine how deeply uncertain they felt about their future and, even, present.

Europeans had ample reason to feel uncertain at the turn of the 20th century. For Britons, simply the passing of Queen Victoria’s 64-year reign in 1901 signaled that whatever had seemed permanent and good and established could vanish in an instant. Great Britain’s statesmen went from confidently believing “that the British race is the greatest of the governing races that the world has ever seen,” (as Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain put it) to nearly being beaten by a band of Dutch-South African farmers in the Boer war. Then there was generally having to clean up the messes of the louche, feckless King Edward. As land came to be replaced by raw materials and financial services as the main source of wealth in Britain, the aristocracy, in the space of a generation, lost its 400-year old grip on power.

France was coming off a series of territory-losing wars that marked its fall from scientific, cultural and military preeminence in Europe. To compensate for its very public decline, Paris ruthlessly conquered colonies in Africa, Asia and South America, and, in falsely convicting Dreyfus for espionage, created a grand conspiracy theory that said Europe’s Jews were moneyed outsiders who constantly connived against the native establishment. Et voila: there was a new, multipurpose enemy to be blamed for whatever ailed European societies.

Germany, on the other hand, was on the climb. Formed from various German-speaking principalities only in 1871, Germany’s wealth, population, and industrial output were eclipsing its neighbors at a dizzying speed by 1900. Its emperor, Wilhelm II, was known as Wilhelm the Sudden. He enjoyed stoking the engine of the imperial train’s locomotive to the maximum, sometimes pushing it to its full speed of 145 kph. Wilhelm traveled eight months out of the year, raced yachts, forced his guests to do calisthenics with him. Blom writes, he “had a famously short attention span and constantly wanted to do something.”

In Russia, the Tsar was testing the core proposition of feudalism, which seeks to know how deeply the poor can be immiserated without provoking violent revolt. For the 99 percent, Russia was a cauldron of misery. There were no state schools, illiteracy was the given condition of the masses, and peasants worked the famously unforgiving land without reward. They moved to the city to work in factories and lived like animals, kept so ignorant they could not organize politically despite living cheek by jowl. Women were the most repressed of all: they absorbed the all fury of the violent, alcoholic men undone by the Tsar’s system of mass exploitation.

Though westerners tend to recall the Communist Revolution of 1917 as the day Russia changed, Blom reminds us that that sudden-seeming event was actually the culmination of a tectonic shift that started with the peasant revolution of 1905. That was the day Tsar Nicholas II (only 1/128th part Russian) received the answer to feudalism’s core proposition about keeping the people down. He ignored it. On 22 January 1905, later known as Bloody Sunday, tens of thousands of peasants marched on Nichlas’s palace in St. Petersburg to beg him for the tiniest scraps of democratic rule and workers’ rights. His troops fired on the peasants, and he arrested their leaders, including Father Gapon, a priest who cried out, “There is no God! There is no Tsar!” Just like that, in the course of a week, the idea was born among Russia’s poorest that they need no longer believe the two myths that had propped up feudalism’s power for centuries.

Much of this captains-and-kings history of Europe has been covered in, not least, Barbara Tuchman’s miraculously great 1966 book, The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890 – 1914. (This would be one of my 100 desert island books, by the way.) Where Blom breaks new trail is in his exploration of the undercurrents of European society and the inner workings of–for lack of a better term–the European mind. Everyone was going a little crazy in fin-de-siecle Europe, and some were going very crazy.

Blom devotes an entire chapter to one particular insane person, the German schoolteacher Ernst Wagner from near Stuttgart. One day in September 1913, Wagner woke up, killed his wife and four children, and then calmly went about the rest of his day. He was arrested and tried, of course, but was not executed, as would have been common for such a crime in Wilhelmine Germany. Instead he was institutionalized and studied. By the time Wagner died, 25 years after his crime, he was in regular correspondence with his therapist and, from all appearances, was contrite and nearly sane again.

Naturally, Wagner’s case induced a bout of national soul searching. How had such an advanced, well-governed, culturally gifted society as Germany’s produced such a cold monster? If Wagner, the very picture of a good, docile Bürger, could snap in such a spectacular way, couldn’t anyone?

For Blom, Wagner’s personality was a petri dish of all the strains and anxieties eating away at Europeans since 1900. Moral disorientation was one of these. Writing between 1872 and 1888, Nietzsche had shattered confidence in the Christian morality that had guided Europe’s elites and commoners alike since Charlemagne. Moral “laws,” Nietzsche argued, were really just social fictions backed up by nothing more than the will of those who imposed them. There were no rules decreed by heaven anymore. It was Wagner’s getting dressed and carrying on with the rest of his day after the massacre that illustrated what a fully emancipated, post-Nietzschean man might look like, a man who authored his own moral laws and suffered no compunction over applying them ruthlessly.

One of the reasons Wagner was kept alive by the German state was academic. He proved to be a trove of fascinating information for specialists–an educated, forthcoming man who could describe what it was like to go murderously mad. Since Freud’s publication of The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, psychoanalysts across Europe had adopted a whole new paradigm of the human personality that saw it as a miasma of hidden motives and influences, many of them dark, sexual, and violent. Freud prepared Europeans intellectually to accept that their streets were teeming with repressed rapists and murderers, and Wagner brought this lesson crashing home in a visceral way. The fact that he later regained his sanity–or at least a semblance of it–proved more disquieting than reassuring. Had he been sick and then cured, or did he show Europeans that there is a morass of criminal drives inside them all, and a “normal” human life may course in and out of this dark territory?

Further, Wagner’s case showed how European men were being increasingly unmanned, in more ways than one. First, industrial technology and deskwork were rendering masculine physical strength obsolete. Women, suddenly, could do the same work as men, and wanted to. Medical science helped this trend along, providing reliable contraception and safer abortion techniques. Blom underlines that the suffragist movement took off like a rocket as soon as women began to grab hold of a real stake in the world of making and doing and thinking that had always belonged to men. So, it wasn’t just that Wagner’s job wasn’t as safe as it used to be–his whole social realm was poised to be wrested from men’s control.

Second, the increasing specialization of work meant that men no longer plied trades that provided them the feedback of well-made physical products or anointed them with a craftsman’s identity. Labor became alienated. The new men went to an office or stood on an assembly line where their “job” was to integrate with a system, which had its own, bureaucratically defined criteria. Frederick Taylor, the American champion of managerial efficiency, urged this model on Europeans like a prophet, exhorting them, “In the past, Man has been first. In the future the system must be first.” There could hardly have been a louder clarion call announcing the priorities of the 20th century.

One of the responses of European men was, I suppose, to be expected. Threatened in their very masculinity, they manned up. Blom reports that Europe’s streets in this era were filled as never before with bearded, uniformed men, many seeking to fight duels. Most German industrialists joined the reserve officer corp, and almost all civilian officials had military-style uniforms. Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II converted large ranks of military officers to civil servants, grandly uniformed but unqualified to fill their new roles. Europe’s military men also enlisted industry to produce bigger, badder weapons of all kinds. Germany and Great Britain vied intensely to outdo each other’s battleships, contributing directly to a broader European arms race.

Not yet at war with each other, European armies turned their weapons for the time being on colonial territories in Africa and Asia. But they didn’t just occupy lands, dictate laws, and extract resources. They killed defenseless civilians on a massive scale. King Leopold II of Belgium slaughtered as many as 10 million Congolese between 1885 and 1908, enslaving millions more. Germany, coming late to the Africa game, killed as many as 125,000 Hereros and Namaqua in its colony of Namibia. Modern, wholesale sadism was also in the mind of Ernst Wagner, who wrote copiously about his act of familial slaughter in 1913. What he realy wanted to do, he said, was to destroy the world, or at least rid it of people he considered useless. “I wish I were a giant as big and tall as the mass of the universe,” he wrote, “I would take a glowing pike and would poke it into the body of the earth.” He went on:

A comprehensive reform of humanity is imperative. . . . I have a sharp eye for everything sick and weak. If you make me the executioner no bacillus shall escape. I can take 25 million Germans on my conscience without it being even one gram heavier than before. . . . Pity [for] the weak, the sick, the crippled is crime, is first and foremost a crime against those who are pitied themselves.

Wagner’s family was pitiable, yes, but that was, in his mind, perhaps the main reason they needed to die. How did Europe come to this, where an obscure, insane murderer spoke the fever dreams aloud that would shape the continent’s history for 30 years and cause the death (in a dark coincidence) of 25 million people? It was no simple matter of national strongmen killing their enemies en masse. Europe had lost faith in its own civilization–and lost it so completely that it nearly had to commit suicide before it would regain its senses.

Blom writes, European civilization wound down for a combination of reasons that were immensely complex but clearly interrelated. At the bottom of the unwinding, there was a loss of faith in mankind’s ability to know himself and his world. This crisis of unknowing was the pivot on which all the disruptive trends of the era turned–the drive for speed, the mad militarization, the proliferation of media, the systems-building, the great shifts in wealth and ruling power. As science peered deeper into reality at the turn of the century, it began to discover, for the first time in history, not illuminating facts but deeper mysteries: the subconscious, the atom, the gene, the relativity of space-time, the inscrutability of language. Blom summarizes, in the incisive final chapter of The Vertigo Years:

The new world taking shape in the 1900s was a creature of reason, of experts and scientists, statisticians and engineers. Until this era, reason had demystified the world, tearing away the veils of superstition in the tradition of Descartes, Hume and Kant. . . . Now reason no longer fulfilled this function. . . . If reason was not providing certainty but breaking it down, salvation must lie in instinct, in primeval forces, many intellectuals proclaimed.

In a speech in 1923 Virginia Woolf claimed, somewhat boldly, that human nature itself had changed–and in 1910 at that. “All human relations have shifted,” Woolf announced, “those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.” Blom reports throughout The Vertigo Years on how artists were kicking out at this baffling, comprehensive change and giving it shape even as it was happening. From the weird, crashing atonality of Schonberg’s symphonies to the wild, expressive shaman shapes of Kandinsky’s paintings, something was deeply astir in human nature in 1910, and Woolf may have come as close as anyone to guessing what it was.

“The identities of the ‘new’ men and women of this time,” Blom concludes, “were always torn between old loyalties and new aspirations, between nostalgia and social reality. They were transitory and haunted by fragility, by decline, by impotence, . . . . Change occurred too fast; rationality had outstripped experience.” Change has been happening at an even faster pace since 1914. We should take courage that civilization is still here, but we should also take caution at what civilization can do to itself in times of doubt. If it is not too morbid, perhaps any group, any tribe, any nation would do well to recall that Ernst Wagner killed his whole family and declaimed lunatic prophecies to justify his crimes before he started to wake up and become sane again.

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