Vertigo Years: Living in an Age of Uncertainty

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Mr. Blom is the author of The Vertigo Years: Europe 1900-1914 (Basic Books, Oct. 2008).

What a first decade for a century! Even before Wall Street collapsed as the speculation bubble burst there was uncertainty everywhere: the United States was embroiled in the invasion of another state, suicide terrorists threatening (and succeeding) to assassinate heads of state, globalization extending into every market, untold millions of people seeking comfort in consumerism, flooding into cinemas and department stores to buy things they do not need and cannot afford, or searching for alternative spirituality. Commentators everywhere raise their voices, warning that values and culture, education and common decency will be the first victims of the entertainment industry and the widespread, insatiable lust for cheap thrills.

This, of course, was the beginning of the twentieth century, a hundred years ago, the time of the Great Panic of 1907, the Cuba invasion, the anarchist bombers, and the heyday of the Nickelodeon. It all sounds terribly familiar, of course, and yet public image of the years between 1900 and 1914 is usually painted very differently. On the page and on the screen, it is often portrayed as a golden age of certainty, the long, lazy afterglow of the great nineteenth century, a rock of certainty that would be smashed by the First World War.

How is this discrepancy possible? The simple answer seems to be nostalgia. As the nations of Europe took up their arms against one another and dragged the rest of the globe into a conflict that would last, with one uneasy twenty-year intermission, from 1914 to 1945 (the same conflict really, with the same enemies, many of the same theatres, and the same unresolved questions), there was a real sense of longing for a time before the fall, a paradisiacal age of grace. The years before 1914 came to represent that hour before the slaughter began, and novelists, film directors and historians eased the idea into the public imagination.

It was easy, too. Sepia-toned photos show static figures in three-piece suits or with long dresses stiffly posing for the camera, men with handlebar moustaches and women with hair piled high and with enormous hats, and even the children in their sailor suits, velvet outfits and buttoned boots seem to hail from an age in which there was still time, comfort, and decorum.

This is the stereotype. If one takes the trouble to look a little more closely, the picture changes, and so do the pictures themselves: the invention of the Brownie camera made snap shots possible for the first time and there are countless photos of people in informal surroundings and unbuttoned outfits, relieved of their stiffness and formality. In the newspapers of the day, things are taken a step further: racing cars, aeroplanes, cyclists and athletes were the passion of the day, and the power and exhilaration of speed was celebrated on every page in moving, dynamic photos, while the attendant dangers were dramatized by frightening shots of accidents, of mauled machines and broken bodies.

Once you go beyond the barrier of sepia stillness, the picture of the time changes very rapidly. This, after all, was the age of speed records, of the first channel crossing in an aeroplane, of the discovery of X-rays and radioactivity, of electric light and movie theatres, of abstract art and atonal music. This was the birth of modernity as we know it today. Change was everywhere, and as old certainties weakened, new realities became hotly contested. Industrial production increased at a breathtaking rate, cities doubled in size within a decade, streams of migrants criss-crossed the continents, the face of work was changed by factory jobs, and with mass produced goods and ready-made clothes people’s everyday lives and appearance became radically different. Every day, the world seemed to change, and this rapid transformation engendered a feeling of excitement, fear, and dizziness, a vertigo at the heart of European culture.

For those with the greatest stake in maintaining the status quo, this was bad news, but not only aristocrats lost much of their influence and wealth – the change affected society in a more subtle and more powerful way. Working families needed two wages to pay the rent and work in factories did not require a man’s muscles. Women, overwhelmingly disadvantaged, disenfranchised and discriminated against, went to work and began to organize themselves, to lobby for civil rights and universal suffrage. More and more girls were educated, more young women pressed into the university. As if that were not enough, European women of all nations and all classes had fewer children than a generation earlier.

Faced with these changes, it was the men who found themselves and their traditional role questioned and questionable. An almost frantic cult of masculinity expressed itself in big moustaches and uniforms, in a bodybuilding craze and a cult of fast, phallic cars, in more duels being fought, endless medical pamphlets and learned books about the dangers of homosexuality and masturbation, and countless discreet advertisements hawking remedies for impotence and “nervous weakness.” This was not an easy time to be a man.

Taken together, these factors make the years before the Great War much less sedate and less secure than the sepia photos might suggest, and here, too, is a genuine parallel with our own time. Most of today’s adults grew up during the Cold War, when only two possible outcomes of history seemed imaginable, namely the victory of either Soviet Communism, or US-led capitalism – so much so that Francis Fukuyama saw himself moved (a little prematurely, it turns out) to declare the “End of History” after the Wall came down in 1989. Now, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we have recovered a sense of history being very real and frighteningly dynamic, of moving at great speed, but without knowing where.

This is what really connects us to those who were living before 1914 – we, too, live in a period that might be described as vertigo years, submerged by rapid change and swift developments, without any clear notion of what the future will bring, whose it will be, where the gravest dangers and the greatest chances lie. The vertigo years of 1900 to 1914 led into catastrophic slaughter. The second period of vertiginous change, our own, may also lead to apocalyptic destruction – there is no lack of appalling scenarios. It is important, however, to remember that even in June 1914 the Great War was by no means inevitable. Worse international crises between the main powers had erupted and been resolved peacefully in the years leading up to it, and it is quite possible that the assassination of an unpopular archduke in an obscure country in the Balkans would have led to nothing more martial than an exchange of diplomatic notes, but it was not to be.

One of the main factors in the outbreak of hostilities was not the popular enthusiasm for war that has been so much written about. Recent historians have demonstrated that there was very little patriotic fervor outside of newspaper front pages with lead articles and the kind of pictures you get if you have a few thousand young men in uniform on a train station waiting to set off to a great adventure. Private letters and diaries speak a very different, more pessimistic and more realistic language. No: the main culprit, it seems, was not enthusiasm but a sense of inevitability, a fatalistic acceptance that war would come, sooner or later, anyway.

I am not sure that it really is possible to learn from history, but perhaps it is worth us remembering that fatalism means losing the battle before it has begun. The cataclysm of 1914 was partly due to a lack of imagination, a catastrophic failure of what novelist Robert Musil called the sense of possibility. That sense may be our most precious good, more important even than fossil fuels, and it may help us to make the parallels of our day with the Vertigo Years 1900-1914 end before the total collapse of our civilization becomes reality once more.

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Robert Lee Gaston - 2/25/2009

It appears that in the winter and spring of 1913 and 1914 there were a number of articles in newspapers and journals declaring that Europe was so economically and socially integrated that war was nearly impossible.

Just goes to show that one should never underestimate the extent of human folly. Especially in economically and socially integrated times when war is not fully considered as a consequence of state actions.