Unit 15: Era of World Wars / World Wars

Birth of the Modern Age?

From Eksteins, Modris. Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989), xiii-xvi.

As one approaches the outskirts of Verdun on the Route Nationale 3 from Metz, having enjoyed a serene Vosges countryside of rolling hills and meadows, and a steady honor guard of sturdy oak trees, one is struck suddenly, a few kilometers outside the town, by a dreary sight. A blot on the surroundings. A graveyard. Piled high and in full view of the road are smashed corpses, crumpled bodies, glistening skeletons. This is, however, a graveyard without crosses, without headstones, without flowers. There are few visitors. Most travelers probably do not even notice the place. But it is a prominent memorial to the twentieth century and our cultural references. Many would say that it is a symbol of modern values and aims, of our striving and our regrets, the contemporary interpretation of Goethe's invocation stirb und werde, die and become. It is an automobile graveyard.

If you continue into Verdun, pass through the town, and then proceed northeast by minor roads, you can find your way to a larger graveyard. This one has crosses. Thousands of them. Row upon symmetrical row. White. All the same. More people today pass the automobile graveyard than this one. More people can identify with the crushed cars than with the now impersonal horror that this cemetery recalls. This is the memorial cemetery for those who fell during the battle of Verdun in the First World War.

This is a book about death and destruction. It is a discourse on graveyards. As such it is also, however, a book about "becoming." It is a book about the emergence, in the first half of this century, of our modern consciousness, specifically of our obsession with emancipation, and about the significance of the Great War, as it was called prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, in the development of that consciousness. And while it would appear, on the surface at least, that an automobile graveyard, with all its implications--"I think cars today are the cultural equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals," wrote Roland Barthes--has far more significance for the contemporary mind than a First World War cemetery, this book will try to show that the two graveyards are related. For our preoccupation with speed, newness, transience, and inwardness-- with life lived, as the jargon puts it, "in the fast lane"-- to have taken hold, an entire scale of values and beliefs had to yield pride of place, and the Great War was... the single most significant event in that development.

Our title, adopted from a ballet that is a landmark of modernism, is suggestive of our main motif: movement. One of the supreme symbols of our centrifugal and paradoxical century, when in striving for freedom we have acquired the power of ultimate destruction, is the dance of death, with its orgiastic-nihilistic irony. The Rite of Spring, which was first performed in Paris in May 1913, a year before the outbreak of war, is, with its rebellious energy and its celebration of life through sacrificial death, perhaps the emblematic oeuvre of a twentieth century world that, in its pursuit of life, has killed off millions of its best human beings. Stravinsky intended initially to entitle his score The Victim.

To demonstrate the significance of the Great War, one must of course deal with the interests and emotions involved in it. This book approaches those interests and emotions in the broad terms of cultural history. This genre of history must concern itself with more than music, ballet, and the other arts, with even more than automobiles and graveyards; it must in the end unearth manners and morals, customs and values, both articulated and assumed. As difficult as the task may be, cultural history must at least try to capture the spirit of an age.

That spirit is to be located in a society's sense of priorities. Ballet, film, and literature, cars and crosses, can provide important evidence of these priorities, but the latter will be found most amply in the social responses to these symbols. In modern society, as this book will argue, the audience for the arts, as for hobbies and heroes, is for the historian an even more important source of evidence for cultural identity than the literary documents, artistic artifacts, or heroes themselves. The history of modern culture ought to be as much a history of response as of challenge, an account of the reader as of the novel, of the viewers as of the film, of the spectator as of the actor.

If this point is apposite to the study of modern culture, then it is also pertinent to the study of modern warfare. Most history of warfare has been written with a narrow focus on strategy, weaponry, and organization, on generals, tanks, and politicians. Relatively little attention has been paid to the morale and motivation of common soldiers in an attempt to assess, in broad and comparative terms, the relationship of war and culture. The unknown soldier stands front and center in our story. He is Stravinsky's victim.

Like all wars, the 1914 war, when it broke out, was seen as an opportunity for both change and confirmation. Germany, which had been united as recently as 1871 and within one generation had become an awesome industrial and military power, was, on the eve of war, the foremost representative of innovation and renewal. She was, among nations, the very embodiment of vitalism and technical brilliance. The war for her was to be a war of liberation, a Befreiungskrieg, from the hypocrisy of bourgeois form and convenience, and Britain was to her the principal representative of the order against which she was rebelling. Britain was in fact the major conservative power of the fin-de-siècle world. First industrial nation, agent of the Pax Britannica, symbol of an ethic of enterprise and progress based on parliament and law, Britain felt not only her pre-eminence in the world but her entire way of life threatened by the thrusting energy and instability Germany was seen to typify. British involvement in the 1914 war was to turn it from a continental power struggle into a veritable war of cultures.

At the same time that tensions were developing between states in this turn-of-the-century world, fundamental conflicts were surfacing in virtually all areas of human endeavor and behavior: in the arts, in fashion, in sexual mores, between generations, in politics. The whole motif of liberation, which has become so central to our century--be it the emancipation of women, homosexuals, proletariat, youth, appetites, peoples--comes into view at the turn of the century. The term avant-garde has usually been applied simply to artists and writers who promoted experimental techniques in their work and urged rebellion against established academies. The notion of modernism has been used to subsume both this avant-garde and the intellectual impulses behind the quest for liberation and the act of rebellion. Very few critics have ventured to extend these notions of the avant-garde and modernism to the social and political as well as artistic agents of revolt, and to the act of rebellion in general, in order to identify a broad wave of sentiment and endeavor. This book attempts to do so. Culture is regarded as a social phenomenon and modernism as the principal urge of our time. This book argues in the process that Germany has been the modernistic nation par excellence of our century.

Like the avant-garde in the arts, Germany was swept by a reformist zeal at the fin de siècle and by 1914 she had come to represent both to herself and to the international community the idea of spirit and war. After the trauma of military defeat in 1918, the radicalism in Germany, rather than being subdued, was accentuated. The Weimar period, 1918 to 1933, and the Third Reich, 1933 to 1945, were stages in a process. Avant-garde has for us a positive ring, storm troops a frightening connotation. This book suggests that there may be a sibling relationship between these two terms that extends beyond their military origins. Introspection, primitivism, abstraction, and myth making in the arts, and introspection, primitivism, abstraction, and myth making in politics may be related manifestations. Nazi kitsch may bear a blood relationship to the highbrow religion of art proclaimed by many moderns.