Everlasting Spring

A Review of: Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (Houghton Mifflin, 1989) by Modris Eksteins


During my first stint in graduate school, I wrote a paper which I delivered at an American Studies conference on Bacon’s Rebellion, and in the course of doing secondary research I came across an article by the eminent historian of the American Revolution, Bernard Bailyn. The essay explained part of the reason why colonial governors were financially dependent on colonial legislators, while being politically dependent on the crown, something that had always puzzled me. It was a brilliant little piece of scholarship, and though I don’t agree with many of Bailyn’s conclusions as to why the American Revolution was so ideologically unique, it was a small example of how a great historian can explain something you sort of already know in such simple clear terms that is burns into your memory. The best historians, like the best artists, and so the saying goes, like the best books, tell you what you already knew but could not quite articulate.

Something like this description would apply, in my view, to Modris Ekstein’s Rites of Spring, a book about the First World War and the emergence of what one could call “modernity” but what Ekstein calls “our modern consciousness.” (xiii) The idea that the First World War was partially caused by the rise of certain ideas—such as nationalism, or Darwinian theories of human society—is not unknown among academic historians, and has long been a subject of debate amongst historians. It is also well known that, in the late 19th century, there was a push among certain types of intellectuals, to push for war as a sort of regenerative act among thinkers as diverse as Nietzsche, William James, and the Futurists, is also well known. (For a good overview of this, see Alan Kramer’s book, Dynamic of Destruction.) Furthermore, many have long since recognized that World War I brought certain ideas—Freud’s but also Nietzsche’s and Weber’s, among others—a receptive audience they lacked prior to the war, and also saw a loss of faith in older ideals that seemed to have been discredited by the war (religion, duty, honor, etc.). What Eksteins does in his book is show how a certain cultural mood and perception, embodied in what he calls “modernism,” was making itself felt before the war, and in some ways set the stage for it.



The basic thesis of Eckstein’s book can be surmised from one passage in the prologue. He begins by describing the death of Sergei Diaghilev in Venice, and his comment upon him and Thomas Mann is the context for the quote: “if there has been a single principle theme in our centuries aesthetics, it is that the life of imagination and the life of action are the one and the same.” (4) this statement may not at first brush seem to have much to do with World War I, but as Eckstein tells it, it is the primary fact in both the cause and effect of the war. For Eckstein’s, the life of action had been governed by a residual Christian belief, and a humanism which separated the moral imaginative spheres of life up till the end of the 19th century. On his account, once more or less happened was that this inheritance collapsed or was rejected by avant-garde artists and intellectuals in the late 19th century. And it was this impulse, present above all in the life of German thought and culture, that guided the political social and cultural elite into those actions which precipitated and sustained the war.


Ekstein’s first two chapters detail the mood of this avant-garde prior to the war in both Paris and Berlin. Though he touches briefly on the search for remedies to cultural malaise in fin de siècle Paris, the avant-garde is basically imported in his chapter on Paris, being mostly Russian, focusing as he does on Stravinsky, Diaghilev, and the performance of Rite of Spring on May 29, 1913. He notes that Diaghilev was a homosexual, and that he sought for a “morality without sanctions and obligations,” and he quotes from the work of a German writer named Max Stirner, whose work gained popularity at the end of the century: “for me nothing is higher than myself,” illustrating the “libertarian and anarchic impulse, which is eminently political, is central to the modern revolt.” (43) But Eksteins depicts this impulse as coming largely from outside of French culture itself, since France had been the cultural arbiter of Europe for so long, and writes that Paris became the natural refuge of currents from other, more peripheral cultures which wished to escape the influence of history, convention, and the like, precisely because they were subordinate to France and other “Great Powers.” But nonetheless, such currents were imbibed readily by French audiences eager to hear something new as they began to doubt their own cultural heritage. (48)


In Berlin, things were much different. Eksteins stresses the novelty and progressive nature of the German Reich created in 1871 out of war; its rapid transformation from a rural, agrarian Confederation of tiny states into an urban, industrialized nation-state in a matter of decades meant that “the German experience lies at the heart of the “modern experience”.” (68) According to Ekstein, despite the heavily militaristic nature of its aristocracy, and the entrenched attachment to discipline and efficiency amongst its bureaucracy that German culture was built upon, the “general impulse in Germany before 1914 was…starkly future oriented.” (73) No nation embraced the techno-cratic/managerial state more readily or quickly than did Germany in the late 19th century, all in a mad dash to catch up with its main rivals, England and France, nor non more successfully, in material terms at least. Eksteins’ discussion of German culture before the war emphasizes its metaphysical and Romantic aspects, especially its philosophical idealism, with its emphasis on inwardness, authenticity, overcoming of contradiction, is fairly standard. (80) What makes his account different is that he links German culture’s aesthetic, metaphysical, and Romantic tendencies with the spirit of cultural revolt embodied in Diaghilev’s ballet. Germany, with it rapid embrace of “modernity,” of form and authenticity, of German “spirit” overcoming the mere materialist limitations of its national life, is the antithesis of British and French civilization, with their long heritages and high concepts of their pasts. As he put it in describing the differing motives for the war, “for the Germans this was a war to change the world; for the British this was a war to preserve a world. The Germans were propelled by a vision, the British by a legacy.” (119)



The second part of the book deals with the war itself, and Eksteins’ has similarly interesting things to say about the soldiers and their experience of war. He notes how the fraternization of the 1914 Christmas truce was never really repeated, and has a fascinating discussion on what the war did to ideals of duty—duty in English, pflict in German, devoir, in French. (175) Eksteins points out that, though there was disillusionment, the soldiers still kept fighting, and aside from disturbances in the Russian and German armies near the end of their respective conflicts, did not desert or revolt much, given the circumstances. (177) Eksteins notes, erroneously, that this was the “first middle class war in history,” conveniently ignoring the American Civil War, but correctly notes the middle class nature of the Great War itself, that it was something like “the civil war of the European middle class above all else.” (177, 183, 185) The emphasis on duty remained even after many soldiers had ceased to care about anything other than their regiment and the friends immediately surrounding them, among combatants of all nations, but Ekstein, in keeping with his theme of Germans being in the vanguard of modernity, notes a “strong subjective element of personal honor and will” in the German idea of pflicht which distinguished it from its French and British counterparts. (195) This is one of the areas where I believe Ekstein went too far, claiming there was a fundamental difference between the “Anglo-French faith had a rational foundation; the German faith, was built on idealism and romanticism.” (199) It is true that Ekstein never goes so far as to say this “modernist” outlook—romantic, inward, essentially irrationalist—was uniquely German, but he overlooks the extent to which modernism as an intellectual and cultural outlook was international in scope by the early 20th century. There were certainly elements in British and French culture that were native to them that contained many of the same features Ekstein found in so much abundance in German civilization; the subjectivism of Proust, Joyce and other writers predated the war, and the great vitalist philosopher of the age was of course a Frenchman, Henri Bergson. Besides this, though he does not want to get into the long term sources for modernity, there were in the origins of the French republic, with its cry of liberté, egalité, fraternité much that was romantic, idealistic, and ahistorical, as there was in the Anglo-Saxon empiricist tradition, with its emphasis on sensation as the basis of knowledge (and in many cases, morality), which is basically at one with his description of the inward and irrationalist impulses of modernity, once these British and French ideas had become emancipated from their historical moorings. Nonetheless, he was probably correct in asserting that the immediate historical circumstances of Germany in the late 19th century made it the more fruitful ground for this modern consciousness to emerge from.
Eksteins notes the effect of the war on the artistic and moral outlooks that prevailed up till its destruction commenced, in a splendid but fairly familiar tale of how the war broke down faith in civilization among some, and spurred a retreat into the subjective realms of thought. Thus, the war with its demolition of conventional morality, its blurring of social boundaries in the trenches, “turned the revolt of small artistic coteries into a mass phenomenon.” (227) Eksteins noted the extent to which the war effort took on religious proportions (“not since the wars of religion in the seventeenth century, or perhaps even the crusades, had men of the cloth encouraged killing for the greater Glory of God with such enthusiasm,” 236), and notes that the war pushed Western nations generally speaking toward “greater social control but also toward new spiritual liberality,” in which the state demanded more and more control but social and moral interactions were given more and more freedom from restraint. This separation of the “social and cultural realms” was the “essence of the modern experience,” in Eksteins’ telling. (237)


All of this should sound familiar, as it is a story that has been told before. In the third part of the book, Ekstein looks at the fallout and reaction to the war, beginning again with another “event,” this time the flight of Charles Lindberg and his landing in Paris. He paints the near hysteria with which Lindberg was greeted nearly everywhere he went as an extension and greater manifestation among the wider public of the phenomenon that began with the first performance of Rite of Spring in 1913. He notes that Lindberg seemed to satisfy two contradictory impulses in contemporaries: the need to affirm traditional values but also to transcend them, the manic obsession with Lindberg’s flight being “an indication of a yearning to escape the banality of an age, an age that had lost its faith.” (265) In the bleak aftermath of the war, freed from all certainty and constraint, freedom became no longer be free to do what was right in an objective sense, but merely to do what one wished. (267) The objective, the historical, the measurable, the external world came to have little purchase on the public. Eksteins has a fascinating discussion of the genesis and publication of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and notes how only novelists and writers seemed to be able to capture the disillusionment of the war. (277ff.) The war had seemingly collapsed the whole of history into one’s own individual experience, and Eksteins notes a French cultural historian in the 1930s declaring confidently that “history does not exist.” (291) The “real world” had been swallowed up by the war into dream, myth, and memory.


His final chapter, “Spring Without End,” deals with the rise of the Nazis, and their continuation of the “Rites of Spring” which for Ekstein are pre-eminently rites which celebrate death. He points out that the idea that the Nazis were atavistic and backward looking is fundamentally mistaken, and notes its continuity with the progressive and futuristic ideals of the avant garde, as they had been transformed by the first war. (303) The Nazis abhorred traditional morality precisely for its constraints, and their total mobilization of society was derived almost directly from Hitler’s (mostly happy) experience of the front lines in World War I. (307) The Nazi effort at the total mobilization of society, aimed at transforming it and humanity itself into something new, was in many ways the perfect marriage of “subjectivism and technicism” that had characterized the modernist project all along, despite the official Nazi disdain for “moderns” in art. (311) Hitler himself was a failed artist, as is well known, and his party and its ideology were long on myth, ritual and propaganda and short on details, because the point was constant movement, energy, conflict, liberation, not the petty minutiae of political life, and the welding of a ruthlessly efficient bureaucracy with policies that were contradictory to the point of being absurd was characterized by the title of a book published in Germany following the war as “authoritarian anarchy.” (317) Hitler was the ultimate symbol of the spirit of revolt which arose in Germany after the first war, and in that vein sounds very much on Eksteins’ reading as a symbol of the modern consciousness par excellence. (324) And finally, since it was so irrationalist, so anarchic, the “movement” of the Nazis could only ever have one ultimate aim and end: death. The last pages of the book detail, among other things, Hitler’s marriage to Eva Braun, and their mutual suicide pact, turning a perennial ritual of life into one of death, and Eksteins ends by describing how there was a party in Hitler’s bunker the night before he killed himself. (330-31) The book ends with the notice of a popular German song in 1945, “Es ist ein Fhrüling ohne Ende!” that is, “it is spring without end.”



Eksteins’ book is beautifully written, and masterfully organized; he makes his argument partly by the selection of wonderfully placed anecdotes, especially at the beginning of the first and third books, where he connects audience reaction to events in order to make his point about the irrationalist subjectivity of the modern consciousness. His book is astonishingly well researched, both in the number but also in the range of sources, moving from novels, letters, diaries, to government documents and newspaper accounts with surprising ease, and his bibliography only includes selected sources, as he says in a note, because they represent a collection of material gathered over a number of years which to put into the book would have been “an impossible task.” (367) I believe it: the book has the flavor of something which a mind has ruminated over for many years, and reworked with great care, both in terms of research and writing. And, though it basically tells a fairly well staked out narrative of the coming of modernity, it does it such a fascination way that one comes away with a much more visceral and immediate understanding of why that narrative is persuasive. Indeed, it is the most persuasive telling of it I have ever read. This book is now about twenty five years old, and I have no hesitation in saying that it is a classic, and should be on the shelf of every reader who wants to learn about either World War I or modernity.


However, the book, as I have indicated above, is not completely without its flaws. The overemphasis on Germany is one, and I have the impression that the second half of his argument regarding the effects of the war is slightly less persuasive than the first two books, for a couple of reasons. First, it seemed to me that the chapters in the third part of the book were more lightly sourced than the first two, at least as regards their arguments. Secondly, his definition of “modernity” gives heavy weight to subjective elements, and one could counter that he doesn’t do justice to the “technicism” of modern consciousness. Finally, at least in his description of Nazism, while I am mostly in agreement with him, he glosses over the extent to which the Nazis could be explained by at least one concrete historical aspect of German culture which long preceded modernism—namely, anti-Semitism. This is surely not that great of an omission, as it has been endlessly covered by others, but I do think Eksteins’ narrative, so powerful in other ways, doesn’t quite do justice to the role of anti-Semitism.


But then one book can’t cover everything, and it is hard to criticize someone for the book they didn’t write. In any case, Rites of Spring is a crowning achievement, and the finest work on the First World War I have ever read. I admit to something I don’t often experience when I read a work of history when I read this book: envy, for this is exactly the type of book I would like to write. It is kind of book that brings together the best of modern, researched based academic history, combined with a style and narrative acumen that has been mostly lost among most historians writing today. It both makes a compelling argument and tells a compelling story about how our Western world changed, and came to be what it is today, and I can think of very few histories that have been written in the past fifty years that can make that claim. There is little more I can say in its favor, snd so I will end this review with the words of St. Augustine: tolle et lege.






Alypius Minor

~ by Alypius on July 29, 2014.

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