Book Review: Philipp Blom’s The Vertigo Years

Historian Philipp Blom offers a truer and more troubled picture of Vienna’s Golden Age in the years before World War One

Vienna, 1900 (l) by Cubist painter Robert Delaunay reprinted in Vertigo Years (r) | Photos: Wien Museum & Scala Archives

Champ de Mars by Cubist painter Robert Delaunay reprinted in Vertigo Years | Photos: Wien Museum & Scala Archives

Champ de Mars by Cubist painter Robert Delaunay reprinted in Vertigo Years | Photos: Wien Museum & Scala Archives

Vienna, 1900 by Robert Delaunay

Vienna, 1900 by Cubist painter Robert Delaunay reprinted in Vertigo Years | Photos: Wien Museum & Scala Archives

A Belle Epoque Unravels

Can you imagine a world without the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie in Sarajevo, June 1914? A world in which nothing triggered a “Great War,” in which the Austro-Empire would continue to live in uneasy co-existence with the German Reich that would in turn still keep peace with France, a world in which they all would still be on correct terms with Czarist Russia while the British Empire would mind its own Imperialist business?

Well, the world at the beginning of the twentieth century could not imagine Sarajevo and its consequences. That is the departure point, quite literally and reflectively, of Philipp Blom’s new book about Europe in that decisive period of its history. It was a time of profound upheaval and acceleration, of convulsions in the economic, social and personal spheres. They were, as the title of the book suggests, The Vertigo Years. (The German title captures this image by suggesting that not just the people, but entire countries were teetering, tumbling, and staggering: Der taumelnde Kontinent.)

The historian and author, Blom, invites us to look beyond the labels often attached to the time span from the turn of the century to World War One. Yes, it was called la belle époque. But many contemporaries did not experience the epoch as beautiful. Rather, they were scared of the changes, they were afraid of losing control. Yes, it was (and is) considered the birth of modernity, and scientific and industrial progress was indeed impressive. But this progress was accompanied by huge economic and psychological sacrifices. Another way of looking at those years is embodied in Karl Kraus’ dictum of “the experimental station for the end of the world.” He was referring with particular prescience to the way the Hapsburg monarchy acted.

But he could not really know. Nobody knew.

Philipp Blom tries to understand from a myriad of sources how the times were experienced and interpreted by those who lived in them. German by birth, he studied in Oxford and lived for several years in Paris before moving with his wife to Vienna two years ago. He thus knows from first-hand experience the cultures of the countries that were the main political actors in the early 1900s – “with the exception of Russia,” as he adds modestly.

Champ de Mars by Robert Delaunay

Champ de Mars by Cubist painter Robert Delaunay reprinted in Vertigo Years | Photos: Wien Museum & Scala Archives

In The Vertigo Years, he weaves the polyphony of individual stories into a history of the times. Not with a capital H, but in the modern sense of the term: as a narrative.

Blom also happens to be a great storyteller. He proved this in earlier books – one on the adventure of putting together the gargantuan French Encyclopédie, another one on the mania of collecting. Now he manages again to combine the telling detail with the bigger idea. Newspaper accounts of a nervous breakdown in a school indicate the growing preoccupation with “nerves” in general. The reactions to a Stravinsky premiere reflect a larger culture war. To the pompous phrases of reformers and demagogues, Blom adds the underbelly of their often dubious or ridiculous biographical details; he is sometimes having fun with it, and he shares his amused look with us readers.

Blom says he is intellectually indebted to fellow historians like Simon Schama (who among other books published a panorama of the French revolution) or Tony Judt (best known for his comprehensive account of post-WWII Europe). Like them, he writes in English (he translated the present book into German himself), which may have contributed to the utter readability of The Vertigo Years: The Anglo-Saxon art of making complex issues accessible is a blessing, and we are the beneficiaries.

Take Vienna for example: There have been many portrayals of the city in its most important period. Some are very specific and deal only with art, or with psychoanalysis, or with the vanguard of philosophy. Others are more atmospheric, nostalgic or thoroughly condemning. But rarely, if ever, has a historiographer taken all the facets that made up the fin de siècle capital and woven them into a European panorama of this magnitude. Beyond the well-known names (Freud, Wittgenstein et al.) we encounter many others who influenced the way the era looked at itself. We see who, like Bertha von Suttner, was disappointed by the political developments and who profited from them. We not only witness why racist theories thrived particularly in the Hapsburg capital but how they related to other movements in town or on the continent, such as the many eugenic societies and the in-fighting Nietzscheans.

By the same token, we also learn how incidental and initially unimportant the finale of those years was perceived. In one of the finest twists of the book, Blom, who called each chapter by a year and a title, writes of “1914: A political murder.” But it is not the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Instead, it is about the wife of the French finance minister who killed the editor-in-chief of Le Figaro. The background of the crime is a tale that Blom could not have invented any better, a mixture of a sleazy affair and the consequences of the German Kanonenboot politics vis-à-vis the French and the British – macho games and moral double standards, a perfect illustration of what the book is (also) about. The French followed the story with a passion. The shot in Sarajevo, fired at the same time, was hardly heard….

Historians rarely look at the past for its own sake. Blom, despite his experiment to ignore post-1914 events, implicitly invites us to draw parallels to the present. The nervousness, the acceleration of everyday rhythm, the race towards world domination – of a political or economic nature – accompanied by growing insecurity and fear: Doesn’t all this ring a bell? We have already witnessed events with potentially cataclysmic consequences. 9/11 comes to mind, the bloody confrontations in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere, even Sarajevo again with its murderous siege in the 1990s.

Behind these and many more examples of an Armageddon (barely) avoided lies the fundamental and scary assumption of Blom’s book: We may plan for the future, “make sure,” devise scientific scenarios, calculate all possibilities. But we do not know.

 

The Vertigo Years by Philipp BlomThe Vertigo Years,

By Philipp Blom,

Weidenfeld & Nicholson,

London 2008

Available at:

Shakespeare & Company Booksellers

1., Sterngasse 6

(01) 535 5053

booksellers@shakespeare.ac.at

 

In German:

Der taumelnde Kontinent 

Carl Hanser Verlag

München 2009

Available in all major bookstores

 

See also: Dining With That Wicked Company

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