November 2008

The dizzying pace of life at the start of a new century

By Philipp Blom
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Vertigo is the profoundly unsettling sensation that either you or your surroundings are spinning. It's also possible to suffer a kind of psychic vertigo, if your world changes too fast for comfort. Take, for instance, this year's Wall Street financial crisis, which left most Americans at least temporarily dazed. Author Philipp Blom makes a strong case that the period of 1900 to 1914 in Europe, just before World War I, was, as the title of his new book has it, "The Vertigo Years." From the perspective of the 1920s, when the memories of war, revolution and influenza epidemic were raw, it seemed in retrospect like a golden time, of ice cream socials and porch swings. But the reality could be far different. Something, after all, led to the war and revolutions.

Blom argues convincingly that the trends of modernism that played themselves out in the 20th century, and even into our own time, accelerated remarkably during those dizzying years. Among them: scientific and technological revolution, politicized racism and anti – Semitism, feminism, human rights abuses, globalized commerce, the mass media explosion, abstract art – and the reactions to every one of them, from peace campaigns and folkloric nostalgia to the cult of masculinity. That's a huge amount of territory to cover, so Blom takes it year by year, with each chapter highlighting a particular theme. The 1903 chapter, for example, focuses on pioneering scientists, such as Marie Curie and Albert Einstein, and the influence of their discoveries on philosophy and art. Curie won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1903. The 1911 chapter is about such culturally democratizing developments as the cinema, the comic strip, the Brownie camera and the gramophone. In that year, the 3,400 – seat Gaumont Palace movie theatre opened in Paris.

Blom is particularly good on the high level of anxiety, sexual and otherwise, that accompanied rapid change. It was the era of a disease known as "neurasthenia," which we would likely classify as extreme stress. From 1900 to 1910, the number of patients in German mental hospitals rose from about 116,000 to more than 220,000.

It's that kind of detail that stays with the reader. We learn, for example, that there was a craze for X – rays at the time. (See Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain for a literary depiction.) And that the respect for uniforms was so strong in Germany that a petty crook masquerading as an army captain in 1906 was able to commandeer a platoon, use it to arrest a small – town mayor, and steal the town's cash register. These trends did vary from country to country. The women's suffrage movement, forexample, reached its height in England, but had much less traction on the Continent. In contrast, the English had little use for New Age – style bohemianism that was most notable in Germany and Austria – Hungary. It's impossible to read this book without being struck by parallels to our own society. We feel about the Internet the way our great – grandparents felt about the airplane – how amazing, and how frightening it all seems. Blom doesn't take us beyond 1914, but we know how the ideological movements of "The Vertigo Years" turned out in Germany and Russia. We can only hope for a better outcome.

Anne Bartlett is a journalist in Washington, D.C.

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The Vertigo Years

The Vertigo Years

By Philipp Blom
ISBN 9780465011162

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