Marlborough College Summer School

19th and Early 20th Century European Culture and Thought

Published in History Today

Revolution was on everyone’s lips in 1848. This is the starting point for J. W. Burrow’s new history of ideas, The Crisis of Reason. The aftermath of the tide of rebellion which swept Europe in that year provides a backdrop against which the intellectual battles of subsequent years were fought. And those battles began in surprising places: ‘In the spring of 1848 - the main excitement for Charles Darwin was his discovery of the existence of bisexualism in barnacles.’ As Burrow’s impressive study reveals, it is ideas such as evolution that lead to the most profound revolutions, redefining our views of self and society.

Burrow’s approach is interdisciplinary, exploring the subtle connections between concepts from science, politics, philosophy, art, literature, and psychology to create a compelling intellectual history of Europe in the period 1848-1914. After the failure of the 1848 revolutions, science was embraced as a genuinely progressive paradigm that promised social change as well as technological innovation. But by the end of the century there was a reaction against the hegemony of science.

Burrow develops an original argument to explain this, identifying a paradox at the centre of the materialist ideology that dominated the late nineteenth century. Initially materialism, as popularised in best-sellers such as Ludwig Büchner’s Kraft und Stoff (Force and Matter, 1855), seemed to offer a way of understanding the world that was solidly scientific, opposing metaphysics and religion. At this time scientists such as Darwin and Hermann von Helmholtz (who proposed the conservation of energy, the first law of thermodynamics) were revealing the lawfulness of nature. And yet increasingly the followers of materialism came to idealise Nature, endowing it with ‘metaphysical and emotional and even ethical responsibilities’. By the end of the century influential Darwinists such as Ernst Haeckel were describing nature as a mystical unity. Indeed their view of nature resembled that of the Romantics in the early part of the nineteenth century. It seemed as if the history of ideas had turned full circle.

At the end of a century in which Christians’ faith in a miraculous world-view was challenged by science, many secular intellectuals began to identify nature with the immanent godhead. In this context, Burrow discusses the rise of occult movements in the early years of the twentieth century, fuelled by the nascent ‘science’ of psychology and the Nietzschean rejection of ‘a life lived at second hand, paralysed by awareness of its self-acknowledged place in an historical continuum’.

This then is the ‘crisis of reason’ alluded to in Burrow’s title. This fascinating period produced Modernism, a paradoxical movement celebrating both the ‘Dionysiac immersion in experience’ and the ‘escape into the objectivity of artifice’. As Burrow rightly says in his final sentence, ‘Modernism is our tradition’, and to understand it is to attempt to balance the complex equation of experiment and revolution, rationality and subjectivity that has become part of our cultural vocabulary.

The intellectual breadth of this book is admirable and more than compensates for occasional errors of detail (for example, the physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach is misquoted and the novelist Robert Musil, a fierce critic of Mach, is wrongly described as his ‘disciple’). This is a stimulating survey of the intellectual origins of the twentieth century and that much contested term, modernity.

The fourteen articles in European Culture in the Great War, edited by Aviel Roshwald and Richard Stites, are also intended to inform our understanding of Modernism, this time in relation to the Great War. The contributors set out to examine the cultural impact of this war to end wars. Unlike earlier works, European Culture in the Great War approaches this theme by exploring the relationship between ‘high’ and ‘mass’ cultures. Jay Winter’s article on ‘Popular culture in wartime Britain’ is typical in its use of popular music, the thriller genre, sport, and film to show how ‘Prussianism’ was presented as a ‘clear and present danger’ to the English way of life during the war. When a soldier from the London Regiment was asked if he was fighting for the empire, he replied emphatically ‘yes’. Only later did he admit that he had meant the Empire Music Hall in Hackney. Winter comments that‘political ideas or abstractions had little to do with their [the soldiers’] motivation or staying power.’ And yet, ironically, by the end of the war ‘the Britain about which so many songs had been sung was a thing of the past.’

There are many fascinating insights into the role played by intellectuals in each country’s war effort. Peter Jelavich highlights the popular enthusiasm for the war in Germany: one Berlin newspaper received over 500 poems daily in the first month of the war. Intellectuals were not immune from this jingoistic euphoria. For Thomas Mann the war was a battle between dynamic German Kultur and effete Western Zivilisation. Pre-war Germany had been too ‘civilised’:‘How could the artist, the soldier in the artist, fail to praise God for the collapse of a peaceful world with which he was fed up, so completely fed up!’

Steven Beller shows how Austrian intellectuals such as Freud were equally exhilarated by the outbreak of war. But like the writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal they were also keen to avoid active service: ‘at the same time as he was proclaiming his enthusiasm for ‘doing his bit’ on the front line, [he] was frantically trying to get himself transferred from the prospect of front-line service to a safe office job in Vienna’. Heinrich Mann and Karl Kraus were amongst the brave minority who dared to voice their opposition to the war.

The geographical scope of this book is certainly impressive: Russia, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and the South Slavic lands are discussed as well as the central European powers. It is an important collection that casts new light on the cultural history of the Great War and will be essential reading for anyone who is interested in the complex relationship between propaganda and popular culture.

About the Author

Peter D. Smith is the author of the forthcoming Metaphor and Materiality: German Literature and the World-View of Science 1780-1955.

The Crisis of Reason European Thought, 1848-1914

Yale University Press xvi + 271 pp.
£20 ISBN 0-300-08390-4

European Culture in the Great War. The Arts, Entertainment, and Propaganda, 1914-1918

Cambridge University Press xii + 430 pp
£40 ISBN 0-521-57015-8



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