The Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age – Modris Eksteins, 1989
One book down on the summer reading list. This was a hangover from exam revision, and also a recommendation from my high-school history teacher. I had read a short chapter on the July crisis before the exams, and then set the book aside, knowing I’d have to come back to it. I am very grateful I did.
Modris Eksteins’ Rites of Spring is at times an almost breathaking book. Starting in the turn-of-century artistic environment in Venice and Paris, with the rise of the Russian ballet and the growing avant-garde, moving through the Great War, and culminating in the rise of Nazism and the Second World War, Eksteins traces one of the most convincing threads through the first half of the European 20th Century I’ve seen. Rites of Spring starts out as a book of art history, which made it a bit difficult to get into. Indeed, I considered giving up as I was given more information than I’ll ever need on the establishment of the Russian ballet in Paris. The book does presuppose a certain level of culture – I was constantly having to Google Latin translations, for example, and what I assume are probably basic notions of the different arts discussed (architecture and dance were important at the start) are given without much explanation. Nonetheless, I managed to follow. Fortunately, as it turned out, because the ideas introduced with the art history of the first chapters are what tie the book together.
Taking the avant-garde movement as a symptom of a malaise in Europe, Eksteins argues that the Great War was not only born of that same malaise, but lived as the consequence of it – by civilians and soldiers on both sides of no man’s land. While I’m usually suspicious about grand pronouncements of national culture and consciousness, Eksteins makes a very convincing case for their importance, especially Germany’s sense of its modernising purpose.
Expressed in its bare bones, the argument isn’t particularly revolutionary – WW1 -> WW2 isn’t really that inspiring as far as narratives go. It’s the detail that really makes this book stellar, the little insights. In between the chapters on WW1 and on the rise of Nazism, Eksteins discusses the significane of Charles Linderbergh’s solo transatlantic flight at length, and some of the points made are fantastic. In general, the anecdotes, works of art, and symbolic moments that Eksteins chooses to demonstrate the broader cultural context of Europe, and its history, are what make this book so effective – much like Anthony Beevor’s history is so powerful because of its focus on the experience of individuals.
In fact, I was reminded of Beevor during the portion of the book on the Great War, which are very moving and at times, harrowing, but also filled with insights into the different psychologies of war and how soldiers related to it. Given that the Great War is the lynchpin of his argument, this is no surprise.
Finally, a word on modernism. Having spent significant portions of the past three years studying modernist literature, I was delighted to find I could pretty much engage with Eksteins’ arguments on modernism, and compare them with my own understandings, and, best of all, whenever he would quote The Wasteland, I’d feel a little smug glow of recognition. I suspect this is what being cultured feels like.