The twentieth century was born in the trenches. Its midwives were poison gas, bullets and steel. In Modris Eksteins opus, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, Eksteins examines all the horrors of the war and its effect on the men in the trenches to revisit how those bloody days helped shape the men who lived through it and consequently the rest of the century.

“For the Germans this was a war to change the world;” Eksteins writes.

“For the British this was a war to preserve the world. The Germans were propelled by a vision, the British by a legacy.” In two simple sentenc3es, Eksteins is able to condense the whole of the madness of the Great War. Many authors have discussed the actual war itself and the brutality it manifested. Indeed, so does Eksteins. But of vital consequence is the effect the war had on the men who walked out of the trenches and lived with the burden of what they had been forced to do to one another and to themselves.

Eksteins’ title borrows from composer Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, “The Rite of Spring”. The title itself is indicative of Eksteins’ larger motif, where he notes that in the post-modern era that comprises the present days, the intermingling of fiction and drama with the social sciences have come to form a kind of blending. This description is primarily a word salad that Eksteins composes in order to make the ridiculousness of the postmodern critique of history more palatable to unwitting audiences. Postmodernism aside, Eksteins aptly includes cultural references to create a more nuanced perspective of the war and tragedy that transcends simple battlefield retelling and theories of characters motivations. In order to truly understand what a break the Great War was with the prevailing traditions in 1913/14 it is vital that culture be identified and discussed.

History as a field of study ought not subdivide everything in a subject and reject potential lenses through viewing the past simply because they are hard. They should be rejected if after study the writing shows that the author has either have a.) offered a viewpoint which in its ridiculous and far-fetched nature and is an affront to reason, or 2.) is so nihilistic that it negates the reason for writing down history at all.

Eksteins manages to slyly slip between these two bars and project a study of the great war in all its brutality and anger and irony while utilizing persons who have been traditionally been on the periphery of discussions. For example, Eksteins recounts of the intrigue in the drama scene in Venice in the months before the guns of august roared. The purpose being that it symbolizes the hope and irreverence that had overcome middle class and upper class European culture in the second decade of the new century. If the war could be seen as a long pilgrimage through night towards day, the days before the war are definitely the lingering sunset that is absent the knowledge of the horrors that are to come in the twilight. 18 months into the conflict, Lord Kitchener, the war czar in Great Britain, complained that he was running out of options. “ I don’t know what’s to be done…this isn’t war.”

The transformative nature that the Great War had taken on was neither fully understood or appreciate by the Allied forces. However, as Eksteins notes, for the Germans the war was always about a national catharsis. “To Ludendorff,’ (general staff officer and later head of all military), “all questions…were military questions.” Militarism in Germany took on a different connotation than other nations would identity. To Wilhelmine Germany, the militant militarism of schools, the economy, culture, were a sign of an ascendant Germany. Wilhelm and his aides were sure that the new century would be Germany’s. Their principle rival in this endeavor was Edwardian Britain.

Conversely, Eksteins posits that while Germany stood for a casting off of old order (except monarchism), the British ideals of free trade, Anglophone common law, and colonial supremacy were firmly rooted in the past centuries. To the men in the House of Commons and Lords, the sun would never set on their empire, because God and the navy ensured otherwise. The clash of national identities and even national destinies plays heavily into the narrative Eksteins builds.

At the end, nations were transformed from their prewar state not into what they had fervently hoped would be a new glory, but more likely a new desperation that inhabited a broken legal and cultural framework and the bodies of millions of young men who carried the determined stoicism and philistinism of their war days up through the rest of their lives. The tragedy upon tragedy that compounds is not just the staggering loss of life in conditions so impoverished the mind reels, it is also the loss of a sense of hope and progress that seemed so attainable in 1913.

Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age by Moris Eksteins. Mariner Books: 2000. 396 Pages. Purchased copy.

 

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