A provacative reversal of conventional wisdom, discussed by John O’Sullivan in a long-but-worthwhile article at National Review.
Kimball raises the question of whether cultural, psychological, artistic, and social movements were, not the consequences of the Great War, but instead among its causes. Without going overboard on this — since the upsetting of Europe’s balance of power by Bismarck’s creation of the German Empire in 1871 and then by Kaiser Wilhelm’s bid for world power outside Europe were plainly important non-cultural causes of 1914 — Kimball makes a persuasive case that 1914 emerged in part from the explosion of radical cultural modernism that was symbolized especially by the riots of enthusiasm and rejection that greeted Diaghilev’s 1913 production of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring ballet.
The earliest signs of this cultural revolution appeared in the late 1880s, but they gathered force and speed in the decade leading to the Great War with the Futurist movement in Italy, vitalism in French philosophy, Vorticism in Britain, Freud and Freudianism in Vienna, the emergence of Picasso and James Joyce, the huge enthusiasm that greeted Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes throughout Western Europe, and much else. Though these are very different phenomena — some self-consciously primitivist, others self-consciously complex and obscure — they all share a common sensibility: a rejection of the traditions, restraints, values, and standards that characterized the Victorian age in favor of spontaneity, instinct, and the breaking of barriers. “We want no part of the past,” said Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, whose “Futurist Manifesto” was inspired in 1909 by a night of reckless driving that ended with the car in a ditch and the poet calling ecstatically for the triumph of speed and machinery and the closing of museums.
This rebelliousness did not long confine itself to aesthetics. It soon manifested itself in a more general rejection of restraints and standards in morality, law, politics, business, and other aspects of life that had previously been regarded as distinct from the cultural realm. And though this sensibility and its accompanying movement spread throughout Europe, it found its most receptive audience in the cultural, bureaucratic, and even military classes of the new German Empire, which, since its foundation in 1871, had shown extraordinary progress both in industrial power and in technical innovation.
I like this thesis because War is something that is willed by people. This is true even of World War I, which often gets treated as some kind of odd political weather event. The ecstatic joy that could be found among people when the war broke out speaks to a yearning to destroy and to seek dominion. Certainly the German military that eagerly destroyed Belgian cathedrals had very little conservatism in it. The trouble with treating nothing as sacred, is that nothing becomes sacred.
It also gibes with the thrust of a book I have long admired, The First Total War by David Bell, which argues that the spirit of the French Revolution brought a totalizing spirit to the Napoleonic Wars and subsequent global conflict. The pre-revolutionary abandonment of values led not to justice but tyranny, not brotherhood but blood.
To be fair, it’s entirely possible that the Kaiser simply wasn’t able to fight the war like he wanted…
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