The Vertigo Years

It is not uncommon to date the 19th century — the “long century” — from 1789 to 1914, so deep were the fissures of those two years. While the French Revolution has long been another country, we still live in the shadow of 1914. We have what Jacques Barzun termed a “laggard state of mind”: “largely due to the blurring and dislocating effect of the First World War, we still hunt for solutions already found, we stumble over mental hurdles already removed, we rediscover naively and painfully.” The mighty cultural, social, political, and technological ferment of Europe in 1900-14 is the subject of Philipp Blom’s new book. He wants us to look at these years as more than foreshadowing, to look back as if we knew nothing of “the Sarajevo assassination, the Somme, the Great Crash, the Reichskristallnacht, Stalingrad, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, the Gulags, or the Berlin Wall.” Blom gives over a chapter to each year and seems to have every conceivable subject comfortably to hand. The essay for 1906 flows from the Wilhelm II’s miserable childhood and envy of his uncle, Edward VII of England, to the naval arms race between England and Germany, to Europe’s militarism and extensive honor culture, to the trial for homosexuality of Wilhelm’s close confidante, Philipp zu Eulenberg (and that of Oscar Wilde), to the celebrity of the bodybuilder Sandow the Great, to British popular novelists’ Germanophobia, to Zionism (and ideas of Jewish virility), to the general worry over threats to the masculine identity. Each of Blom’s chapters flows as sweetly and over topics as diverse. The Vertigo Years is a dazzling journey through a world changing rapidly.