The Vertigo Years: Europe 1900-1914


Europe, 1900–1914: a world adrift, a pulsating era of creativity and contradictions. The major topics of the day: terrorism, globalization, immigration, consumerism, the collapse of moral values, and the rivalry of superpowers. The twentieth century was not born in the trenches of the Somme or Passchendaele—but rather in the fifteen vertiginous years preceding World War I.

In this short span of time, a new world order was emerging in ultimately tragic contradiction to the old. ...

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The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914

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Europe, 1900–1914: a world adrift, a pulsating era of creativity and contradictions. The major topics of the day: terrorism, globalization, immigration, consumerism, the collapse of moral values, and the rivalry of superpowers. The twentieth century was not born in the trenches of the Somme or Passchendaele—but rather in the fifteen vertiginous years preceding World War I.

In this short span of time, a new world order was emerging in ultimately tragic contradiction to the old. These were the years in which the political and personal repercussions of the Industrial Revolution were felt worldwide: Cities grew like never before as people fled the countryside and their traditional identities; science created new possibilities as well as nightmares; education changed the outlook of millions of people; mass-produced items transformed daily life; industrial laborers demanded a share of political power; and women sought to change their place in society—as well as the very fabric of sexual relations.

From the tremendous hope for a new century embodied in the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris to the shattering assassination of a Habsburg archduke in Sarajevo in 1914, historian Philipp Blom chronicles this extraordinary epoch year by year. Prime Ministers and peasants, anarchists and actresses, scientists and psychopaths intermingle on the stage of a new century in this portrait of an opulent, unstable age on the brink of disaster.

Beautifully written and replete with deftly told anecdotes, The Vertigo Years brings the wonders, horrors, and fears of the early twentieth century vividly to life.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“The vertiginous atmosphere of a tumbling prewar society - at the same time exciting and frightening - is described with atmospheric clarity. The combination of easily worn scholarship, fascinating character studies and fluent story-telling that is often very funny makes this a hugely enjoyable and illuminating book….A work of narrative history at its best.”

The Economist
“Impressive and thought-provoking....encapsulate[s] complex historical and biographical events pithily and in an illuminating context…The book brings the fears, enthusiasms and blindspots of the period brilliantly to life.”

Globe and Mail
“In this enthralling, panoramic sweep of the 15 years preceding the First World War, Blom convincingly argues that it was this decade and a half that truly marked the start of the modern age, with all its grandeur and calamities…. With his impressive synthesis of historical literature, old and recent, and his finely drawn portraits of both emperors and workers, Blom's Vertigo Years will surely enlighten and interest another generation of readers in an era far in the past, yet worth understanding all the same.”
“Blom is an amazingly talented writer who seamlessly draws the cultural and philosophical connections between art, science, politics, culture, literature and society as a whole… Two thumbs WAY UP for The Vertigo Years.”

Publishers Weekly

Virginia Woolf famously declared that "human character changed" in the year 1910; this dizzying survey of European history and culture before WWI elaborates. Historian Blom (Enlightening the World) examines every innovation of the turbulent period that, in his estimate, gave birth to modernity and its discontents. Automobiles, airplanes and electricity gave humans unprecedented speed and power; the explosive growth of industry, cities and consumerism shattered and rebuilt communities; women, moving into schools and workplaces, demanded new rights; mass politics and mass media challenged traditional authority; psychoanalysis and the theory of relativity challenged ideas about humans and about time and space. The panorama is almost too much to take in, especially since Blom rightly complicates the picture by exploring the diverse ways in which different countries experienced these upheavals. His stab at a unifying theme-a perceived crisis of masculinity that panicked everyone from Proust to proto-Nazi racists as sex roles changed and a machine-driven, bureaucratic economy made muscle-power and martial virtues obsolete-is fruitful, but it only partially illuminates the times. This is a stylish, erudite guide to an age of exhilaration and anxiety that in many ways invented our own. Photos. (Nov.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Author and journalist Blom (To Have and To Hold: An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting) skillfully evokes the profound changes that swept through Europe from 1900 until 1914. He emphasizes that it was a scientific revolution that provided the foundation for the major paradigm shift that took place during these early years of the 20th century. The groundbreaking work of Einstein, Ernest Rutherford, and Marie and Pierre Curie challenged previous theories of the physical world, while Freud, Durkheim, and Bergson delved into the more nebulous realms of human nature to challenge accepted perceptions of human behavior. The certainties of the Victorian age were shattered, and no supposed "truths" were left unchallenged. Europeans were left on shifting ground, with their confusion further exacerbated by rapid urbanization and industrialization. Blom's profiles of numerous artists, architects, writers, activists, politicians, and just ordinary Europeans gives the reader a sense of the magnitude of the transformation that took place in pre-World War I Europe. Noticeably absent from his biographical profiles are Socialists such as Rosa Luxemburg and Eduard Bernstein. In fact, Blom has little to say about the burgeoning Socialist movement, an oversight that will certainly draw criticism. Although his book is a good choice for all modern European history collections, Barbara Tuchman's evocative The Proud Tower remains the best account of fin de siècle Europe.
—Jim Doyle

The Barnes & Noble Review
It is not uncommon to date the 19th century -- the "long century" -- from 1789 to 1914, so deep were the fissures of those benchmark 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": "[L]argely 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 na?vely and painfully." The mighty cultural, social, political, and technological ferment of Europe in 1900–14 is the subject of Philipp Blom's 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 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 confidant, 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 equally diverse. The Vertigo Years is a dazzling journey through a world changing rapidly. --Robert Messenger
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465011162
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 10/20/2008
  • Pages: 512
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Philipp Blom holds a doctorate from Oxford University and is the author of To Have and To Hold and Enlightening the World. He frequently contributes articles to The Financial Times, The Independent, and The Guardian among others. He lives in Vienna.
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Read an Excerpt


Today, the period before the outbreak of the First World War is often regarded as idyllic: the time before the fall, the good old days, a belle époque celebrated in lavishly decorated films, a beautiful, intact society about to be shattered by the forces driving it inexorably towards disaster. After 1918, ‘lower’ classes and the peoples in the colonies were rapidly outbreeding ‘civilized’ whites. We hear echoes of this debate today in the hysterical polemics about birth rates among Muslim immigrants to Europe, much debated forecasts about the growth of the world’s population, and the decline of numbers in Europe and the USA, not to mention biological research indicating the decline of fertility among Western men.

Speed and exhilaration, anxiety and vertigo were recurrent themes of the years between 1900 and 1914, during which cities exploded in size and societies were transformed, mass production seized hold of everyday life, newspapers turned into media empires, cinema audiences were in the tens of millions, and globalization brought meat from New Zealand and grain from Canada to British dinner plates, decimating the incomes of the old landed classes and enabling the rise of new kinds of people: engineers, technocrats, city-dwellers. Modernity did not rise virgin-born from the trenches of the Somme. Well before 1914, it had already taken a firm hold on the minds and lives of Europe. The War acted not as a creator, but as a catalyst, forcing old structures to collapse more quickly and new identities to assert themselves more readily.

The Vertigo Years had much in common with our own day, notleast their openness: in 1910 and even in 1914, nobody felt confident of the shape the future world would have, of who would wield power, what political constellation would be victorious, or what kind of society would emerge from the headlong transformation. By contrast, during the second half of the twentieth century the Cold War created a quite different situation: the outcome seemed uncertain, but it was perfectly clear what was at stake, and equally clear that one of two ideological systems would eventually be victorious. With the collapse of the Soviet empire, some of the openness and uncertainty of the Vertigo Years have reappeared, and today it is much more difficult to say what the future will bring for our societies.

In a large part, the uncertain future facing us early in the twenty-first century arose from the inventions, thoughts and transformations of those unusually rich fifteen years between 1900 and 1914, a period of extraordinary creativity in the arts and sciences, of enormous change in society and in the very image people had of themselves. Everything that was to become important during the twentieth century — from quantum physics to women’s emancipation, from abstract art to space travel, from communism and fascism to the consumer society, from industrialized slaughter to the power of the media — had already made deep impressions in the years before 1914, so that the rest of the century was little more than an exercise, wonderful and hideous by turn, in living out and exploring these new possibilities.

From the Hardcover edition.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction 1

1 1900: The Dynamo and the Virgin 5

2 1901: The Changing of the Guard 23

3 1902: Oedipus Rex 44

4 1903: A Strange Luminescence 71

5 1904: His Majesty and Mister Morel 92

6 1905: In All Fury 122

7 1906: Dreadnought and Anxiety 155

8 1907: Dreams and Visions 189

9 1908: Ladies with Rocks 219

10 1909: The Cult of the Fast Machine 249

11 1910: Human Nature Changed 277

12 1911: People's Palaces 308

13 1912: Questions of Breeding 334

14 1913: Wagner's Crime 360

15 1914: Murder Most Foul 388

Notes 409

Bibliography 426

Index 453

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2011

    A new way of looking at pre-WWI Europe

    At the beginning of his new book, Philipp Blom asks us, his readers, to pretend that we know nothing of what may come after 1914 for Europe. In this, he is trying to get us to take a new, unvarnished look at the beginning of the twentieth century and how those fifteen years set up the world we know today. Taking a year by year look at events all across Europe, Blom makes a strong case that the wonders and breakthroughs of this time period directly influenced everything that followed. From terrorism to immigration to globalization and gender roles, many of the issues we debate today have strong roots in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century.Though his writing suffers slightly from mild digressions here and there, Blom presents his arguments in a very strong manner. Thoroughly enjoyable and readable, The Vertigo Years is an excellent title for anyone looking to learn how we got to where we are today.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 15, 2008

    I Also Recommend:

    Wow, a fast paced, well written book.

    This is a fast paced, deeply researched, and very well written book that illuminates things long forgotten about the history of Europe pre-WW One. Each year is a chapter on a different subject. Each chapter is engrossing and thought provoking. It isn't just for history junkies either, every one will learn something neat in this book. For the record, I am a history major who eats this stuff up. WWI is a specialty of mine and I think this book will help readers understand how and why that war began. The book is well written, the research is phenomenal, and the action is fast paced. I highly recommend this book. You will not be disappointed.<BR/><BR/>PW

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 22, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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