Did Germany’s cultural avant-garde cause World War I? Or vice versa?

So asks John O’Sullivan in the thought-provoking essay War, Culture, and the Minds of Nations:

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. One of the oddest expressions of this receptiveness was the death by heart attack of the deputy head of the German General Staff while — clad in a tutu — he performed a ballet routine before an audience that, for earlier performances, had sometimes included the Kaiser. Odd though it was, this performance symbolized the marriage of technical brilliance and cultural rebellion that characterized the apparently traditional regime and society of Wilhelmine Germany.

In retrospect, the absurdist moment actually symbolized the brevity and death of this combination. But when it first came into being, this marriage produced a vivid and powerful national egotism in the German mind, which under its influence saw Germany as a new and revolutionary power with a right, even a duty, to break through existing orders in everything from economics to international law. Some of the expressions of ecstatic revolutionary nationalism by German academic institutions and prominent intellectuals welcoming the outbreak of war are scarcely credible. Here, for instance, is a statement from the Rectors and Senates of Bavarian Universities on August 13, 1914:

Students! The muses are silent. The issue is battle, the battle forced on us for German Kultur, which is threatened by the barbarians from the east, and for German values, which the enemy in the west envies us. And so the furor teutonicus bursts into flame once again.

Kimball acknowledges an important guide in his exploration of the rise and fall of this extravagant cultural nationalism both before and after the Great War:

In a remarkable book called Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, the historian Modris Eksteins . . . shows how sentimentality and a species of extravagant mythmaking mark the points of contact between avant-garde culture and burgeoning totalitarianism. This was especially true in Germany, the country that had advanced the radical program of the avant-garde most enthusiastically. England, by contrast, was a conservative power. Where Germany started the war to transform the world, England fought the war to preserve a world and the culture that defined it.

If England won the military war, Germany won the cultural conflict. Its revolutionary spirit transformed all the combatants and, as we have seen, midwifed a world in which states and governments increasingly disregarded conventions, rules, treaties, and whatever else restrained their immediate interests. Within Germany, defeat meant that the cultural nationalism of 1914 revived in even more poisonous form. As Eksteins’s superb book shows, and as Kimball’s important article underlines, the traditional liberal confidence in rationality, moral law, and progress was further undermined by political movements that mistook art for morality and politics. As a result, in the words of Carl Schorske (quoted by Kimball), “art became transformed from an ornament to an essence, from an expression of value to a source of value.” Germany told itself lies about the past and the future and then tried to live the lies in history. At the bottom of that slippery slope lay the kitsch of Nazi cultural propaganda and, behind that stage curtain, Götterdämmerung.

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One Response to Did Germany’s cultural avant-garde cause World War I? Or vice versa?

  1. Paul Marks says:

    Yes far from being conservative, the German elite viewed themselves as radical – creating a new world, culturally and politically.

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