The Vertigo Years

Let me start with a confession. When I was growing up, I felt a profound nostalgia for the “Founders’ Years” as they are called in Germany. I found my own time distressingly confusing, and somehow there was something profoundly reassuring about the idea of a time during which buildings were beautiful and often grand (at least in my town they seemed to be), people knew how to dress (judging from the old photos I found in books), their lives seemed somehow imbued with a sense of certainty and based upon a love for culture, and the artists working back then were some of my favourites: Thomas Mann was writing novels such as I wanted to write one day, Gustav Mahler provided a breathtaking soundtrack to my dreams.

Perhaps this is part of the reason why I studied history — to understand what divided our time from that period of blissful certainty, elegant balls, and summer picnics, what had changed, what had gone wrong. At university, my perspective on things changed. I was no longer the dreamy kid, and I was confronted with things that simply wouldn’t fit my idyllic image of the 1900s. For a start, there was the fact that only very few people had participated in this secure, affluent, middle-class life, while the majority had done backbreaking work to finance it. Even more unsettling was another discovery: the more I read, the less secure the age itself appeared. Far from being a bedrock of social stability, the years before the First World War appeared to have been agitated and fast-paced, nervous and uncertain; everything, in fact, that had made me uneasy about the present.

The more research I did, the more I became convinced that the popular image of an idyllic, Indian summer before the catastrophe of the War was false, a product more of nostalgia (such as I myself had felt) than of historical fact. The dominant view seemed to be something like this: the great days of stability and tranquility moved along decorously and heedless of the military madness of its generals until it was pitched into a terrible war. After this war, there was no way back to paradise, and the world discovered, invented a new way of being: modernity.

This narrative was seductive, but by then my reading seemed to turn up jarring facts almost by the day. The idea of the calm before the storm of modernity did not fit with the scandalous plays, the nervousness of the novels, or even the diaries and correspondences of the time. There was obviously something else people felt, something dramatically unlike the calmness of the Good Old Days. Did the 1900s not see unprecedented industrial and urban development? Was it not the time of socialist and anarchist activism and even suicide terrorism, agitation by Suffragettes and radical feminists, huge crowds attending motor races, and new speed records every other week? Was it not marked by the discovery of radioactivity and the theory of relativity, of the rise of cinema and consumer culture, of abstract art and atonal music?

In The Vertigo Years, I tried to give an account of the time from 1900 to 1914 that interprets these years not as the end of an epoch, but as a beginning, a time of huge energy and prodigious transformations, the birth of our own, modern culture, of our life with urban mass culture, global industrial production and entertainment, and the attendant ills of feeling alienated from life in the anonymous city or the endless suburb, of being overwhelmed by demands or wrecked by nerves.

The irony is that the pre-War years are distinguished not by being different from our own day, but by being so very similar to it. Now as then we seem to be hurtling forward with great speed without knowing where we are going, now as then globalization is dominating our life, now as then there were financial crises, terrorism, but also a feeling of liberation, of a rush of change at once frightening and exhilarating — of vertigo.