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Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age
by modris ecksteins
houghton mifflin (a peter davison book), 396 pages, $24.95

Modris Eksteins’ disturbing and fascinating book ranges between the Sergei Diaghilev-managed opening night performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in Paris on May 29, 1913, and the suicide of Hitler in 1945. The book’s field of action is Western civilization, but its primary focus is on Germany between the two World Wars. Its prologue is set in Venice where the death from cholera of the artist Gustav Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice prepares for the book’s thematic concern with the “colossal romanticism of our era” in which life has been subordinated to art. 

Rites of Spring is thus a book about the hubris of modernism and the consequence of its search “for the holy grail that is the ‘total art form.’” In Germany, “the modernist nation par excellence of our century,” the search was fueled, Professor Eksteins says, by the sibling relationship between avant-garde and storm trooper in which “Nazi kitsch may bear a blood relationship to the highbrow religion of art proclaimed by many moderns.”

Eksteins’ decision to present his material in the form of a drama divided into acts and scenes is an attempt to find a compromise between history and fiction in an era when existence has become aestheticized. He risks, of course, the very consequence of blending life with art that is his subject. But he knows what he is doing, and most importantly, he knows that he is not simply attacking the aesthetic dimension of reality. One might say that he clarifies history by a discriminate use of the weapons of an adversary whose totalistic commitment to a regenerating novelty is, like Diaghilev’s or Hitler’s, a rejection of history.

The first act gives us the prologue to World War One in Paris and Berlin and the unanticipated appalling fact of it in Flanders Field—if anything, made more appalling by the spontaneous Christmas truce of 1914. The second act carries us through the war to the point where “modernism, which in its prewar form was a culture of hope, a vision of synthesis, would turn to a culture of nightmare.” The third act, which begins in Paris on May 21, 1927, with the arrival of Charles Lindbergh (“The New Christ”), concludes with the liebestod marriage of Hitler and Eva Braun in the Fuehrer bunker and the frolicking danse macabre that followed in the chancellery canteen when it was clear that the Fuehrer was dead.

So the story of the modern world between May 29, 1913, and May 28, 1945, is the now familiar story of a passage from euphoria to disillusion, a passage almost compulsively repeated in the art of modernism and postmodernism. Paul Fussell has had his say on this subject in The Great War and Modern Memory; indeed, readers who know Fussell’s book will have it constantly in mind as they read Eksteins’ first two acts. Fussell is also good on the aestheticization of war, as among others is Paul Johnson in Modern Times. But there is no redundancy here. These books complement one another. This is apparent, for instance, in Fussell’s and Eksteins’ treatment of Eric Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Eksteins, one might say, repeats what Fussell says about the expression of disillusionment in Remarque’s novel, but his more extensive concern (Fussell confines himself to the British experience on the Western front during World War One) is with the novel as a reflection of the political and emotional postwar environment that makes it a factor in the rise of the Third Reich.

Other unmentioned books surface as one reads. No doubt the dramatic structure invites this reinforcing invasion of apparently disparate texts, just as Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with its dramatic progression through murderous totalitarianism to nihilistic despair, now invites the reaffirming invasion of Rites of Spring. A good deal of Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power becomes relevant, particularly in its treatment of the figure Canetti calls the “Survivor,” for whom the piles of dead before him are aesthetically indispensable to his self-enhancement. Eksteins’ powerful emphasis on the millenarian impulse in German culture prior to both wars (to say nothing of the Utopian expectation of a revolutionary renewal released by modernism in France and England as well) can remind one again how much there is in Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millenium that must not be forgotten, especially in its chapter on the medieval heresy of the Free Spirit with its “elite of amoral supermen,” those ecstatically liberated souls whose profound introversion could emerge as “a nihilistic megalomania.” Indeed, Cohn provides the historical precedent for a Fuehrer who, says Eksteins, “looked on himself as the incarnation of the artist-tyrant Nietzsche called for.”

“The notion of regeneration and rebirth,” Eksteins writes, “was to be found in much avant-garde activity at the turn of the century.” Martin Green has opened out this generalization in his Mountain of Truth: The Counterculture Begins—Ascona, 1900, a book that could serve as a prologue to Rites of Spring. Inevitably, some of Green’s characters appear in Eksteins’ book, notably Mary Wigman, whose dance theories interested Albert Speer, and Rudolf von Laban, the ballet master of the Russian state theaters. For Laban the dance was the total art form that in Eksteins’ book it is for Diaghilev, who as “a Nietzschean creation, a supreme egotist” anticipates the supreme impresario that Hitler was.

For both Green and Eksteins the priority of the aesthetic, especially when it is in combination with the liberated erotic, foreshadows the counterculture of the 1960s. Summarizing the intellectual and artistic ferment of the 1930s, Eksteins observes that “all these experiments seemed to capture the mystique of the avant-garde movements of an earlier day: to embrace life, to rebel against bourgeois sterility, to hate respectable society, and above all to revoltto bring about a radical revaluation of all values.” In World War One, he tempts us to say, the Germans were a New Left movement on fire with ideas of newness, regeneration, and change, while the British were a conservative and materialistic establishment imprisoned in the past. The shattering reversal of expectation that Germany experienced as it passed from the euphoria of August 1914 to the bitter aftermath of the Versailles Treaty is repeated in the declension of the Haight-Ashbury Summer of Love to the Charles Manson case.

Manson himself was in many ways a reprise of the Hitler he admired: each was a failed artist; each was a charismatic and aesthetic unifier who managed to convince others that through him they belonged in an elite of amoral supermen; each had a compelling vision of a Reich that needed only to be purified by a Final Solution to stand like an embodied total art form against a pusillanimous and visionless world order.

Eksteins speaks of the German “preoccupation with the administration of life, with technique, to the point where technique becomes a value and an aesthetic goal, not merely a means to an end.” In Germany, unlike Britain, technical and vocational training was a matter of national and state concern well before World War One. In Hitler’s Germany the blending of aesthetics and technique in radio, film, and the meticulously planned Nuremburg spectacles was indispensable to the Third Reich’s tyranny of harmony. It was no wonder that Lindbergh’s astounding achievement in 1927, representing as it did a Nietzschean triumph of will and technology, should be followed by his idolization in Nazi Germany, where Hermann Goering pinned on him the Service Cross of the German Eagle.

The admiration was mutual: Lindbergh viewed the western democracies as degenerate and incapable of competing with Germany. Later, as a prominent member of the America First Committee, he announced in an angry speech that “the three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt Administration.” His belief that fascism was the wave of the future, Eksteins reminds us, was reflected in Anne Lindbergh’s 1940 book The Wave of the Future (and shared, apparently, by the young Paul De Man).

Eksteins’ book arrives on the scene at a time when it appears to some observers that there are still New Wave diehards who dream of a Germany capable of being a salvational force in a troubled and divided Europe. Daniel Johnson in the April, 1989 Encounter, for instance, calls attention to Arnulf Baring’s recently published Our New Megalomania: Germany Between East and West with its warning that the new vision “is beginning to resemble the old, fatal German sense of mission, the tragic destiny which already clouded so many first-rate minds in World War I.” In a similar vein, Gordon Craig in the June 15, 1989 New York Review of Books has compared the ideas of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s xenophobic French National Front to the aspirations of the German Right, especially as it is being agitated by the writings of Franz Schoenhuber and his leadership of the right-wing Republican party.

Unsettling thoughts (to close on a personal note) to carry with one to the concentration camp at Dachau on a beautiful Sunday afternoon after high mass at the splendidly resurrected Frauenkirche in Munich. But perhaps after all it is the best place to take them. Dachau is a memorial, not a museum, I was advised, and the choice of words is right: in a museum one expects to find a past that is over and done with, easily available to the softening nostalgia of le temps perdu. A memorial is for that which in the interests of present and future must be refused such comfortable neutralization.

So one contemplates the appalling photographs and incineration ovens as memorials of a technical efficiency whose culmination in this place was the aestheticization of death. Here the Carmelite nuns have established their prayerful Karmelkloster, a memorial, as their founder and first prioress put it, of “what happens when the state becomes the substitute for God.” So when the great doomsday bell sounds over the camp at three o’clock one may go into their chapel and hear the nuns recite their memorial office.

Eksteins’ book begins with a memorial return to Verdun by way of two cemeteries: first, an automobile graveyard piled high with “smashed corpses, crumpled bodies, glistening skeletons,” then that other cemetery where beneath symmetrical rows of white crosses lie those who fell in the battle of Verdun in the Great War. His book, he says, “will try to show that the two graveyards are related.” In the process he shows that Dachau is part of the relation.

John P. Sisk is Arnold Professor of the Humanities Emeritus at Gonzaga University.

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