Book Review: Theater of Modernity

With a fascinating cast of characters, Philipp Blom’s engaging history of  the inter-war years stages the glories and agonies of these troubled times. 

The legacy of World War I was one of disillusionment, even betrayal: Four empires were destroyed and Europe’s economy devastated, the creative energy, pride and optimism that had come with technological progress came to a grinding halt.  Personal qualities mattered little in a war of industrialized slaughter.

The young men in the trenches, so inspired with hopes for heroism, learned that the call to arms had led them to a hell from which few would recover.

“Everything they had believed in,” writes Vienna-based historian Philipp Blom, “was a myth.”

In this moral vacuum, Blom’s narrative begins: Fracture: Life and Culture in the West 1918-1938. This is his sequel to his pre-war history The Vertigo Years, Change and Culture in the West, 1900-1914, in which he invites us to participate in the seminal events and daily life of Europeans and Americans caught up in a whirlwind of change, who couldn’t yet imagine the catastrophe about to befall them.

Change intensified by war

This time, the shock informs every page. Yet the forces driving change had begun long before, of urbanization, consumerism, mass media, industry and international finance, feminism, psychoanalysis, the theory of relativity and abstract art.  It is “not rupture but continuity” that is the key to understanding the interwar years.

“Technological modernity was intensified by the war, while the values underpinning Western societies were deeply damaged.”  This book is a chronicle of “the after effects of this shock,” the creativity, the hedonism, and disastrous political choices.

Philipp Blom is an insightful historian, yes, but equally important, he is a wonderful storyteller.  He understands, as fine novelists do, that the truth of a time and place becomes most real through the experiences of the individuals who lived through it.  Thus he takes us on the second part of our journey through the 20th century in telling anecdotes of people whose stories captures a central idea, or a driving force of the time.  Each tale is a springboard for an exploration of the patchwork of events and trends that combine to make that year what it was.

A battle for Austria’s soul

For those of us in Vienna, Blom’s chapter about the 1927 uprising and burning of the Justizpalast, the Palace of Justice, is particularly fascinating.

Through the eyes of novelist Elias Canetti, then a young university student and later Nobel laureate, Blom is able to deliver a nearly minute-by-minute account of the disastrous culmination
between the workers and the police – who fired into the crowd, leaving 89 demonstrators dead and hundreds injured.

It was an experience of mob violence that shook Canetti to the core, and became the basis for his later study Crowds and Power, and for his acclaimed novel Auto da Fwé.

Blom sees these events in Vienna as emblematic of a “battle for the country’s soul,” a battle whose origins lay in the dismantling of the Habsburg Empire that Winston Churchill saw as a “cardinal tragedy” of Versailles.  It had been an Empire “of almost unparalleled diversity”, with a thriving, complex economy.

With its dissolution, all this was lost, and the few in the rump state of German-speaking Austria were interested in what remained.  Blom goes on to detail the rich history of “Red Vienna”, the
experiment in working class culture whose famed Gemeindebauten social housing, like the Karl Marx Hof in Heiligenstadt, shape the city’s character to this day.

All this came to an end in 1934, when Fascism took over in Austria as it did across Europe – in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Croatia and Poland, as well as Germany – setting the stage for 1938 and the continuation of war.

But ultimately, Blom tells us, it was modernity, not war, that defined the 20th century.  The wars were “almost side effects the same vast revolution” when “technology developed faster than it could be understood.”





Fracture: Life and Culture in the West 1918 – 1938.

Philip Blom, Atlantic Books, London, 2015

pp 411





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