Discontent and Tension
At the present rate of progression . . . it will not need another century or
half century to turn thoughts upside down. Law in that case would disappear . . . and give place toforce. Morality would become police. Explosives would reach cosmic violence.
HENRY ADAMS, 1905
In French history the years at the turn of the twentieth century are called La Belle
Epoque, that delightful time when bourgeois life seemed at its richest and fullest. The
comforts of earthly existence were everywhere apparent: top hats, electricity, interior
plumbing, telephones, spacious boulevards in growing cities. More significantly, the
franc was as good as gold because it was minted in that metal and therefore readily
acceptable and well invested around the world. Perhaps the most opulent development
of the time was the elevation of the ancient Roman custom of the banquet to a grand
bourgeois art. Tables groaned under magnificent gastronomic creations, and middle-
class stomachs frequently displayed the roundness of overcontentment. It was during
this era that Maxim's became an internationally renowned dining spot, and that the
cordon bleu, originally a royal award of chivalry, was widely recognized as the sign of
What has been said of France could equally be said of England, Austria,
Germany, or Italy. The middle classes were well satisfied, the world in which they
circulated seemed settled and secure. "An excessive value on the placidity of existence," was the way the English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once described this situation.
Yet that placidity was seen by many critics as only a surface condition. Beneath
the routine of daily life they found indications of weak supports: false beliefs, wrong
goals, unwarranted smugness. Doubt and disdain about the very nature of modern
civilization were attitudes assumed by some intellectuals and social activists. The
growing materialism of the age, the seemingly excessive concern with physical comfort,
and the social hypocrisy of the middle classes--these were subjects that figured in so
much contemporary art: the plays of Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw, the
novels of Samuel Butler and André Gide, the cartoons in the English publication Punch
and the German publication "Simplissimus".
Moreover, some of the sentiments of social critics ran through darker and
deeper currents. There was an undercurrent of discontent and fear. Like the hero in
Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"--a novel appearing
in 1886--European society seemed to be creating an unpleasant and uncontrollable
nature, the direct outcome of its own conceit. How long modern civilization could
maintain the peaceful balance achieved by the forward motion generated by science
and industry was a question asked long before the outbreak of World War I.
Beneath and Beyond Calculation and Reason
In 1878 Thomas Masaryk, future founding president of the Republic of
Czechoslovakia, completed his study, Suicide and the Meaning of Civilization. The study
was one of the first on a subject that was of growing public interest. Masaryk estimated
that some fifty thousand people took their own lives annually in Europe. This dreadful
social phenomenon led him to want "to show how suicide as a general or 'mass'
phenomenon had developed out of and is part of modern culture." Although Masaryk
has been proven wrong in his assumption that suicide is an outgrowth of modernity,
his general concern with the underlying disorder of his age was not misplaced. To
many of his contemporaries the world was something less--or more--than a rational
Since the Enlightenment, the principle of reason had provided the norm for
human behavior. Democratic politics and scientific investigation were based upon it.
And so was the market system, which assumed that everyone calculated to his own
benefit. The prevailing intellectual attitude of the century was, in effect, a combination
of Hegel's premise that "all which is real is rational, and all which is rational is real," and
the empirical approach to scientific observation, an approach that basically considered
the rational mind to be informed by the sense of sight. What is seen can be scientifically
assessed--this was a nineteenth-century postulate. In such a view of things man was considered not to be an actor or doer, but primarily a dispassionate observer
on the sidelines of the world, a thinking creature who only notes what happens around
Dissent from this interpretation was strong toward the end of the century,
although the Romantics of the early century had raised objections chiefly of a literary
sort. Contrary to the scientific belief in external reality, the Romantics only saw outer
appearances and inner truth. For them the imagination transcended the sense of sight;
it alone provided meaning, hence understanding. Put otherwise, it was insight that
determined outlook. Later, the English playwright Oscar Wilde expressed this thought
when he asserted that life imitates art, that the artist teaches us to see, to appreciate,
and-- above all--to value. In this way human beings impose their feelings and
inspirations upon reality. The world is shaped by the imagination.
Such thought harbored spiritual qualities that the scientific positivism of the later
century ignored or denied. For Masaryk this was the key to an understanding of
contemporary suicide. He argued: "In our schools, large and small, only the
intellect is cultivated." A struggle between learning and religion thus ensues, with the
result that "no perfect character can be created, only an intellectual and moral chaos."
The incomplete or disjointed psyche of modern man, which Masaryk singled out
as the root cause of suicidal tendencies, was one that appeared in many contemporary
assessments. The French author Emile Durkheim, author of another and far more
important study on suicide published in 1897, found the modern cultural condition to be
one of anomie, of rootlessness or unrelatedness. Without well-articulated and arranged
values, the individual could not relate to the world, could not find a satisfactory place in
it, and thus was lost. The anomic condition was one of cultural despair. On a more
popular level, critics argued that the whole person was only found when the individual
engaged in acts of commitment, in personal self-assertion.
A new mysticism, a blend of action and devotion, appeared in religion, in
nationalism, and in imperialism. If there was a key word that figured in the vocabulary
of many writers, it was "will." "Will" was clearly a metaphysical term, beyond any
simple means of scientific measurement. It was even enshrouded in further ambiguity
in the phrase "will-to-power," coined by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche
(1844-1900). Taken out of its author's context, the term was soon popularized to mean
forceful assertion, domination, even rule of the weak by the strong and thus disrespect,
or contempt for the common man. Nietzsche perhaps intended none of this, but his
writing lent itself well to brief excerpts, and he was thereby more often quoted than
read, and made something of a prophet in the early twentieth century.
It is worth noting that Nietzsche, along with a considerable number of other
contemporary writers, used the word "energy" as a synonym for "will." Both industrial
power and human power were related; the nineteenth century concluded on a theme of
force, as well as on a theme of peaceful progress. For the American Henry Adams, the "dynamo" had replaced the "Virgin" as the symbol of the times. It was energy, not contemplation; force, not beauty, that he saw prevailing.
These attitudes, if suddenly pronounced, had been forming for several decades.
They certainly found an early focal point in Charles Darwin's work. His publication of
"On the Origin of Species" was a moment of excitement in 1859. The book had the quality
of being "timely": it appeared when educated people were toying with the ideas of
change and evolution, of what one author has described as "the historical articulation of
nature." The interest in change-through-time was a keen nineteenth-century one and
helps explain the popularity then enjoyed by history. But Darwin added a scientific
authority which had hitherto been lacking to the subject.
"On the Origin of Species" was a scientific explanation of animal evolution. Darwin
offered as the operating principle of change the idea of "natural selection," a process
through which certain forms of life adapted better--more efficiently--to their
environment and thus survived. Darwin's thought revolutionized biology, aroused
religious controversy, and inspired a reinterpretation of social science.
Within two decades of the book's publication, Social Darwinism--the application,
extension, and distortion of Darwin's biological analysis to social behavior--had spread
throughout Europe. Society was now conceived as being an extended organism, with
its own life-cycle, its own competitive principles, its own collective desire to survive.
"Struggle for survival" and "survival of the fittest," terms earlier employed by Darwin to
explain his biological theories, now became thrilling slogans for an age of commercial
and political competition. Thus Social Darwinism provided a pseudo-scientific
justification for imperial expansion, for military aggression, and for the forceful
assertion of the nation as well as of the individual. One of the most popular social
commentators in late nineteenth-century France, Gustave Le Bon, stated: "The right of
the strongest! This is the only law which is always imposed, and it is also the one which
has allowed humanity to progress the most." The statement appeared in Le Bon's "The
First Civilizations", published in 1889, a century after the French revolutionaries had
issued The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.
This pessimistic and deterministic mood washed over the democratic principles
which had been the hope of thinkers in the early century. A new conservatism,
unrestrained by an older aristocratic base, added a new ideological component to
European thought. The forerunner of what would be known in our times as "The
Radical Right," this conservatism combined, often in a clumsy but appealing way,
several points of view.
First, there was virulent or chauvinistic nationalism, trumpeted about in phrases
asserting the "blood-bond" of the community, its unique historical position, and the
glories of war as a manifestation of the nation's strength and power. Nationalism,
hitherto generous in its acceptance of the idea that all peoples had the right to define
themselves and to live together harmoniously, now became exclusive and bellicose. An oppositional relationship, one expressing the virtues of one people or nation and the weaknesses of another, quickened the spirit of international rivalry and fear. The German historian Heinrich von Treitschke (1834-1896), one of the most influential academic figures of his day, excited his students with statements like this: "Again and again, it has been proven that it is war which turns a people into a nation." And Houston Stewart Chamberlain, English son-in-law of the German composer Richard Wagner and an important theorist of the German racial cult, wrote in 1910: "We are left with the simple and clear view that our whole civilization and culture of today is the work of one definite race of men, the Teutonic." Nationalism distorted history into the forceful triumph of one group of people who were culturally, and frequently racially, made to appear as strikingly different from their neighbors.
Second, there was a contempt for parliamentary practices. As democracy
triumphed in political fact--with the extension of the franchise--its distractors found it
weak and indecisive, not assertive. A French author, Emile Faguet, wrote a book
entitled "The Cult of Incompetence" (1910), the subject of which was democracy, and the
theme of which was the mediocrity of democratic rule. Moreover, political process was
given a new interpretation with the idea of the "elite." The concept was formulated by
the Italian philosopher Vilfredo Pareto in his work "Socialist Systems" (1902). It was not
classes in opposition, he argued--and thereby dismissed Marx and his theory--but elites,
groupings of superior men itching for power, who contended with one another to gain
control of society by using the masses as tools to support their struggle. The
autonomous individual of liberal philosophy was now replaced by the manipulated
masses of the new conservative philosophy. It is interesting to note that Benito
Mussolini would later state that he learned much from Pareto.
The mind that accepted this new conservatism rejected the social results of both
the French and the Industrial Revolutions. Authoritarian, it mocked parliamentary
procedures and described them as ineffective. Elitist, it treated the urban, industrial
masses with contempt, as objects to be directed or dominated. And, somewhat
romantically, it turned to view the countryside, where it claimed the real people
resided. These, supposedly, were the folk sturdily attached to the soil and leading a life
of simple devotion and vigorous action, while their city brethren calculated and
rationalized for their own selfish advantage. Anti-semitism, which grew virulently in
the late nineteenth century, was greatly reinforced by the notion of the Jew as the true
city dweller, an individual without a soul or compassion--a schemer.
If such opinion as this was only mildly disturbing--if noticed at all--to most
members of the middle classes or the growing proletariat who lived in those sunlit
years of "La Belle Epoque", it was soon to be of major importance. The darkly hued
thoughts expressed at the turn of the twentieth century, those briefly reviewed above,
marked a transition between two differing concepts of the human condition. In the
seventeenth century Descartes had proclaimed, "I think therefore I am." In the twentieth century the Nazi philosopher Alfred Rosenberg claimed, "We think with our blood."
Moreover, the changing mood was itself formed by a number of social
groupings, some in protest against bourgeois comfort and democratic purposes, others
against oppressive authority. Youth, an influential social category throughout the
nineteenth century, now contained a pronounced element that was illiberal, given to
desperate action, revolutionary or militant or both. In Russia, student riots grew more
violent and anarchistic, directed toward the paralysis, if not the overthrow, of the
autocratic regime. Political assassination appeared as an accepted tactic, with Tsar
Alexander II, one of the most prominent victims of the thrown bomb in 1881. Often
conspiratorial in nature, actionist in purpose, and fatalistic in mood--a sense of
foreboding, of inevitable death, characterized the thought of many youthful anarchists-
-these individuals were dedicated terrorists, modern political figures who expected acts
of violence to change the social order of things.
Peace was no longer accepted as a good in-and-of-itself by some Western
European youth of middle-class origin. In Italy of the early twentieth century, the
"Futurist" movement, both artistic and political in form, grouped a number of young
intellectuals yearning for action. The writer Filippo Marinetti (1876-1944), chief figure in
the movement, offered what amounted to a manifesto: "We want to glorify war, the
world's only hygiene." In France a collection of ardent imperialists looked upon the
sands of Africa as the environment in which to rejuvenate their old nation. There, in the
words of Hubert Lyautey, future marshal of France, "our race is being retempered and
recast as if in a crucible." From England, Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts,
offered this remark: "Better than football, better than any other game, is man-hunting."
Thus, to the growing complexities of European international politics was added
the volatile element of a new cultural discontent. It was to have a conditioning effect,
making some youth anxious for war and inspired to serve happily when it came,
making some statesmen impatient with the practice of diplomatic compromise and
somewhat reckless in their plans, and making many citizens all too willing to sacrifice
their newly gained liberties when some mystical national destiny was held before them.
When the diplomats failed at their task and the militarists were allowed to
display their grand plans for battle, a generation of young people willingly went to war,
and a generation of middle-aged people cheered them on.
NEXT: The Delicate Balance of Diplomacy