54 of 59 people found the following review helpful
on October 29, 2008
My dictionary defines "vertigo" as a state of dizzy disorientation. Think the film "Vertigo" directed by Alfred Hitchcok in 1958. In the excellent history book under review in this article we see Professor Philippe Blom of Vienna dissect European society during the last 15 years of the long "nineteenth century" world prior to the holocaust of World War I.
Blom devotes one chapter to each of the years. In this intellectually acute book he explores such subjects as:
1. The suffragete movement in several European countries focusing on the cause in Great Britain.
2. We see how the building of the huge Dreadnought ships led to an arms race which would plunge the world into war in the summer of 1915. Germany wished to become a mighty foe of England.
3. Eugenics and racial anti-semitism is discussed in depth. The trial of General Alfred Dreyfus made palpable the hatred of Jews in European life.
4. Russia was trapped under the feudal stupidity of Nicholas II but revolution in 1905 was a strong bellwether of the later Bolshevik revolution which succeeded in 1918. Russia was a land of peasants, poor education and unbelievable backwardness.
5. The concept of the Dynamo and the Virgin first enunciated by American scholar Henry Adams at the Paris World's Fair of 1900 emphasized the importance of dynamic machines changing daily life. The development of the telephone, motor cars, telegraph and the airplane changed daily life. Women were becoming more assertive due to the ability to obtain contraception devices and the anonymity of life in conurbation cultures.
Speed and virility were becoming important in the male chauvinistic culture of Europe.
6. Blom traces the rise of mass entertainment through the phonograph and motion picture screen. Caruso sold the first record to sell one million copies when he recorded "Pagliacci." Movies were the rage!
7. Blom traces the genocide of Leopold II King of Belgian who presided over the Belgian Congo. Over 10 million of his black subjects died there due to starvation, brutal mutilations and overwork on his rubber plantations. Blom uses this horror to discuss the evils of European colonialism. All the major European players participated in their greed for gold and land.
8, Avant-gardism was manifest in the arts through the works of such figures as Kandinsky, Mahler, Stravinsky,Braque, Picasso, Matisse and others. Traditional cultural values were,however, hotly and staunchly defended.
9. We see the rise of popular culture with the cultivation of mystery and detective fiction in such characters as Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes.
10. Modern psychiatry was born in the writings and research of Sigmund Freud. The subconscious was being explored and sexual desire in humans was being opely discussed. The subconscious motivations of humanity were explored. Nihilism and the disturbing philosophies of Nietzsche were popular.
Blom shows how the certainties and hypocricies of the Victorian age ending with that venerable queen's death in 1901 were being effaced by the speed and phobias of modern life.
Blom has presented a thoughtful and sage overview of this critical but often overlook time as the twentieth century began. It was a time of transition, contradiction and momentous change. It was, if you will, the birth of the modern age.
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on October 31, 2008
`The Vertigo Years: Europe 1900-1914` is Philipp Blom's third non-fiction book. I bought it on the strength of his former two, both of which are fantastic, and I'm happy I did - his ability to write engagingly on just about any time period is demonstrated here in what is probably his strongest book yet. Bloom's central thesis is that, traditionally told, the years leading up to WWI were overshadowed by the war - it was an idyllic "long summertime" of peace, an extension of the assuredly naive 19th century. However Blom reveals just about everything we think of as "modern" was happening before the war, it was a time not of coasting, but of "machines and women, speed and sex," a disintegration of the old world without a clear vision of a new. Like a teenager getting behind the wheel of a car for the first time, it was exciting and dangerous, a cocktail of fundamental social changes converging all at once. Technology of the car, movie, photo and electric light; class relations; women's roles, Freud; Eugenics; colonialism; modern art; cult of "manliness", etc.. all combined to create a fractured new world, where individuals don multiple identities no longer tied to tradition, and an endemic vertiginous exhaustion flourished. Bloom crisscrosses the continent from Russia to England, from the Balkans to Sweden, each page a small feast of ideas, people and events. As a native of Vienna, Bloom commands a deep understanding of central European history in a way I have never seen before, revealing insights and people entirely new to me - it's a true pan-European perspective told with compelling prose.
Like the subject it describes, the book is fractured, moving between ideas, people, events, places and times - but Blom is nothing but orderly in his exposition of how things were related. Freud's theories for instance were mirrored by the political realities of the Austrian culture he lived in. Each chapter has a human interest "frame story" providing a smooth flowing narrative and Ken Burns-like feel for the time. There are ample quotations and fascinating black and white pictures, including a color plate section of modern art. It is a social history not only about the wealthy and intellectual elite, but the attitudes of the general public and zeitgeist of the many. A very long and up to date bibliography and notes section provides a lot more reading.
It's one of the better history books I have read, enhancing my understanding not only of the early 20th century, but its inheritor the present.
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
Imagine, suggests historian Philipp Blom, that an army of bookworms munched their way through every piece of information that we have available to us about the world after the outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914. Only then, he insists, can we begin to understand the impact of the first 14 years of the twentieth century, a time of chaos when old, established truths vanished for good and were replaced only with speed, change and uncertainty.
Blom takes a novel approach to constructing his argument -- that the world being created was one where vertigo and fear dominated from the worlds of economics and politics to the arts and gender relations -- by devoting each chapter to a year and a theme. Thus, the chapter headlined 1901, the year of Queen Victoria's death, serves as Blom's vehicle for recounting the collapse of the old land-based aristocracies against Europe and the rise of new kinds of leaders. Chapters are devoted to scientific discoveries, which in turn give Blom a way to explore how fields as different as psychiatry (Sigmund Freud) and physics (Marie Curie) demolished the concept of time, space and identity. Women asserted their rights and along with visionaries and dreamers, occupied a new place of prominence in the public debate. Some tried to cling to old ways -- Blom explores the naval arms race of 1906 as a way to discuss how society's anxieties produced a new emphasis on military identity.
While the author almost never refers to the great event that looms on the horizon -- World War I and the killing fields of France and Flanders -- our own awareness of where this is leading adds a chill to to the year-by-year recitation. A chapter devoted to random violence (1913), those exploring the myriad new machines that came to dominate popular culture -- it's impossible to read those in ignorance of the ways that the machines would soon be used to maximize the murderous power of armies and the way in which violence would become an integral part of all the societies that Blom explores.
It is common to refer to those who came of age during the Great War and the 1920s as the 'Lost Generation' -- individuals who had to struggle in the wake of that carnage to find some sense of identity and purpose. What Blom has succeeded in doing is showing that crisis of identity began much earlier -- and the astute reader can find all too many reflections of the themes he explores in the early years of the 21st century. Replace the automobile with the Internet, and...
The only reason I haven't awarded Blom's opus five stars is an unfortunate tendency to repeat himself; retelling the same anecdote in the same context, hammering points into the reader's mind with far too heavy a hand. This reached its climax in the final chapter, which was a great disappointment, offering little more than a summary of themes which had already become more than clear and where I would have expected a historian and writer of his obvious talents to find a more thoughtful, provocative and perhaps even forward-looking manner of wrapping up his narrative.
Overall, however, this is a triumph. Given the author's ability to mix politics and culture on all levels, it will appeal to anyone who has enjoyed Paul Fussell's more focused "The Great War & Modern Memory" or Modris Ekstein's "Rites of Spring" (which begans at a later date and carries through to the 1920s.)
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Too often we are tempted to see the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a kind of utopian "belle epoque", a long lazy Edwardian summer afternoon that was rudely shattered by 1914. Philipp Blom, in the introduction to his fascinating history of Europe from 1900 to 1914, suggests that imagine that all of our knowledge of what occurred from 1914 on has been destroyed, so that we can examine those years without grim foreshadowings. Its a good idea, because Blom has provided an excellent history of the first few years of the twentieth century in Europe that lets the reader recognize that the belle epoque wasn't such a golden afternoon after all.
Taking each year chapter by chapter, Blom moves from one interrelated topic to another. I was fascinated by his many short histories of various topics like anti-Semitism, eugenics, the suffragette movement, the Congo atrocities, and the armaments race. He covers social, artistic, and cultural history as well as, if not better, the standard political/military narratives. Not since Barbara Tuchman's The Proud Tower have I read such fascinating history of that period. Like Tuchman, Blom excells in selecting intriguing but not well known people as exemplars of particular trends or movements.
I will reread and enjoy The Vertigo Years many times, and if I occasionally experience some nostalgic regret for that now lost golden afternoon, I will find the rich stories and vignettes provided by Blom an excellent substitute.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on March 19, 2009
This is one of the best books I've read in recent years and I am sure I will come back to it for reference many times.
History books are often dull and loaded with dry fact. This one is engaging and inspiring. It reveals many little known events that were a sensation in their time, but we know little about them today. Starting from an intimate story, Blom moves to analyze a whole period and shows how the story fits into it or even symbolizes it.
His style is engaging, witty and full of surprises. For example, I first read one of the latter chapters, titled Wagner's Crime, because I thought it was about the composer whose music I like. Instead, the chapter centers around an insane serial murderer, a provincial Austrian teacher. The last chapter, about year 1914 is titled Murder Most Foul. I had no doubt it was about the assassination of the Austrian archduke in Sarajevo. Wrong! The chapter derives its title from the sensational murder committed by the wife of a French politician.
I disagree with the reviewer who said the last chapter is repetitive. I am glad Blom summarized the points from his previous chapters, rounding his image of the era.
The book was hard to put down. And more importantly, it inspired me to reach for other history books, Internet, or whatever, to find out more about the topics Blom tackles. For example, I played my Stravinsky CD while I read passages about the Paris premiere of the Rites of Spring.
I have always been interested in the early 19-hundreds and fin-de-siecle, but this book really gave me the flavor of the era, as if I were living through it.
In addition, I found in it a lot of parallel with our times, 100 years later. We are going through similar anxieties and insecurities at the beginning of a new century. People suffer from similar mental and other diseases. I found, for example, similarities between neurasthenia and fibromyalgia. Serial killings such as Wagner's also take place, including those committed by deranged teenagers. The battle between the sexes is far from over. And while some of us are "futurists," others would like to stop the clock from ticking and hold on to the 20-th century beliefs and practices.
I cannot think of a better book to read at this time.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on August 21, 2010
A wide scope of a book that successfully presents the period 1900-14 (pre- World War I) within in own context, not as a retrospective of the build-up to World War I.
As the author states, in July 1914 the major news headlines in France were about the murder of a newspaper editor by Henrietta Caillaux, not the assassination in Sarajevo.
We often think of changing to the 21st century as a period of intense upheaval - the advent of the computer age. This book demonstrates successfully that there were far more changes occurring when the 20th century began. Cars and airplanes had been introduced. More people were migrating and living in urban areas. Cities were becoming gathering centers, where vast changes were occurring in the arts, entertainment and science. It was the age of Freud and of suffragettes.
This era was the turning point for women in Western culture. Many were no longer content to be house-bound and baby-bound. They were demonstrating for the right to vote, and more - to be seen as philosophically equal to men. There was a break-down of male and female roles. For example women were bicycling.
Art and Freud were exposing sexuality as never before. The author also focuses on what the majority of people were experiencing - the cinema was expanding enormously, more newspapers were available with news ranging from local events to worldwide, sports grew too - from watching to participation. Due to all this, church attendance and influence was dropping. Church icons were being replaced with cinema and sports stars.
The author probes these myriad topics, sometimes in interesting detail such as the suffragette movement. At other times as in art - it almost seems like a college 101 course of `who is who'.
The main countries under study are Britain, France and Germany and to some extent Russia. Italy is hardly mentioned and the U.S. is used mostly as a reference point for technology.
Nevertheless the book is entertaining, instructive and replete with many colourful anecdotes of the era.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on April 14, 2009
Philipp Blom at the beginning and end of his book invites the reader
to imagine being deprived of any information about the twentieth
century after July 1914. This Blom says will give back to the period
before WWI its future. And what a future it is in Blom's historical
anthology of anecdotes and popular social history. Bottom line the
VERTIGO YEARS may give the reader vertigo as Bloom skips, stops, and
interrupts his narative in an organization style that is not easy to follow
or keep pace with. Each year is checked off one after the other with events
that happened most likely in England, France, Germany or Russia.
Blom says, "The rush of modernity caused danger (accidents, the terrorist bombs),
the anxious feeling of speeding along without control, of holding on to live wire,
flung and `whirled about in the vortex of infinite forces'. In 1904 Blom takes
a turn to the Congo and King Leopold which much better told in KING
LEOPOLD's GHOST by Adam Hochschild. Blom also passes interest in Marie
Cuie whose story is told better elsewhere. But then Blom can also come up with the
odd story or with a cultural perception which keeps the reader always
interested in finding what may come up next in the narrative. (Who knew that
the great Sarah Bernhardt had a habit of sleeping in her coffin and
having herself photographed in it?) Blom focuses on the first decade of the
20th Century as an age of speed, technology, and rapid change including both
the male and female rolls also covers the rise of newspapers and commercialism...
the modern Department store for example. (Even the film industry began not
in Hollywood but in France where the first big motion picture
exhibited showed French women factory workers leaving their plant
after work.) Overall I found the perspective of the subject matter
constantly interesting and unfortunately the writing style less to my
liking as it is scattered and full of long pointless sentences attempting
to bring several anecdotes to some logical connection (i.e., "The goal
was to return, by way of a violent cataclysm, to a primeval harmony
with destiny, to a primeval community based on a spiritual essence,
the very antithesis of the modern tribes." You say what?) Don't get me
wrong as the book offers much to be enjoyed. But like its subject I
came out of the reading experience with Vertigo. I recommend you
attempt this but only with my reservations and patience advised.
41 of 59 people found the following review helpful
on July 30, 2009
Blom's "The Vertigo Years" claims that "the uncertain future facing us early in the twenty-first century arose from the inventions, thoughts and transformations of those unusually rich fifteen years between 1900 and 1914, a period of extraordinary creativity in the arts and sciences". Blom further claims that everything that was to become important in the 20th century "from quantum physics to women's emancipation, from abstract art to space travel, from communism to fascism to the consumer society, from industrialized slaughter to the power of the media" was already evident in those first 15 years. It was with the promise of this sweeping vista that I began to read.
I was surprised that there was no mention in the chapter on the year 1900 of Planck's quantum hypothesis, a suggestion based on a mathematical model that soon was given physical meaning by Einstein's work on the photoelectric effect in 1905. The full fruition of this idea within a semiclassical mechanics came with Bohr's model for the Rutherford hydrogen atom, published in 1913, in which the quantum rules and postulates were shown to have significant predictive power. This work by Planck, Einstein and Bohr is ignored. The work by Rutherford is mentioned, only to get the science entirely wrong. Rutherford'd alpha particle experiments consisted of observing the scattering of alpha particles by a gold foil. Contrary to Blom (p. 79) the amazing thing was not that the alpha particles traversed the foil, but that some were reflected through large angles of deflection, a fact that Rutherford famously compared to firing a 15-inch naval shell at a piece of tissue paper and seeing it bounce back.
Blom does attempt to describe Einstein's theory of relativity only to make the usual hash of it. Like a poorly-schooled undergraduate in the humanities, he seems to think that the "relativity" part is connected with moral relativism. The central point of Einstein's theory is that there are invariants in physics that were previously unsuspected. Previously, space and time were individually conserved when one moved from reference frame to reference frame, or point of observation. A meter was a meter, and a second a second, regardless of the value of the constant speed of an observer's motion. Einstein showed that this was not true, that instead the interval, a distance in space time, was conserved. Thus two separate things, space and time, were shown to be intimately and unexpectedly related. In the special theory, the same is true for momentum and energy, which can be conserved separately in Newtonian mechanics, but which form a composite quantity ("momergy" in John Wheeler's neologism) which is conserved in special relativity.
As to the induistrial slaughter, it was previewed most strikingly not in the Boer War but in the Russo-Japanese War. Barbed wire, heavy artillery bombardments, bolt-action magazine rifles, quick-firing field artillery and machine guns exacted a terrible toll on both Japanese and Russian armies. Blom never mentions that all European powers had military observers at the site of conflict, yet no one drew the appropriate lessons from those battlefields. The only mentions Blom makes of the war get the facts wrong. The Japanese surprise attack on Port Arthur did not cripple the Russian fleet. And the design for the British battleship Dreadnought preceded the Battle of Tsushima (May 1905), and not the other way round, an error which Blom makes in his 1906 chapter.
So what is Blom's book about? The book revolves around sex. Sexual dysfunction, changing sexual roles and sexual anxiety are central themes. The book often reads more like an advertisement for Cialis than a scholarly tome, or even a good popular introduction to those 15 years. Blom mentions technology from time to time, with no details given, but does little to examine real technological advance. The Haber process (1909) that transforms gaseous nitrogen into ammonia, which can than be processed in fertilizers and dyes, is unmentioned. It revolutionized agriculture. Marconi's transatlantic radio transmissions (1901-1903), which revolutionized communication, are also missing. There are the usual condescending remarks about mass-produced consumer goods and the new shopping emporiums, where "those who could afford it shopped themselves out of existential trouble." One can almost hear the sneer of derision.
If this is to be a book on popular culture, then what of the growth of professional sports? This also receives a passing mention, but no actual narrative, statistics, or analysis. I leave this volume with an appreciation for the author's idiosyncratic views of culture, then and now, but with little additional insight into that time.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
This is quite an interesting study of the period of roughly 1900-1914 in Europe. The author suggests that most every major factor playing a role in the 21st Century first occurred during this period. Beginning with 1900, the author devotes a chapter to each year up to and including 1914. This book focuses upon a wider range of issues than did, for example, Barbara Tuckman's "The Proud Tower," which concentrated on regimes and political developments. By contrast, the author here takes on a wide range of cultural, technological, artistic, and political issues. The merit of this approach is that it affords the reader a wider context to understand developments than by just focusing upon one dimension, such as the political. The risk is that so much information is crammed into each chapter, discussing so many different facets, that the reader can get lost. This book is vulnerable on this concern, because there are many, many topics covered in almost a machine-gun fashion. On the other hand, the author is a skillful writer, and so he effectively melds various topics together.
For example, the following is but a tiny excerpt of the topics covered: Queen Victoria; Kaiser Bill; Freud; Klimt; Madame Curie, Mach, Rutherford and Einstein; explosive urban growth; Leopold and the Congo; Modernism; Russo-Japanese War; the Dreadnought; Bohemian gurus; urban anxiety and nervous exhaustion; the women's suffrage movement; modern art and music; cinematic developments; eugenics; Nietszsche; rise of crime and Lombroso; alienation; and gunboat diplomacy in Morocco. So a lot of information is packed into the 407 pages of text, but so much the better. The author has included 16 pages of notes and a 26-page bibliography of both primary and second sources, as well as a comprehensive index. There are a number of excellent illustrations, including 8 plates printed in full color on glossy paper. While the analysis is not deeply profound, the book does afford an effective introductory perspective on this era that so affected our own.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on July 30, 2013
The title "Vertigo Years" says it all. This period had so many changes in life style, culture and politics its no wonder people were having trouble coping. The changes in Britain from the sudden availability of cheap food destroyed the Manor culture turning large estates from a source of riches into financial burdens is one of the authors first observations. But then he goes on to comment on the militarization rivalry among some of the larger countries and the colonial competition that it spawned. Then about the dramatic developments of things like the bicycle, cinemas, assembly lines, the easy availability of newspapers/magazines, Xray, etc and how they turned the average persons daily life on its head.
The author doesn't cover everything of course, many of these developments began before and ended after the time period noted and of course these changes effected more than just Europe. But this book is a fascinating look at a very short, very eventful time in history whose impact on our daily lives is still being felt.
I highly recommend it.