“The Great War,” as Modris Eksteins writes, “was the psychological turning point. .. for RITES OF SPRING is a remarkable and rare work, a cultural history that. “Ingenious and maddening”: thus many critics label Modris Eksteins’s *Review essay of Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring: The Great War at the Birth of the. Rites of Spring The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age By Modris Eksteins Illustrated. pages. A Peter Davison Book/Houghton.

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The question of how the spirit of the modern world has come into being has concerned many historians and philosophers throughout the last few decades. He then points to Germany before the Great War as the ritees in which these ideals were the most pronounced as the modernist nation par excellence, which served as a model for our world.

For Eksteins, the First World War was a conflict between the old established world order based on Enlightenment ideals, and represented primarily by Great Or and, to some extent, by France, and, on the other hand, Germany, the representative of the new ideas of the modern world struggling for liberation and emancipation from the old order. While Germany lost the dksteins, many of the ideas and attitudes that characterized German society have eventually won out and are characteristic of the modern consciousness.

He then proceeds to examine the climate of opinion immediately preceding the eksteisn, particularly in Germany. His analysis of the First World War focuses almost exclusively on the attitudes sksteins ideas expressed by common people in the lead-up to the war, as well as throughout the duration of the brutal trench warfare period.

Following the war, he focuses on two cultural phenomena which shed insight on the way sprnig the war had changed the world: Finally, he wraps it all up with an analysis of how the ideals and attitudes represented by Germany created the ideologies of Fascism and National Socialism. Modris Eksteins writes in an engaging, readable style. He displays remarkable erudition and often sees connections in history which may not be obvious to the great majority of people.

It makes the reader question the preconceived ideas which we all have about our age. The First World War sprinv without a doubt the catalyst which has changed our world forever. Did the attitudes and values characteristic of Germany really win out? Or is it that the war caused a shift in attitudes which caused our modern values to bear a coincidental resemblance to those of pre-war Germany?


If Germany was remarkable by being the most advanced nation in the world, as Eksteins points out, would the shift to those attitudes have occurred in due time anyway in the rest of western society, even without the war? Eksteins seems, at times, to hint at this larger point, but never quite spells it out. Rather, ours is a society whose traditional Enlightenment and Romantic values have been seriously contested from many quarters. Ours is a society which no longer firmly believes in anything as certain; it is a society which has lost its confidence in itself as the most advanced civilization in the world.

Ours is the age of uncertainty in which all theories and sets of values hold a kernel of truth, but none of them is absolute. The emancipation that Eksteins focuses on is not solely the result of the German spirit that demanded emancipation, but rather the result of our society losing confidence in itself and being forced to accept new or old ideaslifestyles and values as being equally valid with those of the Enlightenment, which constituted the bedrock of society throughout the 19th century.

It was the culmination of a progression in daring which the Russian ballets had exhibited since they first enjoyed success on the western cultural scene [2]. The mastermind behind the ballet, Diaghilev, exhibited a Nietzschean need to provoke and demolish the established ideas of beauty and art [3].

Eksteins examines the ballet at a certain length, because he recognizes in it a lot of elements which he assigns as characteristic of Germany and of our modern world.

Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age

The eroticism present in the ballet is in fact a rebellion against the established order, which Eksteins sees as characteristic of Germany prior to the onset of the First World War [6]. Overall, Eksteins sees this ballet ekstsins nihilistic[9], and as bringing civilization into question[10]. Eksteins also uses his description of the atmosphere surrounding the ballet as a preamble to his assertion that Germany was the most modern nation of the day. While most people tend to think of Paris as the cultural centre of Europe, and, thus, the place where one would expect to see the earliest signs of things to come, Eksteins points, instead, to Berlin as the most modern city in the world [7].

Eksteins sees Germany as the most modern nation in the world, and asserts that it was at the heart of the modern experience [11].


Much like in the modern world, the emphasis in pre-war Germany was on scientism, efficiency and management [12]. The Germans, off, had an added dimension to their culture.

As a nation which was recently unified ekstenis had undergone a tremendously fast transformation from a traditional society to the most industrialized nation in the world, the Germans found their moral support in a glorification of their own nation and in a deep spirituality. The Germans, more than any other nation, placed a lot of emphasis on ideals and on spiritual fulfillment [13].

At the same time, their position as the scientific and economic leading nation in the world was not commensurate with their position in a world hierarchy dominated by the Anglo-American establishment. Thus, Ekksteins was characterized by a spirit of rebellion against the established order, based on spirituality.

Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age by Modris Eksteins

Eksteins goes as far as suggesting that the emancipation of homosexuals in Germany was symptomatic of this spirit of emancipation and rebellion [14]. The German spirit of emancipation found as its outlet the necessity for war.

War against the established order was seen as a spiritual necessity to achieve that liberation that the German spirit craved [15].

This led to the paradoxical view that war was a necessity for life, and, by extension, death was a necessity of life [16]. He points out the unreasonable expectations ekstejns both sides had about the duration of the war [17], as well as the enthusiasm which greeted the news of the impending conflict. The beginning months of the war did not mark an abrupt end to the prevalent Romantic view of the world, as many believe. The Christmas truce of is indicative of the attitudes which both sides still held: It was only after the war bogged down in the trenches that attitudes began to change.

Even considering the German eksteims spirit of rebellion, most of the values were initially shared by the two sides [19].

But after the war dragged on for a while, the propaganda machines and the general brutality of it started to modify the mutual perceptions of the combatants. The Germans, in their quest for liberation, felt entitled to attempt to win the war by any new means.

Total war was now not only permissible, but a requirement for liberation and, hence, for life [20]. The British, in response, felt that they had a duty to protect the old world order: Overall though, on both sides, there was a general loss of belief in values and ideals due to the horrors of the war [22]. Soldiers started to feel that those at home did not understand them anymore [23], and some of them started to exhibit unusual paradoxical behavior: A telling consequence of the war was that words such as Honor, Duty and Valor started to lose their capitals: In addition, morals in general were being repudiated.

RITES OF SPRING: The Great War and the Birth of th by Modris Eksteins | Kirkus Reviews

Behavior that would have been considered scandalous in peacetime was actually condoned by the authorities for the sake of morale, even though morals and morale had hitherto been considered inseparable [26]. Eksteins’ analysis of the consequences of the war revolves around two cultural events: After Lindbergh landed in France, and subsequently visited England, he was psring object of hero worship on an unprecedented scale. Lindbergh represented a new kind of hero because he flew for himself first and foremost[27].

The post-war society could no longer believe in heroes that died for the glory of God or country. It enjoyed a huge success both at home, in Germany, and then later on in France and Britain. What is notable about this book is that it was rather irreverent to the established morality, and, most importantly, the fact that it presented the war as a nihilistic slaughter [33].

The war as presented by Remarque is pointless: In Germany, however, this feeling was not universal. True, Germany had, indeed, lost the war, but the German people felt that they had been sprig all along.

Most of them felt betrayed by the leaders of the military establishment, and this feeling of betrayal only accentuated the spirit of liberation which was so characteristic before the war. Eksteins views the Nazis as rited most extreme modernist impulse, which took the quest for liberation to its limit. Central to National Socialist ideas was the Eksteinss notion that the old values and norms must be destroyed in order to be replaced with new concepts created by ubermenschen, which, sprinf all, had to be beautiful.

For Nazis, beauty and, thus, aesthetics were paramount, and their morality can, thus, be considered equivalent to kitsch in art and myth in history [35].

Eksteins hints that, perhaps, such German ideas are not so peculiar after all [36]. Though we may not realize it, our own obsession with beauty might be another expression of the same impulses which motivated the Nazis.

Eksteins is a Latvian whose family suffered at the hands of Germans in the Second World War, and a cultural historian who was educated in the Anglo-American tradition. His background likely caused him to be naturally interested in Germany and the Nazis, while his education and possibly his linguistic skills might have contributed to him focusing almost exclusively on sprinv zeitgeist of Western Europe, while omitting the effects that the war had on the larger world.


As a cultural historian, he tends to skip the economic and political dimension of the war and its causes, which would be fine, given the scope of his work, except that he attempts to make the war seem as an inevitable clash between the two systems of ideas, and the spirit of the mobs, the determinant factor in starting the war.

What if these ideas had occurred in Russia or Britain instead? Would the war still have happened, and, if so, would it have taken the same character which was essential in changing the world?

Were the rulers of Europe as weak and ineffectual as to give in to the demands of the crowds, if there had not been strong economic and political reasons for the war? What about the roles of the strict mobilization schedules and the complicated system of alliances in precipitating the crisis?

Eksteins skimps sprign these questions and simply implies that the irrational in German thinking was prevalent at all levels, which is a questionable call to make on the basis of a few anecdotes. In fact, while the zeitgeist in Germany might have played a role in the thinking of German leaders, it would be folly to think that they would have eksteeins upon such a risky venture without some strong economic and political reasons for it.

The larger world is also neglected. The First World War had not only the effects that Eksteins focuses on, but also it is responsible, amongst others, for provoking the Russian Revolution and the establishment of a competing world order, with different ideals and values from the ones which were dominant in Western Civilization.

Without the war, the Russian people would have never successfully revolted against the tsarist regime, and Lenin would never have been transported to Russia by the Germans. Without the war, the Russian Revolution would have never acquired that mythical status which it enjoyed in the Soviet Union ekssteins much of the subsequent 70 years [37], greatly contributing to the stability of the communist regime and indirectly to the western civilization which sprinh rivaled.

But it is also radical enough to seriously challenge the liberal world order in the same way that the French Revolution od the world of religion and absolute monarchies. The Cold War indubitably represents an important phase in modern consciousness. The First World Riges marked the demise of two European empires and the appearance of several new states on the map of Europe.

While this effect is more political than cultural, Eksteins could have paid attention to this development. After all, many of the new states, along with several states in Southern Europe, witnessed the appearance of fascist ekstelns, which actually took over power in Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Spain and Portugal. Surely, Eksteins could have strengthened his thesis by examining spribg zeitgeist of these countries and not simply limiting himself to Sprung.

What was the effect of the war on Russian or Austrian soldiers? Eksteins does not even mention them, which can be problematic because central to his thesis is the fact that the war changed the world, and, eksteind, he ignores half of it. The First World War also had a critical effect on the rest of the world, which had been dominated previously by Western Civilization.

Indian soldiers fighting on the side of the British and African troops fighting on the side of the French had the opportunity dksteins fraternize and feel equal to European soldiers during a war which did not discriminate [38]. The aura of invincibility and infallibility that Europeans possessed was now gone. And yet that is precisely eksteeins happened [39]. After the First World War, the British were certain that they were going to lose India because, both, they and the Indians knew that there was no longer a moral justification for ov.

Western Civilization had lost confidence in the superiority of its values, morals and ideals and it no longer felt that it had a duty to proselytize them to those civilizations not fortunate enough to embody them.

Another challenge that is evident in the modern world is the resurgence of religion. Of course, religion continued to be an important part of Western Civilization, throughout the heyday of the Enlightenment values in the 19th century.

However, it was on the defensive. The Church was excluded from the state, from the school system and from much public life. Science, a bulwark of the Enlightenment, always won out in debates.