Modern history


The epoch whose final years are the subject of this book did not die of old age or accident but exploded in a terminal crisis which is one of the great facts of history. No mention of that crisis appears in the following pages for the reason that, as it had not yet happened, it was not a part of the experience of the people of this book. I have tried to stay within the terms of what was known at the time.

The Great War of 1914–18 lies like a band of scorched earth dividing that time from ours. In wiping out so many lives which would have been operative on the years that followed, in destroying beliefs, changing ideas, and leaving incurable wounds of disillusion, it created a physical as well as psychological gulf between two epochs. This book is an attempt to discover the quality of the world from which the Great War came.

It is not the book I intended to write when I began. Preconceptions dropped off one by one as I investigated. The period was not a Golden Age or Belle Epoque except to a thin crust of the privileged class. It was not a time exclusively of confidence, innocence, comfort, stability, security and peace. All these qualities were certainly present. People were more confident of values and standards, more innocent in the sense of retaining more hope of mankind, than they are today, although they were not more peaceful nor, except for the upper few, more comfortable. Our misconception lies in assuming that doubt and fear, ferment, protest, violence and hate were not equally present. We have been misled by the people of the time themselves who, in looking back across the gulf of the War, see that earlier half of their lives misted over by a lovely sunset haze of peace and security. It did not seem so golden when they were in the midst of it. Their memories and their nostalgia have conditioned our view of the pre-war era but I can offer the reader a rule based on adequate research: all statements of how lovely it was in that era made by persons contemporary with it will be found to have been made after 1914.

A phenomenon of such extended malignance as the Great War does not come out of a Golden Age. Perhaps this should have been obvious to me when I began but it was not. I did feel, however, that the genesis of the war did not lie in the Grosse Politik of what Isvolsky said to Aehrenthal and Sir Edward Grey to Poincaré; in that tortuous train of Reinsurance treaties, Dual and Triple Alliances, Moroccan crises and Balkan imbroglios which historians have painstakingly followed in their search for origins. It was necessary that these events and exchanges be examined and we who come after are in debt to the examiners; but their work has been done. I am with Sergei Sazonov, Russian Foreign Minister at the time of the outbreak of the War, who after a series of investigations exclaimed at last, “Enough of this chronology!” The Grosse Politik approach has been used up. Besides, it is misleading because it allows us to rest on the easy illusion that it is “they,” the naughty statesmen, who are always responsible for war while “we,” the innocent people, are merely led. That impression is a mistake.

The diplomatic origins, so-called, of the Great War are only the fever chart of the patient; they do not tell us what caused the fever. To probe for underlying causes and deeper forces one must operate within the framework of a whole society and try to discover what moved the people in it. I have tried to concentrate on society rather than the state. Power politics and economic rivalries, however important, are not my subject.

The period of this book was above all the culmination of a century of the most accelerated rate of change in man’s record. Since the last explosion of a generalized belligerent will in the Napoleonic wars, the industrial and scientific revolutions had transformed the world. Man had entered the Nineteenth Century using only his own and animal power, supplemented by that of wind and water, much as he had entered the Thirteenth, or, for that matter, the First. He entered the Twentieth with his capacities in transportation, communication, production, manufacture and weaponry multiplied a thousandfold by the energy of machines. Industrial society gave man new powers and new scope while at the same time building up new pressures in prosperity and poverty, in growth of population and crowding in cities, in antagonisms of classes and groups, in separation from nature and from satisfaction in individual work. Science gave man new welfare and new horizons while it took away belief in God and certainty in a scheme of things he knew. By the time he left the Nineteenth Century he had as much new unease as ease. Although fin de siècle usually connotes decadence, in fact society at the turn of the century was not so much decaying as bursting with new tensions and accumulated energies. Stefan Zweig who was thirty-three in 1914 believed that the outbreak of war “had nothing to do with ideas and hardly even with frontiers. I cannot explain it otherwise than by this surplus force, a tragic consequence of the internal dynamism that had accumulated in forty years of peace and now sought violent release.”

In attempting to portray what the world before the war was like my process has been admittedly highly selective. I am conscious on finishing this book that it could be written all over again under the same title with entirely other subject matter; and then a third time, still without repeating. There could be chapters on the literature of the period, on its wars—the Sino-Japanese, Spanish-American, Boer, Russo-Japanese, Balkan—on imperialism, on science and technology, on business and trade, on women, on royalty, on medicine, on painting, on as many different subjects as might appeal to the individual historian. There could have been chapters on King Leopold II of Belgium, Chekhov, Sargent, The Horse, or U.S. Steel, all of which figured in my original plan. There should have been a chapter on some ordinary everyday shopkeeper or clerk representing the mute inglorious anonymous middle class but I never found him.

I think I owe the reader a word about my process of selection. In the first place I confined myself to the Anglo-American and West European world from which our experience and culture most directly derive, leaving aside the East European which, however important, is a separate tradition. In choice of subjects the criterion I used was that they must be truly representative of the period in question and have exerted their major influence on civilization before 1914, not after. This consideration ruled out the automobile and airplane, Freud and Einstein and the movements they represented. I also ruled out eccentrics, however captivating.

I realize that what follows offers no over-all conclusion but to draw some tidy generalization from the heterogenity of the age would be invalid. I also know that what follows is far from the whole picture. It is not false modesty which prompts me to say so but simply an acute awareness of what I have not included. The faces and voices of all that I have left out crowd around me as I reach the end.


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