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

Updated on December 28, 2016
J Schatzel profile image

J. Schatzel works in agricultural/occupational medicine in rural upstate NY and has a Masters degree in history.

WWI as a Cultural Revolution, not a Geopolitical Struggle

Throughout Modris Ekstein’s 1989 Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age,[1] Ekstein argues that World War I was not a geopolitical struggle for European territory, it was instead a cultural revolution in which European social movements at the turn of the twentieth century created unique conditions of artistic expression manifested through political polarization.[2] These conditions embodied the emerging spirit of war throughout an industrializing modern Europe, forming a movement toward personal liberation from traditional cultural emphases. Fuelled by the German search for unity following unification of German people of diverse psyches under one flag in the nineteenth century, the Great War was fought by Germany in pursuit of unity, identity, and self-preservation. Juxtaposing war of the “lost generation”[3] with ballet, literature, music, and art contemporary to World War I, Ekstein links Stravinsky’s “Rites of Spring” to World War I, citing their common feature of serving as controversial symbols of the modern age; an embodiment of changing European “kultur”[4] amidst changing psychological circumstances of twentieth century European art, sexuality, violence, urbanization, and spirituality.

Using such sources as war diaries, memoirs, letters home, military archives, WWI propaganda, newspaper accounts, and contemporary literature and film, Ekstein cautions the reader to herald an awareness of exaggeration, denial of historical truths, and biases prevalent within the primary sources. Through a careful examination of primary documents, Ekstein’s use of sources extending to both sides of the European conflict lends further credibility to his attempt to provide the highest possible level of objectivity in the presentation of his research. However, despite the author’s attempted impartiality, Ekstein’s emotional investment in his research manifests itself through the added details surrounding the participants in WWI and early twentieth century arts presented by Ekstein as unfortunate victims of circumstance. Whether for dramatic effect, or generated by a sincere empathy for those of whom he writes, Ekstein is unable to present a fully objective account of the Great War, devoid of judgmental sentiments regarding such figures as Romola Nijinski and Erich Maria Remarque. For example, Remarque is sympathized with for having died “still handsome, and still unhappy” upon a reflection of “postwar political an emotional investments.”[5]

Although some chapters are seemingly out of place amidst the direction of the greater monograph, such as the relation of Charles Lindbergh to the American sense of depersonalization,[6] and Adolph Hitler’s position as the “victim hero,”[7] the account as a whole provides a heavily documented resource for professionals and amateurs interested in the history of wartime Europe. Through allusions to such works as Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Ekstein examines the psychological shifts leading to, during, and following World War I; investigating the cultural connotations of various facets of early twentieth century European society. With a heavy emphasis on aestheticism’s ties to nationalism, Ekstein recognizes the influences of artistic symbolism, the psychology of change, middle class values, avant-garde attitudes, the movement towards inwardness and depersonalization, and the underlying emphasis on modernity, on the spurring of an international crisis amidst attitudes of “doubt, anxiety, and insecurity.”[8] Dismissing the validity of claims of a collective German guilt,[9] and rejecting the notion of the “poor little Belgium” justification as a major provocation of war,[10] Ekstein uses testimonies of those who experienced World War I to argue that much like the arts of the early twentieth century, Germany wholly embraced the avant-garde shirt towards modernity. According to Ekstein, “Germany represented the new, the different, the dangerous.”[11]

Ekstein places a heavy emphasis on wartime psyche, among German, French, and English servicemen. Using recurring motifs such as the soldiers varying senses of purpose, adventure versus terror, horror versus desensitization, vulnerability and disillusion versus perseverance, detachment from the home-front, and front-line camaraderie and fraternization, Ekstein navigates the psyche of World War I servicemen in an investigation of the influences on and influences of such mindsets. Modernity is symbolized throughout Ekstein’s monograph through metaphorical allusions to World War I poison gas and Parisian ballet culture; offensive, controversial, new, innovative, experimental, avant-garde, and comprised of such features of the movement towards modernity as technologically inventive gas masks compared with risqué ballet costume modifications of the era. Such comparisons as those drawn by Ekstein between poison gas and ballet further bolster Ekstein’s examination of trench warfare and contemporary arts’ influences on the European Psyche leading to the power grasp of Hitler’s Third Reich. As stated by Ekstein, “to the new Germany, all political questions, all economic questions, all cultural questions, were in the end military questions.”[12] In regards to the question of German modernity, Ekstein contends that “both gas and the Russian dancers were regarded as the height of newness, an expression of a sense of modern that far exceeded what was considered acceptable by most of society.”[13] The war was, according to Ekstein, the natural conclusion reached by the German-led European shift towards progress, modernity, revolution, change, and futurism amidst the question of German national identity.[14]

In a European climate amidst the German race towards modernity, as Germany struggled to unite its citizens and proclaim its power to the global cultural and political radar, World War I is argued by Ekstein to have been the product of the “modern impulse,”[15] embodied by such subjects of Ekstein’s research as Nijinsky, Stravinsky, Lindbergh, Diaghilev, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Richard Wagner, Adolph Hitler, and Remarque. While Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, upon which Ekstein places such heavy emphasis, was considered to be an embodiment of “the Postwar phenomenon of book selling,”[16] Ekstein’s Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age allows World War I enthusiasts, historians, artists, anthropologists, and other readers to partake in a rare glimpse into the psyche of Wartime Europe, through the lenses of military experience and art culture of the early twentieth century. Through his exploration of wartime movements towards modernity, Ekstein provides an intriguing analysis of the German shift from romanticism to modernism in which the formerly objective approach to life and society became a subjective approach; an approach which later harnessed by the Nazi party, became Germany’s controversial “general philosophy of life and society.”


[1] Modris Ekstein, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1989).

[2] Ibid., 255.

[3] Ibid., 229.

[4] Ibid., 310.

[5] Ibid., 299.

[6] Ibid., 241.

[7] Ibid., 305.

[8] Ibid., 264.

[9] Ibid., 294.

[10] Ibid., 132.

[11] Ibid., 130.

[12] Ibid., 157.

[13] Ibid., 164.

[14] Ibid., 133.

[15] Ibid., 294.

[16] Ibid., 277.

Special Thanks

Special Thanks to Hartwick College, Oneonta NY, for the use of their beautiful library!
Special Thanks to Hartwick College, Oneonta NY, for the use of their beautiful library!

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    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 

      16 months ago from Houston, TX USA

      "... a rare glimpse into the psyche of Wartime Europe,...."

      Very interesting, a look at the psychological causes of war.

      Let me suggest we progress our thinking away from violence and war to more constructive pursuits. As the world becomes more technological and more populous we can no longer afford war.

      We must learn to control our population with more mental health professionals and better local policing. Mentally ill people have thoughts of violence, fear and conflict. We should issue a mental health warrant on all leaders who show signs of mental illness. Leaders need to be assessed by the mental health professionals when the leaders promote war.

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