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fin-De-siecle and The Birth of the Modern Nation

Updated on April 4, 2016

"The king is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of his servant; for they purpose not their death, when they purpose their services . . . Every subject's duty is the king's; but every subject's soul is his own." Henry V



The specter that haunted Europe during the 20th century was not communism but a crisis of identity. This crisis was born with the Enlightenment and the death of the Divine Right of Kings. The "new order" brought with it a new tapestry of relationships, both individual and national. The 19th century ushered industrialization, though unevenly, into Europe. It was also a time of searching for "proper" relationships between individuals and the role of the state. The unprecedented political, social and emotional change between 1800 and 1900 was at the core of modernity and the fin-de-siecle of the 19th century. Modernity was the historically turned soil upon which the seeds of nationalism, socialism, feminism, fascism and activism took root and it provided the environment that allowed them to flourish and dictate the course of local, national and international events.

The quote from Shakespeare gives the classic definition of the role of the individual and the state, in the person of the king, prior to the late 18th century. European feudalism could trace its roots to the Roman Empire and had survived catastrophes of Biblical proportion - from the Visigoths to the the Black Plague. That is not to suggest that it was never challenged or did not falter as it did against the Moors during and after the Crusades. Authority had indeed faced its challenges, but the underlying foundation of the Diving Right of Kings was never seriously challenged, and that authority was deeply rooted in history, a characteristic that came to a caustic and sudden end.


The extraordinary and quite unpredictable power unleashed by the American and French Revolutions at the end of the 18th century was not fed by deep historical roots. The national army wielded by Napoleon, as large as one million men, swept through Europe and changed forever, despite the efforts of Metternich and the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the basis of power and legitimate authority. At about the same time, industrialization replaced agriculture as the form and substance of wealth. The underpinnings of the feudal society were now unpinned.

A New World

The liberal institutions and ideals of the Enlightenment grew from a particular view of "natural" man and "universal" rights that sought its heroes among ancient Greek and Roman models. It also viewed capitalism as the engine to ultimate "equality." Romanticism was a response to the static and foreign ideas promoted by the Enlightenment. And in very much the same way, socialism was a response to capitalism - both its processes and its principals. The rising middle classes, on the side of revolution during the 18th century, now turned largely conservative while consolidating its fiscal and social gains. Nationalism, rooted in the French Revolution of 1789, became a key feature of the competition between imperial powers in Europe.


By the close of the 19th century western Europe bared little resemblance to itself one hundred years past. Modernity brought with it legalized trade unions and a broadening of the franchise in most of Europe (with Russia being a conspicuous dissenter). Increasingly technical and specialized industry, an unprecedented economic boom and an exploding urban population produced a new generation of Europeans that was also increasingly literate.

The shadow of the rejection of bourgeois values which had begun with Marx before the failed revolutions of 1848 grew darker as the fin-De-siecle approached and past in Europe. Bourgeois morality was attacked by artist who were drawing on folk or "Volk" culture, and writers like Nietzsche who found in "reason" only intellectual and artistic repression and rejection of true human expression. Anarchism came into fashion and generated terror for the ruling dynasties through political assassination - which in turn resulted in the curtailing of independent political movements.

This brings to focus a Germany at the dawn of the twentieth century as one of the foremost industrial nations intoxicated with its own sense of "Kultur" as the world model of the great future society. The Germans came into the war with a mystical sense of what they represented. They considered themselves representative of modernity, the founders of the great society to come and the successors to the "shopkeepers" of England. "Germany" had only existed since 1871 and she therefore had no common history and so looked forward instead. France and England, conscience of their long history, considered themselves defenders of "civilization" when they entered the war. Each sides appealed to the mythic importance of their role, the Germans to the future and the French and English to the past.


World War I was a demonstration of belief in identity for western Europe. But the war that was to last only a few weeks lasted more then four years and resulted in the massacre of nearly an entire generation of male Europeans. The dark side of modernity is depicted in the tactics, strategy and technology used in the war. Tacticians on all sides badly miscalculated the effect of technology on battle. The three major innovations were the airplane, the U-boat and poison gas. The war quickly degenerated into a war of attrition fought from opposing trenches in a field strewn with foliage, artillery craters, and decimated soldiers. By the time the armistice was signed in November 1918, the Auto-Hungarian Empire was gone and the socialist Soviet Union was born while the colonial western European powers receded.

But Europe lost something else as well, it lost its sense of identity. The brutality of the war demonstrated that Europe was now technologically capable and willing to unleash enormous destructive potential on an enemy. Europeans were, as a group, greatly disillusioned by war. The pretense was lost and the individual was reduced from the mythic proportions assumed before the war. And the victors peace imposed on Germany in the Treaty of Versailles signed on June 28, 1919, - in sharp contrast to France's treatment at Vienna after Napoleon's defeat - laid the entire responsibility for the war at the feet of the Germans. This hostile agreement would return to haunt the Allies during the rise of the National Socialist and Adolf Hitler. Hitler, a brilliant student of the use of propaganda, would make use of the "betrayal" of the German people by their own leaders and the conspiracy of the Allies to push his rearmament and anti-Semitic programs ahead during the 1930s.

One of the most significant event during the 1920s was the victory of the Bolsheviks in Russia and the ascension of Joseph Stalin. As Stalin consolidated his power through the "creation of an immense new bureaucracy" he came into conflict with intellectuals like Trotsky and Radek who believed in the a permanent workers revolution against capitalism and the gradual disappearance of the state. Stalin eliminated his rivals during a "reign of terror" in the late 20's and pursued a policy of massive industrial mobilization, militarism and collectivization of agriculture throughout the Soviet Union. Like Hitler, Stalin would use terms like "enemies of the state" and "subversives" against his policies and the individual disappeared within the Soviet Union.


The decline of prices for agricultural goods, mostly in southeastern Europe, precipitated a larger economic decline which culminated in the crash of the American Stock Market in October of 1929. The call on loans to Germany resulted in a general restriction of credit from other countries and, coupled with rising inflation and deepening economic depression, resulted in a renewed division between the classes. As Felix Gilbert observed, "all over Europe the economic crisis awakened and strengthened extremist tendencies on the left and on the right, and undermined the moderate center which clung to the ideals of democracy."

Fascism, as one of the new strains of ultra-nationalism generated by the failure of modernity is equally difficult to define. In many ways, it stands in opposition to modernity in its rejection of international interdependence and liberal institutions. It is led by highly charismatic and "modern" leaders and policed by paramilitary war veterans. Violence and brutality is the argument it provides for its critics and it is vehement in its anti-communist rhetoric and action. It is also aggressive in its design to gain territory and supports industry against the workers. And it is forward looking with respect to the prospect of technology.

Fascism did not appear to hold to any particular ideology other then aggressive and irrational nationalism and its ethic was one of action over argument or debate. Fascism was the aestheticism of politics and was characterized by movement and action, not by policy. And perhaps most central to the rise of fascism was the economic hardship which existed under its foundation. In both Italy and Germany, fascism grew from the inability of "liberal" institutions to stem downward economic cycles or maintain order (often against the agitation of fascist and other extremist organizations.)

Where modernity and fascism converged was in the technical and aesthetic aspects of propaganda. Nationalism and ultra-nationalism had existed in France during the French Revolution. But under the exclusive national control of the fascist, propaganda became the "art of social control," - and it here where the fascist excelled at self-promotion and positivism. In Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, the art of propaganda is carried to its zenith. The film's depiction of the German "Volk" - characterized by the ledarhosen and other traditional garb - fused with fresh faces of beautiful young women and shirtless young men, demonstrates how propaganda worked to bring everyone, young and old, into the new future of Germany. And, like Stalinism, it was proficient in the use of propaganda and secret police forces with networks of non-professional "informers" who reported on friends and neighbors and succeeded in creating suspicion and anxiety and keeping everybody on edge and fundamentally alienated from everything but the state.


The program of extermination in Germany and the occupied territories of "sub-races" carried out by the Nazi's is representative of the aggressiveness and determination to recreate the world in its own "pure" vision. What is unusual about this program was that it was carried out during a world war being fought by Germany on two fronts and to the detriment of its own war efforts. The bloodlust of Hitler appears greatest in the scientific application of technology on the genocidal purification. That the issue of collaboration with the Nazi's would haunt post-war Europe is hardly surprising. The actions of the complicit are synonymous with the acts of those who leave ethical and moral decisions to their "faith," unburdening themselves of responsibility and creating in the process an environment in which communal activity operates according to the theory of the masses - a necessary component to the scope and scale of the activity directed against the "sub-races" by the Third Reich.

The single greatest crisis in history to face Europe and the World was the invention of the atomic bomb and the beginning of the nuclear age. The end of the first world war by way of the second world war again changed the political and social landscapes of Europe. The U.S. and the Soviet Union emerged from the latter as "superpowers," and by the 50's had achieved a "peaceful" coexistence through the threat of mutually assured destruction, aptly known as MAD. The cold war between the superpowers was an ideological one. The ideology was simple; curtail the expansion and influence of the other as Europe was divided into spheres of influence and alliance systems. The superpowers played out their ideologies on battlefields in Southeast and Central Asia while China emerged as a threat to both after it too acquired the atomic bomb.

But under the cloud of total annihilation, both eastern and western Europe responded with activism, opposition and dissent. First in Poland and Hungry in 1956, and in Prague in 1968, national socialism movements challenged Russian hegemony. They also sparked student activism in the west, particularly in France and the U.S. In France these largely peaceful protests initially concentrated on university conditions and complaints about professors and course content. The adage about Europe catching a cold when France sneezes again proved accurate as student strikes and revolts spread to Germany, Britain, Belgium, Yugoslavia and several other European capitals. Elements from the greater society joined the students in protest, mainly school children and unions and strikes shut down large parts of several European metropolises.


The spontaneous activities of the young radicals erupted against American involvement in Vietnam and in general against (yet again) repressive bourgeois values and the "infernal cycle of production and consumption" propagated by the capitalist powers. The revolts ended largely in failure because its spontaneity denied the possibility of coordinated action. But they did demonstrate the true power of the masses, enunciated by Daniel Cohn-Bendit as the destruction of "the myth that you can do nothing against the regime." The obligation to protest was the moral legacy of the holocaust, keenly felt by the young radicals who wished to distance themselves from the collective European guilt from that event.

The intended cohesive element of my argument is the role of the individual within the changing European societies. After the start of the French Revolution in 1789, the German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder argued in support of a unique geist or spirit of all national cultures that should be allowed to mature and fulfill its unique potential. In the increasingly unstable yet interdependent Europe of 20th century, this did not appear possible. "Men wiser and more learned than I have discerned in history a plot, a rhythm, a predetermined pattern. These harmonies are concealed from me. I can see only one emergency following upon another as wave follows upon wave." The unprecedented change experienced during the 19th century was indeed eclipsed by the waves of change in the 20th century. The crisis of the 20th century was the rapidity of that change and its compressive impact on the individual and society. It was also the explosive and unstable blending of ethnicity and ideology with the improving tools of propaganda and mass destruction.


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    • Matt Phillips profile imageAUTHOR

      Matt Phillips 

      7 years ago

      Thanks for the kind words, Alastar. I appreciate your taking the time to read it!

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 

      7 years ago from North Carolina

      Fine history run-up from European feudalism to the 20th century. Your facts and the way you construct & combine the info, the conclusions, and causes & effects on the time-line are spot on Matt. Voted up n useful!


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