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

4.15  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,593 Ratings  ·  113 Reviews
A rare and remarkable cultural history of World War I that unearths the roots of modernism

Dazzling in its originality, Rites of Spring probes the origins, impact, and aftermath of World War I, from the premiere of Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring in 1913 to the death of Hitler in 1945. Recognizing that “The Great War was the psychological turning point . . . for mode
Paperback, 396 pages
Published September 14th 2000 by Mariner Books (first published January 1st 1989)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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I was spurred to read this book by a discussion in the History of Sexuality class I am teaching this summer. I had assigned some readings exploring how the modern West has responded to political, economic, and social changes through conflicts over sexuality and gender roles. We spent some time discussing how important World War I was as an accelerant to tensions over increased sexual freedom, the roles of the New Woman and the New Man in Western society, etc. It seemed like a good time to delve ...more
Feb 02, 2011 Szplug rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: canada-eh
Modris Eksteins' fantastic autopsy of the European mindset before, during, and after the Great War—the half-decade of unmitigated slaughter that brought a thunderous mailed fist down upon all that a near century of European peace had accomplished—opens with an electrifying setpiece, one which brought to my mind Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. The frenzied response to Diaghilev's The Rite of Spring at its opening in Paris anticipates the currents that would flood though the sluice when the Guns ...more
R. Shurmer
Simply stunning - beautifully structured and written arguments and an immensely informative text on not just World War One but a wide variety of cultural issues from the 1850s to 1945. Ekstein has attempted the most difficult of tasks facing the historian, i.e. to describe the cultural and social nuances of an age and explain how and why they change; and he succeeded brilliantly here. A single poignant event, such as a performance of the Ballet Russe in 1913 or the Unofficial Christmas Truce of ...more
Aug 27, 2012 Eric rated it liked it
Shelves: history, great-war
I didn't get around to reviewing this in June, though since then I have often thought of Eksteins’ description of a dazed and traumatized post-WW1 Europe flirting with Fascism, and the politics of mystic restoration:

…the devastation was so wide and the task of reconstruction so staggering that notions of how this was to be accomplished dissolved often into daydream and wishful thinking.

And I thought of it a lot while reading John Ellis’ The Social History of the Machine Gun this weekend. Ellis d
howl of minerva
Flashes of brilliance but tedious and repetitive for large stretches, sort of an exceptionally cultured pub bore. The final chapter on Nazism was superficial and trite and presumably tacked on at the publishers' behest.
John David
Mar 20, 2012 John David rated it really liked it
Much ink has been spilled in trying to locate the fons et origo of modernism, and Modris Eksteins is not the first historian to suggest that it occurred on or about the evening of May 29, 1913 at the Paris premiere of Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps.” Eksteins’ social history, however, is as thoroughly compelling as any, re-introducing you to characters in both the balletic production, but also the broader cultural mise-en-scène: the eccentric Diaghilev and Nijinsky, the founding of the Ball ...more
Jan 03, 2008 Steve rated it it was amazing
Shelves: academic-history
I hold this book in very high esteem, not only because it is very well-written, but because it forced me to completely revise my understanding of twentieth century nation-states.

In Rites of Spring, Ecksteins argues that fascism represented the ultimate manifestation of the "modern" nation-state. That is, Nazis (and many of their admirers such as American aviation hero Charles Lindbergh) saw themselves as cutting-edge modernists, and were merely applying technology worship, industrialism, Darwini
Jenny (Reading Envy)
This well-researched and well-written history spans about 35 years, from the Parisian performance of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" to brief mentions of the end of WWII. Different sections focus in on different elements of the arts and political upheaval, including chapters highlighting specific cultural works, cities, or moments in time. I am still pondering the ongoing connection between societal change that could simultaneously create the environment where such important musical and artistic d ...more
Mar 26, 2008 Kathy rated it it was amazing
Along with Paul Fussell's "The Great War and Modern Memory," this is the best cultural/literary history I've ever read about The Great War.

I became, for a time, obsessed with WWI, partly because I felt that I hadn't learned enough about it in the course of my traditional schooling (as was the case with so many historical subjects, alas), and partly because I began to understand that it was *this* war, and not WW2, which is in some respects the defining event of the twentieth century.

Paul Fusse
Charles Phillips
Apr 03, 2013 Charles Phillips rated it liked it
Eksteins presents the reader with an argument for an interesting link between modernism in art and the modernism leading to and resulting from the destruction of much of traditional European culture in WWI. More importantly, he presents the reader with a wealth of details about WWI and the growth of fascism.

His argument, to me, is neither terribly convincing nor interesting. To summarize my discontent let me just say that The Rites of Spring and The Second Battle of Ypres are not even in the sam
May 27, 2011 James rated it really liked it
Having read and enjoyed Paul Fussel's The Great War and Modern Memory I came to Modris Eksteins’ The Rites Of Spring and discovered another great work of cultural history that both augmented and complemented Fussel's book. The author transports the reader by demonstrating the advent of the modern through a mood laced with death, movement, irony, rebellion and inwardness. The book unveils a pre-war world of German industrialization and avant-garde art, discusses the disillusionment of an unending ...more
May 18, 2010 Shannon rated it it was amazing
Probably my favorite history book I've ever read. Eksteins calls himself a post-modern narrativist, and he gives the reader a lot of responsibility. Presenting events, roughly in chronological order, he tells a cultural history from the days leading up to World War One to the beginnings of World War Two. He uses events like the opening night of the Rites of Spring ballet, or the 1914 Christmas Truce, or the flight of Charles Lindbergh to reveal the hearts and minds of Europeans. Eksteins often w ...more
May 28, 2009 Steve rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, history
If you've read Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory, then you must read this one as as well. This is one the most important books I've ever read. If you decide to read this book, seek out an edition (paperback or the original hardback) that has Nijinsky dancing on the cover. A later paperback edition does not include the photographs that Eksteins selected to underscore powerful points made in the text. The exlcusion of the photographs was an incredibly stupid thing to do in order save ...more
Jan 24, 2015 Jacky rated it liked it
3 stars. 4 staples.
Dec 30, 2013 Ilinca rated it it was ok
If you're looking for a pretentious bit of philosophizing around one of the most interesting and least easily understood dramas of the 20th century, this is the right book. It makes grandiose claims that it only backs by - oh wait, by nothing at all. It discovers the link between Stravinski's Rites of Spring and World War I in just the same way that some of us discover the meaning of life in a dream, then fail to remember it in the morning. Only this particular guy fails to say "oh shoot, I just ...more
Jan 31, 2010 Paula rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, history
Interesting yet unsatisfying on several levels. I read along enjoying the review of the era, but acquiring few new insights, except perhaps in Ekstein’s depiction of the general mood at the opening of WWI as largely euphoric/ heroic / romantic, unlike the mood fraught with a sense of futility, waste and negation of the war that came afterward and which infused the post-war literature about WWI. My own exposure to the period comes largely from that literature and some contemporary fiction, such a ...more
Sep 05, 2009 Daphna rated it really liked it
Recommended to Daphna by: Intro to Modernism
This book succeeds in doing exactly what it sets out to do, which is provide a cultural history of the Great War, beginning with the avant-garde and the premiere of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" in 1913 and ending with Hitler's rise to power. The approach works well: Eksteins strikes the right balance between supplying general information and counting on the reader to have a little background on the subject; he writes with both the rigor of academia and the accessibility of popular history. I al ...more
Oct 17, 2012 Peter rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Lovers of WWI literature

This is a fantastic read; at once both profound and pretentious, tying disparate threads into a very plausible tapestry. I was fascinated by it from the beginning where Stravinsky's ballet 'Le Sacre du Printemps' (The Rites of Spring) and it's infamous premiere are offered as a precursor and motif of the world transformation wrought by the coming storm of World War I. The author draws on just about every cultural source and reference that the he could lay his hands on, from the breadth of cultur
J.M. Hushour
Feb 21, 2013 J.M. Hushour rated it it was ok
Ambitious but shitty. This book, cribbing much from Paul Fussell's work and refusing to acknowledge that, argues that "modernism" and irrationality sprang from the depths of WWI and an innate German mythicism which permeated the continent. Maybe. I'm actually not sure what Eksteins is arguing, but that is my best guess. Eksteins co-opts the premiere of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" as a running metaphor for this "modernist" transition in European social/cultural thought. But he never really defi ...more
Beginning with the debut of the then-controversial ballet The Rites of Spring in Paris in 1913 and ending with the death of Hitler in 1945, Eksteins has written a unique cultural history of the time period. His main emphasis is trench warfare during WWI, and how it affected a whole generation and led to WWII. There is a whole chapter on the spontaneous truce that erupted the first Christmas in the trenches, and quite a penchant explanation of why it never happened again. It also discusses Paris ...more
Abigail Turner
Nov 24, 2014 Abigail Turner rated it really liked it
Sorry this review got so long...I got carried away...

Rites of Spring is a fascinating look into the cultural tensions emerging in Europe in the years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War. I read this book for my World War One history class in college. I normally develop an irritation with books that I'm forced to read (and write papers about), but this book I found fascinating and engaging. I loved the use of music and art as a gateway into interpreting not only social history but m
Oct 13, 2014 Doug rated it it was amazing
I have a curiosity about wars. Growing up right after WWII created that curiosity as Sunday TV a decade later was all about the Battle of Britain which apparently was waged in the dark of night as all that seemed to illuminate the screen was fire. Then as now, war seems the stupidest of mankind's undertakings, a kind of mutually agreed insanity on all sides. As Canadians we are credited with cementing some of our early national identity in The Great War and according to the current ridiculous fe ...more
Jul 13, 2014 Sam rated it really liked it
The outrageous performance on May 29, 1913, presaged the violence of two world wars—in Stravinsky’s collaboration with Diaghilev, Paris and the world were scandalized in a modernist, brutalist, orgy that came to define the century as a whole. Refinement of Western Europe came to nothing in the internecine slaughters that characterize, and continue to characterize, much of the modern world.

Eminently readable, and thought-provoking with nuanced interpretations of events—noting, that even while Hit
Sherwood Belangia
Mar 06, 2011 Sherwood Belangia rated it it was amazing
Fantastic, illuminating account of the Modernist mind and its impact on 20th Century European history and the reciprocal impact of the Great War on the consciousness of the West. Eksteins makes connections that seem implausible until he connects the dots -- then, it's "Aha!" A great aid to understanding the art and literature of the first half of the 20th Century.
Tina Davis
Nov 06, 2011 Tina Davis rated it it was amazing
One of the best books, on any topic, that I have ever read. Rarely do I recommend historical monographs to non-history majors, but I think anyone interested in modernity and its origins should read Rites of Spring.
Nov 10, 2008 Mamie rated it really liked it
This was the text for a class I took on the Birth of Modernism. It changed how I saw the world and helped me understand the effects of WW1 on the 20th century and beyond. It's totally NOT boring!
Lorraine Herbon
Feb 19, 2016 Lorraine Herbon rated it liked it
I'm not sure how I feel about this book. The first chapter is all about the staging of the Rites of Spring ballet in Paris. Then, the author turns to the Great War, providing basically the same information as you get in other books. Then, after the War, we jump to Lucky Lindbergh, then suddenly Hitler is with us as a demonstration of "kitsch" run amuk. I actually found the ballet chapter to be fascinating, but, after that, the author never reconnected the ballet or other forms of modernism with ...more
Charlie N
Dec 30, 2013 Charlie N rated it really liked it
An unusual and interesting way of writing history. He ties together the avant-garde/Modernist movement before the War with the general expansion of German industry, military and political power, and cultural attitudes. He contrasts that with the British and French pre-war attitudes. In some ways, it's a classical account of a revisionist power opposed by would-be preservers of the status quo. But I think the best way to think of this type of history is as an exploration of the geography of the p ...more
Shane Avery
Oct 13, 2009 Shane Avery rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
An absolute triumph. One of the best books I've ever read...
Nov 13, 2008 AC rated it it was amazing
Phenomenal book -- compulsively readable
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