Dan's Reviews > Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age

Rites of Spring by Modris Eksteins
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's review
Nov 22, 11

bookshelves: 2011

this book gave me lots to think about. it's a beautifully written cultural history of WWI, with a particular focus on the arts as they relate to national identity. rites of spring is probably best approached with a rudimentary understanding of the war, but it's also written with literary flair and a lack of military tech-talk. it's probably the most approachable book on the subject i've encountered, though not dumbed-down in any way.

as someone with a background in the arts, the book was particularly provocative, because it engages with the emancipatory language of modernism. as a painter and an art-school-graduate, it's been easy for me to digest the pseudo-nietzschean legacy of 20th century art (experimentation at all costs, destructive acts as creative acts, rejection of absolute truths, etc.) as something almost utopian - or at the very least central to my own studio practice. eksteins recognizes that these ideologies are an essential part of what makes modern and contemporary art exciting, but he also explores the ways that they lead to a cult of death and destruction, and how the disillusionment felt in the war's wake ultimately escalated their darkest excesses.

rites of spring combines the best of two approaches. on the one hand, it is clear that eksteins is an art lover, and someone who is neither bewildered by nor hostile to the most radical movements of the 20th century avant-garde. on the other hand, he retains the sobriety of a historian, recognizing that romanticism isn't the only lens through which to approach the impact of an igor stravinsky or an isadora duncan. the book is at its most engrossing when dealing with the vibrancy of the german romantic tradition in its stark contrast to the paternal, colonialist conservatism of the british empire. without the rest of the 20th century in view on the horizon, it would be easy to feel a strong allegiance to the innovation and vitality of the young, militaristic germans he profiles. instead, rites of spring inspires feelings of admiration, caution and terror all at once, and provides no silver-bullet explanations (or motives, for that matter).

my one minor complaint about the book is that despite using the language of cultural theory in certain senses, it lacks any real discussion of race, gender or ethnicity. for a book with such a sophisticated understanding of german national identity, antisemitism plays a surprisingly small role. the ottoman empire is hardly discussed at all, and the british empire is mentioned rarely. part of this is the result of the book's scope (germany and britain are the primary focus), but many of its arguments felt incomplete considering the strange broth of racism, nationalism and emancipatory language the world was brewing up at the time.
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