Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)

This was Vonnegut’s sixth novel and his commercial and critical breakthrough, quickly becoming a classic of counter-culture literature, its anti-war message chiming perfectly with the widespread protests across America against the Vietnam War, and then given an extra boost when it was made into a hit movie in 1972.

Both the anti-war message and Vonnegut’s laid-back, sardonic attitude are captured in the book’s jokey author biography:

Kurt Vonnegut Jnr
A fourth-generation German-American
now living in easy circumstances
on Cape Cod
[and smoking too much],
who, as an American infantry scout
hors de combat,
as a prisoner of war,
witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany,
‘The Florence of the Elbe,’
a long time ago,
and survived to tell the tale.
This is a novel
somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic
manner of tales
of the planet Tralfamadore,
where the flying saucers
come from.
Peace.

That final ‘Peace’ says it all. You can almost smell the dope and patchouli oil.

Vonnegut was an American POW during the Second World War. He was taken to Dresden and set to work along with other POWs – among other things in a syrup factory – and so happened to be there during the notorious Allied bombing raid which flattened this beautiful and historic city on the night of 13 February 1945.

Vonnegut survived because he and other POWs had been billeted in a disused slaughterhouse. This happened to have no fewer than three levels underground of natural cold rooms where meat had been stored. Vonnegut, fellow POWs and their guards took refuge there on the night of the Allied raid and firestorm.

Vonnegut gives this experience and much else of his own life to the novel’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, but mixes it – bewilderingly but powerfully – with a science fiction story wherein Billy is captured by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. And with a third element – which is that during the war Billy came ‘unstuck in time’ and from then on, periodically through the rest of his life, Billy’s consciousness keeps moving between different key moments of his life – one moment a POW captured in the snow in 1944, the next making a speech to fellow Lion’s Club members in 1967, one moment a boy of 12 taken to the Grand Canyon by his parents, the next a middle-aged man at his daughter’s wedding, and so on, for a number of other cardinal scenes in his life.

The text therefore mostly consists of fragments, any lengthy description of a particular scene liable to switch, with no warning, to another.

The odd thing is that despite this staginess, this artifice – it works. In fact it works more effectively than any straightforward account of the facts could have.

Even despite the opening chapter (pp.9-22) which consists mainly of fragments describing Vonnegut’s repeated failure to write this book. In these introductory pages he describes his visits to fellow war veterans and how, after a few drinks, they found they had nothing to say to each other. He candidly admits that, as a middle-aged man, he has gotten into the habit of staying up to late with a bottle of scotch, getting drunk and then ringing up old friends and acquaintances from the past, sometimes maundering on to complete strangers.

In other words, he sounds fucked. But it’s the inclusion of the admission of his failure to make his traumatic memories cohere, and his openness about the obvious emotional toll they’ve taken on him, which make the narrative which follows, deeply fragmented though it is, all the more powerful.

Billy’s biography

Despite all the apparent tricksiness, it is not too difficult to piece together Billy’s biography, in fact Vonnegut summarises most of it right at the start of chapter two, which is where the narrative proper begins.

Listen:
Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. (p23)

Vonnegut likes short declarative sentences. And short paragraphs. He worked on newspapers for a while. Then as a press officer. Which taught him to keep it short. And snappy.

Bill Pilgrim was born in 1922 in Ilium, New York, the only son of a barber. He grew up to be tall and gangly, looking like a Coke bottle. He attended the Ilium school of optometry for one term before being drafted into the army. He was taken prisoner during the German advance of the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944-January 1945). There is an extended sequence describing his miserable march through the snow with two scouts and an aggressive bullying corporal named Roland Weary. The scouts eventually leave them and, a little later, they hear them being shot by a German patrol. So it goes.

He and hundreds of other American POWs were transported by overcrowded trains to a POW camp. The bully who gave him such a time on the march, Roland Weary, dies on the train. The base is really an extermination camp for Russian soldiers who were being starved to death. Within this camp was a small number of British officers who’d been captured at the start of the war and were living very well on Red Cross parcels. After various incidents here (such as witnessing the British stage a production of Cinderella). Billy starts laughing at this, the laugh becomes uncontrollable and turns into a shriek. They give him a shot of morphine. So it goes.

Then he is shipped to Dresden where he is billeted in a disused slaughterhouse and set to various labouring jobs, clearing rubble, and helping out in a syrup factory (where everyone steals as much syrup as they can eat).

One night 600 Allied bombers come and destroy Dresden, sparking a firestorm which incinerates everyone above ground. When Billy and the Germans emerge they discover the entire city reduced to smoking rubble littered with what seem planks of burning wood but are, in fact, smouldering corpses. So it goes.

Billy is liberated by the Russians, repatriated to Allied lines, and then back to the States. He re-enrols in the Ilium School of Optometry and becomes engaged to Valencia, the fat, ugly daughter of the founder of the school, who is addicted to eating candy bars and cries on their wedding night because she thought no-one would ever marry her.

In 1948 Billy suffers a mental breakdown and checks himself into a ward for nonviolent mental patients in a veterans’ hospital near Lake Placid, New York.

Here he meets a character mentioned in previous novels, namely Eliot Rosewater, who introduces him to the works of a prolific science fiction writer, Kilgore Trout (who will be one of the two main figures in Vonnegut’s next novel, Breakfast of Champions). Later on, in 1964, Billy bumps into Trout, as he tyrannises the pack of newspaper boys who he bullies into delivering papers, his only form of income since nobody will publish his numerous novels and, even if they do, Trout never sees any money from them. Rosewater has a big trunk of Trout’s sci-fi novels under his bed and during his stay in the hospital, Billy becomes a big fan.

Then he checks out and resumes his career as an optometrist. Marrying the boss’s fat daughter was a shrewd career move. His father-in-law gifts him a successful optometrist’s practice and Billy goes from strength to strength. He gets rich. He has two children, Barbara and Robert. Barbara marries an optometrist. Robert has a troubled school career (alcoholic at 16, desecrates graveyards) but turns his life round when he joins the Marines and goes to Vietnam.

In 1964 Billy meets Kilgore Trout and invites him to a party of optometrists. Trout chats up the most sensationally sexy woman in the room. When, in his excitement, he coughs on a canape, fragments of wet food land in her cleavage. Trout is that kind of character. Vonnegut is that kind of writer. Billy had planned to give his wife a big jewel as a wedding anniversary present, but is overcome with memories.

In 1967 Billy claims he was kidnapped by Tralfamodorians and taken to their planet in a flying saucer, where he was put in a zoo for the entertainment of Tralfamadorian crowds, and was soon joined by former movie star Montana Wildhack. Billy is laid back about the experience. He’s seen worse. He’s seen nearly the worst that human beings can do to each other. But Montana is hysterical for the first few weeks. Eventually they settle down together in their cage and mate, much to the cheers of the Tralfamadorian crowds.

In 1968 Billy is aboard a planeload of optometrists flying to a convention which crashes into Sugarloaf Mountain, Vermont. Billy is the only survivor. His wife, Valencia, in her worry, drives to the hospital but at one stage hits the central reservation, scraping the exhaust off the car. By the time she gets to the hospital where Billy is she is suffering from a fatal dose of carbon monoxide poisoning, and dies. So it goes.

After getting out of the hospital Billy goes to New York City where he gets airtime on a radio station telling everyone about how he was kidnapped by aliens from outer space and kept in a zoo. His grown-up daughter, Barbara, is furious and insists on coming to look after him (which feels a lot to Billy like nagging, hectoring bullying).

Billy is killed on 13 February 1976. Remember the soldier who died on the train, Roland Weary. Well another soldier, a really unpleasant psychopath named Paul Lazzarro, gives Weary his word of honour that he’ll take care of the dirty rotten fink who Weary blames for his death – the entirely innocent Billy.

And so it is that in 1976 that same Paul Lazzaro assassinates Billy using a laser gun with telescopic sights, while Billy is addressing a big rally about his flying saucer experiences. So it goes.

(It’s worth noting that, in a few throwaway sentences, Vonnegut tells us that by 1976 the USA has been divided into twenty smaller nations ‘so that it will never again be a threat to world peace’. Chicago has been hydrogen-bombed by angry Chinamen, p.96. This is not intended as any kind of prediction, it just continues the vein of pointless absurdity.)

POW

Central to the impact of the book is the powerful account of being taken prisoner, packed into cattle trucks so full people take it in turns to lie down, for days surrounded by the smells of poo and piss, and then arriving at the death camp more dead than alive. The surrealism of the brisk well-fed British officers among the starving Russians (kept in a separate area, behind barbed wire) and then onto the detailed, first hand account of a) labouring in Dresden in the build-up and then b) the night of the firestorm and then c) the aftermath.

These scenes, in their winter misery, reminded me of concentration camp memoirs I’ve read:

They also account in a roundabout way for the comment Vonnegut makes about the nature of his own book (he is prone to stop and comment on the text at random moments.)

There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters. (p.110)

This fictional worldview, or attitude towards fiction, is related to the way Vonnegut repeatedly refers to people as machines. All the inhabitants of Tralfamadore are machines and don’t understand why the inhabitants of planet Earth won’t just accept this simple truth.

Tralfamadore

From the start of his career Vonnegut played the textual/fictional joke of having characters from one novel reappear in others.

Thus the town Billy’s born in, Ilium, is the setting for the first part of the novel Cat’s Cradle as is its General Forge and Foundry Company.

In hospital Billy is put in a bed next to Professor Bertram Copeland Rumfoord of Harvard, official Historian of the United States Air Force. This is a coincidence because the main character and master of destiny in The Sirens of Titan is Winston Niles Rumfoord.

The biggest recurring topic is the planet named Tralfamadore (which appears in five of Vonnegut’s novels). Anyone who’s read The Sirens of Titan knows that, on one level, it is all about a denizen of Tralfamadore marooned on Titan after his spaceship breaks down, and that all of human history (in this version, anyway) has in fact been shaped entirely by his home planet sending messages to him.

In Slaughterhouse-Five we learn that Tramalfadorians are:

two feet high, and green, and shaped like plumber’s friends. Their suction cups were on the ground, and their shafts, which were extremely flexible, usually pointed to the sky. At the top of each shaft was a little hand with a green eye in its palm. The creatures were friendly, and they could see in four dimensions. They pitied Earthlings for being able to see only three. They had many wonderful things to teach Earthlings about time.

So far, so frivolous and silly. But the biggest thing Billy learns from the Tramalfadorians is that:

’The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.’

Various other aspects and quirks of Tralfamadorian life and thought are made up for our amusement (such as that the Tralfamadorians have five sexes, all of which are required for successful reproduction). But this is the key one. They explain a) how all moments of time exist simultaneously so b) that is why Billy can slip between them so easily and c) that’s why it doesn’t matter. Which brings us to ‘so it goes’.

So it goes

The book popularised Vonnegut’s catch-phrase, ‘so it goes’.

The author writes this every time he describes anyone dying, either in the war or by accident or of old age. It appears several times on each page, and 99 times in the whole (relatively short) book. Once upon a time it was cool but I eventually found it irritating and distracting.

But on the same page as he explains the Tralfamadorian way of thinking about, and seeing, time, he also explains the phrase’s origin:

‘When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “so it goes.”’

So this phrase ‘so it goes’ turns out to have more philosophical (or theological) than first appears. It indicates why the Tralfamadorians are relaxed about death – because it is only one stage in a person’s existence, and all the other stages of his or her existence continue unaffected by their death. And so it indicates how the author, too, has adopted this point of view.

That’s the nominal aim. But having read the first chapter in which Vonnegut describes the psychological problems he had writing this book – plus the scenes of Billy Pilgrim in the mental hospital – it’s difficult not to read the entire ‘so it goes’, throwaway kind of levity as in fact a form of psychological defence mechanism.

As he describes atrocities, random deaths, cruel accidents, suicides, immolations, plane crashes and the endless dumb pointlessness of the world, it’s hard not to see the ‘so it goes’ mentality as the coping mechanisms of a very unhappy man.

Folk wisdom

Vonnegut is addicted to sharing his wisdom with us. He is in the line of what Saul Bellow described as ‘reality instructors’, a line which goes back to Thoreau and beyond.

All Vonnegut’s novels are designed to persuade us that there is no meaning to life… and it doesn’t matter.

The same thing is said time and again. Thus a German guard punches an American POW, knocking him to the ground. The American asks: ‘Why me?’ The German guard replies: ‘Vy you? Vy anybody?’

Similarly, when the Tralfamadorians abduct him, Billy asks them: ‘Why me?’ to which they reply that they are all of them just embedded in this moment of time, like a prehistoric ant embalmed in amber.

‘There is no why?’ ‘Why?’ is the wrong question to be asking.

You can see why this Zen-like sidestepping of the anxious questions of Western philosophy appealed to the 60s generation, the spirit that made Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance such an instant best seller when it was published in 1974.

But pretty often it sounds no different from homespun folk wisdom, with no particular secret or mystique about it. Here’s Billy chatting with a Tramalfadorian:

‘But you do have a peaceful planet here.’
‘Today we do. On other days we have wars as horrible as any you’ve ever seen or read about. There isn’t anything we can do about them, so we simply don’t look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments – like today at the zoo. Isn’t this a nice moment?’
‘Yes.’
‘That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.’

‘Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.’ Not a dazzling revelation, is it? But then the thing about living wisely – as of eating a healthy diet – is everyone knows what they ought to be doing, it’s just that most people can’t or won’t or don’t do it.

Vivid writing

Notwithstanding that Vonnegut’s baseline style is the crisp brevity of newspaper journalism, he routinely comes up with great lines, descriptions and verbal effects.

There was a still life on Billy’s bedside table-two pills, an ashtray with three lipstick-stained cigarettes in it, one cigarette still burning, and a glass of water. The water was dead. So it goes. Air was trying to get out of that dead water. Bubbles were clinging to the walls of the glass, too weak to climb out.

This description is charged by the fact that Billy is himself lying in a hospital bed, too weak to get out.

Elsewhere Vonnegut nails aspects of his society and times with an accuracy made all the more lethal by the calm simplicity of his phrasing.

Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.

Set pieces

And like the other Vonnegut novels I’ve read, it is just crammed full of stuff. Characters, events, insights, jokes, wisdom, the author’s own hand-drawn illustrations.

While he is in the prison camp Billy meets an American traitor, Howard W. Campbell Jnr who is trying to raise an American Nazi regiment to fight the Russians on the Eastern Front. Obviously he’s a traitor Fascist, but he is not stupid and Billy reads the lengthy monograph Campbell has written which is a cunning blend of truths and falsehoods about the American character, and which allows Vonnegut to slip in some pretty bitter home truths:

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves… It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor… Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue, the monograph went on. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since Napoleonic times.

In a different mode, there is an impressive writerly tour de force where Billy has a vision of the bombing of Dresden happening in reverse, with miraculous old buildings rising from a rubble-strewn wasteland, friendly planes flying over hoovering up all those nasty bombs, flying back to England in pretty poor shape but, luckily, fleets of fighter planes meet them and suck out all the bullets and flak so that they finally land back at their airfields in pristine condition, and everyone is happy!

Shell shocked prose

But the most consistent style or tone is shell-shocked numbness. The author tells things in sequence like a zombie. Zombie prose. Then this then this then this.

Billy survived, but he was a dazed wanderer far behind the new German lines. Three other wanderers, not quite so dazed, allowed Billy to tag along. Two of them were scouts, and one was an antitank gunner. They were without food or maps. Avoiding Germans they were delivering themselves into rural silences ever more profound. They ate snow.

Dazed wanderer prose. Sometimes, when applied to actual combat, to soldiers shooting each other or planes dropping bombs, you can see how describing things in this simpleton, child’s eye way, is designed to undermine the army press release, conventional ways of seeing atrocities. To force us to realise that ‘combat’ means one bunch of men trying to send bits of metal at high velocity through other men’s bodies.

But at other moments this numb, dumb, dazed, zombie prose seems to me to convey nothing more than shell shock. Mental disturbance. An inability to function which isn’t glamorous or counter-cultural, but masks deep pain and unhappiness.

As a part of a gun crew, [Weary] had helped to fire one shot in anger-from a 57-millimeter antitank gun. The gun made a ripping sound like the opening of a zipper on the fly of God Almighty. The gun lapped up snow and vegetation with a blowtorch feet long. The flame left a black arrow on the ground, showing the Germans exactly where the gun was hidden. The shot was a miss.

What had been missed was a Tiger tank. It swiveled its 88-millimeter snout around sniffingly, saw the arrow on the ground. It fired. It killed everybody on the gun crew but Weary. So it goes.

Telling what happened with no emotion, affect or intellectual intervention, no defences, no assimilation. The wound still red raw and gaping.

It comes as absolutely no surprise to learn that Vonnegut suffered from chronic depression, and within a few years of Slaughterhouse being published, a difficult break-up with his wife and his son’s mental collapse prompted him to start taking anti-depressants. In 1984 he tried to commit suicide. I think you can hear not only Vonnegut’s war-torn past, but also his troubled future, in the prose of Slaughterhouse-Five.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

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The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut (1959)

The following is a true story from the Nightmare Ages, falling roughly, give or take a few years, between the Second World War and the Third Great Depression. (p.7)

Kurt realises the world is crazy

Kurt Vonnegut Junior was born in Indianapolis in 1922. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943 and was deployed to Europe where he was captured by Germans during the Battle of the Bulge (December 44-January 45). Interned in Dresden, he witnessed the notorious Allied bombing of the city on 13 February 1945, and survived by taking refuge in a meat locker of the slaughterhouse where he was imprisoned, three stories underground. His mother had committed suicide the year before. As the bombs dropped Vonnegut had an epiphany about the complete meaningless of everything. Dresden had no military industries, no strategic importance, and so had been completely undefended, and had no air raid shelters. The beautiful city was utterly destroyed. Vonnegut realised that the war was crazy, people were crazy, the world was crazy.

Repatriated to the States, Vonnegut worked in the press department of General Electric for six years or so, in his spare time writing short stories, some of which got published in the early 1950s, giving him enough confidence to quit his job and try and survive as a freelance writer.

In fact he struggled for well over a decade, his books getting merely polite reviews, if any, until his breakthrough novel, Slaughterhouse 5, shot him to fame in 1969, mainly because the way it recycled his experience of the bombing of Dresden via a trippy science fiction scenario perfectly suited the anti-Vietnam War spirit of the times refracted through hallucinogenic drugs. From that point onwards Vonnegut became a hero of the counter-culture and a reliable liberal voice, publishing a series of satirical novels and wry essays.

All Vonnegut’s novels are characterised by a devil-may-care attitude to their content and form. Plot isn’t really a major concern. There is no attempt at suspense and little or no logic. People behave childishly, including the narrator, who is prone to repeating simplistic phrases in order to create an impression of simple-mindedness and thus ridiculing the very notion of a wise, all-knowing author. They actively campaign against ‘maturity’ and conventional values. After all, he had seen at first hand where those got you.

If in doubt, aliens are brought in from somewhere, with no concern for scientific plausibility, and who generally turn out to be as childish and aimless as the humans. Vonnegut’s novels are more like anti-novels.

The Sirens of Titan

For the first third or so of The Sirens of Titan we are caught up in the life of Winston Niles Rumfoord. He is one of the richest men in America so he builds a private spaceship (at a cost of $58 million) and sets off with his dog Kazan to explore the solar system.

Unfortunately he encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, a phenomenon which bends and stretches out space-time so that Winston and his dog are turned into a stream of wave patterns which stretch from the sun to Betelgeuse.

Every 59 days the earth passes through the infundibula and Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord (it is one of Vonnegut’s tactics to spell out everybody’s names in full, partly to satirise the characters, partly to satirise the very notion of names and ‘identity’, partly to make the narrator sound mentally deficient) reappears on earth, at his mansion in Cape Code, where he dictates instructions to his butler Moncrieff, and terrorises his super-rich, elaborately coiffed wife, Beatrice.

On one of his appearances Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord invites Mr Malachi Constant (31) of Hollywood, California, the richest man in America to visit and watch his apparate. A deal of satire is generated by the media furores which accompany Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord’s apparitions, with crowds outside his mansion jockeying for autographs, TV commentators babbling, and Christian tele-evangelists (the Love Crusaders) inflaming their viewers against such godliness.

Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord informs Mr Malachi Constant that in the future, he will marry his (Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord’s wife) and travel to Mars, Mercury, the earth and then Titan, in that order.

It’s tempting to call all this surreal, but the truly surreal is unexpected and jarring and Vonnegut rarely gives that kind of genuine shock. I think it’s closer to the nonsense verse of Edward Lear. It is simply not trying to make sense, because nothing makes sense, so why not this non-sense as any other?

Mr Malachi Constant returns to Hollywood where he holds a party which lasts for 58 days (and which, interestingly, involves the consumption of marijuana and peyote) and wakes up to discover he has drunkenly signed away all his oil wells to his fifty or more guests. More to the point, he is completely bankrupt following an economic crash.

He flies to the headquarters of his firm, Magnum Opus Inc, where his business manager, Ransom K. Fern (the more nonsensical the names, the better) tells him he is bust and quits. A passage takes us back to explain how Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord’s father made his fortune, namely as a broken-down failure he started investing the last of his savings in companies in companies who initials matched the consecutive pairs of letters found in the opening sentence of the Gideon Bible he found in his hotel room.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth

Thus he looked for firms whose initials were I.N. and T.H. and E.B.etc. Miraculously / absurdly / nonsensically, this strategy pays off and every company Noel Constant invests in doubles his money, till he is the richest man in America. When he dies he leaves it all to his son, Malachi.

Need one point out that this is a satire on the silliness of big business, global finance, the stock market, and capitalism?

Mr Malachi Constant is pondering his next move when a couple who had been drinking in the tavern across the road – Mr George M. Helmholtz and Miss Roberta Wiley – enter the room and make him an offer. Would he like to go to Mars?

‘I am here to inform you that the planet Mars is not only populated, but populated by a large and efficient and military and industrial society. It has been recruited from Earth, with the recruits being transferred by flying saucer. We are now prepared to offer you a direct lieutenant-colonelcy in the Army of Mars.’ (p.65)

Foolishly, Mr Malachi Constant agrees to go.

The Army of Mars (p.69)

The book had been silly up to this point but now I think it becomes actively unpleasant. We cut to the fascist drilling of the Army of Mars, tens of thousands of humans who have been gulled into flying to Mars where their memories are removed through brain surgery and they have antenna implanted in their skulls. Any questioning or disobedient thought is punished by the instant administering of extreme pain in the brain.

Among the ranks of soldiers marching, parading, halting, presenting arms etc on Mars, is a retard known only as Unk. He has had to go the hospital seven times to remove all traces of his personality and character. Because of his physical description, we know this poor unfortunate is none other than Mr Malachi Constant.

Maybe there is some moral here about the super-rich high and mighty being brought low. But it is mainly sick sadism. Unk is ordered to strangle to death with his bare hands another soldier tied to a post in front of the whole army, he hesitates a moment and immediately feels searing pain in his head, so carries on. The murdered man, we learn, was his best friend on Mars, Stony Stevenson.

Unk and all the men in his regiment are controlled not by the officers, who are themselves pain-driven zombies, but by commanders scattered among the men. In Unk’s regiment this is Boaz, smooth-talking black guy who enjoys using the device hidden in his trousers, with which he controls the men, all the while posing as one of them.

I suppose this is all ‘satire’ on militarism and the army, but, as the saying goes, it isn’t that clever and it isn’t at all funny.

Unk learns he has a son, Chrono, begotten on Beatrice, the wife of Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord, who had also been abducted by recruiters from Mars and happened to be on the same flying saucer. Fellow abductees taunted Malachi into raping her as she lay half-sedated and helpless in a flying saucer storeroom. Reading this does not make the reader at all well-disposed to this, by now, revolting story.

As the rest of his regiment marches to the flying saucers which they will use to attack the moon base (there is always a moon base) and then go on to invade Earth, Unk goes AWOL to try and find his wife and child. Bee has also had her memory deleted several times and is not interested when he tracks her down to a gym where she is teaching new recruits on Mars how to survive (you swallow oxygen pills, Combat Respiratory Rations, otherwise known as ‘goofballs’, which mean you don’t have to breathe through your mouth or nose.) Then he finds his son, Chrono, now 14 and playing some pointless version of baseball with the handful of other kids on Mars. When Unk claims to be his father, Chrono couldn’t care less.

It all gets worse because it turns out that the entire Army of Mars is the brainchild of none other than Winston Niles Rumfoord. As he dispatches the vast fleet of flying saucers off to invade Earth, Winston Niles Rumfoord appears to Unk and explains what has happened to him.

The Martian assault on Earth is a pitiful failure. In his fake simplistic way, Vonnegut gives that statistics:

Earth casualties: 461 killed, 223 wounded, none captured, 216 missing
Mars casualties: 149,315 killed, 446 wounded, 11 captured, 46,634 missing (p.118)

Again, you could take this as satire on the absurdity with which armies publish super-precise figures about conflicts which in reality involve the evisceration and obliteration of unknown numbers of people. Or you could, as I prefer to, see it more as deliberately nihilistic nonsense.

The point is that, as soon as it realises it is under attack, the superpowers of Earth simply obliterate the approaching flying saucers with batteries of nuclear rockets, send nuclear bombs to blow up all the moon bases, and even send nuclear missiles to Mars, which obliterate the only city on it, Phoebe, leaving it completely uninhabited.

If any of the Martian ‘army’ got through, they landed in such scattered bands, were so weak and badly trained, that they were often rounded up by old ladies with vintage shotguns.

Unk has been captured and reunited with Boaz. Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord explains to them both that the purpose of all this cruelty and suffering was never to win the war, but to let Earth exterminate so many relatively helpless people (including, towards the end, flying saucers which had only old people and children in them) that they will be overcome with shame and remorse. National borders will die out. The lust for war will die. All envy, fear and hate will die and a new religion will arise (p.128). Well, that’s the plan.

On Mercury (p.131)

Meanwhile, he packs Boaz and Unk off in a flying saucer which, unbeknown to them, is not headed for Earth at all, but flies directly to Mercury, where it burrows deep into a subterranean complex of caves. All the way Boaz is fantasising about reaching Earth and what a swell time he’s going to have in those great nightclubs. It comes as a shock to emerge into a cave 130 miles below the surface of Mercury.

They discover that deep in the caves of Mercury live Harmoniums, flat pancake like creatures which look ‘like small and spineless kits’ (p.132), which cling to the walls and oscillate in time with Mercury’s very slow ‘song’ (a note sometimes last a thousand years). Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord torments them by secretly arranging the Harmoniums on the walls to spell out messages, the first one being:

IT’S ALL AN INTELLIGENCE TEST!

Boaz becomes friends with the Harmoniums. He plays music from the spaceship (although very softly and faintly, otherwise the Harmoniums explode with pleasure). Unk meanwhile, roams far and wide in the caves, fondly imagining that the vast crystal pillars they saw as they briefly flew into Mercury, are skyscrapers full of rich people (a garbled memory of his life in the skyscraper of Magnum Opus Inc.) One day Unk reads another message spelled in Harmoniums: Turn the spaceship upside down. Of course! We were told it flew so deep into Mercury’s caves because it was programmed to hide deep below the surface. Turning it upside down will reverse the process.

Boaz and Unk split the supplies from the ship and say goodbye. Absurdly, Boaz has found his perfect place, where he can bring simple pleasure to the Harmoniums without causing harm. He has also refrained from telling Unk (still retarded) that he, Unk, murdered his best friend, Stony Stevenson, back on Mars. Unk thinks Stony is still alive and fantasises about the day when they’ll be reunited.

Back on earth (p.152)

It’s a Tuesday morning in spring back on earth, to be precise in the graveyard of the church of God the Utterly Indifferent in West Barnstaple, Cape Cod, Massachussetts. This is the new religion Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord promised, the one which united all mankind in brotherhood and love after they had massacred the helpless Martian invaders.

Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord has also prepared the way for the return of Unk for hanging up in the church of God the Utterly Indifferent in West Barnstaple, Cape Cod, Massachussetts is a lemon-coloured, zip-up plastic jumpsuit in Unk’s size.

Satire on equality

There follows a passage satirising liberals’ quest for equality, namely that in the new world after the failed Martian invasion, in order to be equal, anyone with any gifts or exceptions from a narrow definition of average subjects themselves to handicaps. Thus the Reverend C. Horner Redwine wears 48 pounds of lead shot arranged in various bags around his body to slow him down. A man with exceptional eyesight wears his wife’s glasses to half blind himself. Any woman suffering the cures of being beautiful wears frumpy clothes and bad make-up in order to equalise themselves.

There were literally billions of self-handicapped people on Earth. And what made them all so happy was that nobody took advantage of anybody any more. (p.158)

The Reverend C. Horner Redwine madly rings the church bells to tell the people that the Space Wanderer has arrived. They’ve been expecting the Space Wanderer for years. Crowds gather and follow the Space Wanderer as he is pressed into the skintight yellow plastic suit (with foot-high orange question marks on the side).

The Reverend C. Horner Redwine warns Unk that whatever he says he must not thank God, that is plain against the doctrines of the church of God the Utterly Indifferent. Instead he must repeat the words of the prophecy:

I WAS A VICTIM OF A SERIES OF ACCIDENTS, AS ARE WE ALL.

Unk recites the words, the crowd goes wild, then he is carried by fire engine to the home of Winston Niles Rumfoord, Cape Cod, Massachussetts, Earth, Solar System.

Here a huge crowd has gathered to witness another materialisation of Winston Niles Rumfoord. This is a great carnival, with huge crowds and fairground stalls. Running one of these stands is Beatrice Rumfoord and her son, Chrono. Their flying saucer from Mars crash landed in the Amazon where the local tribe worshipped them as emissaries of the suns and moon. Now here they are selling voodoo dolls of Mr Malachi Constant. Because a key element of the new religion of the church of God the Utterly Indifferent, is that its great hate figure is Mr Malachi Constant, a man who had everything but never achieved anything or used it for good.

Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord presides as master of ceremonies. He welcomes the Space Wanderer in his bright yellow suit, the crowd gasps, Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord invites the Space Wanderer’s wife and child, Bee and Chrono, up onto the stage to join them. Unk is overwhelmed by all this, but flabbergasted when Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord reveals that he, Unk, is none other than Mr Malachi Constant (the crowd oohs), that he raped Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord’s wife, Beatrice, on a flying saucer to Mars (the crowd aahs), and that he strangled to death his only friend, Stony Stevenson, on Mars (the crowd boos).

Now there’s only one thing for it. Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord (who has retired to the upper boughs of a nearby beech tree) tells Mr Malachi Constant that he must climb up the very long ladder top the only remaining Martian flying saucer, which is perched atop a 98-foot high tower – along with his wife and child (Bee and Chrono reluctantly climb after him) and fulfil his destiny by flying to Titan.

On Titan (p.186)

There are three seas on Titan named Winston, Niles and Rumfoord, and on an island on one of them Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord has taken up permanent habitation in a palace built as a replica of the Taj Mahal (remember: the more nonsensical, the better).

This final section, like all the others, is full of preposterous nonsense facts. The flying saucer carrying Malachi, Bee and Chrono lands on a shore by the lake among the two million life-sized statues which have been made by Salo.

Salo is an inhabitant of the planet Tralfamadore and, like all Tralfamadoreans, he is a machine. He was sent on a top secret mission to the other side of the universe but crash landed on Titan in 203,117 BC. He sent a message back to Tralfamadore (which is 150,000 light years from Earth) asking for the spare part he needed for his spaceship. The Tralfamadoreans replied via Earth, using various structures as encrypted messages. Thus Stonehenge means, in Tralfamadorean: Replacement part being rushed with all possibly speed, and various other structures (the Great Wall of China, the Kremlin) are in fact messages to Salo. He has watched entire Terran civilisations rise whose sole purpose was, unknown to them, to construct buildings which sent a message to a robot stranded on a moon of Titan.

‘Everything that every Earthling has ever done has been warped by creatures on a planet one-hundred-and-fifty-thousand light years away. The name of the planet is Tramalfadore.’ (p.207)

That would appear to be the meaning of all Earth history.

We now learn that Salo gave Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord the idea for the Martian invasion of Earth, helped him copy the design of his flying saucer, recruited the first humans, had the idea of implanting pain-giving antennae in their minds, Salo shared with Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord half of his power source, none other than the Unstoppable Will To Believe, all in the aim of creating a new religion of peace and harmony and equality on Earth.

Cut to the unhappy family made up of Unk – now mostly restored to his memory of being Malachi Constant – Bee and Chrono, picnicking by a Titan sea. They arrive just in time to watch Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord finally expire and disappear. Right up to the end he had begged Salo to open the sealed message which he had been tasked with carrying to the other side of the universe. Only once Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord has died and disappeared, does Salo open the message pouch. the message he has come all this way – and all of Earth history turns out to be merely messages sent to him while he waited repairs to his spaceship – this important message is: Greetings!

Malachi and Bee live to be in their seventies. Chrono goes to live with the birds of Titan. When Bee passes quietly away, Malachi persuades Salo to take him in his space ship back to Earth, specifically to Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, Earth, Solar System, Milky Way. It is deepest winter. Here Malachi, freezing to death in the snow, has a last vision that he is being warmly greeted by the close friend he has sought all these years, Stony Stevenson.

P.S.

The Sirens of Titan are three nubile young women who Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord shows Malachi Constant a photo of, way back at the start of the novel. Only in the final section on Titan do we learn that they are merely three of the two million humanoid statues which Salo made in the hundreds of thousands of years he spent hanging round on Titan waiting for the spare part for his spaceship to arrive from Tramalfadore.

In fact all three ‘sirens’ turn out to be situated at the bottom of Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord’s swimming pool in his fake Taj Mahal and, once he is dead, the pool clogs up with algae and when Malachi tries to drain it, the three beautiful statues end up completely covered in smelly green gunk. So much for… well… something.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

  • The Sirens of Titan (1959)
  • Cat’s Cradle (1963)
  • Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
  • Breakfast of Champions (1973)
  • Slapstick (1976)
  • Jailbird (1979)

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the enormous monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, a moon of the former Jupiter, but the thriller aspects are only pretexts for Clarke’s wonderful descriptions of landing on Halley’s Comet and the evolution of wild and unexpected new forms of life on Europa

1848: Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport (2008)

1848 became known as ‘the year of revolutions’ and ‘the springtime of nations’ because there was political turmoil, fighting and unrest right across Europe, resulting in ministries and monarchies being toppled and new nation states proclaimed.

Causes

The underlying causes were agricultural, economic and demographic.

1. Agricultural failure

From 1845 onwards grain harvests across Europe were poor, and this was exacerbated when the fallback crop, potatoes, were hit by a destructive blight or fungal infection which turned them to mush in the soil. The result of the potato blight in Ireland is estimated to have been one and a half million deaths, but right across Europe peasants and small farmers starved, often to death. Hence the grim nickname for the decade as a whole, ‘the Hungry Forties’.

2. Economic downturn

This all coincided with an economic downturn resulting from industrial overproduction, particularly in the textile industry. Textile workers and artisans were thrown out of work in all Europe’s industrialised areas – the north of England, the industrial regions of Belgium, Paris and south-east France, the Rhineland of Germany, around Vienna and in western Bohemia.

3. Population boom

Hunger and unemployment impacted a population which had undergone a significant increase since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Countryside and cities alike had seen a population explosion.

The surplus of population was across all classes: it’s easy to see how an excess of many mouths to feed in a countryside hit by bad harvests, or in towns hit by economic depression, would result in misery and unrest. A bit more subtle was the impact of rising population on the middle classes: there just weren’t enough nice professional jobs to go round. Everyone wanted to be a doctor or lawyer or to secure a comfortable sinecure in the labyrinthine bureaucracies of the autocracies – but there just weren’t enough vacant positions. And so this created a surplus of disaffected, well-educated, middle-class young men who found roles to play in the new liberal and radical political movements.

If the surplus poor provided the cannon fodder in the streets, the surplus professional men provided the disaffected theoreticians and politicians of liberal reform and nationalism.

Inadequate response

As usual, the politicians in charge across Europe didn’t fully understand the scale of the poverty and distress they were dealing with and chose the time-honoured method of trying to repress all and any expressions of protest by main force.

Rapport’s book describes massacres in cities all across Europe as the garrisons were called out and soldiers shot on marching protesters in capital cities from Paris to Prague. This had an inevitable radicalising effect on the protesting masses who set up barricades and called on more of their fellow workers-urban poor to join them, and so on in a vicious circle.

However, these three underlying problems (population, hunger, slump) and the repressive response by all the authorities to almost any kind of protest, did not lead to one unified political movement of reform in each country. Instead the most important fact to grasp is that the opposition was split into different camps which, at the moments of severe crisis formed uneasy coalitions, but as events developed, tended to fall apart and even come to oppose each other.

There were at least three quite distinct strands of political opposition in 1848.

1. Liberalism

Of the big five states in 1840s Europe – Britain, France, Prussia, Austria and Russia – only France and Britain had anything remotely like a ‘democracy’, and even in these countries the number of people allowed to vote was pitifully small – 170,000 of the richest men in France, representing just 0.5% of the population, compared to the 800,000 who were enfranchised by the 1832 Reform Act in Britain (allowing about one in five adult British men the vote).

Despite the small electorates, both Britain and France at least had well-established traditions of ‘civil society’, meaning newspapers, magazines, universities, debating clubs and societies, the theatre, opera and a variety of other spaces where views could be aired and debated.

This was drastically untrue of the three other big powers – Prussia, Austria and Russia had no parliaments and no democracies. They were reactionary autocracies, ruled by hereditary rulers who chose ministers merely to advise them and to carry out their wishes, these moustachioed old reactionaries being Czar Nicholas I of Russia, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria and Frederick William IV of Prussia.

Therefore, while liberals in Britain merely wanted to expand the franchise a bit, and even the radicals were only calling for complete manhood suffrage (encapsulated in ‘the Great Charter’ which gave the movement of ‘Chartism’ its name and whose collection and presentation to Parliament amounted to the main political event of the year in Britain) and whereas in France liberals wanted to see expansion of the suffrage and the removal of repressive elements of the regime (censorship) – in the three autocracies, liberals were fighting to create even a basic public space for discussion, and a basic level of democracy, in highly censored and repressive societies.

In other words, the situation and potential for reform in these two types of nation were profoundly different.

But to summarise, what marked out liberals across the continent is that they wanted constitutional and legal change, effected through what the Italians called the lotta legale, a legal battle (p.43).

2. Nationalism

Sometimes overlapping with liberal demands, but basically different in ambition, were the continent’s nationalists. Italy and Germany are the obvious examples: both were geographical areas within which the population mostly spoke the same language, but they were, in 1848, divided into complex patchworks of individual states.

In 1806 Napoleon had abolished the 1,000 year-old Holy Roman Empire, creating a host of new statelets, kingdoms, duchies and so on. Some thirty-nine of these were formed into the German Confederation. The German states were a peculiar mix of sovereign empires, kingdoms, electorates, grand duchies, duchies, principalities and free cities. The German Confederation was dominated by the largest two states, Prussia in the North and the Austrian Empire in the south.

Italy was arguably even more divided, with the two northern states of Lombardy and Piedmont under Austrian rule, the central Papal States under control of the Pope, while the south (the kingdom of Sicily and Naples) was ruled by a bourbon king, with other petty monarchies ruling states like Tuscany and Savoy.

1848 was a big year for the famous Italian nationalists, Garibaldi and Mazzini, who attempted to stir up their countrymen to throw off foreign rule and establish a unified Italian state. It is an indication of how dire Italy’s fragmentation was, that the nationalists initially looked to a new and apparently more liberal pope to help them – Pope Pius IX – the papacy usually being seen as the seat of reaction and anti-nationalism (although the story of 1848 in Italy is partly the story of how Pope Pius ended up rejecting the liberal revolution and calling for foreign powers to invade and overthrow the liberal government which had been set up in Rome.)

So 1848 was a big year for nationalists in Italy and the German states who hoped to unite all their separate states into one unified nation. Far less familiar to me were the nationalist struggles further east:

  • the struggle of Polish nationalists to assert their nationhood – after 1815 Poland had been partitioned into three, with the parts ruled by Prussia, Russia and Austria
  • as well as a host of more obscure nationalist struggles east of Vienna – for example:
    • the struggle of Magyar nationalists – the Hungarians – to throw off the yoke of German-speaking Vienna
    • the Czechs also, attempted to throw off Austrian rule
    • or the struggle of Ukrainian nationalists to throw off the domination of their land by rich Polish landowners

Many of these movements adopted a title with the word ‘young’ in it, hence Young Italy, Young Germany, Young Hungary, Young Ireland, and so on.

Map of Europe in 1848. Note the size of the Austrian Empire but also the deep penetration into Europe of the Ottoman Empire

Map of Europe in 1848. Note the size of the Austrian Empire in blue, but also the deep penetration into Europe of the Ottoman Empire (Source: Age of the Sage)

Rapport shows how nationalists in almost all the countries of Europe wanted their lands and peoples to be unified under new, autochthonous rulers.

N.B. It is important to emphasise the limits of the 1848 revolutions and violence. There were no revolutions in Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden-Norway, in Spain or Portugal or in Russia. The Springtime of Nations most affected France, Germany, Italy and the Austrian Empire.

3. Socialism

After liberalism and nationalism, the third great issue was the ‘social question’. While the rich and the upper-middle class seemed to be reaping the benefits from the early phases of the industrial revolution – from the spread of factory techniques for manufacturing textiles, the construction of a network of railways which helped transport raw materials and finished goods and so on – a huge number of rural peasants, small traders, and the urban working class were living in barely imaginable squalor and starving.

The paradox of starvation in the midst of plenty had prompted a variety of theoretical and economic analyses as well as utopian visions of how to reform society to ensure no-one would starve. These had become more prominent during the 1830s. It was in 1832 that the word ‘socialism’ was first coined as an umbrella term for radical proposals to overhaul society to ensure fairness and to abolish the shocking poverty and squalor which so many bourgeois writers noted as they travelled across the continent.

So ‘socialist’ ways of thinking had had decades to evolve and gain traction. Rapport makes the interesting point that by 1848 Europe had its first generation of professional revolutionaries.

The great French Revolution of 1789 had propelled men of often middling ability and provincial origin into high profile positions which they were completely unprepared for. By contrast, 1848 was a golden opportunity for men who had devoted their lives to revolutionary writing and agitating, such as Louis-August Blanqui and Armand Barbès.

(As Gareth Stedman Jones makes clear in his marvellous biography of Karl Marx, Marx himself was notorious to the authorities as a professional subversive, and his newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung became the bestselling radical journal in Germany, but he had little impact on the actual course of events.)

The various flavours of socialists were united in not just wanting to tinker with constitutions, not wanting to add a few hundred thousand more middle-class men to the franchise (as the liberals wanted) – nor were they distracted by complex negotiations among the rulers of all the petty states of Italy or Germany (like the nationalists were).

Instead the socialists were united in a desire to effect a comprehensive and sweeping reform of all elements of society and the economy in order to create a classless utopia. For example, by nationalising all land and factories, by abolishing all titles and ranks and – at their most extreme – abolishing private property itself, in order to create a society of complete equality.

A crisis of modernisation

Rapport sums up thus: The revolution and collapse of the conservative order in 1848 was a crisis of modernization, in that European economies and societies were changing fast, in size and economic and social requirements, but doing so in states and political cultures which had failed to keep pace and which, given the reactionary mindsets of their rulers and aristocracy, were dead set against any kind of reform or change. Something had to give.

1848

Rapport tells the story of the tumultuous events which swept the continent with great enthusiasm and clarity. He gives us pen portraits of key reformer such as the nationalists Mazzini and Garibaldi and the socialist Blanqui, and of arch conservatives like Klemens Metternich, Chancellor of Austria, the young Bismarck of Prussia, and the sneering Guizot, unpopular premiere of France.

This is a great cast to start with but quite quickly the reader is overwhelmed with hundreds more names of radicals, republicans, liberals, reactionaries, conservatives and monarchists, ordinary workers and emperors – Rapport clearly and effectively presenting a cast of hundreds of named individuals who played parts large and small during this tumultuous year.

The first and decisive event of the year was the overthrow of King Louis Philippe in France and his replacement by a hastily cobbled-together Second Republic, in February 1848. This was a genuine revolution, and in what many took to be Europe’s most important nation, so news of it spread like wildfire across the continent, emboldening radicals in Italy, Austria, Prussia and further east.

Rapport describes events with a keen eye for telling details and the key, often accidental incidents, which could transform angry hunger marchers into an revolutionary mob. For example, the outraged citizen of Milan who knocked a cigar out of the mouth of a preening Austrian officer, sparking a street fight which escalated into a ‘tobacco riot’, prompting the city’s Austrian governor to call out the troops who then proceeded to fire on the mob, killing six and wounding fifty Italian ‘patriot and martyrs’. That is how revolutions start.

There is a vast amount to tell, as Rapport describes not only the turmoil on the streets, but the complex constitutional and political manoeuvrings of regimes from Denmark in the north to Sicily in the south, from Ireland in the west to Hungary, Ukraine and Poland in the east. I didn’t know so much happened in this one year. I didn’t know, for example, that in the Berlin revolution, in March, one day of epic street fighting between liberal reformers, backed by the population against the king’s army, resulted in 800 dead!

Fierce streetfighting around Alexanderplatz in Berlin on the night of 18-19 March 1848

Fierce fighting at the Alexanderplatz barricade in Berlin on the night of 18-19 March 1848

It was eye-opening to be told in such detail about the scale of the violence across the continent.

I knew that the ‘June Days’ in Paris, when General Cavaignac was tasked with using the army to regain control of all the parts of the city where revolutionary barricades had been set up, resulted in vast bloodshed, with some 10,000 killed or injured. But I didn’t know that when Austrian Imperial troops retook Vienna from the liberal-radical National Guard in the last week of October 1848, the use of cannon in urban streets contributed to the death toll of 2,000 (p.287).

There were not only soldiers-versus-workers battles, but plenty of more traditional fighting between actual armies, such as the battle between the forces of the king of Piedmont and Austrian forces in north Italy leading to the decisive Austrian victory at Custozza on 25 July 1848.

But it was the scale of the urban fighting which surprised and shocked me.

In another example, for a few months from April 1848 the island of Sicily declared its independence from the bourbon king of Naples who had previously ruled it. However, the king sent an army by ship which landed at Messina, subjecting the city to a sustained bombardment and then street by street fighting, which eventually left over two thirds of the city in smouldering ruins (p.260).

The social, political but also ethnic tensions between native Czech republicans and their overlord Austrian masters, erupted into six days of violent street fighting in Prague, June 12-17, during which Austrian General Windischgrätz first of all cleared the barricades before withdrawing his troops to the city walls and pounding Prague with a sustained artillery bombardment. Inevitably, scores of innocent lives were lost in the wreckage and destruction (p.235).

So much fighting, So much destruction. So many deaths.

New ideas

Well, new to me:

1. The problem of nationalism The new ideology of nationalism turned out to contain an insoluble paradox at its core: large ethnically homogenous populations were encouraged to agitate for their own nation, but what about the minorities who lived within their borders? Could they be allowed their national freedom without undermining the geographical and cultural ‘integrity’ of the larger entity?

Thus the Hungarian nationalists had barely broken with their Austrian rulers before they found themselves having to deal with minority populations like Romanians, Serbs, Croats and others who lived within the borders the Hungarians claimed for their new state. Should they be granted their own independence? No. The Hungarians not only rejected these pleas for independence, but went to war with their minorities to quell them. And in doing so, split and distracted their armies, arguably contributing to their eventual defeat by Austria.

Meanwhile, Polish nationalists were dead set on asserting Polish independence, but in Galicia quickly found themselves the subject of attacks from the Ruthenian minority, long subjugated by Polish landowners, and who claimed allegiance to a state which they wanted to call Ukraine. Like the Hungarians, the Poles were having none of it.

Thus nationalism spawned mini-nationalisms, sub-nationalisms, and ethnic and cultural conflicts which began to look more like civil wars than struggles for ‘independence’.

As a result, two broad trends emerged:

1. The chauvinism of big nations Nationalists from the larger nations developed an angry rhetoric castigating these troublesome little minorities as culturally less advanced. Rapport quotes German nationalists who criticised the Slavic minorities for their alleged racial and cultural inferiority – a rhetoric which was to have a long career in Germany, leading eventually to the Nazis and their Hunger Plan to starve and enslave the Slavic peoples.

2. Austro-Slavism In response to the breakaway aspirations of Hungary, the Hapsburg (Austrian) monarchy developed a strategy of Austro-Slavism. This was to appeal directly to the many minorities within the empire, and within Hungarian territory in particular, and guarantee them more protection within the multicultural Austro-Hungarian Empire than they would receive in one of the new, ethnically pure, nationalist states. ‘Stay within our multicultural empire and you will be better off than under repressive monoglot Hungarian rule.’

Thus when representatives of the Slovaks asked the new Hungarian Parliament (which had been created in March 1848 as a concession from Vienna) to allow the teaching of the Slovak language and the flying of the Slovak flag in Slovak regions within the new Hungary, the Hungarians vehemently refused. They accused the nationalists of ‘Pan-Slavic nationalism’ and of wanting to undermine the integrity of the new Magyar (i.e. Hungarian) state. Not surprisingly when, later in the year, open war broke out between Austria and Hungary, many Slovak nationalists sided with Austria, having made the simple calculation that they were likely to have more religious, racial and linguistic freedom under the Austrian Empire than under the repressively nationalistic Hungarians.

3. The threshold principle of nationalism The threshold principle is an attempt to solve the Nationalism Paradox. It states that a people only ‘deserves’ or ‘qualifies’ to have a state of its own if it has the size and strength to maintain and protect it. Surprisingly, Friederich Engels, the extreme radical and patron of Karl Marx, espoused the threshold principle when it came to the smaller nationalities in and around Germany. Being German himself he, naturally enough, thought that Germany ought to be unified into a nation. But the Czechs, Slovaks and other ‘lesser’ peoples who lived within the borders of this new Germany, Engels thought they didn’t deserve to be nations because they didn’t come up to ‘German’ standards of culture and political maturity. (Explained on page 181).

This was just one of the problems, paradoxes and contradictions which the supposedly simple notion of ‘nationalism’ contained within itself and which made it so difficult to apply on the ground.

Nonetheless, 1848 marks the moment when nationalism clearly emerges as a major force in European history – and at the same time reveals the contradictions, and the dark undercurrents latent within it, which have dominated European politics right down to this day.

4. Grossdeutsch or Kleindeutsch? Uniting the 39 states of Germany sounds like a straightforward enough ambition, but at its core was a Big Dilemma: should the new state include or exclude Austria? The problem was that while the Austrian component of the Austrian Empire spoke German and considered themselves culturally linked to the rest of Germany, the Hapsburg monarchy which ruled Austria had also inherited a patchwork of territories all across Europe (not least all of Hungary with its minorities, and the northern states of Italy): should those obviously non-Germanic part of the Austrian empire be incorporated into Germany? Or would Austria have to abandon its empire in order to be incorporated into the new Germany?

Exponents of a Grossdeutsch (Big Germany) option thought it ridiculous to exclude Austria with its millions of German-speakers; of course Austria should be included. But that would mean tearing the Austro-Hungarian empire in half because obviously you couldn’t include millions of Hungarians, Romanians and so on inside a ‘German’ state (the Kleindeutsch, or Little Germany, position).

Or could you? This latter thought gave rise to a third position, the Mitteleuropäisch solution, under which all of the German states would be incorporated into a super-Austria, to create a German-speaking empire which would stretch from the Baltic in the north to the Mediterranean in the south, a bulwark against Latins in the west and south, and the Slavic peoples to the east and south-east, promoting German culture, language and way of life across the continent, by force if necessary. (pp.298-300)

Comical and hypothetical though this may all sound, it would prove to be at the centre of world history for the next century. It was the ‘German Problem’ which lay behind the seismic Franco-Prussian War, the catastrophic First World War, and the global disaster of the Second World War.

The European Economic Community, established by the Treaty of Rome in 1957, at bottom was an attempt to settle the ‘German Problem’ i.e. to tie the German and French economies so intricately together that there could never again be war between the two of them.

Some people think the ‘German Problem’ was only really settled with the reunification of the two Germanies in 1990, but others think it still lives on in the disparity between the rich industrial West and the mostly agricultural and impoverished East.

And the question of German identity, of who is or isn’t Germany, has been revived by Angel Merkel’s over-enthusiastic acceptance of a million refugees in 2017, which has led to the widespread popularity of far right political parties in Germany for the first time since the Second World War.

All of which tends to suggest that the virus of nationalism, unleashed in 1848, can never really be cured.

Results

It takes four hundred pages dense with fact and anecdote to convey the confused turmoil of the year 1848, but Rapport had already spelled out the overall results in the opening pages.

Although all the protesters hated the reactionary regimes, they couldn’t agree what to replace them with. More specifically, the liberals and socialists who initially found themselves on the same barricades calling for the overthrow of this or that ‘tyrant’ – once the overthrow had been achieved or, more usually, a liberal constitution conceded by this or that petty monarch – at this point these temporarily allied forces realised that they held almost diametrically opposed intentions.

The liberals wanted to hold onto all their property and rights and merely to gain a little more power, a little more say for themselves in the way things were run; whereas the socialists wanted to sweep the bourgeois liberals out of the way, along with the monarchy, the aristocracy, the church and all the other tools of oppression.

It was this fundamentally divided nature of the forces of ‘change’ which meant that, as events worked their course, the forces of Reaction found it possible to divide and reconquer their opponents. Almost everywhere, when push came to shove, middle-class liberals ended up throwing in their lot with the chastened autocracies, thus tipping the balance of power against the genuine revolutionaries.

The high hopes of 1848 almost everywhere gave way to the resurgence of the autocracies and the restoration of reactionary regimes or the imposition of old repression in new clothes. Nowhere more ironically than in France where the overthrown monarchy of Louis Philippe gave way to the deeply divided Second Republic which staggered on for three chaotic years before being put out of its misery when the canny Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte – who had gotten himself elected president right at the end of 1848 – carried out the coup which brought him to power as a new Emperor, Napoleon III, in 1851.

Rapport’s account also makes clear that the violence and turmoil wasn’t limited to 1848 – it continued well into 1849:

  • in Germany where the newly established ‘national’ parliament was forced to flee to Frankfurt and, when the Prussian king felt strong enough to surround and close it, its suppression sparked a second wave of uprisings, barricades, vicious street fighting and harsh reprisals in cities all across Germany e.g. Dresden where Richard Wagner took part in the insurrection, whose violent suppression left over 250 dead and 400 wounded.
  • and in Italy where the republics of Rome and Venice were besieged and only conquered after prolonged bombardment and bloodshed. (It is a real quirk of history that the Roman republic was besieged and conquered by French troops, ordered there by ‘President’ Napoleon. Why? Because the French didn’t want the approaching Austrians to take control of Rome and, therefore, of the Papacy. Ancient national and dynastic rivalries everywhere trumped high-minded but weak liberal or republican ideals.)

More than anywhere else it was in Hungary that the struggle for independence escalated into full-scale war  (with Austria) which dragged on for several years. By the end, some 50,000 soldiers on both sides had lost their lives. When the Austrians finally reconquered Hungary, they quashed its independent parliament, repealed its declaration of rights, reimposed Austrian law and language and Hungary remained under martial law until 1854.

The Hungarian revolt led to the establishment of an independent parliament in 1849 which seceded from the Austrian Empire. Unfortunately, this was crushed later in the year by a combination of the Austrian army which invaded from the west, allied with Russian forces which invaded from the East. The parliament was overthrown, Hungary’s leaders were arrested, tried and executed, and the country sank into sullen acquiescence in the Austro-Hungarian Empire which lasted until 1918, when it finally achieved independence.

None of the ‘nations’ whose nationalists were lobbying for them to be created ended up coming into existence: both Italy and Germany remained patchwork quilts of petty states, albeit some of them reorganised and with new constitutions. Italy had to wait till 1860, Germany until 1871, to achieve full unification.

Polish nationalism completely failed; Poland didn’t become an independent nation state until 1918.

Same with the Czechs. They only gained nationhood, as Czechoslovakia, in 1918 (only to be invaded by the Nazis 20 years later).

Only in France was the old order decisively overthrown with the abolition of the monarchy. But this, ironically, was only to give rise to a new, more modern form of autocracy, in the shape of Napoleon III’s ’empire’.

It is one among many virtues of Rapport’s book that he explains more clearly than any other account I’ve read the nature of Napoleon’s widespread appeal to the broad French population, and the succession of lucky chances which brought him to the throne. Karl Marx dismissed Napoleon III as an empty puppet who made himself all things to all men, not quite grasping that this is precisely what democracy amounts to – persuading a wide variety of people and constituencies that you are the solution to their problems.

Everywhere else the European Revolution of 1848 failed. It would be decades, in some cases a century or more, before all the ideas proclaimed by liberals came into force, ideas such as freedom of expression and assembly, the abolition of the death penalty (1965 in Britain), of corporal punishment and censorship (Britain’s theatre censorship was only abolished in 1968), the emancipation of minorities and the extension of the franchise to all men and women (in the UK it was only in 1928 that all men and women over the age of 21 were allowed a vote – 80 years after 1848).

Order over anarchy

The political and economic situation had certainly got bad enough for a constellation of forces – and for hundreds of thousands of alienated urban poor – to mobilise and threaten their rulers. But none of the reformers who inherited these situations could command the majority needed to rule effectively or implement their plans before the Counter-Revolution began to fight back.

The failure of the French Second Republic, in particular, made clear a fundamental principle of advanced societies. that the general population prefers an able dictatorship to the uncertainty and chaos of ‘revolution’.

(This is also the great lesson of the wave of anarchy which swept across Europe after the Great War, described in by Robert Gerwarth’s powerful book, The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End 1917-1923.)

Again and again, in different countries, Rapport repeats the lesson that people prefer order and security, albeit with restricted political rights, to the ‘promise’ of a greater ‘freedom’, which in practice seems to result in anarchy and fighting in the streets.

People prefer Order and Security to Uncertainty and Fear.

When faced with a choice between holding onto their new political liberties or conserving their lives, their property and their communities against ‘anarchy’ or ‘communism’, most people chose to sacrifice their freedom for the sake of security. (p.191)

A simple lesson which professional revolutionaries from Blanqui to our own time seem unable to understand. It is not that people are against equality. If asked most people of course say they are in favour of ‘equality’. It’s that most people, in countries across Europe for the past 170 years, have time and time again shown themselves to be against the anarchy which violent movements claiming to fight for equality so often actually bring in their train.

P.S.

I get a little irritated by readers and commentators who say things like, ‘the issues in the book turn out to be surprisingly modern, issues like freedom of speech, constitutional and legal reform, the identity of nations and their populations’.

Rapport himself does it, commenting that many German states expressed ‘startlingly modern-sounding anxieties’ (p.337) in response to the Frankfurt Parliament’s publication of its Grundrechte or Bill of Basic Rights, in December 1848.

This is looking down the telescope the wrong way. All these themes and issues aren’t ‘surprisingly relevant to today’. What phrases like that really express is that, we are still struggling with the same issues, problems and challenges – economic, social and cultural – which have dogged Europe for over 200 years.

The past isn’t surprisingly ‘relevant’. It is the world we live in that is – despite all the superficial changes of clothes and cars and techno-gadgets – surprisingly unchanged. We are still struggling with the problems our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and their parents and grandparents, failed to solve.

If you’re of the tendency who think that handfuls of people living a hundred or two hundred years ago – early socialists or feminists or freethinkers – were ‘prophets’ and ‘surprisingly relevant’ it’s because this way of thinking tends to suggest that we standing tip-toe on the brink of solving them.

I, on the contrary, take a much more pessimistic view, which is that this or that thinker wasn’t a startlingly far-sighted visionary, simply that they could see and express problems and issues which over the past two hundred years we have completely failed to solve.

When so many better people than us, in more propitious circumstances, have failed, over decades, sometimes centuries, to solve deep structural issues such as protecting the environment, or how to organise states so as to satisfy everyone’s racial and ethnic wishes, or how to establish absolute and complete equality between the sexes – what gives anyone the confidence that we can solve them today?

All the evidence, in front of the faces of anyone who reads deeply and widely in history, is that these are problems intrinsic to the human condition which can never be solved, only ameliorated, or fudged, or tinkered with, in different ways by different generations.


Related links

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Weimar: A Cultural History 1918-1933 by Walter Laqueur (1974)

The term ‘Weimar culture’, while generally accepted, is in some respects unsatisfactory, if only because political and cultural history seldom coincides in time. Expressionism was not born with the defeat of the Imperial German army, nor is there any obvious connection between abstract painting and atonal music and the escape of the Kaiser, nor were the great scientific discoveries triggered off by the proclamation of the Republic in 1919. As the eminent historian Walter Laqueur demonstrates, the avant-gardism commonly associated with post-World War One precedes the Weimar Republic by a decade. It would no doubt be easier for the historian if the cultural history of Weimar were identical with the plays and theories of Bertolt Brecht; the creations of the Bauhaus and the articles published by the Weltbühne. But there were a great many other individuals and groups at work, and Laqueur gives a full and vivid accounting of their ideas and activities. The realities of Weimar culture comprise the political right as well as the left, the universities as well as the literary intelligentsia (Publisher’s blurb)

Laqueur was born into a Jewish family in 1921 in Prussia. He emigrated to British-controlled Palestine in 1938, where he graduated from school then worked as a journalist till the mid-50s. In 1955 he moved to London, and then on to America where he became an American citizen and a leading writer on modern history and international affairs.

Laqueur is still going strong at the age of 96 and has had a prodigious career – his first book (a study of the Middle East) was published in 1956 and his most recent (a study of Putinism) was published in 2015.

This book is about twice the length of Peter Gay’s 1968 study of the culture of Weimar. It is more urbane and expansive in style, and less tied to a specific thesis. Gay’s aim was to show how, in a range of ways, the intelligentsia of Weimar failed to support, or actively sought to overthrow, the young German democracy.

The overall tendency of Laqueur’s book is the same – the failure of the arts and intelligentsia to support the Republic – but his account feels much more balanced and thorough.

Geography

I appreciated his description of the geography of post-war Germany and how it influenced its politics. It’s important to remember that, under the punitive Treaty of Versailles, Germany lost all her overseas colonies, 13% of her European territory and a tenth of her population (some 6 million people) who now found themselves living in foreign countries (France, Poland, the new state of Czechoslovakia).

Much more than France or Britain, Germany had (and still has) many cities outside the capital which have strong cultural traditions of their own – Hamburg, Munich, Leipzig, Dresden.

Laqueur emphasises the difference between the industrial north and west and more agricultural south and east. He points out that the cities never gave that much support to Nazism; on the eve of Hitler’s coup, only a third of Berliners voted for the Nazis. Nazism was more a product of the thousands of rural towns and villages of Germany – inhabited by non-urbanites easily persuaded that they hated corrupt city life, cosmopolitanism, rapacious capitalists, Jews, and the rest of the Nazi gallery of culprits.

The left

I benefited from his description of the thinkers based around the famous Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, founded in 1923. The aim of the Institute was to bring together Marxist thinkers, writers, philosophers in order to work on a cultural critique of capitalist society. The idea was to analyse literature, plays, the new form of cinema – to show how capitalism conditioned the manufacture and consumption of these cultural artefacts.

To us, today, this seems like an obvious project, but that’s because we live in a culture saturated with an analysis of culture. Newspapers, magazines, the internet, blogs, TV shows, books, university courses by the thousand offer analyses of plays, art, movies and so on in terms of their construction, hidden codes, gender stereotyping, narrative structures, and so on and so on. The Frankfurt School thinkers – men like Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin – more or less invented the language and approach to do this.

With Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, all these Marxist thinkers were forced into exile. Did they flee to the Workers’ Paradise of the Soviet Union? No. They may have been Marxists but they weren’t stupid. They fled to the epicentre of world capitalism, America. New York at first, but many passed on to California where, among the palm trees and swimming pools, they penned long disquisitions about how awful capitalism was.

What Laqueur brings out from a review of their different approaches is the complete impracticality of their subtle and sophisticated critiques of capitalist society, which were more or less ignored by the actual German Communist Party (the KPD). In fact it only slowly dawned on these clever men that the Communist Party merely carried out Moscow’s foreign policy demands and that clever, individualistic Marxist thinkers like them were more of a liability to its demands for unswerving obedience, than an asset. In the eyes of the Party:

Since they lacked close contact with the working class few of them had been able to escape the ideological confusion of the 1920s, and to advance from a petty-bourgeois, half-hearted affirmation of humanist values to a full, wholehearted identification with Marxism-Leninism. (p.272)

Their peers in the USSR were rounded up and executed during Stalin’s great purges of the 1930s. Life among the tennis courts of California was much nicer.

The right

Surprisingly, Laqueur shows that this political impractibility also goes for thinkers of the right, who he deals with at length in a chapter titled ‘Thunder from the Right’.

The right had, probably, a higher proportion of cranks than the left, but still included a number of powerful and coherent thinkers. Laqueur gives insightful pen portraits of some of the most significant figures:

  • Alfred Rosenberg the Nazi propagandist, thought that the Bolshevik revolution symbolised the uprising of racially inferior groups, led by the Asiatic Lenin and the Jew Trotsky, against the racially pure Aryan élite (the Romanov dynasty). Rosenberg wrote The Myth of the Twentieth Century (1930), the myth being ‘the myth of blood, which under the sign of the swastika unchains the racial world-revolution. It is the awakening of the race soul, which after long sleep victoriously ends the race chaos.’ Despite this feverish support for the Nazis, Laqueur points out that Hitler and the Nazi leaders didn’t bother to read this long work. Rosenberg was in fact, seen as ‘plodding, earnest, humourless,’ a figure of fun even on the right.
  • Oswald Spengler‘s famous tome The Decline of the West (1922) had been drafted as early as 1911, its aim being to describe the 19th century as a soulless age of materialism, which had led to rootless immoralism in the arts. According to Spengler history moves in enormous unavoidable cycles of birth and decay. The age of kings and emperors was over, a new age of mass society and machines was at hand. (Although Spengler attacked the Republic for being a business scam, he also had some hard words for the Nazis who in reply criticised him. But they let him live and he died a natural death, in 1936.)
  • Moeller van den Bruck wrote The Right of Young Peoples and The Third Reich, the latter arguing that the key to world history was the conflict between the new young nations (Germany, Russia, America) and the old imperial ones (Britain and France). He thought Germany’s leaders needed to adopt a form of state ‘socialism’ which would unite the nation in a new Reich, which would become a synthesis of everything which came before. Laqueur comments that van den Bruck’s two books are almost impenetrably obscure, but nonetheless full of high-sounding rhetoric, ‘poetic visions, enormous promises and apocalyptic forebodings’ (p.96). It is in this hyperbole which he represents the overwrought spirit of the times.
  • Edgar Jung was a leader of the Conservative Revolutionary movement who lobbied long and hard against the Weimar Republic, whose parliamentarian system he considered decadent and foreign-imposed. Jung became speech writer to the Vice-chancellor of the coalition cabinet, Franz von Papen. He wrote a 1934 speech which was fiercely critical of the Nazis for being fanatics who were upsetting the return to Christian values and ‘balance’ which is what he thought Germany required. With the result that Hitler had him arrested and executed on the Night of the Long Knives, at the end of June 1934.
  • Carl Schmitt was an eminent legal philosopher who developed a theory based around the centrality of the state. The state exists to protect its population, predominantly from aggression by other states. To function it has to be a co-ordinated community of interests. Liberalism undermines this by encouraging everyone to go their own way. Parliamentarianism is the (ineffectual) reflection of liberalism. The state exists to make firm, clear decisions (generally about foreign policy), the opposite of the endless talking-shop of parliaments. Schmitt was yet another ‘serious’ thinker who prepared the minds he influenced for the advent of a Führer. But what I enjoyed about Laqueur’s account is that he goes on to bring out nuances and subtleties in the positions of all these people. Despite being anti-parliamentarian and soundly right-wing, Schmitt wasn’t approved of by the Nazis because his theory of the strong state made no room for two key Nazi concepts, race and Volk. Also – like many right wing thinkers – his philosophy was temperamentally pessimistic – whereas the Nazis were resoundingly optimistic and required optimism from their followers.
  • Ludwig Klages was, after the Second World War, nominated for a Nobel Prize for his work in developing graphology, the study of handwriting. But during the 1920s he was a pessimist of global proportions and a violent anti-Semite. His key work was The Intellect as Adversary of the Soul (1929) which claims that the heart, the soul, the essence of man has been trapped and confined ever since the beastly Jews invented monotheism and morality, twin evils which they passed on to Christianity. His book was a long review of the way Western morality had trapped and chained the deep ‘soul of Man’. Although the work was ripe in rhetoric, fiercely anti-rational and anti-democratic in tone and purpose it was, once again, not particularly useful to the Nazis.

To summarise: There was a large cohort of eminent thinkers, writers, philosophers, historians, of intellectuals generally, who wrote long, deeply researched and persuasive attacks on liberalism and democracy. Laqueur’s account builds up into a devastating indictment of almost the entire intellectual class of the country.

But all these attacks on Weimar democracy begged the central question: What would become of individual freedom when there were no longer human rights, elections, political parties or a parliament? The answer was that many of these thinkers developed a notion of ‘freedom’ completely at odds with out modern, UN Declaration of Human Rights-era understanding of the term. But notions which came out of deep German traditions of philosophy and religion.

Spengler, for example, maintained that, despite its harsh outer discipline, Prussianism – an epitome of core German values – enabled a deeper, inner freedom: the freedom which comes from belonging to a unified nation, and being devoted to a cause.

Protestant theologians of the era, on the other hand, developed a notion that ‘freedom’ was no longer (and never had been) attached to the outdated, liberal concept of individual liberty (which was visibly failing in a visibly failing ‘democracy’ as the Weimar Republic tottered from one crisis to the next). No, a man could only be ‘free’ in a collective which had one focus and one share belief.

In numerous thinkers of the era, a political order higher than liberalism promised freedom, not to individual capitalists and cosmopolitans, but to an entire oppressed people. The Volk.

What emerges from Laqueur’s summary of Weimar’s right-wing thinkers is that they were responding to the failure of democratic politics in just as vehement a fashion as the Marxists. The main difference is that invoked a much more varied selection of interesting (often obscure, sometimes bonkers) ideas and sources (compared with the communists who tended to be confined, more or less, to slightly varying interpretations of Marx).

To summarise, common features of Weimar right-wing thinking included:

  • the favouring of German Kultur (profound, spiritual, rural, of the soil) against superficial French Zivilisation (superficial, decadent, urban)
  • a focus on deep cultural values – Innerlichkeit meaning wholesomeness, organic growth, rootedness
  • fierce opposition to the ‘ideas of 1918’:
    • political liberalism, social democracy, socialism, parliamentarianism
    • sexual lascivious dancing, jazz, nudity, immorality, abortion, divorce, pornography
    • cultural arts which focused on corruption and low moral values instead of raising the mind to emulate heroes
    • racial against foreigners, non-Germans, traitors and Jews

But just as the actual Communist Party didn’t think much of Weimar’s Communist intellectuals and were as likely to be repelled by avant-garde art as the staidest Berlin banker (as Stalin’s crack down on all the arts in favour of Socialist Realism was soon to show) – so Laqueur shows that the Nazis weren’t all that interested in most of the right-wing intellectuals, some of whom (as explained above) they even executed.

One of the themes which emerges from Laqueur’s long account of intellectuals of all stripes is that none of them seem to have grasped that politics is not about fancy ideas, but about power.

The Nazis had a far more astute grasp of the realities of power than the other right-wing leaders; they did not think highly of intellectuals as allies in the political struggle, and they made no efforts to win them over. (p.88)

The Nazis realised (like Lenin) that the intellectuals who supported them would rally to their cause once they’d won power; and that those who didn’t… could be killed. Simples.

The politically negative impact of the arts

As to the arts, Laqueur echoes Gay in thinking that every one of the left-wing plays and movies and pictures, all the scabrous articles by Kurt Tucholsky and the searing drawings of George Grosz – didn’t convert one conservative or bourgeois to the cause. Instead, their net effect was to alienate large sectors of the population from an urban, predominantly Berlin-based culture, a milieu which the conservative newspapers could all-too-easily depict as corrupt, decadent, immoral and unpatriotic.

Conservatives said: ‘Why do all paintings, plays, cabarets and movies seem to focus on criminals, prostitutes, grotesques and monsters? Why can’t artists portray ordinary decency and German virtues?’

Laqueur gives a long account of Weimar literature, the main thrust of which is that a) it was more varied than is remembered b) Thomas Mann was the leading writer. Indeed, Mann’s career, writings and changing political attitudes weave in and out of the whole text.

Weimar had possibly the most interesting theatre in the world with the innovations of Erwin Piscator standing out (projection of film onto the stage, facts, statistics, graphs; stylised stage sets; stage workings left exposed to view, and so on). But he, like the most famous playwright of the era, Bertolt Brecht, appealed ultimately to an intellectual, bourgeois audience (as they do today). There’s no evidence that ‘the workers’ saw many of these avant-garde plays. Instead ‘the workers’ were down the road watching the latest thriller at the cinema. Film was well-established as the populist art form of the era.

Art is much more international than literature or theatre, and Laqueuer makes the same point as Gay, that what we think of as Modern art was mostly a pre-war affair, with the Fauves, Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism all named and established by 1910, let alone 1914. In 1918 the survivors of these movements carried on, but Laqueur shows how the Expressionist impulse in all the arts – the harrowing sense of anguish, the apocalyptic visions, the strident imagery – was exhausted by 1923 or 4, and the more conservative, figurative (if still often stark and grotesque style) of Otto Dix and George Grosz was prevalent enough to be given its name of Neue Sachlichkeit well before the famous 1925 exhibition of that name.

Laqueur covers a lot more ground than Gay. There’s an entire chapter about German universities, which proceeds systematically through each of the subjects – sciences, arts, humanities, social studies and so on – explaining the major works of the era, describing the careers of key figures, putting them in the wider social and historical context. For example, art history emerges as a particular strong point of Weimar scholarship, from which America and Britain both benefited when Hitler came to power and all the art scholars fled abroad.

The main take home about universities is how shockingly right-wing the authorities and the students were, with plenty of learned scholars spending all their energy undermining the hated republic, and students forming all sorts of anti-Semitic and nationalist groups. I was genuinely surprised by this.

There’s a section on Weimar theology describing the thought of famous theologians such as Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann and the Jewish thinker Martin Buber. As so often throughout the book there is often a strong sense of déjà vu, as the reader realises that ideas first promulgated during the 1920s have, in essence, echoed down to the present day:

The religious socialists, best-known among them Paul Tillich, preached ‘socialism derived from faith’, attacking soulless capitalist society, the free market economy and the alienation of man in which it had resulted. (p.210)

This sounds like the more outspoken Anglican bishops since as far back as I can remember (the 1970s).

Comparisons with our time

In fact one of the book’s great appeals is the way it prompts the reader to stop and draw comparisons between the Weimar years and our own happy times. Here are some thought-provoking similarities:

  • The left was full of utopian dreams, often about advanced sexual morality (divorce and abortions in the 1920s, LBGT+ and trans people in our time), which alienated a good deal of broader conventional opinion from their cause.
  • The left was characterised then, as now, by bitter internecine fighting (in our time the splits in the Labour Party between Momentum+young people supporting Jeremy Corbyn against the Labour MPs and left-wing commentators [e.g. The Guardian] who bitterly opposed him). The net effect of all this in-fighting, then as now, was to leave the way clear for the right to take and hold power.
  • The Weimar left was overwhelmingly urban and educated and made the fundamental mistake of thinking everyone was like them and shared their values. But, now as then, the majority of the population does not have university degrees, nor live in big cities full of talk about ‘gender fluidity’ and ‘racial diversity’. This seems to be what took Vote Remain campaigners in the UK and Clinton campaigners in the US by surprise: the discovery that there are tens of millions of people who simply don’t share their views or values. At all.

Reading about: the obscene gap between rich and poor; the exploitation of workers; homelessness and dereliction; the in-fighting of the left; the irrelevance of the self-appointed avant-garde who made ‘revolutionary’ art, films, plays which were sponsored by and consumed by the bourgeois rich; while all the time the levers of power remained with bankers and financiers, huge business conglomerates and right-wing politicians — it’s hard not to feel that, although lots of surface things have changed, somehow, deep down, the same kind of structures and behaviours are with us still.

Reading the book tends to confirm John Gray’s opinion that, whereas you can definitely point to objective progress in the hard sciences, in the humanities – in philosophy, politics, art, literature and so on – things really just go round and round, with each new generation thinking it’s invented revolutionary politics or avant-garde art or subversive movies, just like the previous ones.

On a cultural level, has anything changed since the Weimar Republic produced Marxist culture critics, avant-garde movies, gay nightclubs, gender subversion and everyone was moaning about the useless government?

The peril of attacking liberal democracy

For me the central take-home message of both Gay and Laqueur’s books is that — If left wingers attack the imperfect bourgeois democracy they’ve got, the chances are that they won’t prepare the way for the kind of utopian revolution they yearn for. Chances are they will open the door to reactionaries who harness the votes and support of people which the left didn’t even know existed – the farmers and rural poor, the unemployed and petty bourgeoisie, the religious and culturally conservative – and lead to precisely the opposite of what the left hoped to achieve.

All across the developed world we are seeing this happening in our time: the left preaching utopian identity politics, supporting mass immigration and bickering among themselves – while the culturally and socially conservative right goes from strength to strength. I’m not saying there’s a direct comparison between Weimar Germany and now; I’m just pointing out that, reading this long and absorbing book, it was striking how many times the political or artistic rhetoric of the era sounded identical to the kind of thing we hear today, on both sides.

German values

Like Gay, Laqueur is German. Therefore his occasional, generally negative, comments about the German character are all the more noteworthy.

The esoteric language they [the members of the Frankfurt School for Social Research] used made their whole endeavour intelligible only to a small circle of like-minded people. This, incidentally, applied to most of the writings of the German neo-Marxists; the German language has an inbuilt tendency towards vagueness and lack of precision, and the Frankfurt School, to put it mildly, made no effort to overcome this drawback. (p.63)

The new trend [Modernism in all its forms] was in stark contrast to German innerlichkeit, wholesomeness, organic growth, rootedness. (p.85)

[Thomas Mann was] Weimar Germany’s greatest and certainly its most interesting writer. But he could not be its spokesman and teacher, magister Germaniae. For that function someone far less complex and much more single-minded was needed. With all his enormous gifts, he had the German talent of making easy things complicated and obvious matters tortuous and obscure. (p.124)

[The heroes of the most popular writers of the time, neither left wing nor modernist, not much known outside Germany] were inward-looking, mystics, men in search of god, obstinate fellows – modern Parsifals in quest of some unknown Holy Grail. They were preoccupied with moral conflicts and troubled consciences, they were inchoate and verbose at the same time, very German in their abstraction, their rootedness and sometimes in their dullness. (p.139)

Something that comes over very powerfully is that the Germans don’t appear to have a sense of humour. They have bitter sarcasm, biting satire and harsh irony – but lightness, wit, drollery? Apparently not.

[Before The Captain of Köpenick by Carl Zuckmayer] the German theatre had been notoriously weak in comedy. (p.152)

It is easy to think of many tragedies in the annals of German theatre and opera; the comedies which have survived can be counted on the fingers of one hand. There was no German operetta, not a single composer who could even remotely be compared to Johann Strauss or Offenbach, to Milloecker or Gilbert and Sullivan. (p.226)

Quite a few patriotic films dealing with heroic episodes of Prussian or German history were produced. Von Czerèpy’s Fridericus Rex, perhaps the first major film of this genre, was done so crudely, with such a total lack of humour, that it was acclaimed outside Germany on the mistaken assumption that it was anti-German propaganda. (p.231)

The absence during the 1920s of good comedies and adventure films helps to explain the tremendous popularity in Germany not only of Charlie Chaplin, but also of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and, later, Jackie Coogan. (p.243)

These are just a few examples, but Laqueur repeatedly describes the writers, thinkers, intellectuals and so on who he summarises as humourless, earnest, heavy and serious. I thought the notion of Germans being ponderous and humourless was a dubious stereotype, but reading this book goes a long way to confirming it.

The Weimar revival of the 1960s

In his final summary, Laqueur presents another very important piece of information, when he explains how and why the reputation of Weimar culture underwent a revival.

This, he says, happened in the 1960s. For 40 years the period had been forgotten or brushed aside as a shameful failure which preceded the Great Disaster. It was during the 1960s that societies across the Western world saw a swing to the left among intellectuals and the young, a movement which became known as the New Left.

It was as a result of this revival of interest in far left thought that much of Weimar’s experimental and left-wing achievements were revived, that saw an upsurge in interest in of Piscator’s modernist theatre stagings, Brecht’s theory of epic theatre, and the cultural Marxism of the Frankfurt School. This revival has never gone away. The Marxist theories of the Frankfurt School – a kind of communism-without-tears – has gone on to take over the thinking of most humanities departments in the Western world.

But, as Laqueur points out, the revival of interest in left wing and ‘radical’ thinkers, artists, writers of the period, systematically ignores both the conservative or right-wing thinkers of the period, as well as the middle ground of run-of-the-mill but popular playwrights, novelists or film-makers – the kind that most people read or went to the theatre to enjoy. These have all been consigned to oblivion so that in modern memory, only the radicals stand like brave heroes confronting the gathering darkness.

Laqueur argues that this has produced a fundamental distortion in our understanding of the period. Even the opinions of non-left-wing survivors from the Weimar years were ignored.

Thus Laqueur reports a conference in Germany about the Weimar achievement at which Golo Mann accused the Piscator theatre of being Salonkommunisten (the German equivalent of the English phrase ‘champagne socialists’), while Walter Mehring criticised Brecht’s Threepenny Opera for abetting Nazi propaganda by undermining the Republic. These kinds of criticisms from people who were there have been simply ignored by the generations of left-wing academics, students and bien-pensant theatre-goers and gallery visitors who have shaped the current Weimar myth.

The utopian left-wing 1960s sought for and boosted the thinkers and artists who they thought supported their own stance.

Just like Gay, Laqueur thinks that the latterday popularity of the novelist Hermann Hesse would have been inexplicable to those who lived through Weimar when he published most of his novels. Back then he was seen as an eccentric and peripheral figure, but in the 1960s he suddenly found himself hailed godfather of the hippy generation, and his books Steppenwolf, Siddhartha and Narcissus and Goldmund became bestsellers. In his final years Hesse was in fact driven to declare that his writings were being misinterpreted by the younger generation. But then, in 1962, he died and the hippies and their successors were free to interpret him according to their own needs and fantasies.

After the Second World War Bertolt Brecht’s plays and productions became the toast of champagne socialists everywhere.

The Bauhaus brand underwent a great efflorescence, the architects who had settled in America (particularly Mies van der Rohe) having a huge impact on American skyscraper design, while the works of Kandinsky and Klee were revived and made famous.

In the humanities, the Frankfurt School’s criticism of capitalist consumer culture fit perfectly with the beliefs of the ‘New Left’, as it came to be known in the 1960s. The obscure essays of Walter Benjamin were dusted off and are now included in all literature, culture and critical theory courses. (I was struck by how Benjamin was referenced in almost every one of the 14 essays in the book about Weimar Art I recently read, The New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic 1918-33. I wonder if you’re allowed to write an essay in a humanities subject which doesn’t mention Saint Walter.)

Laqueur’s point is that the New Left of the 1960s, which has gone on to find a permanent home in humanities departments of all universities, chose very selectively only those elements of Weimar culture which suited their own interests.

Right here, at the end of the book, we realise that Laquer has been making a sustained attempt to present a less politicised, a more factual and inclusive account of Weimar culture than has become popular in the academy – deliberately ranging over all the achievements in pretty much every sphere of cultural endeavour, whether left or right, popular or avant-garde, whether it had undergone a golden revival in the 1960s or slumped into complete obscurity – in order to present a complete picture.

Weimar: A Cultural History 1918-1933 is a big, rich, thorough, sensible and thought-provoking book, which prompts ideas not only about the vibrant, conflicted culture of its time, but about how the Weimar legacy has been appropriated and distorted by later generations.


Related links

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The Expressionists by Wolf-Dieter Dube (1972)

[In Expressionism] the expression was to determine the form, and no longer be obliged to appear in the guise of nymphs, heroes and allegories… [Expressionism is] the process whereby the colours and forms themselves become the repositories of the pictorial idea. (p.7)

1972 is a long time ago, before the politically correct mindset, before feminism, anti-racism and post-colonialist discourse took over university humanities departments. Therefore this book is a remarkably straightforward account of the various groups of German artists who are generally lumped together as ‘the Expressionists’, with none of the usual naming and shaming of artists as sexist, racist, imperialist cultural appropriators, which is so common in art history nowadays (for example, in Colin Rhodes’s book on Primitivism, or Whitney Chadwick’s Women, Art and Society).

The German character

Wolf-Dieter Dube was a senior curator at the Bavarian State Art Collection (home to an extensive collection of paintings by the Blue Rider group of Expressionists) and the book was translated from his original German by Mary Whittall. His German-ness is interesting because it allows Dube to make generalisations about German culture and German character which might not be allowed to non-Germans nowadays.

Comparison of Wilhelm Leibl or Hans van Marées, however much we may admire them, with Courbet or Manet, illustrates how difficult if not impossible it is for a German to produce ‘pure’ art. The harmonious equilibrium of form and content, ideally achieved in a ‘pure’ picture, is all too easily upset by the weight of philosophical concepts, by idealism or Romanticism. This fundamental trait of the German character was to be the mainspring of Expressionism… (p.7)

So a ‘fundamental trait of the German character’ is the impossibility for ‘a German to produce “pure” art’ because ‘the harmonious equilibrium of form and content … is all too easily upset by the weight of philosophical concepts’? Interesting thing for German art curator to say.

Half-Naked Woman with a Hat (1911) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Half-Naked Woman with a Hat (1911) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Pre-critical theory

It’s also interesting to read a 46-year-old text because it reminds us what used to fill up books like this before the various elements of post-modern art and critical theory came along. For politically correct criticism, among other things, gives the critic something to write about i.e. a whole checklist of indictments which can be applied to anyone and require little or no knowledge or sensitivity to art. For example, it requires only a casual knowledge of Paul Gauguin’s biography or works (pictures of South Sea islanders where he settled in the 1890s) to be able brand him as a racist, sexist, paedophile exploiter of under-aged girls in Tahiti. And so:

Feminist post-colonial critics decry the fact that Gauguin took adolescent mistresses, one of them as young as thirteen. They remind us that like many men of his time and later, Gauguin saw freedom, especially sexual freedom, strictly from the male point of view. Using Gauguin as an example of what is ‘wrong’ with primitivism, these critics conclude that, in their view, elements of primitivism include the ‘dense interweave of racial and sexual fantasies and power both colonial and patriarchal’. To these critics, primitivism such as Gauguin’s demonstrates fantasies about racial and sexual difference in ‘an effort to essentialize notions of primitiveness’ with ‘Otherness’. (Wikipedia article on Primitivism)

Easy, once you’ve picked up the lingo. Thus modern art critics often read as if they’re doing the job of the police, acting as a kind of ‘history police’. If he’d been alive today, Gauguin would have been sent to prison and put on the sex offenders register.

Modern critical theory is all the more useful as a device for generating large amounts of text because modern academics are under unprecedented pressure from the terms of their university tenure to continually generate new essays, articles, lectures and conference papers, to show output and productivity.

So, applying the insights of modern critical policing to the biography, writings and paintings of dead white male artists is an invaluable method for generating copious pages of much-needed text. If you interpret Gauguin’s attitudes as (in effect and despite his own claims to the contrary) a form of collaboration with the French colonial powers to ‘constrain and contain’ the native populations within ‘the visual discourse’ of ‘colonial power’ (and so on and so on), you might be able to spin it out for a whole chapter, possibly even a book. And so justify your job and salary.

But for Wolf-Dieter Dube, writing back in the early 1970s, this entire Armoury of Accusation wasn’t yet available. So, lacking the rhetoric of modern critical theory/moral accusation, Dube fills his text by repeating and amplifying the artists’ own intentions. He takes the artists at their own word in a way which would look terribly naive in a modern critic.

Thus this book includes very generous extracts from the writings, especially the letters, of all the artists mentioned, as well as by eye-witnesses like their art college tutor Fritz Schumacher. These numerous quotes help build up a really strong feeling of what the Expressionists were trying to do and how they felt about it.

The book is based on first-hand evidence and so, although its critical approach may be dated, the numerous quotes remain very relevant today. He quotes enough from each artist that you not only get a sense of their distinctive styles of painting, but of writing and thinking, too.

Under the Trees by Max Pechstein (1911)

Under the Trees by Max Pechstein (1911)

Art in Wilhelmine Germany

Dube sets the mood of Wilhelmine Germany (i.e. Germany under the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II – or ‘Emperor William’ II) at the turn of the century. For a start Germany had only recently been ‘unified’ (in 1871) and its different component parts, the states or Länder, still had very strong regional identities. Cities with good technical schools included Dresden, Cologne, Munich and so on, but Berlin was the only truly metropolitan city. Even Berlin couldn’t match Paris for artistic tradition and glittering cultural production. German art was dominated by a late academic realist style, as taught in all the state art schools.

In the generation before the Expressionists, all the main cities with art schools had experienced ‘secessions’, when artists influenced by Impressionism had found their works rejected by the academies and salons and had set up independent progressive groupings – the Munich Secession in 1892, the Dresden Secession in 1893, the Vienna Secession under Gustav Klimt in 1897, the Berlin Secession in 1898.

Another sign of the times was the number of artists’ colonies which were set up in remote rural locations, starting with Worpswede in the 1890s (whose most lasting member was the woman artist Paula Modersohn-Becker). According to Colin Rhodes’s book on Primitivism, by 1910 there were about 30 artists’ colonies based in remote rural locations around Germany.

And the 1890s had also seen the founding of the German branch of Art Nouveau (known as the Jugendstil) in Munich in 1896. Like parallel movements elsewhere in Europe, the Jugendstil was dedicated to rejecting the accumulation of clutter which had encrusted Victorian furniture and handicrafts, and returning design to simpler, purer lines and more co-ordinated interiors.

As to the French influence, Dube explains how Impressionism came late to Germany, only being gathered and exhibited in a significant amount around the turn of the century. In fact it was almost immediately overtaken by Post-Impressionist works which were much more up to date and were exhibited at about the same time.

Of the Post-Impressionists, Van Gogh and Gauguin were the primary influences on the new young generation of German artists – the former for his emphasis on vibrantly thick brush strokes to convey strong feeling, and the latter a) for his odysseys, first to rural Brittany then to remote Tahiti, in search of the ‘primitive’ and ‘authentic’, and b) for his quest to simplify painting into thick black outlines containing areas of garish colour. And so Dube includes early works by Heckel, Kirchner and so on which are obviously influenced by van Gogh’s thick bright brushstrokes (Brickworks by Erich Heckel, Lake in the Park by Kirchner).

Histories of German Expressionism tend to focus on two main groups, Die Brücke (meaning ‘the bridge’) and Der Blaue Reiter (‘The Blue Rider’). Many artists joined these groups, then left, were simultaneously members of other groupings like the various ‘Secessions’, set up splinter groups, and so on. It was a fluid, fertile scene. But these two groups were the most organised, produced manifestos and held exhibitions, and so are easier to write about.

Origin of the term ‘Expressionism’

The term ‘Expressionism’ itself has about half a dozen possible sources. No one group ever claimed to be Expressionists, the word seems simply to have become current among journalists, critics and reviewers soon after 1910. An exhibition held in Cologne in 1912 referred to ‘the movement known as Expressionism’ and the first academic monograph on the subject was written in 1914, positioning it (inaccurately) as the German equivalent of French Cubism and Italian Futurism – so it was being used by contemporaries by those dates. But it never became the badge of a clearly defined group (unlike Impressionism in France).

What is certain is that the term was only just becoming widely known when the war broke out and art movements all across Europe were decimated.

Die Brücke 1905-13

Die Brücke was formed in Dresden in 1905. The four founding members were Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (who was still alive when this book was published). Later members included Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein and Otto Mueller. They considered themselves a ‘bridge’ which would link together all the young artists of their time who were driven by the need to express themselves more forcefully, clearly and purely than academic conventions permitted. As manifestos and interpretations multiplied, they also saw their work as a ‘bridge’ to the more spiritual ‘art of the future’.

The four founder members were all originally architecture students, which explains why they felt free to take liberties with the tradition of figure painting. In their quest for new forms and visions they were all attracted to the technique of woodcut prints, which naturally accentuate stark outlines and sharp contrasts between light and shade.

Nowhere do severity of construction, strength of contrast and an uncompromising emphasis on plane and line find so complete fulfilment as in the woodcut… (p.26)

Their drawing technique was deliberately crude, and colour was garish and unnaturalistic, both devices to emphasise their freedom of expression. Kirchner wanted ‘free drawing from the free human body in the freedom of nature’.

Crouching woman by Erich Heckel (1913)

Crouching woman by Erich Heckel (1913)

Die Brücke harked back to the German tradition of harsh angular work by Albrecht Dürer, Matthias Grünewald and Lucas Cranach the Elder.

Typical of their polemical intent was the programme published in 1906 and which Kirchner carved in wood:

Believing in development and in a new generation both of those who create and of those who enjoy, we call all young people together, and as young people, who carry the future in us, we want to wrest freedom for our actions and our lives from the older, comfortably established forces. (quoted page 21)

Elsewhere they wrote that they belonged to a generation:

who want freedom in our work and in our lives, independence from older, established forces.

They wanted to apprehend art as ‘intensified, poetic life’ (p.37).

Looked at in the cold light of day, most of the manifestos, letters and other writings of both the Bridge and the Blue Rider seem extremely anodyne (in fact Dube concedes that this is the conventional modern view of them). After a century of impassioned manifestos, proclamations and statements of intent, the Bridge’s writings seem little more than codified excitement about being young and full of confidence in their burning mission to change the world.

The four would-be artists hired an empty butcher’s shop in a working class area of Dresden which they decorated extensively, packing it with paintings, drawings and prints. Nudity of both sexes was common – making it all sound very like a idealistic but scruffy commune from the early 1970s, just when Dube was writing. In summer they frequented the Moritzburg lakes, which features in many of their landscapes and nudes.

Summer by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1911)

Summer by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1911)

Dube devotes separate sections to each of the important Bridge artists – namely, Kirchner, Heckel, Schmidt-Rottluff, Nolde, Pechstein and Mueller – outlining their development over the key years from around 1905 to 1914. He follows them into the maelstrom of the Great War and beyond, with liberal quotes from their writings to help the reader really understand the aims and intentions and developing style of each of them.

Kirchner was the dominant personality and the best artist of the group. In 1913, as the Bridge began to drift apart, Kirchner wrote an account of the history and development of the group which the other three disagreed with so strongly that it precipitated the final break-up. Sic transit gloria iuventae.

Der Blaue Reiter 1911-14

The Blue Rider was slightly later. It was founded in 1909 in Munich by a group of artists who rejected the official art school there. Broader based than the Bridge, its founders included a number of Russian emigrants, including Wassily Kandinsky, Alexej von Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin, as well as native German artists such as Franz Marc, August Macke and Gabriele Münter. The Blue Rider also lasted till the outbreak of war in 1914.

The Village Church (1908) by Wassily Kandinsky

The Village Church (1908) by Wassily Kandinsky

Kandinsky was the central figure. Some people thought the name derived from an early painting of the same title by Kandinsky, created in 1903, but Kandinsky himself later wrote that it came from Marc’s enthusiasm for horses and Kandinsky’s love of riders, combined with a shared love of the colour blue.

Kandinsky was an intensely spiritual person. Indeed it’s one of the ironies of Expressionism that it looks so harsh, angular and repelling to us today (and especially in contrast to the softness of the French tradition — even the garish Fauves eventually led on to the decorativeness of Matisse and Dufy) – and yet all its proponents thought of themselves as highly spiritual visionaries, returning to nature, depicting the human soul, and other essentially gentle, hippy ideals.

For example, for Kandinsky blue was the colour of spirituality: the darker the blue, the more it awakens human desire for the eternal (as he put it in his seminal 1911 book, On the Spiritual in Art). All the other colours had similar spiritual connotations.

The history of the group is complex as it formed after the collapse of a previous group which had itself been created in opposition to the Secession Munich. All that takes a bit of explaining.

But the key point that emerges is that the Blue Rider’s main claim to fame is that its central figure, Kandinsky, was one of the first painters in Europe to push beyond Expressionism into pure painterly abstraction. This seismic event took place in or around 1910.

Certainly the Blue Rider was a large group whose intentions and ability varied from artist to artist. Broadly speaking, they all rejected the realist academic tradition and wanted to create a more spontaneous, intuitive approach to painting.

Their interests ranged from European medieval art to children’s art, to the ‘tribal’ art from Africa and the Pacific which was becoming fashionable in the latter part of the 1900s, and they were all well aware of contemporary developments in Paris – especially of Fauvism (1905) and Cubism (1908).

Portrait of a Young Woman in a Large Hat by Gabriele Münter (1909)

Portrait of a Young Woman in a Large Hat by Gabriele Münter (1909)

The Blue Rider group organised two exhibitions – held from December 1911 to January 1912, and from March to April 1912 – that toured Germany.

The Blue Rider almanac

In May 1912 they published an ‘almanac’ which included contemporary, primitive and folk art, along with children’s paintings. It contained reproductions of more than 140 artworks, and 14 major articles. A second edition was planned but never published because of the outbreak of war.

The Blue Ride Almanac is a fascinating record of the ‘turn against the European Tradition’ in the way it was dominated by primitive, folk, and children’s art, with pieces from the South Pacific and Africa, Japanese drawings, medieval German woodcuts and sculpture, Egyptian puppets, Russian folk art, and Bavarian religious art painted on glass.

The five works by Van Gogh, Cézanne, and Gauguin were outnumbered by seven from Henri Rousseau and thirteen (!) from child artists.

The group broke up with the advent of war, in which both Franz Marc and August Macke were killed, while Kandinsky was forced to move back to Russia. It had a ghostly post-war existence when Kandinsky, Feininger, Klee and Alexej von Jawlensky were persuaded to form Die Blaue Vier (the Blue Four) group in 1923 as a money-making scheme to exhibit and lecture around the United States from 1924.

The Blue Rider painters one by one

Dube moves systematically through the main Blue Rider painters (Kandinsky, von Jawlensky, Gabriele Münter, Franz Marc, Auguste Macke, Paul Klee, Heinrich Campendonk, Alfred Kubin) detailing their evolution from their beginnings, through their key contributions to the movement, and into the Great War, explaining the origin and development of their styles, quoting liberally from their letters and diaries.

  • Wassily Kandinsky – older (b.1866) Russian, earnest and spiritual, in the late 1900s he moved quickly through Fauvist garishness to achieve the breakthrough into pure abstraction (Cossacks, 1911)
  • Alexej von Jawlensky (b.1864) Russian, brilliantly coloured works exhibited in 1905 at the same Salon d’Automne show which gave birth to the term ‘les Fauves’, his portraits of women are popular but the war shocked him out of Expressionism and into semi-abstract religious painting – Saviour’s face, 1919
  • Gabriele Münter (b.1877) German – Kandinsky divorced his first wife to marry Münter and they lived in a house in Murnau which became known locally as ‘the Russian house’. She painted woman and landscapes with strong outlines and colours – Jawlensky and Werefkin, 1909
  • Franz Marc (b.1880) highly eloquent writer of art theory, and beautiful painter of animals, specially horses, evolving a steadily more abstracted style before his untimely death in 1916 – the Mandrill, 1913
  • Auguste Macke (b.1887) younger than Marc with whom he became close friends, Macke was – unusually for this gang – light and unspiritual. He frequently went to Paris, entranced by the experiments in colour of the Fauves and Delauney. He painted light, bright depictions of scenes of real life – Zoological gardens, 1912. Macke was developing quickly towards a lighter more abstract palette when war broke out and he was killed almost immediately, in September 1914.
  • Paul Klee (b.1879) from early on Klee had a facility for fine line drawing but found it hard to combine with colour. In 1914 he went on a two-week trip to Tunisia with Macke which has become famous in art history because both artists found it crystallised their styles and helped Klee, in particular, paint in watercolour washes which were to define his mature style – The Föhn Wind in the Marcs’ Garden, 1914. Klee went on to teach at the Bauhaus school.
  • Heinrich Campendonk (b.1889) friends with Marc and influenced by his animal paintings, Campendonk went on to develop a decorative, fairy-tale style – Cow, 1914.
  • Alfred Kubin (b.1877) A highly-strung Austrian print-maker who developed a grotesque style of illustration based on things he saw under a microscope and is perhaps more appropriately labelled a Symbolist, though he befriended and exhibited with the Blue Riders, before abandoning art altogether to become a writer in the 1920s.

Kandinsky has gone down in history as the most important figure because of his decisive move into complete abstraction – but Marc comes over as the more charismatic and fascinating character. Marc initially devoted himself to studying anatomy in order to do nudes better but, eventually repelled by humans, concentrated for his key four years (1910-1914) on wonderful stylised and colourful paintings of animals.

Tiger by Franz Marc (1912)

Tiger by Franz Marc (1912)

The Expressionists’ reversal of values

By now (about three-quarters of the way through the book) what is clear is that these two groups – the Bridge and the Blue Rider – taken together, had effected a complete revolution in thinking about art, quite literally reversing the priorities of 400 years of post-Renaissance painting:

Colour is not there to serve the representation of an object, or something material, but the object serves as the starting-point for the arrangement of colours. (p.114)

In the words of Franz Marc, their works were seeking:

the completely spiritualised, de-materialised inwardness of perception which our fathers, the artists of the nineteenth century, never even tried to achieve in their ‘pictures’. (quoted page 125)

Released from nature, colour is able to radiate its essence for, as Herwarth Walden put it:

Art is the gift of something new, not the reproduction of something already in existence. (quoted page 155)

As the preface to the third exhibition of the Neue Sezession, held in Berlin in spring 1911 put it:

Each and every object is only the channel of a colour, a colour composition, and the work as a whole aims, not at an impression of nature, but at the expression of feelings. (quoted page 159)

Or as Marc put it:

We no longer cling to reproductions of nature, but destroy it so as to reveal the mighty laws which hold sway beneath the beautiful exterior. (Marc, 1912, quoted p.132)

It comes as a surprise to learn that Marc’s very last paintings abandoned the subject altogether and became completely abstract exercises in vibrant colour and form. He was hard on Kandinsky’s footsteps and who knows where he would have gone next. But he had barely started when he was called up, then killed in the war. Which is why history remembers Kandinsky as the great pioneer of abstract art.

Berlin and Vienna

By this stage, 150 pages into the text, I felt overflowing with words, pictures and ideas. But there’s more! The book continues with a final fifty pages or so exploring other contemporary painters of Berlin and Vienna who were working in the same style, devoting four or five pages to an overview of the artistic scenes in those cities before going on to consider the individual works of:

  • Max Beckmann (b.1884) German painter, draftsman, printmaker, sculptor, and writer, Beckmann experimented with a late realistic style influenced by Munch (who met and advised him) until the war came and the experience of horror and murder led to a nervous breakdown in 1915, after which Beckmann completely rejected his earlier work and went on to perfect a style of highly figurative, angular caricatures, becoming part of the post-war taste for the grotesque. – The Night, 1918
  • Lyonel Feininger (b.1871) German, had a successful career as a political cartoonist, but during the later 1900s developed a sort of shimmering semi-Futurist way of depicting natural scenes, using ‘crystalline or prismatic construction’. – Bicycle race, 1912 He went on to work at the Bauhaus school.
  • Ernst Barlach (b.1870) German, part of the new generation, Barlach however rejected the move to the abstract, and produced prints and sculptures of stylised but essentially natural figures, mostly of a religious nature. – The Cathedrals, 1922
  • Ludwig Meidner (b.1884) German, Meidner was a prolific writer who studied in Berlin, then Paris, scraped a living by writing and painting until, at age 18 in 1912, he suddenly began expressing himself in vivid and violent religious visions. – Apocalyptic landscape, 1913.
  • Oskar Kokoschka (b.1886) Austrian artist, poet and playwright, a major figure whose physical pain and psychological unrest drove him through a series of styles. Most famous is the swirling angularity of a work like The Bride of the Wind, painted just before the war – note the nervously clenched hands of the male figure.
  • Egon Schiele (b.1890) staggeringly gifted figurative painter and draughtsman who developed a distinctive style depicting angular, naked or half-clothed bodies, reminiscent in the use of decorative mosaic-style detailing of his mentor Gustav Klimt, except Schiele removed all the gold and luxury from the designs, austerely emptying them out into starker elements surrounding and threatening his subjects. Schiele caused scandal with his nudes but was also widely recognised in Vienna and Germany. – Embrace, 1917, Self portrait

The Great War killed off Expressionism as a movement (not least by killing some of the most promising Expressionist painters). Germany lost the war and in short order saw the abdication of the Kaiser, the end of the Empire and street fighting in Berlin and Munich as Communists tried to declare a revolution. These disturbances were brutally crushed by right-wing militias and then the Weimar Republic settled into an uneasy, bitter and disillusioned peace.

In this context, long-haired artists going off to remote communes to paint sensitive nudes amid nature seemed like sentimental hogwash. The Dada manifesto of 1918 mocked Expressionism for being hopelessly out of date. Artists like Otto Dix and George Grosz painted bitter pictures of post-war poverty, corruption and prostitution, the Weimar Germany of Brecht and Weill’s bitter satires.

In 1925 an exhibition was staged of the new satirical artists with the name Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) and this became the slogan of the new generation.

Summary

Although old-fashioned in tone and approach, this is a really informative book, made extra valuable by the extensive quotes from the artists themselves, their friends and lovers, contemporary critics and writers – a collage of quotations which conveys a really powerful sense of the artists, their time and place, and their determination to create something really new and enduring. Which they did.


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Opera: Passion, Power and Politics @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

The V&A have spent £55 million on a vast new underground exhibition space, named the Exhibition Road Quarter because you enter it from Exhibition Road. It opened in July 2017.

The angled courtyard you walk across is no great shakes, but once inside you go down white steps between sheer, polished black walls to arrive at the huge new, open exhibition space, all 1,100 square metres of it (‘one of the largest exhibition spaces in Europe’), which is currently hosting a wonderfully enjoyable exhibition on the history of opera.

Installation view showing paintings, wall text, books and pamphlets and a large wall illustration relating to Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea

Installation view showing paintings, wall text, books and pamphlets and a large wall illustration relating to Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642)

Opera and me

In my 20s and 30s I developed a passion for opera and, in total, saw about 100 productions, at the Royal Opera House, the Colosseum, at other theatres around the country, at a few experimental venues, and twice at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

In my late 20s I was commissioned to write a libretto, an adaptation of the famous Oscar Wilde novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was set to music by the composer Ron McAllister and performed as part of the Huddersfield classical music festival.

So I have a reasonably good feel for opera, its history and possibilities.

Passion, Power and Politics

400 years of a Europe-wide art form is a big subject to tackle. The curators have taken the neat, practical step of focusing on seven epoch-making or representative works. The huge exhibition space is divided into temporary ‘rooms’ whose walls are plastered with information about the year and city of their premieres, investigating how each one crystallised the history, culture, technology, ideologies and, of course, the music of their times.

Before we get to the specific operas it’s necessary to say something about the layout & content of the show.

The audioguide

First and foremost, all visitors are given a free audioguide which plays wonderful soaring music from each of the featured operas.

As you walk between the ‘rooms’ or sections devoted to each opera, the audioguide automatically senses where you are and changes the music accordingly. It not only plays a popular aria or overture or passage from each opera but also snippets of behind-the-scenes moments from real productions, with orchestras tuning up, the floor manager counting down to curtain up and so on, all of which gives the listener a real sense of being at the theatre.

I think it’s the best use of an audioguide I’ve ever experienced. Not many exhibitions have given me as much pure pleasure as listening to music from Handel’s Rinaldo while looking at paintings showing the London of Handel’s day, or listening to the Venusberg music from Wagner’s Tannhäuser while watching a video installation showing how different directors have staged ‘erotic’ ballets to accompany this deeply sensual music.

Objects, dresses and accessories

Secondly, each section is stuffed with wonderful, rare, precious and evocative objects from each era. Period musical instruments include viols, lutes and cornets from Monteverdi’s time (the 1600s), the very piano Mozart performed on in Prague and a beautifully made pedal harp from the court of Marie Antoinette (both from the 1780s). The Venice section features 400-year-old combs and mirrors used by the city’s courtesans during the annual carnival, and so on.

Each section also features paintings which portray the city or the opera house, the composer, or actual performances. Some of these are really top quality, making it an interesting exhibition of painting in its own right, with works by artists from the late Baroque, some Impressionists (Degas), some of Die Brücke group of German Expressionists and, in the final room, a suite of dynamic Agitprop posters and designs from the early experimental era of the Soviet Union.

The Viola da Gamba Musician by Bernardo Strozzi (1630-40) from the Gemaldegalerie, Dresden, Germany © 2017 Photo Scala, Florence bpk.

The Viola da Gamba Musician by Bernardo Strozzi (1630-40) The Gemaldegalerie, Dresden, Germany © 2017 Photo Scala, Florence

As you might expect from the V&A, there are also sumptuous costumes from each of the key periods, with a luxury hand-sewn coat, waistcoat and breeches from Mozart’s day, a beautiful white dress to be worn by he character of Violetta in La Traviata.

Right at the start there is a risqué courtesan outfit from Venice, made of thick red velvet in the shape of a leotard i.e. only just covering the loins. This was designed to be worn under a long red skirt, split in the middle which could be teasingly parted to reveal… the 18-inch-high chopines or stylised shoes which the city’s better class courtesans wore. Almost impossible to walk in, the wearer had to lean heavily on a consort or male escort. There are tiaras and top hats from the premier of Tannhauser in Paris in 1861.

If you like historic costumes, there are plenty hear to savour and enjoy.

Rooms like sets

Because this huge exhibition space has no formal ‘rooms’, the designers have been free to create room-shaped ‘spaces’ for each period, and to design as they wish, with the result that the spaces sometimes incorporate large elements which help make the spaces themselves seem like stage sets.

The most obvious example is the Handel section, where they have recreated a scale version of the actual stage set of the first production of Handel’s Rinaldo. Visitors are invited to sit on a bench in front of it, listening to the glorious music, and watch the stage magic of the early 18th century – namely the way several tiers of wooden waves are made to move across the stage, while a small model ship bobs among them, representing the journey of the hero to exotic foreign lands.

Installation view showing the mocked-up 18th century theatre set for Handel's Rinaldo (1711)

Installation view showing the mocked-up 18th century theatre set for Handel’s Rinaldo (1711)

This is the most splendid example, but later ‘rooms’ feature an Italian flag, bust and props from Verdi’s time, and an enormous red hammer and sickle dominating the Soviet section.

Referring specifically to the operas and their productions, the show includes original autograph scores, along with stage directions, libretti, set models and costume designs for each of them.

Altogether there are over 300 objects to savour, marvel at, learn about, ponder and enjoy, all the time your head filled with some of the greatest music ever written.

Among these is a new recording of the Royal Opera Chorus singing ‘Va pensiero’ (the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) from Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco recorded specially for the exhibition. Just – wow!

The operas

1. Venice L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642) by Claudio Monteverdi. Venice was a Renaissance centre of trade and commerce, famous for its glassware and the colourfulness of its textiles and paintings. Unsurprisingly, it was also a centre for entertainment, gambling and disguise, especially at the time of the annual carnival. The earliest operas were staged in the private houses of the very rich.

Monteverdi mostly wrote church music but he composed a few of the very first ‘operas’, basing them on classical stories. L’incoronazione di Poppea is about the notorious Roman Emperor Nero, his wife and mistress. Poppea premiered in Venice’s Carnival season of 1642-3 and represents opera’s transition from private court entertainment to the public realm.

2. London Rinaldo by George Frideric Handel was premiered in London in 1711, one of the first Italian language operas performed in London, just as Britain was emerging as one of the leading empires in Europe.

It is fascinating to read contemporary criticism by conservatives like the artist William Hogarth and the editors of the Spectator magazine, who heartily condemned this importation of a decadent and foreign art form into good old Blighty.

The paintings of early 18th century London on show here are almost as fascinating as the spectacular stage set, and the Handel music emerged as, I think, my favourite of all that on the audioguide – stately, elegant, refined, other-worldly in its elegance.

George Frideric Handel by Louis Francois Roubiliac (1702-62) © Fitzwilliam Museum Bridgeman Images

George Frideric Handel by Louis Francois Roubiliac (1702-62) © Fitzwilliam Museum Bridgeman Images

3. Vienna Le nozze di Figaro (1786) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was premiered in 1786 in Vienna, which had become one of the centres of the European Enlightenment under its liberal Emperor Joseph II.

After the Handel, the Mozart music seemed infinitely more dramatic, concerning itself with recognisably real people and passions: Le nozze di Figaro being a comic story about mismatched love between the classes.

The excerpt on the audioguide synchs up with a scene projected onto an enormous screen on the wall, an aria sung by the pageboy Cherubino who is just coming into adolescence and finds himself flushing and confused among attractive adult women.

On display are a piano Mozart played in Prague, fashionable dresses that would have been worn by the opera’s aristocratic characters, and displays explaining the relationship between the opera’s source – a play by the French playwright Beaumarchais – and the contemporary beliefs of Enlightenment Europe.

4. Milan Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi was premiered in Milan in 1842. Verdi’s operas developed the importance of the chorus, which is often given his most rousing tunes. Verdi was closely identified with the Risorgimento, the political movement to kick out the foreign powers which occupied various parts of Italy (notably Austria) and create a united country.

Hence the big Italian flag draped over this section, the patriotic bust of Verdi, and the choice of the ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ (‘Va pensiero’) from Nabucco, which became a sort of unofficial national anthem for Italian nationalists.

5. Paris Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner premiered in Paris in 1861. Paris was fast becoming the intellectual and artistic capital of Europe.

Modernists loved the opera with its radical technical innovations: Wagner hated Italian opera which broke the music up into set-piece arias and choruses – by contrast, in a Wagner opera the music flows seamlessly from start to finish in one great engulfing flow. It also shocked because of its daring subject matter, a story about the temptations of sensuality to the high-minded musician of the title. The progressive poet Charles Baudelaire praised it profusely.

The information panels tell us that it was traditional for French composers to arrange a short ballet to start the second or third act. This was because the more aristocratic patrons generally didn’t arrive till after the interval, and mostly came to see pretty girls dancing (many of whom were their mistresses). In a deliberate act of defiance Wagner placed the ballet number right at the start of act one.

6. Dresden The Biblical story of Salome, the sensual step-daughter of King Herod, who dances a strip-tease for him in order to get him to behead St John the Baptist, was a central obsession of the Symbolist movement in all the arts at the end of the 19th century, combining heavy sensuality, perversion, death and the exotic.

Oscar Wilde wrote a play about Salome (in French) for which the wonderful fin-de-siecle artist Aubrey Beardsley created his matchlessly sinuous line illustrations.

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

In 1905 Dresden saw the premiere of a heavily sensual and violent opera based on Wilde’s play composed by Richard Strauss. It was the era of Expressionism in the arts, and the exhibition features not only a selection of Beardsley’s illustrations (and Strauss’s copy of Wilde’s play, with Strauss’s own hand-written notes and underlinings) but also a selection of powerful woodcuts and paintings by artists from the German art movement, Die Brücke).

There are two large posters on the same subject by Parisian poster designers, including La Loïe Fuller Dans Sa Création Nouvelle, Salomé by Georges de Feure.

Dominating this ‘room’ is a huge screen displaying an excerpt from a modern production of the opera, showing the climax of the action where Salome, in a slip covered in blood, sings an aria to John the Baptist’s severed head, before gruesomely kissing it.

Nadja Michael as Salome at the Royal Opera House, London, 2008 © Robbie Jack Corbis/Getty Images

Nadja Michael as Salome at the Royal Opera House, London, 2008 © Robbie Jack Corbis/Getty Images

7. St Petersburg The blood-soaked theme is continued in the final choice, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk  by Dmitri Shostakovich, which premiered in Leningrad in 1934.

This final section is dominated by a huge model of a red hammer and sickle. Next to it is a blow-up of a woman’s face from a Soviet agitprop poster (the full poster can be seen at the excellent exhibition of Soviet art and posters currently at Tate Modern).

To one side is a mock-up of Shostakovich’s study with writing table and chair. Behind it is projected a clip from a Soviet publicity film showing the great man knocking out a composition at the piano. The walls are decked with fabulously stylish Soviet posters and art works.

Installation view of the Shostakovitch section of Opera - Passion, Power and Politics

Installation view of the Shostakovich section of Opera – Passion, Power and Politics

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is based on a 19th century novel about a woman who is unfaithful to her husband, has an affair with one of his farm workers, poisons her father-in-law, and much more in the same vein.

Unfortunately, the opera premiered just as Stalin consolidated his grip on the Soviet Union and his cultural commissar Zhdanov promulgated the new doctrine of Socialist realism, i.e. that all art works should be optimistic, readily understandable to the proletariat, and show the new Soviet society in an upbeat, positive way.

Very obviously Shostakovich’s opera did the exact opposite and in 1936 was savagely criticised in a threatening article in Pravda which most contemporaries thought had been written by Stalin himself. The production was hurriedly cancelled and Shostakovich not only suppressed it but also cancelled preparations for his huge dissonant Fourth Symphony. He quickly turned to writing more ‘inspiring’ music – specifically the moving Fifth Symphony which was ostentatiously sub-titled ‘a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism’. The opera wasn’t performed again in the USSR until 1961.

In other words, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk not only represents a nexus of violence, lust, revenge and class conflict in its plotline, but stands at a key cultural moment in the development of the twentieth century’s most important event, the Russian Revolution and the Great Communist Experiment. The threat to Shostakovich was in effect a threat to an entire generation of artists and composers.

Opera around the world

Only here at the end do you realise that the exhibition rooms are arranged in a circle around a big empty central area. This big space contains half a dozen huge screens onto which are projected excerpts from 20th century and contemporary operas such as Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht and George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, all making the point that opera is as alive and kicking as ever.

Summary

This is an enormous, ground-breaking, genuinely innovative exhibition which manages to convincingly cover its enormous subject, shedding light not only on opera and music, but the other arts and the broader history of Europe across an immense sweep of time.

So big, so many beautiful objects, so much inspiring music, that it probably merits being visited more than once to really soak up all the stories, all the passion and all the beauty on display (I’ve been twice and might go again before it closes).


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