The Rites of Spring

  By Decebel
  Category: 20th Century

The question of how the spirit of the modern world has come into being has concerned many historians and philosophers throughout the last few decades. Modris Eksteins, in his book “Rites of Spring, The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age”, points to the First World War as the pivotal moment in modern history and consciousness. Eksteins’ argument is that the modern world is concerned with death, emancipation, introspection, movement, primitivism, abstraction and myth making; that, in our modern world, life and art have blended together and aesthetics have become more important than ever. He then points to Germany before the Great War as the nation in which these ideals were the most pronounced as the modernist nation par excellence, which served as a model for our world. For Eksteins, the First World War was a conflict between the old established world order based on Enlightenment ideals, and represented primarily by Great Britain and, to some extent, by France, and, on the other hand, Germany, the representative of the new ideas of the modern world struggling for liberation and emancipation from the old order. While Germany lost the war, many of the ideas and attitudes that characterized German society have eventually won out and are characteristic of the modern consciousness. Eksteins uses the 1913 Russian ballet “The Rites of Spring” as a metaphor for the war and the coming world order. He then proceeds to examine the climate of opinion immediately preceding the war, particularly in Germany. His analysis of the First World War focuses almost exclusively on the attitudes and ideas expressed by common people in the lead-up to the war, as well as throughout the duration of the brutal trench warfare period. Following the war, he focuses on two cultural phenomena which shed insight on the way that the war had changed the world: the reception of Lindbergh as a hero after his transatlantic flight and the success of Erich Maria Remarque’s war book “All Quiet on the Western Front”. Finally, he wraps it all up with an analysis of how the ideals and attitudes represented by Germany created the ideologies of Fascism and National Socialism.

Modris Eksteins writes in an engaging, readable style. He displays remarkable erudition and often sees connections in history which may not be obvious to the great majority of people. “Rites of Spring” is an excellent book which makes a compelling and valuable argument. It makes the reader question the preconceived ideas which we all have about our age. The First World War is without a doubt the catalyst which has changed our world forever. That being said, are Eksteins’ conclusions inevitable? Did the attitudes and values characteristic of Germany really win out? Or is it that the war caused a shift in attitudes which caused our modern values to bear a coincidental resemblance to those of pre-war Germany? If Germany was remarkable by being the most advanced nation in the world, as Eksteins points out, would the shift to those attitudes have occurred in due time anyway in the rest of western society, even without the war? It is this author’s opinion that Eksteins’ background has probably caused him to limit himself from making a larger and more complete argument about our modern age, and from expanding his analysis to show the many ways in which the war changed our perspective of the world. Eksteins seems, at times, to hint at this larger point, but never quite spells it out. The author’s viewpoint is that the modern western world is not only a society in which the traditional Enlightenment and Romantic values of the 19th century have been challenged and superseded by the values which Germany represented, primarily emancipation, movement, esthetics and myth-making. Rather, ours is a society whose traditional Enlightenment and Romantic values have been seriously contested from many quarters. Ours is a society which no longer firmly believes in anything as certain; it is a society which has lost its confidence in itself as the most advanced civilization in the world. Ours is the age of uncertainty in which all theories and sets of values hold a kernel of truth, but none of them is absolute. The emancipation that Eksteins focuses on is not solely the result of the German spirit that demanded emancipation, but rather the result of our society losing confidence in itself and being forced to accept new (or old) ideas , lifestyles and values as being equally valid with those of the Enlightenment, which constituted the bedrock of society throughout the 19th century. Our obsession with death, movement (or change) and newness can as well be seen as a result of the modern man’s uncertainty and desire to find some answers in an unclear world. Myths are more important than ever because they compensate for the mystique and meaning which has been drained out of the modern people’s lives, who longer know what to believe in. Throughout this essay, we shall examine Eksteins’ analysis of the changes brought about by the First World War, but also some of the other ways that the First World War changed our society and which were overlooked by him.

Eksteins sees the “Rites of Spring” as a milestone in the history of culture in Europe [1]. It was the culmination of a progression in daring which the Russian ballets had exhibited since they first enjoyed success on the western cultural scene [2]. The mastermind behind the ballet, Diaghilev, exhibited a Nietzschean need to provoke and demolish the established ideas of beauty and art [3]. Eksteins examines the ballet at a certain length, because he recognizes in it a lot of elements which he assigns as characteristic of Germany and of our modern world. Thus, the “Rites of Spring” are centered on primitivism, around the notion of finding the new in the old [4], and its theme is sacrifice, the glorification of death as essential to life[5]. The eroticism present in the ballet is in fact a rebellion against the established order, which Eksteins sees as characteristic of Germany prior to the onset of the First World War [6]. Overall, Eksteins sees this ballet as nihilistic[9], and as bringing civilization into question[10]. Throughout the book, in his discussion of the war and the post war years, Eksteins revisits all of the themes that he first identified in connection with “The Rites of Spring” and finds them hidden in the cultural expression of the era.

Eksteins also uses his description of the atmosphere surrounding the ballet as a preamble to his assertion that Germany was the most modern nation of the day. While most people tend to think of Paris as the cultural centre of Europe, and, thus, the place where one would expect to see the earliest signs of things to come, Eksteins points, instead, to Berlin as the most modern city in the world [7]. He even points out that in Paris, the very modern looking Theatre Des Champs Elysées was thought of as German because of its daring architecture [8]. Eksteins sees Germany as the most modern nation in the world, and asserts that it was at the heart of the modern experience [11]. Much like in the modern world, the emphasis in pre-war Germany was on scientism, efficiency and management [12]. The Germans, however, had an added dimension to their culture. As a nation which was recently unified and had undergone a tremendously fast transformation from a traditional society to the most industrialized nation in the world, the Germans found their moral support in a glorification of their own nation and in a deep spirituality. The Germans, more than any other nation, placed a lot of emphasis on ideals and on spiritual fulfillment [13]. At the same time, their position as the scientific and economic leading nation in the world was not commensurate with their position in a world hierarchy dominated by the Anglo-American establishment. Thus, Germany was characterized by a spirit of rebellion against the established order, based on spirituality. Eksteins goes as far as suggesting that the emancipation of homosexuals in Germany was symptomatic of this spirit of emancipation and rebellion [14]. The German spirit of emancipation found as its outlet the necessity for war. War against the established order was seen as a spiritual necessity to achieve that liberation that the German spirit craved [15]. This led to the paradoxical view that war was a necessity for life, and, by extension, death was a necessity of life [16].

Modris Eksteins’ treatment of the war is insightful and revealing. He points out the unreasonable expectations which both sides had about the duration of the war [17], as well as the enthusiasm which greeted the news of the impending conflict. The beginning months of the war did not mark an abrupt end to the prevalent Romantic view of the world, as many believe. The Christmas truce of 1914 is indicative of the attitudes which both sides still held: the Germans celebrating Christmas in the trenches with lights (even considering the potential danger which that represented), the ad-hoc truce between the two sides, and the tendency of the British to regard the war as sport [18]. It was only after the war bogged down in the trenches that attitudes began to change. Even considering the German peculiar spirit of rebellion, most of the values were initially shared by the two sides [19]. But after the war dragged on for a while, the propaganda machines and the general brutality of it started to modify the mutual perceptions of the combatants. The Germans, in their quest for liberation, felt entitled to attempt to win the war by any new means. Total war was now not only permissible, but a requirement for liberation and, hence, for life [20]. The British, in response, felt that they had a duty to protect the old world order: their motives for fighting were, thus, much more concrete, as opposed to the Germans spiritual reasons [21].

Overall though, on both sides, there was a general loss of belief in values and ideals due to the horrors of the war [22]. Soldiers started to feel that those at home did not understand them anymore [23], and some of them started to exhibit unusual paradoxical behavior: some were shell-shocked, while others found beauty in destruction and death [24]. A telling consequence of the war was that words such as Honor, Duty and Valor started to lose their capitals: thus, these words had started to lose meaning for all those soldiers exposed to the ravages of war [25]. In addition, morals in general were being repudiated. Behavior that would have been considered scandalous in peacetime was actually condoned by the authorities for the sake of morale, even though morals and morale had hitherto been considered inseparable [26].

Eksteins' analysis of the consequences of the war revolves around two cultural events: Lindbergh’s triumphal reception after his transatlantic flight, and the success of Remarque’s book “All Quiet on the Western Front”. After Lindbergh landed in France, and subsequently visited England, he was the object of hero worship on an unprecedented scale. At first, this adulation might seem somewhat exaggerated, but Eksteins manages to connect it to the war. Lindbergh represented a new kind of hero because he flew for himself first and foremost[27]. The post-war society could no longer believe in heroes that died for the glory of God or country. Lindbergh, by contrast, was a modern day “Icarus”, an “unspoilt hero” [28]. After all, that was the only kind of hero possible left, considering the fact that “old authority and traditional values no longer had credibility” [29]. The society of Lindbergh’s day, while attempting to suppress the war, was deeply marked by it [30]. The new generation felt completely disconnected from the old [31] America, the homeland of Lindbergh and of the archetype of the individualistic hero, and had now become a model for all of the young Europeans [32].

Erich Maria Remarque’s book “All Quiet on the Western Front” was, in Eksteins’ opinion, quite representative of how these young Europeans felt about the war. It enjoyed a huge success both at home, in Germany, and then later on in France and Britain. What is notable about this book is that it was rather irreverent to the established morality, and, most importantly, the fact that it presented the war as a nihilistic slaughter [33]. The war as presented by Remarque is pointless: there is no such thing as glory in death, and the characters find a reason to fight for in the solidarity of their own restricted group of soldiers. Thus, the new hero, whom Europe’s young generation finds appealing, is not fighting for some grand ideals, but rather for himself and for his friends.

In Germany, however, this feeling was not universal. True, Germany had, indeed, lost the war, but the German people felt that they had been winning all along. Most of them felt betrayed by the leaders of the military establishment, and this feeling of betrayal only accentuated the spirit of liberation which was so characteristic before the war. This feeling was exploited by the Nazis, who eventually condemned Remarque’s book as being contrary to their ideals [34]. Eksteins views the Nazis as the most extreme modernist impulse, which took the quest for liberation to its limit. Central to National Socialist ideas was the Nietzschean notion that the old values and norms must be destroyed in order to be replaced with new concepts created by ubermenschen, which, above all, had to be beautiful. For Nazis, beauty and, thus, aesthetics were paramount, and their morality can, thus, be considered equivalent to kitsch in art and myth in history [35]. Eksteins hints that, perhaps, such German ideas are not so peculiar after all [36]. Though we may not realize it, our own obsession with beauty might be another expression of the same impulses which motivated the Nazis.

In order to better understand “Rites of Spring”, we should take a closer look at the author. Eksteins is a Latvian whose family suffered at the hands of Germans in the Second World War, and a cultural historian who was educated in the Anglo-American tradition. His background likely caused him to be naturally interested in Germany and the Nazis, while his education and possibly his linguistic skills might have contributed to him focusing almost exclusively on the zeitgeist of Western Europe, while omitting the effects that the war had on the larger world. As a cultural historian, he tends to skip the economic and political dimension of the war and its causes, which would be fine, given the scope of his work, except that he attempts to make the war seem as an inevitable clash between the two systems of ideas, and the spirit of the mobs, the determinant factor in starting the war. Would the war still have happened had Germany not been both the country in which the new ideas were most widespread,  as well as the most economically powerful country in Europe? What if these ideas had occurred in Russia or Britain instead? Would the war still have happened, and, if so, would it have taken the same character (which was essential in changing the world)? Were the rulers of Europe as weak and ineffectual as to give in to the demands of the crowds, if there had not been strong economic and political reasons for the war? What about the roles of the strict mobilization schedules and the complicated system of alliances in precipitating the crisis? Eksteins skimps over these questions and simply implies that the irrational in German thinking was prevalent at all levels, which is a questionable call to make on the basis of a few anecdotes. In fact, while the zeitgeist in Germany might have played a role in the thinking of German leaders, it would be folly to think that they would have embarked upon such a risky venture without some strong economic and political reasons for it.

The larger world is also neglected. The First World War had not only the effects that Eksteins focuses on, but also it is responsible, amongst others, for provoking the Russian Revolution and the establishment of a competing world order, with different ideals and values from the ones which were dominant in Western Civilization. Russia, which had just started to make a strong mark on western civilization as the impact of the “Rites of Spring” ballet shows, was at a stroke cut-off from it, with all the impact on the subsequent western culture which that entails. Without the war, the Russian people would have never successfully revolted against the tsarist regime, and Lenin would never have been transported to Russia by the Germans. Without the war, the Russian Revolution would have never acquired that mythical status which it enjoyed in the Soviet Union throughout much of the subsequent 70 years [37], greatly contributing to the stability of the communist regime and indirectly to the western civilization which it rivaled. Granted, Communism, just like Western Liberal Democracy, is a child of the Enlightenment. But it is also radical enough to seriously challenge the liberal world order in the same way that the French Revolution challenged the world of religion and absolute monarchies. The Cold War indubitably represents an important phase in modern consciousness. If one follows Eksteins’ logic, one could argue that in the same way in which German ideals won out in the Western world, even though Germany lost the two world wars, so did certain socialist ideals win out in the West even though the Soviet Union lost the Cold War.

The First World War marked the demise of two European empires and the appearance of several new states on the map of Europe. While this effect is more political than cultural, Eksteins could have paid attention to this development. After all, many of the new states, along with several states in Southern Europe, witnessed the appearance of fascist movements, which actually took over power in Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Spain and Portugal. Surely, Eksteins could have strengthened his thesis by examining the zeitgeist of these countries and not simply limiting himself to Germany. Also, the First World War was not limited to the Western Front. The Eastern Front, between Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire on one side, and Russia, Serbia and Rumania on the other was just as large in terms of number of armies involved as the Western Front. What was the effect of the war on Russian or Austrian soldiers? Eksteins does not even mention them, which can be problematic because central to his thesis is the fact that the war changed the world, and, yet, he ignores half of it.
The First World War also had a critical effect on the rest of the world, which had been dominated previously by Western Civilization. Indian soldiers fighting on the side of the British and African troops fighting on the side of the French had the opportunity to fraternize and feel equal to European soldiers during a war which did not discriminate [38]. The aura of invincibility and infallibility that Europeans possessed was now gone. For a British person living before the war with the mantra of the “white man’s burden”, the notion of the British Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, a member of the Royal family, treating Indian leaders such as Gandhi and Nehru as equals, would have seemed ludicrous. And yet that is precisely what happened [39]. After the First World War, the British were certain that they were going to lose India because, both, they and the Indians knew that there was no longer a moral justification for it. Western Civilization had lost confidence in the superiority of its values, morals and ideals and it no longer felt that it had a duty to proselytize them to those civilizations not fortunate enough to embody them.
Another challenge that is evident in the modern world is the resurgence of religion. Of course, religion continued to be an important part of Western Civilization, throughout the heyday of the Enlightenment values in the 19th century. However, it was on the defensive. The Church was excluded from the state, from the school system and from much public life. Science, a bulwark of the Enlightenment, always won out in debates. However, today, we see the Church intervening more and more in politics and public life. The Intelligent Design debates are really an attack of religion on the scientifically dominated establishment. Such an attack might seem ludicrous considering that the matter was thought to be settled in the 1870s [40]. But, in a world where science and progress are no longer infallible, the new assertiveness of religion is not out of place. Even the resurgence of militant Islam, while outside of Western Civilization, is a sign that the secular Enlightenment values of Western Civilization are losing their spell on the rest of the world. After all, the first major victory of militant Islam, the Iranian Revolution, was against an establishment which was based on these very same secular western ideals. In a world where the Enlightenment values are no longer absolute, in a world where humans have proven themselves to be capable of atrocities and of being irrational (in a word “wicked”), traditional religion feels vindicated. The First and Second World Wars have so thoroughly discredited the idea that humans are good and rational, an idea which was central to the Enlightenment, that the old order formerly discredited by the Enlightenment now seems, to many people, as a more credible alternative for a guiding hand in their daily lives.

Modris Eksteins has, therefore, written a thought-provoking and insightful book. His thesis that the First World War has changed our society forever and that Germany was the modernist nation par excellence, which served as a model for our world, holds some merit. Indubitably, the First World War was the pivotal moment of the last century, and it is also true that many of the values and attitudes, which were prevalent in Germany, are now part of the modern cultural fabric. But, there is a problem with Eksteins’ argument: if Remarque’s book is, indeed, representative of the spirit of the modern world, and the Nazis (which were the extreme culmination of the German rebellious spirit) repudiated it, then how is the German spirit really representative of the modern world? It is this author’s opinion that the similarity in the values of the modern world and those of pre-war Germany is due to the fact that the war had so thoroughly demolished the Enlightenment and Romantic ideals and values which had dominated the previous century, that any other ideas which are different from them are seen as potentially valid in our modern world. Sure, ideals which characterize Germany, such as estheticism, myth-making and emancipation are a big part of our modern world. But so are socialist ideas, a revived religion and the sense that other societies are just as advanced as the Western Civilization. They are all symptoms of a larger problem in Western Civilization, rather than defining our society. The essence of modernity is that we no longer firmly believe in anything as ideal and certain; ours is a society which has lost its confidence in itself as holding all the answers, and which has turned to searching within oneself for meaning in one’s life. Ours is the age of uncertainty in which all theories and sets of values hold a kernel of truth but none of them is absolute. In his inauguration speech, Pope Benedict XVI declared: “We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism, which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires.”[41] Some paid attention, and most probably did not understand what he meant. But perhaps none have summed it up better.

1. Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring, The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age 16
2. ibid 26- 28
3. ibid 30
4. ibid 36-37
5 ibid 39
6. ibid 33-34
7. ibid 49
8. ibid 17-20
9. ibid 54
10. ibid 51
11. ibid 68
12. ibid 70
13. ibid 76
14. ibid 80-83
15. ibid 92
16. ibid 94
17. ibid 101
18. ibid 96-97, 110-114, 125
19. ibid 120
20. ibid 156-159, 169
21. ibid 116-117
22. ibid 150-155, 173
23. ibid 227-229
24. ibid 173, 215
25. ibid 218
26. ibid 224
27. ibid 251
28. ibid 244, 248
29. ibid 256
30. ibid 254
31. ibid 260
32. ibid 268-269
33. ibid 287
34. ibid 287
35. ibid 303-313
36. ibid 296
37. Orlando Figes, Natasha’s Dance, A Cultural History of Russia 436
38 Kevin Shillington, History of Africa, 345
39 Collins and Lapierre, Freedom at Midnight, 94, 102
40 Marvin Perry, An Intellectual History of Modern Europe, 252


1. Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring, The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age , Key Porter Books, Toronto, 1989

2. Kevin Shillington, History of Africa, St.Martin’s Press, New York, 1995

3. Collins and Lapierre, Freedom at Midnight, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1975

4. Marvin Perry, An Intellectual History of Modern Europe, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1993

5. Orlando Figes, Natasha’s Dance, A Cultural History of Russia, Metropolitan Books, New York, 2002