As we approach 2014, we can expect a barrage of commemorations of the centennial of the First World War, a transforming event in human history. No less assuredly, certain stereotypes and myths are going to surface repeatedly, and wearyingly. Among these is the myth of the Clear Blue Sky.
You've seen it in endless films and Masterpiece Theaters, in Downton Abbey, and in Upstairs Downstairs before that. The world of 1914, we are told, is a country house idyll, the Indian Summer of Edwardian England, and none of the characters is too alarmed when someone reads about an archduke being murdered in some distant corner of the Balkans. Nothing to do with us! By the end of the series or the film, of course, most of those characters have died in the trenches, in a war that apparently dropped from a clear blue sky. Who could have expected such an outbreak of primitive savagery at a moment of ultimate tranquility and civilization?
Such a view would have perplexed most educated Europeans, whose cultural world had for several years before the war been dominated by the prospect of imminent apocalypse, by visions of blood and angels. By 1913, Europeans were living through a Golden Age of apocalyptic expectation, but somehow, that's a centennial we've missed.
Anyone surprised at the onset of war in 1914 must have spent the previous decade in a cave. Europe had come close to war over Bosnia in 1908-1909, while conflicts over control of Morocco almost detonated catastrophe in 1905 and 1911. In 1912 and 1913, half a dozen countries were engaged in the extraordinarily bloody Balkan Wars. The merest slip could have dragged one or more of the Great Powers into conflict in a chain reaction that would have engulfed Europe, exactly as occurred in the Summer of 1914. Any number of colonial rivalries could also have brought the Powers to blows. Anyone who read a newspaper knew all this.
When war came, moreover -- when, not if -- the young men of every country except Britain knew that they faced the certainty of military conscription. If you were a 20-year old artist or writer in 1913, whether in Paris or Vienna, Berlin or St. Petersburg, you knew that your chances of seeing 1920 were strictly limited.
Visions of apocalypse stirred progressive avant garde figures at least as much as to traditional religious believers. The early twentieth century was an effervescent time of cultural innovation and experiment, the era of Cubism, Futurism, Symbolism, and Expressionism, and they all emerged in what was quite self-consciously a pre-war atmosphere.
One heroic young German Expressionist was Stefan Heym, whose apocalyptic nightmare poem Krieg, (War), dates from 1911. Krieg sounds weirdly prophetic, but in the context of the time, its themes were absolutely routine: apocalypse was already a German literary and artistic genre. Among visual artists, Expressionist Ludwig Meidner earned fame in these very years for his paintings of burning cities, and his sequence of Apocalyptic Landscapes.
Russia, meanwhile, produced the greatest urban apocalypse of the century. Andrei Bely's 1912 Modernist novel Petersburg resembles the work of Joyce or Proust in its daring experimentation. The novel depicts pre-war St. Petersburg as a city under the eye of angels, where the Devil walks the streets. The statue of a horseman is a pervasive symbol, obviously suggesting one of the four horsemen of Revelation. Petersburg is a city living at the end of the world.
Painter Wassily Kandinsky was no less fascinated by angels and imminent judgment. In 1912, Kandinsky edited the legendary manifesto Der Blaue Reiter, which cultural historians regard as an epochal movement in European Modernism. But we lose the religious significance of the name when we use too literal a translation of the school's German name, calling it the "Blue Rider." It actually refers to a Blue Horseman, and the movement was born as a protest against a gallery's decision to reject Kandinsky's painting of the Last Judgment. That cosmic finale lay at the heart of European Modernism. In 1910, painter Natalia Goncharova created her stunning image of the archangel Michael, the leader of the heavenly hosts in Revelation's final battles.
Russia's musical avant garde was led by composer Alexander Scriabin, who devoted the years before the war to composing his Mysterium. This titanic multi-media and multi-sensory event would be performed in the foothills of the Himalayas with the goal of unleashing Armageddon, and initiating the birth of a new era in world history.
In Switzerland, meanwhile, Carl Gustav Jung claimed to have received repeated and deeply unsettling auguries of the coming conflict. One in 1913 foresaw "mighty yellow waves, the floating rubble of civilization, and the drowned bodies of uncounted thousands. Then the whole sea turned to blood...That winter [1913-14] someone asked me what I thought were the political prospects of the world in the near future. I replied that I had no thoughts on the matter, but that I saw rivers of blood."
They knew what was coming.
British elites were somewhat cut off from these movements, and fears. After all, all that country faced in 1913 and 1914 was the prospect of a ruinous civil war, which might erupt at any moment from tensions over Irish Home Rule or labor insurgency. Hardly anything to be concerned about...
When war came in 1914, then, it actually appeared from a blood red sky in which the hooves of galloping horsemen were audible to anyone who cared to listen. And so was the rustling of angels' wings.