Fin de Siecle and Other Essays on America and Europe
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Fin de Siecle and Other Essays on America and Europe

Walter Laqueur

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Fin de Siecle and Other Essays on America and Europe

Walter Laqueur

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The essays collected in Fin de Siècle and Other Essays on America and Europe cover the political and cultural spectrum of our time, specifically the rise, fall, and reemergence of radical movements of what was once called the extreme left and right. If the essays have a common denominator, it is that they do not join in the chorus of rejoicing after the end of the cold war. When the Soviet Empire collapsed and the cold war came to an end, there was a general celebration similar to the joy expressed after World Wars I and II. Walter Laqueur, in contrast to many of his peers, realized that Russia's and Eastern Europe's road to freedom would be, at best, protracted and arduous with many setbacks. And, as he shows, ten years after the reforms in the communist world, power, such as it is, is again in the hands of the communists, or of nationalists closely cooperating with communists. While they may not be old Stalinists, their style remains authoritarian, and no one can say for certain whether the conversion to democracy is lasting.Throughout Europe the extreme right has reemerged in force in France, Italy, Russia, and Austria these parties are among the strongest. While only a few years have passed since the demise of communism, there is already nostalgia among many in Russia with regard to the good old days, when vodka was cheap and order prevailed in the streets. In the West, the positive aspects of Nazism and fascism are being rediscovered. One might argue that it should have been obvious that the end of the cold war would in many ways create new and greater uncertainties rather than a new world order in international affairs. In certain nations, including the United States, there has been an unmistakable trend toward isolationism.How to explain such attitudes? In a brilliant assemblage of published and hitherto unpublished essays, Laqueur brings his concerns about these issues in a post-cold war environment. Essays include: The Long Way to Europe, Russian Nationalism, In Praise of Menshevism, The End of the Cold War, Feuchtwanger and Gide, and The Empire Strikes Out. Laqueur includes a profile of Andrei Sakharov, who played such a crucial role in the movement of democratic dissent in the Soviet Union. Fin de Siècle and Other Essays on America and Europe will be of significant interest to historians of European and American culture, sociologists, economists, and political scientists.

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Part I

The End of the Millennium


Fin de Siècle: Once More with Feeling

Morgen um die zwoelfte Stund Heia, geht die Welt zugrund.
—Felix Dahn, Weltuntergang (1889)


The phrase fin de siècle has meant and still means a great variety of things. In France it signified being fashionable, modern, up to date, recherché, sophisticated. It has also been a synonym for morbidity, decline, decadence, cultural pessimism. On occasion it has stood for symbolism, aestheticism, I’art pour I’art, narcissism. There was usually a frivolous connotation—of fashionable dejection but not of total despair. When Dorian Gray said (with a sigh), that life is a great disappointment, replying to Lord Henry and his hostess who had invoked the fin de siècle and fin de globe, the main underlying motive was, of course, boredom. Ennui, was also the central element in the thoughts and actions of Jean des Esseintes, the hero of Huysmans’ A rebours (1884), the decadent novel par excellence.1
The term fin de siècle first appeared in France in the 1880s. In a play performed in Paris in 1888, Batchich, a Turkish banker, tells his interlocutors “you are decadent people, having the habitude of turning everything into a joke, incapable of that great enthusiasm which is at the bottom of all great things.2 If Jesus Christ, Muhammed, Charlemagne, or Napoleon were to reappear today they would last no longer than a week. Not believing in anything anymore you will end up believing everything. Gogo or Mercadet, this is France at the end of the 19th century.”3
It is a fair description of what was believed to be a widespread malaise, at least in the French capital. A great many pamphlets and books appeared at the time with titles such as finis Galliae; there was genuine concern among French men and women that their country was going to the dogs. It was mainly (though not exclusively) a French phenomenon and it has been explained with reference to the lost war against Prussia, economic and demographic decline, the consumption of alcohol, the spread of atheism and of crime, the general decline of family ties, the deteriorations of morals. But by 1905–6 the mood changed even though there was no significant change as far as atheism, alcoholism, and general morality was concerned. Perhaps it was a generational problem, a young generation getting bored with the prevailing boredom.4
In Britain the fin de siècle mood had gone out of fashion even earlier; with the arrest of Oscar Wilde in 1896 the steam went out of the new movement. Aubrey Beardsley launched the Yellow Book in 1894, but within less than two years he was ousted from the editorship and in 1897 the periodical folded.
Did those who preached fin-de-siecle attitudes in art and literature truly believe that the world was coming to an end? Not really, many thought of themselves not as nihilists (whatever that meant) but as innovators, giving new impulses to a stagnant culture. There were a few purveyors of apocalyptic messages, but they were the exception. Leading German avant-garde journals were named Die Gesellschaft (society—rather than the individual) and Der Sturmer and the style of the times was called Jugendstil. These were not terms from the dictionary of the fin de siècle.
One of the messengers of doom was the wildly successful Polish author, Stanislaw Przybyszewski who wrote in German at the time, specifically his novel Satanskinder, published in 1897. This is the study of four anarchists, preparing the destruction of the world; one of them, Ostrap, is a gangster rather than a terrorist, but he joins the intellectuals anyway. Their immediate aim is the destruction of an unnamed town: all the buildings are burned down giving the anarchists an ecstatic-orgiastic feeling of happiness. To confound the confusion even more, the spiritual head of the Satanists is also killed by the terrorists. The reader is treated to endless reflections of an abstract nature about the right to kill and destroy. All this was designed to tickle nerves. There was always the impression that, having sown their wild oats, the “anarchists” would settle down to a normal bourgeois existence—as Przybyzewski did in subsequent years, writing in Polish.
Such a novel—and it was by no means the only one—lacked authenticity, it exuded cerebral terror, the desire to shock. It was about as remote from true apocalyptic fear as a Bela Lugosi horror movie from a presence in Auschwitz.
There has been an apocalyptic-eschatological tradition in Christianity (and in many other religions) since time immemorial: the idea of a final catastrophe as the result of an earthquake, a great flood, or the heavens and the skies falling down. Equally frequent is the vision of a general, all-consuming conflagration, or a great freeze or total darkness, or a final, decisive battle (Armageddon). However, there is no total extinction, a few humans survive who ultimately bring about a renewal, a better world. Christianity, with its stress on sin and fear was the religion preoccupied in greatest detail with the last judgment. As the Antichrist (whose reign was to precede the coming of Messiah) did not arrive in the year 1000, alternative predictions were made for 1184, 1186, 1229, 1345, 1385, 1516, and countless dates more recently.5 Among Orthodox Jews, Habad (the Lubavich tradition) announced “without any shadow of doubt” the coming of Messiah in 1991. First it was a matter of years, later of months, later yet of weeks. It was implied that “Ramam,” Menachem Mendel Shneerson, the head of the sect, was the Messiah, and when he died in 1994 without having brought redemption this created serious problems for his followers.
The idea of a cosmic disaster was not uncommon in literary circles at the turn of the last century. Richard Jefferies’ After London is quite typical; a naturalist by vocation, Jefferies had written before about wildlife and gamekeeping. In this book he envisaged an ecological catastrophe as a result of which London was submerged in a flood of mud. The most emphatic predictions of doom were provided by the Germans and Russians, with Jakob van Hoddis short poem Weltende (1911) as the classic example.
Dem Bürger fliegt vom spitzen Kopf der Hut
in alien Lüften hallt es wie Geschrei.
Dachdecker stürzen ab und gehn entzwei.
Und an den Küsten—liest man—steigt die Flut.
Der Sturm is da, die wilden Meere hüpfen
An Land um dicke Damme zu erdrücken
die meisten Menschen haben einen Schnupfen
die Eisenbahnen fallen von den Brücken.
Poems of other early expressionists such as Georg Heym (“The Demons of the Cities” and “War”) and Alfred Lichtenstein (“Prophecy”) contain the most emphatic visions of cities vanishing, great fires, the thunder of earthquakes, and a great slaughter.


There was one country in which pessimism and a fin-de-siècle mood seem to have been more warranted than in any other—Russia. The Russian intelligentsia had frequently gravitated towards pessimism, the alienation between it and the government was proverbial. Discontent was widespread also among other sections of the population; among Old Believers and some of the sectarians the coming of the Antichrist was expected hourly. The last work of Vladimir Solovyev, the greatest Russian philosopher of the nineteenth century, was a Short Tale of the Antichrist, published in 1900—the year of his death. True, this was a rather gentle affair—an attempt by an ecumenical Council in Jerusalem to smuggle through a new Christian understanding—disregarding Jesus Christ. Solovyev did believe towards the end of his life that the world was coming to an end and Vyacheslav Ivanov, the great theoretician of symbolism, even gave an exact date—the year 1900. Even before the turn of the century one finds in Russia Satanism and the image of burning cities (Konstantine Balmont); contempt for the barbarian multitude, Schopen-hauerian pessimism, and a general feeling of melancholy (Fyodor Sologub). The cult of religious mysticism and the second coming flourished in the salon of Zinaida Gippius and her husband Dmitri Merezhkovsky in St. Petersburg. Andrei Belyi’s Petersburg, the latest and most powerful fruit of this trend was a mixture of Przybyszewski and Jefferies in its themes of political terror and catastrophism.
But the period, roughly speaking, between 1895 and 1914 was also the Silver Age of Russian culture. Symbolism was the prevailing trend, but was it decadent? Its theoreticians emphatically rejected the label; Merezhkosky in an influential essay published in 1893 stated that the new movement was a reaction against the decline that had taken place before. Serge Diaghilev in another programmatic announcement derided the decadence of classicism and romanticism; others blamed the “epigones of academic art.”
The Russian Silver Age covered so many groups and individuals that one can find evidence for almost any tendency, including decadence. Valery Bryusov and Nikolai Gumilev studied the tracts of the various schools of occultism, the young Balmont was a decadent in the French style, so was the painter Konstantin Somov. Andrei Belyi became a follower, first of theosophy and later of anthroposophy. But for most of them this was a transient stage.6
Nikolai Ryabushinsky, a very wealthy playboy and one of the most important supporters of the arts, inaugurated a competition in 1907 for the most striking depiction of the devil, which must have made the heart of the Satanists beat faster. But the prize was not awarded in the end. And it was precisely in the periodical financed by Ryabushinsky, Zolotoe Runo (Golden Fleece), that the purely aesthetic view of art was criticized.
At the beginning of the Silver Age there was Dmitri Fofanov, a poet now largely forgotten, reporting that he and his generation were cold, tired, and despondent with nothing to guide them but a row of darkening graves near the hillside. But this was written in the 1880s and Fofanov’s younger colleagues were far from tired. Instead they went on expeditions to exotic places to gather new inspiration and impressions—Balmont to Mexico, New Zealand, and Samoa, Ivan Bunin to India, Belyi to Egypt, Kondratiev to Palestine, Gumilev to Ethiopia. They studied the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, Zend Avest, and Lao Tse tung. In brief, they were not world-weary but enterprising, “conquistadors” in Gumilev’s phrase. True, at the bottom of symbolism was a belief in the central importance of mysticism, but a surfeit of this cult, led symbolism into a crisis, a split, and eventually to its disappearance.
The Russians seldom believed in l‘art pour l‘art. They thought they had a message for Russia and the world—namely the renaissance of Russian culture and ultimately of Russian life. Mir Iskusstva (The World of Art, 1899–1904) was one of the most important periodicals in Russian (and European) cultural history. Edited by Diaghilev, it preached all along that the public should be educated for a cultural revival, that the past should not be negated but closely studied. There was no contempt for those who were not supermen. If Nietzsche was embraced by some, he was still criticized for his purely negative role, for not replacing the values he had destroyed by new ones. In brief, the Russian fin de siècle was different in its beliefs, aspirations, and ultimately its achievements from the French and English. It was influenced by a Russian tradition going back to Fet, Tyutchev, and beyond. These traditions were equally obvious in the case of Stravinsky, the Ballets Russes, and some of the contemporary painters.
Symbolism and fin de siècle was a European phenomenon but the differences in various countries were as striking as the common features. Some critics later argued that the idea of the fin de siècle had originated in Germany with Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Wagner who had decisively influenced French cultural life.7 But one should not overrate the interest and the receptiveness of the French in German culture in 1880s; they had their own traditions going back to Nerval, Gautier, and Musset. The Russians were admittedly looking to Paris for recent fashions; the early issues of Zolotoe Runo (1905–1909) appeared in French and in Russian. However, but for the domestic traditions, to which reference has been made, there would have been no Silver Age in Russia.
In Russia pessimism had receded well before the outbreak of World War I with the arrival of a new generation of Acmeists and Futurists, brash, enterprising, anything but früh gereift und zart und traurig (Hofmannsthal’s phrase). When Gumilev, Akhmatova’s husband, went to study in Paris, the fin de siècle was a thing of the past. Among his contemporaries, the Russian futurists, like the Italians, were interested in modern life and above all, technology, a thought that had been anathema to the St. Petersburg decadents. If the typical figure of the French, and even more of the British fin de siècle had been the world of the weary dandy with the cult of the self, he was succeeded within ten years by a very different prototype. It was fascinating to see how Maurice Barrès and D’Annunzio managed to transform themselves from hyperaestheticism to a superpatriotism that came close to fascism. Within five years of the publication of a trilogy entitled Le Culte du moi, Barrès progressed to his new trilogy that he called Roman de I’energie nationale. The first volume (Les déracinés) referred to the French intellectuals. Even in retrospect the rapid change in mentality and outlook is amazing.


It is tempting to dismiss in retrospect the fin de siècle as a short-lived fad, a posture by a group of dandies. The Marxists interpreted it as yet another manifestation of the crisis of bourgeois society; moralists regarded it as immoral and corrupt; for psychologists it was a rich quarry to mine material for a variety of theories. Compared with the fear and trembling of the Middle Ages, the fashionable apocalyptic mood appeared little more than a fraudulent imitation. Christianity, more than any other major religion had been based on the belief that the world belonged to Satan (campus diaboli) rather than to God, that, being a valley of tears, human life was nothing but misery and pain, of short-lived joys and eternal suffering, that worldly goods were there to be discarded. As Cardinal Segni, the future pope Innocent III, wrote in his De contemptu mundi: Man is born for work, for sorrow, for fear and for death. Among the many temptations that of the flesh was indubitably the greatest and the most dangerous. Before the fall, mankind had been asexual and that remained the ideal—the ascetic, the monk, and the nun. But this proposition had no appeal to the London dandy and the St. Petersburg spiritualist, for them sex was a central issue. They held the bourgeois (and the multitude in general) in contempt, and the possession of material goods was by no means frowned upon.
But the anxiety and the despair was not always a pose; there is nothing fraudulent about Edvard Munch’s famous painting, The Cry, (1893). (The Norwegian painter was a friend of Przybyszewski of whom mention has been made earlier on). Nor would it be correct, as some contemporaries did, to interpret this picture as a manifestation of nervous excitement; there is no convincing evidence that nerves were weaker in 1900 than fifty years earlier.
Max Nordau’s famous Degeneration was first published in German in 1893, in English in 1895. It was a violent, intemperate attack against modernism by a leading critic, widely read at the time, forgotten after a decade. Nordau has not fared well, he was derided as a philistine, daring to question the work of geniuses, Beckmesser attempting to sit in judgment of his betters. But as Israel Zangwill predicted at the time of Nordau’s death (1923) in an essay entitled “The Martyrdom of Max Nordau,” “whenever art goes crazy and letters lose touch with life, men will remember the prophet of Degeneration.8
There were sinister imputations: Nordau’s central concept of degeneration (Entartung) was said to have a fatal resemblance to Nazi strictures against “Entartete Kunst.” Reading Nordau today another aspect obtrudes—his strictures against the haste and nervousness of modern big city life (and of modem means of transport) sound like a precursor of the Greens even though th...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright Page
  5. Contents
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. Introduction
  8. Part I The End of the Millennium
  9. Part II The Dawn of a New Era
  10. Part III Russia, Right and Left
  11. Part IV Writers and Fighters
  12. Part V Public and Private Affairs
  13. Index