The Vertigo Years – change and culture in the West, 1900- 1914 by Philipp Blom

I am fascinated by the Belle Epoque, those years before the First World War when so many new ideas and technologies came into being. This book is about that time and it is an excellent read.

Each chapter takes a year and then extrapolates from some major events to describe their wider ramifications. It concentrates chiefly on developments in France, Germany and Britain, with Italy mentioned from time to time. So ‘the West’ in the title is a bit misleading, since America is not covered in detail.

But the book is well-researched and doesn’t spend time analysing the causes of the First World War -plenty of others have done that.

Developments such as the illness known as ‘neurasthenia’, or nervous exhaustion, are well-analysed and described. This was supposedly caused by people’s inability to cope with the speed and complexity of modern life – what with the office, the telegram, the Zeppelin, the motor car, the aeroplane and much else all becoming part of daily life all at once, it was a lot to deal with. Add to this Freud’s analysis and the fear of degeneracy and emasculation and you have a heady mix.

So many things that echo down the century that has since passed. I think ‘stress’ is the neurasthenia of today.

The book is a bit repetitive at times but that is due to the format. It is a really interesting piece of history writing.


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