I’m fascinated by the Edwardian Age, that period from the 1890’s to World War 1 when civilization had seemingly reached a pinnacle. The world had been at peace for decades, and it seemed like war itself was a thing of the past, outmoded, irrelevant. A new age of civility and manners had dawned on mankind, and industrialization had created immense wealth and widespread prosperity. In America, this was the Newport era where the wealthy (“Robber Barons”) built their “cottages” by the sea. The wealthy on both sides of the “pond” enjoyed themselves with extravagant leisure activities like the new game tennis or endless summer lawn parties for the “in” crowd.
The arts were thriving, and culture had seemingly fused the best of old traditions with amazing modern innovations like the automobile and the bicycle. In one area the Edwardians did achieve a zenith in culture that had never been reached until then or since, and probably will never be reached again: high fashion. Men wore the perfect tuxedo and top hat, while curvaceous women — shaped by the devilish corset — enjoyed outrageously stylish big hats and stunningly elegant dresses. Their high fashion really puts our Kentucky Derby fashion statement to shame — there simply is no comparison.
Many wealthy young American women married into the British and European aristocracies — a clear trend. They brought their financial assets with them, and therefore restored the fortunes of a great number of old European houses, so that European aristocracy witnessed an unexpected renewal and flourished once again. It was a golden age that looked out upon the future not just with mere hope but with bright confidence — nothing could ever possibly go wrong again, and everything would certainly always go right, to bigger and better things, to a higher and higher state of civilization.
Then Sarajevo happened. Entangling diplomatic alliances took a very local incident and inflamed it into a general European crisis. And so war burst upon the Europeans suddenly, like a steamroller exploding out of the night. And what war! Trench warfare, “no man’s land,” machine guns, heavy ordinance with gigantic cannons, a new and formidable weapon called “tanks,” airplanes with machine guns and bombs, gas attacks, and a horrendous new affliction dubbed with the apt name “shell shock” — all the horror that modern military technology could bring to bear upon the art of killing large numbers of human beings. In this diabolical type of war, humans were not really individual soldiers anymore, but so many ants to be crushed en masse under foot by the war machine.
And no one in the Edwardian Age — busy whiling away their leisure time playing tennis at a lawn party in Newport — saw it coming. Busy with social media and our smart phones, are we not the same today as the Edwardians — without a clue we are on the brink? Our threat — lest you forget — is nuclear. Whole cities can be destroyed in a blink. But that can’t happen, right?
(Still one of the classics, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front was banned in Nazi Germany because it was thought it would demoralize the military. In my opinion, the book is a must read for anyone who considers themselves educated, but, if you prefer, there was also a fine early film made based on the book.)
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