1916, one hundred years on, is still considered the fulcrum upon which the fate of the European 20th century hung. As the surface of a pond agitates and ripples outward when a stone is thrown into its depths, so too did the fabric of Europe itself writhe and contort as the twin Furies of war and revolution waxed, their jaws grinding and their bat-like wings outstretched in horrid pride. Nearly 20,000 young British men died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme alone; the Battle of Verdun, the centennial of which falls at the end of this month, remains an objective standard of Hell more unearthly than anything Dante or Hieronymus Bosch could ever hope to concoct. The grand chessboard of empires pitting their mettle against one another lost the respectable sheen of Napoleonic line fighting and became thinly veiled wholesale slaughter.
I am not, however, concerned with the strictly martial aspect of the year, despite the looming shadow the Great War casts over it. 1-9-1-6: in that mere sequence of numbers lies so much of import in the span of 12 months, so little time, such that the rush and roar of modernization threatens to blur out the death-throes of the 19th century. 1916 deserves a place alongside 1789 and 1848 in the pantheon of European years of trauma: the old modes of art, of rule, of societal ordering, and of historical conception would be not so much refuted as shot between the eyes.
1916 was an anti-year, defined by action, reaction and counter-reaction. Dadaism fired nonsensical salvoes at the bastions of cultural sensibility; the 1916 Manifeste DaDa of Hugo Ball broke down language itself into comestible pellets, an elemental rebellion of the physical world shaking itself free from the radotage and the lifeless corpses of self-satisfied art. From January to June, Lenin wrote a biting critique of the colonial powers that were, venting his spleen upon the evils of industrial exploitation and prophesying worker’s rebellion throughout the developed continent. A popular uprising flared to life in Ireland at Easter, and was crushed. Oswald Spengler continued work on Der Untergang des Abendlandes, the Bible of cultural pessimism and the outlet of an eschatological voice in the wilderness. One could theoretically go on supplying examples forever; 1916 was defined by overturning, and by the knowledge that things could not remain as they were. The quiet simmer of the fin de siècle boiled over into noise, impact, and mechanized slaughter.
The most emblematic image of the year to me is that of a horse without a rider. Kaiser Franz Joseph I died on November 21, 1916, and was paraded in funerary pomp through the streets of Vienna. His attendant subjects and foreign dignitaries were veiled or regaled in the style of the Ancien Régime. Alongside his coffin, the Kaiser’s horse, saddled but riderless, followed the defunct monarch on his last voyage, pulled along as if it too would be sacrificed to carry the Kaiser in the afterlife. Exactly two years and ten days later, the war was over, and Austria-Hungary – Central Europe’s great domain of unintelligible tongues and chafing creeds and egos – was dismembered. Franz Joseph I was Kaiser for all but those last couple of years of the unified Austro-Hungarian Empire’s existence.
It may therefore be morbid to take such an active interest in such a narrow span of time. This is, nevertheless, precisely what I propose to do. For all of the undoing and idol-smashing that may have been occurring, the shards of Europe were being simultaneously reforged, like Siegfried with Nothung, along new lines. Nearly every Apocalypse narrative, from Revelation to Ragnarok, ends with some form of renewal from the ashes. If the bombs, blood and mud of the trenches were to destroy the old as-it-is, the desired continuation was an as-it-should-be, galvanized and tempered in the crux of 1916.
It is out of interest for this cycle that, for the next four published articles of The E’er Inscrutable, I will be examining aspects of the year which stand out for the violence of their tenor and for the sharpness of their passing. The novelty of the centennial should not be all that attracts the eye: 1916 – the year of the horse without a rider – is the testament of mortal impermanence and the imperfection of human construction, woefully prescient and omnipresent.
“Nun hat die Glut
deine weiche Härte
dem Hammer weicht:
zornig sprühst du mir Funken,
dass ich dich Spröden gezähmt!”
–Richard Wagner, Act I, Scene 3 from Siegfried