La Belle Époque:  The Twilight of the 19th Century

Our story begins in la belle époque (1890-1914), a period in history characterized by the very rich’s inability to deal with the grim reality of modern life, and, as a consequence, their retreat into a frivolous, fairy-tale kind of existence of their own making. Choosing to live out of time and place, this aristocracy rejected reality and thus dissociated itself from the real world. Instead, this elite constructed a rigidly structured society based on the domination of the weak—whether the poor, the opposite sex, or children. Thus, the rich judged people according to social standards in no way connected to merit.  Besides being based on social inequality, this elitist system was also founded on faith in the unquestioned values of the 19th century. But why would the rich behave in such an arrogant, autocratic manner? The reasons are complex, but, above all, this society wanted to cling to an ordered world that would withstand the forces of modernity. 


Sandown Racetrack     

First of all, the aristocracy wanted to hold on to the status they felt rightfully entitled to. The product of an age of progress that had transformed what were once rural societies into modern industrial nations through unprecedented economic, territorial, industrial, and population expansions, the aristocracy wanted to make sure that their privileged position remained intact.  On the one hand, the old aristocracy of birth and inheritance was being replaced by a new one of wealth and economic power.  The intensely class-conscious long-established aristocracy regarded the newly rich as “vulgar”.  On the other hand, the aristocracy also felt threatened by the hordes of poor people who had left the countryside to man the factories and were about to declare class warfare. Living in isolation from the rest of society, the elite indulged in every kind of privilege, luxury and extravagance as living proof that they were above the rest.


Second, the rich believed that because modern civilization was moving towards an inevitable collapse due to society’s moral deterioration they were obligated to lead by example. They regarded the poor as “degenerates” who, because they were inferior, could not control their animal-like passions, and who, if not kept in their place, would bring about universal moral ruin. The best way, or so they thought, of remaining in control was to preserve appearances by living by a very strict, rigid code of behavior.  The overriding consideration was to “put up a front” so that their inappropriate behavior of the upper classes would not be revealed to the lower classes.  Strictness was maintained on every level, no matter what was going on beneath the surface.  Above all, one was not allowed to exhibit feelings.  Thus, for the sake of maintaining control, morality was authoritarian and taboo-ridden.


Although the rich of every powerful country saw themselves as rightful leaders who, because of their position, were entitled to live a life of leisure and extravagant consumption, their nationalities defined for them the kind of lifestyle that they would pursue. For instance, the French elite lived their lives in the pursuit of beauty and culture, for, after all, Paris was the fashion capital of the world.  Because they thought of themselves as the leading purveyors of civilization, the French demanded the highest degree of refinement in everything that they experienced—beautiful women, fine dining, couture, and all of the fine arts.  Their days were spent in luxurious splendor going to fine restaurants, the races, and the theater in order to be seen by the rest of society.   The British elite, on the other hand, were too puritanical to focus their lives on sensual enjoyment.  Instead, the English were interested in extending their dominance through the British Empire.  In fact, during this time in history their dominion extended to over one fourth of the land and the population of the earth.  England colonized Canada, Australia, India as well as much of Africa and Asia.  In the United States, the Americans were preoccupied with making money.  Because after the Civil War, America focused on expanding to the West and building the infrastructure for the whole country, great fortunes were made.  But lacking an aristocracy, rich Americans looked to Europe to marry their daughters off to the highest titles available.  Many young American women were sent to Europe in order to socially validate their parent’s fortunes.  Germany, which had recently become a unified nation, focused its manpower and capital on becoming the most technologically-advanced country in the world.  What Germany lacked was the acknowledgement of their mastery by other nations, and so its reaction was to show off how capable they were.   Ultimately, Germany’s need for validation would be one of the causes of World War I.


There were many forces that were trying to undermine the elite’s stronghold over government.  In fact, perhaps the most violent of these forces was the anarchy movement.  Envisioning a stateless society where men would be free to be good as God intentioned to be, the anarchists wanted to do away with government, with law, and with ownership of property, the root of all evil.  The anarchists believed that once Property was eradicated, no man would live off the labor of another and then human nature would then be released to seek justice.  The role of the State would be replaced by voluntary cooperation among individuals, and the role of law by the supreme law of general welfare.  For the anarchists, only a revolutionary overthrow of the existing systems would bring about a new society.  Consequently, between 1890 and 1914 six heads of state were assassinated at the hands of anarchists. 


Because the anarchists wanted to destroy every aspect of ordinary life—the flag, the legal family, marriage, the church, the vote, the law—they became everybody’s enemy. Furthermore, anarchists acted, on the whole, as individuals on their own.  Many revolutionaries began to feel that if they were going to be successful, they better organize.  In order to create a more concerted effort that would galvanize others in the struggle against the privileged, many of the anarchists began to drift into trade unions where they could be more effective by educating others and directing them to strike against the capitalists. Many of these anarchists transformed themselves into labor leaders who began to create class consciousness, and with it, the beginning of class warfare.  As a consequence, during la belle époque the rich and the poor were pitted against each other although the former did not want to deal with these uncomfortable realities presented by the latter—long hours, low pay, poor food, and sickness.



Russian anarchist


Still another type of revolutionaries, albeit non-violent ones, were artists and intellectuals who, by challenging and questioning the values of those in power, worked for the liberation of the mind. These “upstarts” were rebelling against a conservative world view that did not want to accept or adjust to the new scientific discoveries and technological inventions that were transforming society.  Rather than admitting that their values and lifestyles had to evolve to meet the challenges of the new age, the tradition-bound elite embraced very rigid forms of behavior devoid of any authenticity. Fundamentally, the only thing that the elite cared about was keeping up appearances and not being caught in their peccadilloes.  In Vienna, Sigmund Freud’s writings exposed how oppressive these codes of behavior were, oftentimes leading many to repress their feelings thereby causing all kinds of emotional anxieties and mental illness.


Similarly, artistic organizations adopted rigid conventions that regulated the arts with a very strong hand. Like society at large, artistic critics and the directors of the academies stressed inflexible, strict rules over any kind of original personal expression.  For instance, painters had to follow dogmatic guidelines such as what was the “correct” way to draw or the “proper” subject matter imposed upon them by teachers and judges who would not budge.  In other words, the art establishment was more interested in how well artists would follow the imposed rules rather than allowing creative freedom.  If they chose not to follow these criteria, these painters were not only rejected but derided for breaking with tradition.  This ostracism not withstanding, many artists were true to their convictions and pursued their own visions even if it meant banishment from the coveted acceptance of the art world.  Choosing instead to convey an inner feeling, whether emotional or spiritual, many modern artists refused to accept what was defined as “beautiful” and turned to a more honest, personal portrayal of their perception of modern life.  


Just as artists and intellectuals rebelled against what was acceptable, enlightened women also refused to play by the old rules. At this time, a woman was a piece of decorative property and was put on a pedestal to be worshipped.  Her role was to run a man’s home and rear his children.  If she was rich, she received his guests and hired and fired his servants; if she was poor, she cooked his meals and darned his socks.   Modern women rejected the roles and boundaries that had been created by authoritarians. Wishing to have their own identities and control over their lives, women organized in order to win their civil rights and the right to vote.  The suffragettes, as they were called, fought for social and economic equality of the sexes and the right to develop as they saw fit.  Their first acts of militancy were interrupting political meetings, but then they became more aggressive.  In England, one of the suffragettes slashed a Velazquez Venus in the National Gallery; Emily Davison threw herself in front of a racehorse; others committed arson and tore the clothes off Cabinet Ministers. Many of the suffragettes who were taken into custody went on hunger strike and were force fed through the mouth and the rectum.  These actions on both sides can only be explained as a passionate upsurge of pent-up frustration. 


Another factor which inevitably destroyed la belle époque was progress.  Many of the inventions that came into being during this period were originally only affordable for the very rich.  A case in point was the automobile, which was invented in Germany and became the plaything of the very rich.  With time, this machine was to provide mobility for the masses in the 20th century.  As a consequence, technology and machines had a liberating force on society once they become accessible to all. Furthermore, technology created new economic and educational prospects for everyone.  Before the end of the 19th century, the organized bodies of men that ran the affairs of the world—parliaments, bureaucracies, churches, guilds, and corporations—had been, for the most part, concerned with preserving the status quo of those in power.  However, with the advent of technology, industrial research laboratories changed this condition since their function was to create innovation.   Technological advances brought with them social changes, especially opportunity for the masses through education, industry, and commerce.  In Germany, for instance, dye makers established research laboratories, sometimes with the assistance of the government which also fostered university training that would, in turn, feed the industry new talent. Thus technology became an agent in leveling the playing field for society at large. Little by little, the elite were stripped of their power over the rest of society.


                            1900 Paris World Fair

Finally, la belle époque came to an end with the outbreak of World War I, when the technological advances of the age had been applied to the construction of destructive weaponry that would take the lives of more than ten million people and reshape the map of Europe.  Whereas on the surface it appeared that la belle époque was a period defined by harmony, peace, and hope, there was, in fact, a good deal of tension concealed beneath the surface calm caused by nationalism, colonialism, and a series of alliances between European nations.  Although nationalism had brought people to unity through the forging of national identity, it also gave rise to competition between nations as well as a sense of superiority.  While colonialism had opened the markets of the world to Europe, at the same time it created a sense of resentment and bitterness between competing nations.  Finally, nationalism and colonialism would lead many European nations to create alliances amongst themselves.  By the time that Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo by a group of Serbian terrorists, it was too late.  Even though Kaiser Wilhelm and King George V were first cousins, they were unable to stop the war because the former had signed a treaty with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the latter, with Russia. The old order of the elite met its final blow when the young from all the classes died side by side in the trenches of World War I.  In the end, death was the great leveler.