In the late 19th century, French sociologist Émile Durkheim warned the world about spreading “normlessness” (anomie). He claimed that modern society, and particularly life in concentrated urban-industrial areas like Paris, left people without the sense of belonging that characterized “traditional” life. Durkheim was not alone in thinking that there was something fundamentally sick-making about modernity. Marx called the modern malady “alienation” (Entfremdung), Weber called it “disenchantment” (Entzauberung), and Freud called it “discontent” (Unbehagen). The more general term used in fin de siècle Europe was “neurasthenia,” a condition of nervous exhaustion caused by the frenetic pace of modern life.
The theory that modernity was pathological was put to the test on several occasions in the early twentieth century. One of the earliest was the Paris flood of 1910. It’s the subject of Jeffrey H. Jackson‘s wonderfully told tale Paris Under Water: How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910 (Palgrave-MacMillan, 2010). By Jackson’s revealing lights, social science did not fare very well. When the Seine river literally rose up out of the ground and over its banks, things in Paris did not fall apart as Durkheim, Marx, Weber, and Freud might have predicted. Far from it: the Parisians generally pulled together, fought the rising waters, and helped one another. They were not “normless,” “alienated,” “disenchanted,” or “discontented.” They knew just who they were: French citizens. They knew just what to do: lend a hand. And they knew just why they did it: national duty. This isn’t to say that some sort of ideal democracy magically emerged out of the flood waters. It didn’t. As is always the case, people in desperate situations do desperate (and often stupid) things. The deluge ripped the veneer of normalcy from daily life and revealed underlying conflicts. But more than anything else the Paris flood revealed the remarkable strength of modern republican nation-states. Unlike their much praised “traditional” counterparts—the monarchies of early modern Europe—they did not fall apart when put under significant strain. They cohered and even grew stronger.
We shouldn’t think, however, that this solidarity was an entirely good thing. National unity had a much darker side, as would be shown only a few years later. Nations are often very good at helping themselves, as the Paris flood demonstrated. But they are also very good (if “good” is the right word) at fighting other nations, as was demonstrated with horrible clarity in World War I and World War II.
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