Christof Dipper is professor emeritus of modern and contemporary history at the Technical University Darmstadt. In 1972, he received his doctorate in Heidelberg (under R. Koselleck); in 1980, he qualified as a professor in Trier (under W. Schieder) and held a Heisenberg fellowship. Between 1980 and 1987, Dipper was interim professor in Stuttgart, Freiburg and Düsseldorf. From 1987 to 1990, he taught as a professor of modern and contemporary history as well as economic history at the University of Trier; from 1990 to 2008, he was professor of modern and contemporary history at the Technical University in Darmstadt; in 1998/99, he was fellow of Historisches Kolleg München; in 2000, he taught as visiting professor at Hebrew University Jerusalem; in 2008/9, he was senior fellow at FRIAS-Kolleg Freiburg. One of his current research focuses is the design and history of modernism.
Euphoria and Panic: Modernism and Its Diagnoses of the Time around 1900
The term modernism (Moderne) first entered the German language in 1886. It referred to a conscious awareness of living in an entirely new era. “Entirely new” could mean very different things. Quantitatively speaking, there was no doubt that it implied fundamental changes in the arts, technology, and science and subsequently also in political, social, and economic conditions. In qualitative terms, the matter was less clear-cut. Had things got better or worse?—that was the big question. Around 1900, all that could be said with any certainty was that people were living in a transitional period of the kind that is always associated with a lack of clarity.
Crossing the cultural threshold that is only hinted at in this talk demanded answers. Of course, there was considerable controversy about what direction to take. Today, research reveals that every response to the question was modern, even those cloaked in an antiquated guise—i.e., invoking tradition. And it also shows that technologically minded scientific modernism was considered compatible with backward-oriented formulas and even became increasingly popular. There were many more options for diagnosing the time, with the result that the acknowledged models of order such as progress or liberalism that had been used to explain the world and provide direction, were criticized, and the bourgeois norms in art also became less compelling. New standards pushed themselves to the fore, creating not only optimism but also resistance, culminating in conflicts of interpretation that sped things up, and, even more importantly, expanded the political arena. Although this was not the start of a spiral movement, the process clearly accelerated now. All of this shows that it is not 1914 that marked the end of an era but rather the liminal cultural shift around 1900.