The Breeding Ground
After the French-German war in 1870/71, Europe enjoyed a period of interior peace for more than
forty years until the start of the First World War in 1914. During this period, many important
developments took place especially in those countries with a considerable influence such as England,
France, Austria and Germany.
The second wave of the industrial revolution seized the world. Above all it concerned the chemical industry and the electrical engineering, it was the start of the era of the combustion engine and the mass production of steel, the machines became more efficient and more powerful, the ships bigger and their construction less expensive, the propulsion changed from the paddle to the screw, from the piston to the turbine, and their speed doubled. The trains got steel rails on which longer and heavier trains could drive one and a half times as fast as before; therefore it became the most important mean of transport. At the same time began the definite conquest of the air: The first planes were built, and the airships of Zeppelin went down in history.
The industrialisation created the possibility of numerous jobs without the necessity of owning land. As a result, the population growth in Europe was more considerable than ever (in England, this already took place in the first half of the XIXth century). Because of the factories' location, more and more families moved to the therefore rapidly growing cities developing into conurbations.
Therefrom resulted new health problems, but at the same time there was an enormous progress of hygiene and medicine. Formerly mortal diseases could be healed, the infant mortality decreased considerably while life expectancy increased.
However, the nature of work had changed: The production proceedings were split, mechanised, rationalised until the invention of the assembly line in 1903. As a result, work became monotonous and the workers discontented. Partially, this could be compensated by a considerable economic expansion and general prosperity; e. g. in England, the salaries increased between 1850 and 1890 by more than 60 % whereas consumer prices decreased by 6.5 %!
Under these circumstances, the working class began to organise itself: Between 1868 and 1906, in all countries, the foundation of trade unions and (socialist) labour parties, like the French PSU, the German SPD, the British Labour Party, took place. Until 1914, these parties got a considerable political influence and partly even participation in power. Many states made great efforts to laicise their institutions; e. g. in France, the worldly institution were completely freed from any ecclesiastical influence in 1905.
Formation was promoted as well; in the German Empire, there was an increasing number of students from the lower middle class. During the seventies and eighties, for the first time women got the right to study at universities in France, Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries (in Germany, during the reign of William II, the first woman was admitted in Baden in 1901 only).
Since as a result of the industrialisation many women now also worked in factories, another result of it was the beginning of women's liberation movement: Industrial safety and equalisation were claimed for all professions. Besides this, everywhere the right to vote and eligibility of women were claimed, too. The first state conceding the right to vote to women was Wyoming in 1869, other American states followed the example – in Europe, before the First World War, only Finland in 1906 and Norway in 1913 (restricted already in 1907) conceded to women the right to vote.
A considerable merit of the scientific development and the cultural heyday had the European Jews. The XIXth century was the period of Jewish emancipation and assimilation. Whereas, however, in Germany under William II and Austria under Francis Joseph, the military had a great political and social influence so that together with the upper and middle classes they were able to evoke a racist anti-Semitism, the Jews in France first had to suffer the setback of the Dreyfus affair which nevertheless – after the publishing of the scandal and the withdrawing of the verdict – resulted in a 'militant anti-militarism' of the French society refusing any kind of anti-Semitism.
The end of the XIXth and the beginning of the XXth century marks also the transition to the century of masses: the mass transport (railway, underground), the mass education, the mass production, the mass accommodation, the mass distraction and media (circus, cabaret, cinema), but also art for the masses.
In principle, people living in this period were materially confident and culturally optimistic. Art of any genre prospered like never before: From impressionism to Art Nouveau and cubism, from romantic until twelve-tone music, from romantic and lyric until political and socio-critical literature. All social classes were seized by the feeling of a new start into better times, wanted to stop old-fashioned traditions, to participate in progress and to profit of their income. So began, on this basis, the time which nowadays not only the French call the Belle Epoque.
The "Belle Epoque"
When speaking of the Belle Epoque, everybody usually has his own ideas which exact period is meant.
There's no doubt that it concerns a period somewhere between 1871 and 1914. Historical research has
not fixed the term yet. So when did it really begin and how long did it last?
In December 1877, William Morris gave his famous lecture about "Decorative Arts" in London; the movement "Arts and Crafts" arose around 1880. In 1882, Oscar Wilde contributed to disseminate the aestheticism by publishing his papers about "House Decoration" or "Art and the Handicraftsman". In Paris, the "Chat Noir" opened in 1881, the "Moulin Rouge" in 1886. In Nancy, Emile Gallé produced his first works of glass art in 1883, and the Paris World Fair inaugurating the Eiffel Tower was held in 1889. The foundation of the Munich Secession took place in 1892, the foundation of the magazine "Die Jugend" (The Youth) in 1896; in 1897 followed the foundation of the Vienna Secession.
Some time ago, I have read in a historian's book that in his opinion the Belle Epoque began in 1901 when Edward VII, a great admirer of the Art Nouveau, became King of England which meant the end of the Victorian era. This seems to me much too late and very arbitrary. By weighing those few before mentioned dates, one can recognise two things: The Belle Epoque lasted about three decades and spread in London, Paris, Munich, or Vienna at different moments; the enthronement of Edward VII in 1901 took place at the heyday of this era.
Another aspect which should not be neglected is the considerable influence of the Victorian England, the French and German Empires as well as the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy on the social and cultural changes which occurred during the two last decades of the XIXth century – and from there to the Belle Epoque there are links like e.g. the impressionism which for me is strictly spoken already a part of the Belle Epoque.
To characterise the arising of the Belle Epoque, you will find terms like satiety of the traditional in art, architecture and daily life, satiety of the pomp and ostentation of the past. The joy of life awoke in all social classes, the desire of new, extraordinary, sensational things. The afore mentioned progress in science and technique, the improvements in social, financial and political respect during a long period of peace together with new constitutions in many countries caused for the rest an increasing prosperity and wide-spread optimism and trust in future. Cultural life was now accessible for all classes, people went out into cabarets to get distracted or for political mockeries. Cheerfulness, permissiveness and flashy outfits ruled (English aestheticism, French courtesans, music-halls, café-bordels, the Vienna waltzes). Painting, arts and crafts, architecture were looking for new ideas as much as music. Art entered the daily life. Another characteristic of the period is the afore mentioned transition to the century of masses.
If it is already not possible to determine the beginning of the Belle Epoque - by the way, what for? -, however, it is clear that at the latest when World War I began, it was over. Around 1910/11, Art Nouveau suddenly became old-fashioned, the first tendencies to expressionism and bauhaus had long shown up and Gustav Mahler died. It is certainly not wrong to say that this marks the end of the Belle Epoque.
For me, however, there is an exact date which I consider having ended the Belle Epoque like a symbolic signal once and for all : the 15th April 1912 when the Titanic sank. Along with her sank the imperturbable optimism, the naive trust in technique and the image of a splendid and glorious future full of joy of life. The terror of two world wars arose on the horizon, and confidence gave way to anxiety.