Martynkewicz marshals an impressive range of evidence to establish that numerous German bourgeois and bohemians living around the turn of the twentieth century felt physically and emotionally drained by the demands of what they perceived as an ever more complex modernity. Perceptive case studies include the “tired colossus” Otto von Bismarck, the diet-obsessed Friedrich Nietzsche, the sharp and ascetic Cosima Wagner, the depressed Protestant Max Weber, and the fitness fanatic Franz Kafka, as well as Gustav Meyrink, Thomas Mann, Rainer Maria Rilke and many other key figures of German modernism.
Rilke’s famous dictum “Du mußt dein Leben ändern” ["You must change your life"]
I liked on the Larry Sanders show when Hank the sidekick says thankfully to guest Jeff Goldblum: "Jurassic Park ... that movie ... changed my life."
neatly sums up the resolute attempts of these characters to counter their exhaustion-related disease by subscribing to various tenets of Lebensreform (lifestyle reform). It is one of the many strengths of this fine study that the intricate connection between these salvation-promising reform movements and exhaustion is so cogently demonstrated: Martynkewicz shows that the fin de siècle did not just produce exhaustion, but also saw the advent of numerous strategies to counter and even to prevent its effects. “In times of weakness and illness”, he writes, “the longing for salvation and redemption, as well as for saviours, spiritual guides, prophets, trainers and dieticians, multiplies.” Among the prophets we encounter are the naturopath Ernst Schweninger, whose allegedly miraculous regime was said to have transformed the “obese and miserable dotard” Bismarck into a strong and “elastic” young man; the raw food advocate and deviser of Bircher muesli, Max Bircher-Benner; his colleague Heinrich Lahmann; and the endocrinologist Eugen Steinach, who performed and popularized dubious and later discredited rejuvenation operations.
Other practices that were frequently mobilized to counter exhaustion include nudism, vegetarianism, macrobiotics, gymnastics, yoga, gardening and expressive dancing. Martynkewicz discusses the thriving sanatorium culture (famously satirized in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain), as well as a phenomenon called “Europe-fatigue”, manifest in an escapist idealization of the Orient’s exotic otherness, as seen, for example, in Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. Das Zeitalter der Erschöpfung goes on to engage with a range of famous declinist thinkers such as Oswald Spengler and, above all, Nietzsche, who articulated a sense of “belatedness” and bitterly complained about the decadence, degeneracy and weakness of their contemporaries.