Saturday 16 December 2017

Books: An enthralling masterpiece on the inter-war era

History: Fracture: Life and Culture in the West 1918-1938, Philipp Blom, Atlantic, hbk, 496 pages, €24.83

April 1938: A dust bowl farmstead in Dallam County, Texas, showing the desolation produced by the dust and wind on the countryside adding to the problems of the depression in the USA. (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)
April 1938: A dust bowl farmstead in Dallam County, Texas, showing the desolation produced by the dust and wind on the countryside adding to the problems of the depression in the USA. (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)

Philipp Blom's dark book depicts a world suffering collective shell shock, writes alwyn w turner

This time, it seemed as though the preachers who were prophesying the end of the world might just be right. In a drought that lasted for years, the wind blew at speeds of more than 100 miles an hour, sweeping up thousands of tonnes of dust from the parched soil and depositing it on the towns and cities of the plains.

The skies were so thick and dark that some days it felt as though the sun had never risen. Drivers caught out in one of the storms could be buried so suddenly that they would have to be dug out of their cars days later, suffocated under the weight of the debris. In rural areas it became impossible to keep the dust out of the houses, and everything that people and animals ate or drank was contaminated with dirt. And then, after the storms, came the plagues of jackrabbits and of grasshoppers.

The nightmare that visited upon the central states of the USA in the early 1930s appeared almost biblical in nature, the work of an angry God, but it was, of course, a consequence of human action.

In pursuit of productivity and profit, farmers had been convinced to abandon old methods and adopt industrialisation, as represented by the combine harvester. The result had been an erosion of the topsoil that left the land dangerously vulnerable when the weather changed, and the fat years were followed by the lean. It seemed as though capitalism had destroyed what had once been called America's breadbasket.

Meanwhile, in the country that had sworn to end capitalism, conditions were worse still. In pursuit of political goals, the Soviet Union had engineered a famine in Ukraine so horrific that it continues to defy belief. The lack of records means true figures will never be known, but perhaps as many as eight million people died, including 2,500 Ukrainian peasants who were executed for resorting to cannibalism. They were not the only ones driven to such desperate measures. Yet this, too, had once been known as the nation's breadbasket.

By the middle of the 1930s it would take an effort of intellectual will to believe that either untrammelled capitalism or communism held much future for humanity. None the less, some tried: George Bernard Shaw visited Ukraine in those years and reported that there was no such thing as famine; indeed, he claimed to have enjoyed one of the best dinners he'd ever eaten.

And in between - both geographically and ideologically - these twin theatres of desolation and devastation, large areas of Western Europe were falling ever further into the deadly grip of fascism. As Philipp Blom concludes in his account of the inter-war era, these were "not so much years of peace as a continuation of war by other means".

This is an enthralling masterpiece, epic in scale and human in detail. Blom makes no attempt to be comprehensive, and eschews political and economic machinations, focusing instead on a handful of key social and cultural moments that define his central themes: the crisis of values in the wake of World War I, and the seemingly inevitable descent into yet more slaughter. Some of his subjects are less than obvious to the reader - the building of the Soviet steel city Magnitogorsk, the burning of the Palace of Justice in Vienna - while others seem inevitable: Prohibition in America, and the uncluttered modernism of the Bauhaus designers.

Whether familiar or not, all are illuminating and add to the impressionistic, panoramic picture of chaos and unrest. Just as importantly, all are compelling, for Blom is a masterly storyteller, with a taste for atmosphere and drama, continually finding new angles, details and juxtapositions. One moment we're being shocked by the raw sensuality of the American dancer Josephine Baker in Paris, the next we're plunged into the uncertainty of the subatomic world being uncovered by theoretical physicists. Along the way we discover that, after the Bible, the second-most popular book among German soldiers in the trenches of Flanders was Nietzsche's philosophical novel Also Sprach Zarathustra, and that 1920s dance craze the Lindy Hop was named after aviator Charles Lindbergh.

We also encounter famous people in unexpected circumstances. Here's Hollywood producer Sam Goldwyn flying to Vienna to offer Sigmund Freud $100,000 to write a love story for a movie (and being turned down). Here's the century's most notorious mobster, Al Capone, sufficiently concerned about the effects of the Wall Street Crash that he's opening a soup kitchen on the Chicago streets.

And, most magnificently of all, here is British MP Nancy Astor in Moscow in a private audience with Stalin, protesting about his murderous policies and concluding: "I think you are all awful!" That, surely, is speaking truth to power.

The tone is, inevitably, dark, and it becomes more so as the frenzied euphoria of the Flappers and Bright Young Things of the 1920s is eclipsed by the muscular utopianism and barbarism peddled by communists and fascists alike.

But there are rays of hope to be found, most notably in the rise of popular culture.

"No dictatorship has ever approved of jazz," writes Blom, and the liberating impact of the jazz revolution is given serious weight. So, too, is the black artistic explosion that became known as the Harlem Renaissance, complete with the disdainful wit of writer Zora Neale Hurston.

"It merely astonishes me," she said, when asked about segregation in America. "How can anyone deny themselves the pleasure of my company?"

In all this, Britain is for the most part confined to a supporting role, appearing insular and peripheral. Events that loom large in its national history rate only a brief mention - the Labour Party split in 1931 - or sometimes none at all, as with the abdication of Edward VIII.

Blom, who was born in Germany and now resides in Austria, is more interested in the wider picture, and in the context of Hitler, Franco and Mussolini, he's probably right to dismiss the importance of Oswald Mosley, whose Blackshirts in Britain "never rose to become a genuine popular movement".

Nonetheless, the collapse of manufacturing in the UK and the mass unemployment during the Depression are covered with the same humanity seen elsewhere. It was the memory of that era that drove so much of inter-war politics in Britain, the images of "these gaunt, tight-lipped men in caps and mufflers", as MP Keith Joseph once wrote. Even now, the legacy of the period can be seen shaping global events, evident in the relationship between Russia and Ukraine and in the financial caution shown by a Germany still fearful of the hyperinflation of 1923.

The massive upheavals of World War I destroyed all sense of certainty and continuity in the West. The political earthquake - four empires fell, the map of Europe was redrawn - was matched by intellectual and moral confusion.

Blom depicts a world suffering from a collective shell shock, with politicians and preachers, artists and scientists struggling to make sense of what has happened, while the masses cling on in desperation.

It may not have been the end of the world, but reading this tremendous book it feels as though it were at times a close-run thing. © Telegraph

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