Philipp Blom’s Fracture: Life & Culture in the West, 1918-1938 is another one of my discount table pickups. Published in 2015, the book arouses even stronger notes of concern in the reader than it likely did at the tail end of the Obama era in the United States, when the 2016 election was expected to be a contest between Hillary Clinton and a conventional Republican such as Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush. The book focuses on the twenty-year period following the First World War, a period of both drastic disillusionment and significant technological progress, and a period that is getting a great deal of attention in current thought, not only because of the 100th anniversary of armistice this year, but also because disturbing parallels in the rise of populism and xenophobia in the West.
Blom’s approach is to take a year-by-year approach, focusing primarily on one issue or movement during each of the years covered in the book (although the final year, 1938, receives a dramatic, yet truncated treatment). As such, not every significant event during the period is covered as Blom depicts the fracturing of Western society (Western including both the United States and the nascent Soviet Union, in this case) in the wake of the First World War. The effects of this break are the release of a great deal of energy, a period of chaos and tremendous societal change in the 20s, followed by the attempts in the 30s to control these changes, often with the imposition of violent authoritarian rule.
The reader learns about the new malady of shell shock in the chapter on 1918 and about the culture war of Prohibition in the United States in the chapter of 1920. The disintegration of the ideals of the Russian Revolution in the early 20s, the Harlem Renaissance, the discovery of galaxies beyond ours, Dadaism and surrealism, the Scopes Monkey Trial, the idealization of the machine as portrayed in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and in contemporary Soviet thought, Betty Boop and flappers, and the building of the Soviet city of Magnitogorsk are the linchpins for the years of the 20s. In the 30s, we learn about Berlin in the age of Marlene Dietrich, an assassination attempt on Benito Mussolini, the Holodomor in Ukraine, German book burnings as the Nazi party begins its ascendance, societal change in Britain in the age of Jeeves and Wooster, the Dust Bowl in the United States, the idealization of the Aryan human form in Germany in the age of the Olympics, and finally, the Spanish Civil War and the purges of Stalin. While parts of the narrative describe various incredibly creative periods during this time, the overall tenor of the book is of a Western world grievously wounded and suffering, finding ways to deal with the trauma. In fact, much of the narrative seems to illustrate a collective case of post-traumatic stress syndrome, particularly in Europe.
This is not a comfortable read, but indeed, this is not a comfortable period in history. Blom’s narrative is particularly effective at bringing out the sense of barely-managed (if managed at all) chaos that permeates the period. Each year’s focus is on an event or movement that caused some sort of upheaval–be it political, cultural, artistic, or scientific. This is not a book for someone looking for a straightforward narrative history of the period. For instance, the crash of the American stock market in 1929 is mentioned only in passing. The reader will hear nothing about the League of Nations, or the monumental changes wrought by the New Deal in the United States, or the details of the rise of the Nazis in Germany. There are no detailed assessments of the leaders of nations. Instead, the focus is on how various people–often those on the frontiers of change–reacted to the ongoing upheaval in society. The narrative itself has a pressing sense of urgency; each chapter being under 20 pages long, giving the reader a sense of rapidly advancing time, towards the climax of war we all know is coming (even if we only reach its first overtures in this book).
Blom’s epilogue is set in 1938, when, as he says, the end of this particular period comes to the end with the German Anschluss. His book has covered the rise of political ideologies that tended to view humans as cogs in a great machine as the pace of political change accelerated. He then points out that after the Second World War, at least in capitalist economies, the focus has been not on particular ideologies, but in the power of the free market to bring about positive change–and how that is increasingly failing. “Rigid ideology and hedonistic consumer oblivion were understandable but deeply destructive responses to a communal loss of faith,” Blom says about the interwar period. “Both led ow a withering of reasoned political debate. Communists and fascists exchanged bullets instead of arguments; for the flappers and their friends, another cocktail was always more pressing than musings about the future of civilization. As debate and political dialogue dried up, another war was rapidly becoming predictable and imminent.” As I mentioned, Blom’s work was published before the increasing political polarization in the US bore orange fruit, meaning his warning rings even more strongly now.