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Europe In Retrospect

by Raymond F. Betts

Disorder: Europe in the 1920's

Modifications in Social Structure
Against the general background of economic instability and managerial concern, there occurred some important modifications in the social order. While at no time in the modern age was European society firmly fixed, class structure did have a certain consistency before the war. It was said of France, but it might as well have been said of most of Europe, that an ambitious individual could move upward from one social stratum to another, but no one could not expect the strata themselves to be altered. Yet the war changed this general condition also.

First, because it was most visible, there was a political decline of the aristocracy. With the collapse of the Russian, Austrian, and German Empires, the social order in which were maintained the greatest privileges of this class disappeared. Moreover, the poor performance of the English aristocracy as leaders on the war front-- notably the senior officers who badly bungled many of the charges-- caused a considerable diminution in the general respect which this group had been accorded earlier. The political authority that the aristocrats had been able to maintain as a class even in the age of European democratization declined. Throughout the nineteenth century, men of noble title had occupied positions of great importance in the various foreign offices. Some critics have argued that such individuals had a particular European vision, unimpaired by domestic party strife, that therefore allowed them to perform more wisely than would have individuals from other classes. True or not, the aristocrats lost their hold in this domain. Moreover, the mediating functions they had also performed in domestic politics narrowed in significance.

Finally, the social image and the cultural model they projected disappeared. The notion of the "country life" that seemed so appealing from afar and supposedly conferred on European life a certain gentility dissipated along with the clouds of war. The vast estates and the legions of domestic servants, which had been directed leisurely by this duke and that count, now entered history. Few lamented the departure of the aristocracy from the center of European affairs, but it was a historical occurrence of great importance.

Yet the most important change in class arrangements occurred at the lower end of that large and amorphous group, the middle classes. There, there was a quantitative change in the "white-collar" workers whose position, if not aspiration, was similar to that of the blue-collar worker in the factory. The white-collar workers gained in numerical significance primarily through the bureaucratization of the state during the war. Although the peacetime situation saw the retrenchment of state activities, government had become a major employer and would continue to be so henceforth in European history. But it was not only in the public sector that the white collar was the distinguishing feature of the new middle-class uniform. The growing administrative aspects of commerce brought the salaried individual into view as bank teller, department store clerk, and office secretary.

Here was the modern "Everyman," whom Charlie Chaplin treated with kind humor. He was the person seedily but neatly dressed, his costume complete with that final touch of upward-bound elegance, a flower in his lapel. It was this white-collar contingent, precariously placed on the lower-edge of the middle-class world, that was the first to know the dire effects of the economic depression and, consequently, among the first to listen seriously to Hitler.

Most unusual of all and most disturbing was the appearance of one more social element, peculiar to the inter-war period in its influence. More a "cohort group" than a social class, those war veterans who generally expressed a right-wing political attitude joined together in organizations through which they could express either a common spirit of nostalgia for the war days or of discontent with the dull confusion and lack of national direction that they found in the new era of peace. Although their displays of camaraderie, as when they met in pub or beer hall to drink and reminisce, were socially acceptable enough, they also formed into political pressure groups which disturbed governmental officials. The Stahlhelm (Steel Helmet) in Germany and the Croix de Feu (Cross of Fire) in France worried republicans and radicals alike as the possible source of a coup d'etat.

More threatening, however, were the markedly paramilitary organizations that sprang up immediately after the war and that did disturb the domestic peace. These were private forces, organized and armed as if for battle, and led by former officers who were directly challenging governmental policy. In Germany in 1920 an attempted overthrow of the government took place. The event, known as the Kapp Putsch, consisted of a march on Berlin by a discontented free- booting brigade, under the command of a Prussian official named Kapp, that hoped to dislodge the new government. The army, not wishing to fight its former brothers-in-arms, did nothing. It was only a hastily organized general strike that brought the Kapp Putsch to a speedy failure.

Another such military escapade had been successfully maneuvered by Gabriele d'Annunzio (1863-1898), an Italian romantic who wrote passionate poetry, sported a monocle, wore a black shirt, and found in Mussolini an ardent admirer. D'Annunzio and his "forces"--a small band of dedicated followers wearing black shirts and giving the old Roman salute, soon to be the Fascist salute-- seized the Adriatic city of Fiume, which they wanted Italy to have as part of the spoils of war to be obtained from the former Austrian Empire. There they established a short-lived dictatorship in 1919.

Such new forms of collective protest and violence made no sense either in terms of liberal political ideology or in the considered thoughts of Karl Marx. Neither a social class nor a group directly motivated by dissatisfaction with the industrial system, the paramilitary group was further indication of a decline in civic spirit and civilian law.

There were few signs in the domestic scene of the major European countries that could be read as hopeful. Peace had been achieved, but still the effects of the war worked their way through many aspects of European life. Economic and social existence was precarious; unemployment and inflation persisted in the 1920s, even after the decline in the value of European currency had been arrested and European production figures had exceeded the prewar level.

Instability had become the norm of modern Europe, a situation that few people failed to notice.

A New Mood
The unpleasant conditions that were so evident in the immediate post-war years at the national level seemed to be contradicted by the developments in popular culture. Here there was a sense of exuberance and freedom unmatched by any attitude previously generated, certainly since the French Revolution. The social upheaval of the world war had produced a revolution in public behavior. The destruction of authoritarian government in Germany and Austria, the readjustment of sexual mores and general ethical standards brought about by the fact that the majority of young men were fighting at the front, and the large-scale employment of women in wartime industry were important factors in the collapse of what has been called "Victorian morality."

Perhaps there is no term like the "Roaring Twenties" that can be applied to all of Europe at the time. The French did call their epoch les annees folles, the wild years. Indeed, there was a lot of frenzied activity. One contemporary critic noted that Europe seemed to be moving merrily along the road to hell.

Speed took on a new form of social significance. Someone who lived "fast" lived well--and incautiously. Moreover, speed also implied elegance. Luxury liners raced across the Atlantic to win the "blue ribbon" for the shortest time in transit. And, starting in 1926, the German dirigible Graf Zeppelin flew regularly to Argentina, thereby offering new comforts aloft. Airplane races became the rage. Railroad travel was not left behind. It was at this time that the Orient Express gained its exotic reputation for polished service and swift connections. (Agatha Christie made this international train the setting for one of her most famous detective stories.) Finally, fast-moving Rolls-Royces, Alfa-Romeos, and Hotchkisses conveyed a smart social set from London to Brighton or Paris to Nice. The well-known dancer Isadora Duncan died in an unusual automobile accident, when her long, flowing scarf got caught in the spokes of the wheel of her chauffeur-driven convertible, causing her to choke to death. This example of youthful death was to become a symbol of modern futility, commented upon down to the death of the American movie star James Dean in 1955.

Such physical movement was also matched by a new social openness, the occasion for people to act themselves or act outlandishly. For the first time women smoked in public. The cabarets of Berlin became notorious gathering places for the demi- monde, those "twilight people" given to pleasures and pursuits that would have been unthought of in Victorian drawing rooms. And Paris held its own as the city of lights, complete with brighter and evermore provocative music hall productions. When the American singer and dancer Josephine Baker appeared on stage at the Follies Bergere, attired in little more than a few bananas, she created a sensation--and a name for herself.

Any such review of Europe, like that of the United States for the same period, is kaleidoscopic, presenting in gaudy and ever- changing patterns, a world without the form of the prewar era. What was here represented was that not unusual burst of libertarianism following upon the hardships and severity of an extended war. As the popular English social commentator and science fiction writer H. G. Wells (1866-1946) wrote: "The world is at present drifting into an era of humor, an era of fun.... The world is now sick of wars and tumults and is looking for lighter entertainment in order to forget the Inferno it has just passed through." But Wells was prophetic, and so he added the following comment: "Between now and 1940 or 1960, when the nations will be tested by their next bloody tragedy, they will chiefly look for fun."

Even in its early years--Wells wrote in 1923--postwar Europe seemed to some observers not to be headed to a new era of peace and progress but only fixed in a brief space between catastrophes. However, the anticipated crisis was not always imagined to be another traditionally organized and executed war. For the first time numbers of social critics considered the grave implications of a technologically organized social order. In contrast to the technocrats they argued that if there was to be a stainless steel and glass utopia, it would not house a harmonious society of cooperative citizens, but a mechanically functioning world devoid of basic humanity. Novelists like the English Aldous Huxley in "Chrome Yellow" (1921), playwrights like the Czech Karl Kapek in R.U.R. ("Rostow's Universal Robots," 1922), and film directors like the German Fritz Lang in "Metropolis" (1926) all described the routinized inhumanity of a social order given over to production, to efficiency without human purpose. This theme was realized in its most popular and lasting form in Huxley's Brave New World, in which the author satirically showed that the modern way to salvation was the conveyor belt.

The criticisms contained in popular commentaries such as these suggested that, with the advent of modernity, it was form and process, not substance and purpose that counted. The horrors of the First World War were transfigured, to appear now as the destruction of the soul and heart of Western civilization. What was left was a world of "hollow men," to take out of context the title of a T. S. Eliot poem of the time. This sense of hollowness, found also in the purposeless existence led by so many of the heroes of post-war novels--and perhaps even in the person of one of the most famous of these novelists, F. Scott Fitzgerald--extended to institutions. What was left of European liberalism resembled a hollow shell, incapable of supporting the heavy burdens the war and its effects had imposed, the heaviest of which would be felt in a few years when worldwide depression struck.

But this is hindsight, evident to anyone who looked back after 1933. For a few years, between 1925 and 1929, the European state and social systems seemed to have righted themselves. The League of Nations was functioning well; Germany, France, and Great Britain, in the persons of their foreign ministers, were displaying an outward appearance of friendly understanding. And the intellectual community, the world of Sigmund Freud (the Viennese psychiatrist), Albert Einstein (the German mathematician), Igor Stravinsky (the Russian refugee composer resident in Paris), and Thomas Mann (the German novelist ) was briskly at work. It promised and produced new theories, thoughts, and works that clearly indicated the continuing vitality of European civilization.

Yet what will remain striking to all historians viewing the inter-war period is the very brevity of the period of "normalcy" that so many people sought and expected.

The destructive effects of World War I were not only restricted to the battlefield; they were noticeable throughout the inter-war period, marking it with uncertainty. Even the efforts at adjustment, undertaken with great hope in the 1920s and initially offering promise, were soon frustrated. Except for the so-called "halcyon years," the period between 1925 and 1929 when stability and peace were briefly secured, the 1920s and 1930s careened along both socially and financially.

This was a time without much clear direction, either philosophical or political. The older bourgeois ideal of material and social progress in an atmosphere of international peace had been shattered by the war and was not again successfully restructured because of the continuing economic and financial dislocation that war had caused. Particularly, the law of the marketplace--the long-held assumption that supply and demand would tend toward balance and hence to self-regulation--was shown to be badly inoperative, first in the immediate postwar period when inflation caused the rapid depreciation of European currency, and economic conversion from a war-time to peacetime economy brought problems of unemployment. Thus, within government and among businessmen there was a growing concern that the liberal "laissez-faire" state could not be restored. Put otherwise, the Wilsonian call to "make the world safe for democracy" needed to be extended to the economic as well as to the political order of things. Economic well-being would be the most important concern and the least successfully approached problem of the inter-war period for the democratic states.

Furthermore, the precariousness of the results of postwar "reconstruction" was demonstrably expressed in the social attitudes of the 1920s. The new social openness of the time was an indication that the customs and institutions which had, at least outwardly bound nineteenth-century bourgeois and "Victorian" Europe had collapsed. And the new epidemic of fads in clothing, music, art, and social manners also suggested the underlying instability of the postwar social structure, for now superficial change substituted for needed reform.

Yet none of these comments would have been seriously received in the few years before 1929. Then the general European outlook was hopeful, if not serene. "The Crash" was much more than a figure of speech.

NEXT:  Chapter Ten: An Era of Despair

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