Book reviews Think Piece

The Interwar, Ourselves

by contributing editor Disha Karnad Jani

The period in between the First and Second World Wars yields fertile ground for reflection by many of our public intellectuals. Much of this resonance comes from the fact that historians have typically understood the 1920s and 1930s in one of three ways. The period can be understood as the aftermath of the First World War and the lost peace. It can be understood as the lead-up to the Second World War. And the contrarian’s response to these gloomy retellings: it was the culturally vibrant period that birthed the Jazz Age, talkies, advances in technology, and shifts in the restrictive social mores of the Long Nineteenth Century. But to hear it told as a single European story, the history of the interwar years reads first and foremost as warning. The period-after-the-war and the period-before-war are one and the same, as the post bleeds into the pre. The years between the First and Second World Wars become a cautionary tale for foreign policy experts, a lesson for those who tinker with the economy, and a time of warnings unheeded.

There are three sets of assumptions attached to most renderings of this period. First, that ‘war’ is defined as the armed conflict carried out between state actors and bound by official declarations that mark the beginning and end of fighting. Second, that ‘peace’ is merely the absence of war, meaning that the period between 1918 and 1939 was one of relative, if not absolute stability – the ‘inter’ in ‘interwar.’ And finally, that the First World War was a signal and symbol of the breakdown of a particular European civilizational identity. The Allied victory in 1945 was consequently a triumph in the wake of which a peaceful liberal order for Europe was built in the shadow of Soviet Russia and the encroaching illiberal mirror-image it represented.

In our moment, it has become customary to draw comparisons between the contemporary world and the world of the 1920s and 1930s. I invite readers to search Twitter for the phrase “and what rough beast its hour come round at last slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” The overwhelming result will be a piece of news or photograph with Yeats’ ominous query quoted without comment. In an era apparently marked by the crumbling of the postwar liberal order (if our public intellectuals are to be believed) it makes sense that we look to the last time that happened. Pankaj Mishra, for instance, has characterized our moment as an “age of anger” that liberal rationalism is incapable of explaining away. Instead, Mishra proposes considering democracy as a “profoundly fraught emotional and social condition” rather than one side of the liberal-illiberal binary. Commentators have framed and re-framed the first decades of the twentieth century in The London Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, The New York Times, Dissent, and The New Republic, among others. Arguments against comparing our moment to the Weimar Republic were published last month in Jacobin by way of a Weimar historian. In this vein, Mark Mazower’s 1998 book Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century remains an early example of the reevaluation of the cradle of post-1945 stability, years before the oft-referenced ‘de-stabilizers’ occurred – 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, the rise of the far-right in Europe, and the Syrian civil war.

Alternatively warning away from or advocating for the use of the past as a lesson, writers nonetheless have found it powerful to compare and contrast century-old developments and the present. It is not difficult to understand why these lessons resonate. Much of this conversation has to do with the simple act of naming: what is a fascist? What is a liberal? What is a populist? It is not for me to say here whether these parallels should or shouldn’t resonate, or what kind of value these comparisons may hold, either for our understanding or for productive political action. I am merely inviting an examination of the assumptions contained within our treatment of the interwar period, and what happens to this period in our collective memory if those assumptions’ legacies are dismantled by some, and upheld by others. The distinction is stark if we compare two kinds of reflections on the resonance of the interwar period. If the comparison is made in order to demonstrate the dangers of ignoring or abetting a threat to liberalism or social good, then the interwar stands as a warning. If, however, the parallel is not a call to preserve or guard against a threat, but rather to reexamine the usefulness of the very thing in need of preservation – NATO, the Democratic Party, or a ‘free press’ for example – then the critical intervention necessarily involves an adjustment of the lessons of the 1920s and 1930s. Such an intervention requires at least a partial rejection of the notion that the twentieth century’s greatest triumph was the spread of liberal democracy.

The interwar period has also been framed as a simultaneous genesis and telos of our narrative understandings of the past. 1914 was the year our present began, and it was the year the world ended. Playing with these starts and stops forms the substance of many, if not all, historiographical interventions in the study of the interwar period. And because this period is also considered the genesis of many of our paradigmatic and normative categories for political life, a re-orientation of the narrative has implications for the foundational assumptions of our notions of governmentality, order, and social good, as gathered – as though for ease of access – in the term “liberal democracy.” Two historians who have recently grappled with these questions are Robert Gerwarth and Enzo Traverso.


Robert Gerwarth shifts the center of the violence of the war towards the defeated states in his recent book, The Vanquished: Why The First World War Failed to End.  Gerwarth’s aim with this book is to move eastward, away from victory and ‘strength amid chaos’ narratives, and to those places with chaos as the main character. The shift is simultaneously geographical and chronological. Gerwarth encourages us to extend the “end” of the period of European violence called the First World War from 1918 to 1923, because, as he argues, “in order to understand the violent trajectories that Europe – including Russia and the former Ottoman lands in the Middle East – followed throughout the twentieth century, we must look not so much at the war experiences between 1914 and 1917 but at the way in which the war ended for the vanquished states of the Great War” (13). Gerwarth does not concern himself much with explaining why tensions arose between particular ethnic groups or political opponents in the period following the armistice, which he tends to see as older antagonisms coupled with new national struggles (214). Rather, he is interested in how and why such violence became so pronounced in the defeated states. The aftermath of the First World War, or rather, the extended European war, changed the course of the twentieth century because it altered the “logic of violence” (254). Even as he describes the moments of success for democracy and stable government, Gerwarth is sure to emphasize the hubris of such moments of triumph: “many policymakers in the vanquished states, and notably in central Europe, firmly believed that they had delivered where the liberal revolutionaries of 1848 had failed…. Liberal democracy, which had failed to come into existence then, had finally emerged triumphant” (116-117). Thus the foundation of whatever ‘peace’ that existed after 1918 is cast as misguided and naïve.

fireandbloodA similar shift takes place in Enzo Traverso’s Fire and Blood: the European Civil War, 1914-1945, which was translated from the French last year. Traverso extends the period of violence even further than Gerwarth does, as he examines the years between the start of the First World War and the end of the Second World War as a single historical event. The characterization of the conflict as a civil war frames the European continent as a single polity tearing itself to shreds, with a shifting roster of combatants. At the beginning, the war emerges as typically as conflicts had for hundreds of years with a formal declaration of war and the mobilization of troops. It turns into a total war, in which civilians are fodder for the war machines of various state and non-state actors. Traverso notes that the norms of liberal democracy become subsumed under the conditions of civil war, which takes on its own horrible logic. He considers the Holocaust, the anti-fascist resistance, and the deaths of civilians on both sides of the wartime and interwar fronts as part of a single global epoch one in which the scale and chaos of violence was unmatched.

Fire and Blood also dislocates two of the most persistent assumptions of older accounts of the interwar period. One of these assumptions is the “anachronism so widespread today that projects onto the Europe of the interwar years the categories of our liberal democracy as if these were timeless norms and values” (2). The second incorrect assumption is that the Allied victory over the Nazis proved itself a “new triumph of Enlightenment…a victorious epic of progress” (276). Sandwiched between these moments is an account of resistance and violence with an almost aggressive refutation of teleology or a progress narrative. Thus, contained within what appears to be merely a chronological and geographic widening, Fire and Blood furnishes an overtly political refusal to celebrate what are meant to be the triumphs of liberal democracy and humanitarianism post-1945. Traverso demonstrates the profound impact a little rearrangement can have.

Indeed, the study of the interwar period has been until recently an investigation into what went wrong and then what went wrong a second time. This sort of narrative is necessarily based on an assumption that things were going right when they were not going wrong. The break between the old world order that existed before 1914 and the subsequent “self-immolation of bourgeois Europe” – to borrow a phrase from Tony Judt – had to be explained. Any discussion of the cultural production, social advances, scientific breakthroughs, moments of hope, or signals of progress had to be mitigated by the epilogue: “little did they know….” Attached to the study of the interwar period then, are the particular methodological and epistemic implications of studying something for its very failure. The historian knows what is to come, but no one else does. Melancholy saturates the prose of such works, and if not that, then a slightly smug dramatic irony.

We are far enough away from the interwar period that it has nearly lapsed out of living memory – the experience of the Great War almost completely gone. Despite this, as Traverso in particular has shown, the period carries meaning for our understandings of violence and collapse. The interwar years remain both near and far. There is continuity in our political lexicon, but many of the categories and their potency have shifted in the ensuing century. Old vocabularies are often deployed to refer to shifting phenomena. If the period is upheld in historians’ understanding as the non-violent (yet markedly uneasy) interlude between the collapse of European order on the one hand, and the triumph of the West and liberal democracy over the evils of fascism on another, then we are left with a very brittle image of what it feels like to endure violence. As Nitzan Lebovic notes in his review of Traverso’s book: “If the polis has been stained since its earliest days by the crimson tide of internal conflicts, its constitutive order should be seen in a different light.” What experiences of suffering sit just off-center, obscured by the stark periodization of war and peace and its accompanying narrative of progress? We are left with a story that marks crisis via formal declarations of war, and the cessation of formal conflict becomes synonymous with peace. The continuation of violence in the lands of the vanquished and the prolonged civil war with its own logic are two spatial-temporal re-orientations that serve to destabilize the creation myth of the order of global liberalism which we are meant to just now evaluate as “in crisis.” And so, as if historians ever needed a reminder: periodization matters. Scale matters. The interwar period is unique because we made it so – it has become in the historical profession and in the public imagination an epoch saturated with poignancy and foreboding, of possibility and thwarted progress. Our moment and the interwar period have been mutually constituted as interstices of chaos. Moving a few things around can have consequences.

Think Piece

Why Auden Left: “September 1, 1939” and British Cultural Life

by guest contributor Spencer Lenfield

To make sense of the intellectual climate of Britain on the eve of the Second World War, one could do worse than to turn to the case of W.H. Auden. It would be less accurate to say that Auden chose to become an American citizen than that he chose not to be a British one. Politically discontented no matter where he lived, he was less irked by New York than he was by London. A trip to America to write a travel book with Christopher Isherwood grew permanent, and in 1946 he swapped nationalities for good, having identified himself as a “New Yorker” since 1939. It was there, rather than England, that he wrote the poem “September 1, 1939“—as Britain and America both realized that they would have to address, with renewed trenchancy and seriousness, the still-open question of whether to go to war with Germany over Polish sovereignty. The poem explicitly tries to make sense of its moment by interpreting the historical forces that brought it to pass, and finally arrives at a famous call to action: “We must love one another or die.” For many readers, the poem seems to distill almost perfectly the scent of what Auden later named “the age of anxiety”: fear and reluctance twinned with grit and humanity.

Except Auden himself hated the poem. He excluded it—vehemently—from nearly every edition of his collected works. Writing to the Scottish novelist Naomi Mitchison, he grumbled, “The reason (artistic) I left England and went to the U.S. was precisely to stop me writing poems like ‘Sept 1 1939’, the most dishonest poem I have ever written.” In particular, he hated the line “We must love one another or die,” remarking, “That’s a damned lie! We must die anyway.” Auden had a hard time living up to his own call to universal love. He did not want to have a cult, or at least not a British one, and he did not want to write the conscience of a generation into existence. He envisioned himself as an outsider, and was most comfortable when he was at a remove from others. “I left England in 1939 because the cultural life there was a family life,” he explained—not so much because the “cultural family” in question was especially warm or traditional (to the contrary, it could be cutting and delighted in breaking with propriety), but more because of a sense that the island environment was too claustrophobic for him to work.

So what about England in particular might have led Auden to set such thoughts on paper? And what made him reject them later as untrue? After all, “We must love one another or die” sounds resolutely cosmopolitan. The young, leftist Auden was hostile to nationalism of all kinds. From the vantage point of New York City, he writes:

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse: (34-39)

Auden is, of course, worried about Fascism here (“the strength of Collective Man”). But he is also averse to the nationalism of liberal democracy, evident as the poem’s speaker looks upwards from 52nd Street, in the belly of Manhattan. It is in the linguistic and ethnic diversity of Manhattan that Auden senses the greatest strife—the sound of languages mingling in the thicket of the city. Auden attended a screening of the Nazi film Sieg im Poland in November of the same year: biographer Humphrey Carpenter writes, “When Poles appeared on the screen [Auden] was startled to hear a number of people in the audience scream, ‘Kill them!'” (282). But Auden later felt that his reaction against nationalism was as harmful to his work as nationalism itself. Not just in England, but also in America, he felt compelled to come up with a cant of magnanimous universalism because it spoke to the issues that presented themselves at the time—thereby taking him away, he claimed, from some deeper truth.

But how did Auden conceive of England in particular in the 1930s? He has two visions of the country: the one whose “cultural life is a family life” on one hand, and the one of cheap nationalism on the other. The problem is that the first vision defines itself in opposition to the second. Auden imagines himself and literary intellectuals as occupying a Britain apart, distinct from warmongers and imperialists; they are the hardy minority—those who are

. . . dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash[ing] out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages[.] (91-94)

The intelligentsia against the demagogues, the internationalists against the jingoists: Auden depicts cultural intellectuals as embattled heroes. Yet this image of the good few lost in the clashing of ignorant armies belies political reality: Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement lasted for years, through the Anschluss of Austria, and was hardly a minority view. Angus Calder cites the Times‘ remarks when Chamberlain returned from Munich: “No conqueror returning home from a victory on the battlefield has come home adorned with nobler laurels” (26). Auden conflates war with policy. But the end of the interwar years in Britain is not the story of an ironic few holding out against a war-hungry nationalist fervor; it was rather the effort of a majority to avert war until it was almost too late. Rearmament drives, urged by Churchill, were not taken up until late 1938. Even then, popular opposition was widespread. “A surprising number of Britons contemplated killing their families if war broke out,” Calder observes: “‘I’d sooner see kids dead than see them bombed like they are in some places,’ said one woman, thinking of Abyssinia and Spain” (22).

But if Auden’s historical reading veers wide of the facts, it is grounded in the perception that an imperial, aggressive Britain, together with the victorious parties of the Great War, had brought the revenge of an angry and resurgent Germany upon themselves, most clearly evident in the wake of the “competitive excuse”:

But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong. (40-44)

The “long weekend” of the interwar years is mocked as so much self-delusion; it never really was peace as long as German resentment echoed beneath. What is at fault is not just Britain’s hubris, but “the international wrong”—in short, the terms worked out in the Treaty of Versailles. Auden adopts the language of Jungian psychopathology in the second stanza in an attempt to explain Hitler’s rise:

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find out what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return. (12-22)

The reduction of a major historical problem to a schoolmarm’s maxim stings with moral clarity—a tone that Auden later hoped to avoid or transcend.

But this sense of obvious wrongdoing had been widespread among the British intellectual elite since the conclusion of the last war. Auden more or less directly echoes Keynes’s Economic Consequences of the Peace, which depicts a benevolent, clumsy Wilson outfoxed by a vengeful Clemenceau and an impassive Lloyd George, who together set the conditions for the impoverishment of postwar Germany. Keynes was a friend of Auden’s, and one of his earliest financial backers. The conclusion of the Economic Consequences would have been taken as a given by their entire circle: “In one way only can we influence these hidden currents,—by setting in motion those forces of instruction and imagination which change opinion. The assertion of truth, the unveiling of illusion, the dissipation of hate, the enlargement and instruction of men’s hearts and minds, must be the means.” That sentence, freed from its moment, could have easily come from Auden.

It is easy to mistake the poem’s resounding moral appeal for a public clarion call for unity in Britain and America. But the target of Auden’s call is the “ironic points of light” of the cultural elite, standing in contrast to “the romantic lie in the brain / Of the sensual man in the street.” “We must love one another or die” is not a declaration of the state of Britain as Auden sees it; instead, it is what Britain must do, and is failing to do. The fact that, in retrospect, it appears as though Britain heeded Auden’s call—rallying together at the moment of its greatest need—makes it easy mistakenly to fashion “September 1, 1939” into a votive rather than an “ironic point of light.” This popular misreading of the poem seems like yet one more reason why Auden rejected it so vehemently: people took it to mean exactly the opposite of what he wanted it to say about the moment in which he was living and writing.

Spencer Lenfield graduated from Harvard with a concentration in modern European history and literature in 2012, and then received a second degree in Greats from Oxford in 2015. He currently works for the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington, D.C.