History 104: Western Civilization since 1648

Lecture: Interwar Culture and World War II

 Mondrian's painting, with large red square, small blue square lower left, smaller yellow rectangle lower right, white background, black lines separating seven areas

Interwar Culture

Post-war Anxiety
Culture and Sexuality in the Jazz Age
The Science of Uncertainty
Weimar Berlin
Albert Speer
Women and Fascism
Modern Art and Music

World War II

Treaty of Versailles
1920s False Prosperity
Stock Market Crash
Fascist Italy
Hitler's Germany
Fascist Expansion
War: Pacific Theatre
War: European Theatre
The Holocaust

Interwar Culture

To many, the Great War seemed an indication that the beneficial progress of mankind was over. Millions of young men, an entire generation, had died in the horrible slaughter. War was conducted with machines and gas, sending survivors back with shell-shock that turned them into automatons and prosthetic body parts to cover gas damage. Clearly, the image of rational humanity, reaching forward into a peaceful world, was a sham. The most popular book after the war was Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West. A quotation:

A boundless mass of human Being, flowing in a stream without banks; upstream, a dark past wherein our time-sense loses all powers of definition and restless or uneasy fancy conjures up geological periods to hide away an eternally unsolvable riddle, downstream, a future even so dark and timeless - such is the groundwork of the Faustian picture of human history.

Faust was a popular theme, since mankind seemed to have sold its soul to the devil for the ultimate in technological power. The anxiety of the post-war era was reflected in every possible cultural expression. Some chose an "eat, drink and be merry" approach; others, like Spengler, were more introspective.



Two different philosophies from this era should serve as illustrations.

Logical empiricism was based on the belief that the previous subjects of philosophy were crap: whether there was a God, what was the meaning of human existence, etc. In the spirit of super-positivism, logical empiricists focused only on that which could be proven. Empiricism, you may recall, says that knowledge comes from experience. Logic was claimed to make mathematics (rationalism) also proveable. A proposition is meaningless unless it can be analyzed through experience or logic. Thus questions about God and such are not valid philosophical questions, because few elements of them can be proven. Philosophy could, Sartre with his pipeinstead, focus on significant issues. This trend reflects the problems with the meaning of events like the Great War.

Existentialism does too, because it emphasizes the individual will. The individual creates such meaning that does exist, through his/her own actions. There is no meaning except that which is given through action. For example, a soldier is ordered to fire a machine gun at the men coming at him. He can choose to do it or not. If he does it and kills someone, he is a killer. If he doesn't, he will likely be killed. But the choice is his, and the meaning is given by his action, not his intention. Jean-Paul Sartre, pictured here, popularized existentialism. It gained even more popularity after World War II revealed the things Nazi soldiers did, claiming they were only following orders.


The 1920s

There were several new elements in literature during the 1920s. One was the development of a technique called stream-of-consciousness. The idea evolved from studies of psychology.

Web document: William James (pychologist, 1892): Talks with Teachers

The technique was intended to express the narrative as the conscious thoughts of the narrator. Instead of a typical narrative story, told in the third or even the first person, stream-of-consciousnesss attempted to replicate how the mind actually works, in disjointed segments of impressions, desires, and observations.
bookWorkbook document: James Joyce's Ulysses (1922)