History 104: Western Civilization since 1648

Lecture: The 1920s and 1930s

Music: from Five Pieces for Orchestra by Arnold Schoenberg, one of the most controversial composers ever. He used new techniques of composition based on the twelve tones of the chromatic scale, ignoring usual melodies and harmonies to create "atonal" music which Schönberg said was "the emancipation of the dissonance."

Lecture contents:

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

Rudy Valentino
Rudolph Valentino
Movie actor and hearthrob of 1920s Hollywood


The minute you or anybody else knows what you are you are not it, you are what you or anybody else knows you are and as everything in living is made up of finding out what you are it is extraordinarily difficult really not to know what you are and yet to be that thing.

-- Gertrude Stein (1937)


Post-war anxiety

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)

While Joyce was certainly a master of the style, other authors, like Virginia Woolf, also used the technique. Woolf was particularly important in advancing the concept of women as literary figures. She insisted, for example, that women must have a separate place to write, a "room of ones own".

Another trend was in gay culture as expressed through literature. The first openly lesbian novel Lesbian dress: two women at the raceswas Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness. In the novel, a girl is named Stephen because her father wanted a boy, and she grows up an invert (inversion being the clinical name for homosexuality). The book shows Stephen's life and loves, and most of all her sorrow and struggle.
bookWorkbook document: The Well of Loneliness (1928)

The novel is still a cult gay book, but that fact de-emphasizes that it actually reflected the popular interest in gay themes during the 1920s. In elite circles, it was cool to be gay. The androgynous female fashion of the time reflected this. So although Hall's book reflected the misery of being gay in a society that expected heterosexuality, the gay underground was simply not as submerged as it had been during Victorian times.

The 1930s

Introducing you to my three favorite books of the 1930s should help shed light on trends during that era.

bookWorkbook document: Tropic of Cancer (1931)Henry Miller

Henry Miller was an American author who spent much of his life sponging off his friends in France and writing books that were banned in many countries. His vivid approach to sex, which some considered pornographic, was new in that it treated sex like any other activity (eating, sleeping etc.). There are many human relationships in his work, but no romanticism.

In real life, one of his many affairs was with the erotic author Anaïs Nin, who also developed a passion for Henry's wife, June Mansfield. For the voyeuristic, here's an excerpt from a 1932 letter she sent to Henry:

Anais NinI love when you say all that happens is good, it is good. I say all that happens is wonderful. For me it is all symphonic, and I am so aroused by living - god, Henry, in you alone I have found the same swelling of enthusiasm, the same quick rising of the blood, the fullness, the fullness ...
Before, I almost used to think there was something wrong. Everybody else seemed to have the brakes on. . . . I never feel the brakes. I overflow. And when I feel your excitement about life flaring, next to mine, then it makes me dizzy.

The capture of life, the living of the moment, was a trend during this time in literature just as it was in music and other arts.

Scientific advances, also, affected literature, and created Aldous Huxley's vision of the future.

bookWorkbook document: Brave New World (1936)

The ideas of social engineering, and of creating new human strains through selective breeding, were becoming popular among people interested in eugenics. Eugenics was the idea of scientifically breeding better humans through genetic engineering, for example by sterilizing people with inherited mental defects. Huxley's books reflects the possibilities of science in radically changing humanity, and a disturbing image of that new reality. In today's U.S, where stem-cell research exists alongside genetically-engineered food, it's a good book to read.

But my favorite Huxley quotation is this:

"That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history."

KafkabookWorkbook document: The Trial (1925;1937)

Franz Kafka gives us the labyrinthine, terrifying world of the depersonalized, autocratic state. Kafka himself was a Czech Jew who at an early age showed a dislike for rote learning. He was sympathetic to socialist causes. He studied law, and became a hard-working official in an insurance company, writing his books at night. His work influenced many authors with his vision of pointless, masochistic bureaucracies controlling a confusing maze of red tape. Even today, mindless bureaucratic situations are referred to as "Kafkaesque".

Culture & Sexuality in the Jazz Age

Josephine Baker, known in Paris as

Paris was the cultural center of Europe in the 1920s. The disillusioned came there, as did the unemployed, the artistic, the unusual. Expatriate writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway ate in the cafes. It was the headquarters of the Lost Generation and the avant-garde.

You could get anything in Paris. Go into any nightclub, and buy some cocaine before you enjoy Josephine Baker's striptease act. Look around at the guy-guy couples, girl-girl couples, and lots of other assorted couples and other arrangements.

Paris was the extreme of what was happening throughout the west. Social and sexual norms were being challenged, as you see with literature.

In the last unit, I introduced you to Alexandra Kollontai, but her work really belongs in the 20s.
bookWorkbook document: Kollontai on Communist Marriage (1921)

Although clearly an expression of communist utopian relationships, Kollontai's philosophy also reflects the society of Europe, which was freely experimenting with new sexual relations.

The Flapper

Life cover with flapperThe female image was also undergoing revision, in a reaction against Victorian norms. Young rich women cut ("bobbed") their hair short, defying the rules about letting hair grow and leaving it long for your husband. Corsets were abandoned. Skirts stopped at the knee, and a boyish figure was preferred. The new style was led by the aristocrats, who clearly had no purpose in the modern world and whose younger members felt adrift and willing to do something different. The "flapper" did not represent as radical a departure as she seemed, however. The average flapper had sex with a few different men, one of which she would choose as a husband. But I'm sure she had more fun selecting the lucky guy than her mother had during the Victorian era!

Harlem Renaissance

The only place rivalling Paris for cultural diversity and expression was Harlem, the black community in New York. The 1920s saw the Harlem Renaissance, an outpouring of cultural expression with an ebony accent.

After the Great War, large numbers of AfricanAmericans migrated north to the cities. This, coupled with the environment of experimentation and the political leadership of figures like W.E.B. DuBois, created the energy that celebrated and revealed the black experience. There's a great website on the Harlem Renaissance, so take a look.

Material Culture

Material culture also changed drastically during the 1920s and 30s.

The biggest change was the automobile, which allowed the middle and upper classes unprecedented mobility. As a result, suburbs were created surrounding the larger cities. That made it possible for people to live outside the city, but go to work in the city. Model A
Charlie Chaplin as the Little Tramp Movies became a mass medium as they went from silent pictures to full-sound movies. They helped spread cultural values and styles, especially between Europe and the U.S. Charlie Chaplin and Clara Bow were hits on both sides of the Atlantic. Chaplin blended comedy with pathos. Clara Bow, the "It" girl, ws the ultimate in flapper seductiveness. Young people began imitating their movie star heroes, in fashion, manners, and behaviour. Clara Bow


two men in suits Fashion changed too, of course. Men's fashions became more relaxed between the 1920s (left) and the 1930s (right). The cut of the jacket and trousers got looser. Gentlemen still had their clothes made by tailors. man in brown suit
three women in long straight dresses Women's fashions went the other way, from the loose freedom of flapper clothing (left) to the tighter, more conservative clothing of the 1930s (right). What was new in the 20s was easy sewing; by 1926 a "one hour" dress (that could be cut and sewn in that time) was being marketed. By the 1930s, catalogs like Sears offered ready-made clothing at reasonable prices. catalog page of women's dresses from 1930s

Fashion for both sexes reflected a greater need for convenience. Only the very wealthy had servants to help them dress, thus clothes got simpler.


The Science of Uncertainty

To many people, science had provided a sense of certainty. Logical empiricists would be happy to tell you that only those things that could be proven scientifically were valuable. The idea that natural laws were knowable and unchanging had been dogma since before Newton's time, and the fact that science could prove things as true was reassuring.

Marie and Pierre Curie in the labBut as with the other elements of radical change in the 1920s and 30s, science changed too. It was disovered that Newtonian physics did not apply in all cases, and that there were elements that were unknown or whose characteristics were unpredictable. As this knowledge seeped into the popular culture, there was a growing awareness that even science could not provide certainty.

The atom had been explored before the Great War, and it became known that it was not the hard core of matter. Marie Curie, with her husband Pierre, did experimentation into radioactivity (a term coined by Marie). They discovered the element radium, and found that it randomly emitted sub-atomic particles, thus defying the belief in the stability of the atom.

Albert Einstein destroyed Newtonian certainty forever by showing that even time and space are not certain. His theory of relativity denied the absolutes of time and space by showing that velocity was always relative to whatever else in the universe was moving around it. For example, a train on a track is not simply going 40 miles per hour. You should also factor in the movement of the Earth itself underneath it, and perhaps even the movement of the Earth through the solar system and galaxy. The idea that there are no fixed or stationary points anywhere changed the basis of science.

There were also advances in medicine.Freud with cigar The theories of Sigmund Freud became known to all during the 1920s. Freud had treated Victorian women suffering from hysteria (which only women can have, since its base is hyster, the womb). Using hypnosis, he helped women overcome sexual repression that had been instilled in them since childhood. Bringing these feelings to consciousness cured many of his middle-class patients. His work seemed even more pertinent in the age of anxiety following the war. Freudian psychology says that much behavior is irrational, and is based on an internal conflict among the id (agressive/sexual/subconscious side), the ego (the rational/possible side) and the superego (the moral/societal side). The sexual experimentation of the 1920s and 30s was in line with the examination of such issues.

Other medical work included the discovery of radiation-induced cancer, discovered in factory workers painting watch dials with radium, and licking the tips of the brushes to make them pointy. Marie Curie died of leukemia, undoubtably from radiation exposure. In 1928 George Papanicolaou discovered it was possible to identify malignant cells among normal cells, leading to the first Pap test for cervical cancer. In blood transfusions, it was discovered that bad reactions to transfused blood could be the result of undetected bacteria, which could be helped by another new creation: antibiotics. Between 1917 and 1929 various substances were created to inhibit bacterial growth, including sulfa drugs (still used for urinary tract infections) and isoniazid (a treatment for tuberculosis that led to its end as a major killer). RabbitIn 1929 Alexander Fleming published a study in Britian on penicillium, made from a mold culture, that inhibited bacteria. Penicillium was hard to produce in quantity; it was based in only one mold type that grew unpredictably on some substances but not others. Thus penicillin was not in commmon use until World War II. Other work included studies in tissue rejection for organ transplants, the isolation of insulin, and the connection between the pituitary gland and sex. This last led, in 1928, to the first reliable pregnancy test. It was discovered that the presence of human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) in a pregnant woman, which could not be detected directly in the urine, could be found if injected into a rabbit. HCG could only be seen as a change to the rabbit's ovaries, so many rabbits were killed during the first decades of pregnancy tests.

Weimar Berlin

If the cultural center of the west in the 1920s was Paris, in the 30s it was Berlin.Women burning money, since it was cheaper to burn marks than spend them on firewood

Oddly enough, this was because of economic crisis. As you may recall, Germany was not only militarily reduced by the Treaty of Versailles, she was also told to pay reparations. In 1921, the amount was set at 132 billion gold marks ($31.4 billion). Since the Allies had taken away many territories that provided Germany with economic profit, Germany was early on unable to pay.

In 1923, the French, having been denied their reparations payment, decided to occupy the Ruhr valley. This was one of the last industrial heartlands of Germany, and was a great coal-mining region. France's occupation led to a phenomenon called "hyperinflation". The German mark went from 4 marks to the dollar, within a year, to 4.3 trillion marks to the dollar. A lifetime's savings could be wiped out overnight.

This meant that only goods (butter, shoes, bacon, metal) had value; money was spent quickly, before it became worthless. Beggars tossed 100,000 mark notes in the gutter, but $50 American could buy a row of houses. Because rents and rail fares were fixed by law, people could pay their rent and travel around, but not eat. It was cheaper to house the unemployed than to give them money for food.

Foreigners knew the good deal that Germany was for travel. They came from the U.S., Britain and France, and bought everything cheaply. Some stores raised prices when they saw foreigners coming; others refused to sell to them.

Middle class money and savings had been wiped out; and with it went middle-class values. Belief in hard work and decency were destroyed, and marriages based on economic security went out of style.

Gina Gershon in Cabaret
Gina Gershon in a contemporary revival of the musical "Caberet", set in Weimar Germany

Customers for any decadent attractions were plentiful, so cabarets, strip-tease joints, and brothels thrived. Hotels hired gigilos to dance with and "entertain" lady clients, and prostitutes openly accosted potential customers in the streets. Anything could be had, especially if you paid in dollars or pounds. Commercial sex exploded, since for some people the only thing they had left to sell was their bodies. You would have found transvestite parties, school-age children selling their bodies, and brothels just for voyeurs. You would pay your coat, shoes, fabric, eggs, or dollars. Cocaine was, like in the 1920s, readily available: just leave your coat with the hat-check girl at the club and she'd hand you a bindle instead of a ticket (4 grams per overcoat).

So Hitler was right about one thing: the decadence that marked the Weimar years in Germany were extreme.


Albert Speer

Albert Speer was Hitler's architect. Speer and Hitler working on papersThis sentence gives only a glimpse of what a controversial figure he is in history. He not only engineered some of the Third Reich's finest buildings but also engineered Hitler's war production. He has been blamed for prolonging World War II by a year. He preferred paid labor to concentration camp labor because of efficiency. As the war was ending, he disobeyed Hitler's orders to destroy buildings and infrastructure. He was the only official to plead guilty of war crimes at the Nuremberg Trials after the war.

Hitler was able to trust him because they were friends, in the sense that Speer's total lack of interest in political power made him non-threatening. From Speer Hitler demanded buildings that would last for a thousand-year Reich and be timeless in their design. Hitler violently opposed the decadent, everyman, modernist production styles of the Bauhaus, a school he shut down. Instead, he wanted reference to classical themes of glorious empire. Speer gave him that, and proved himself an outstanding organizer as well as architect.

Model of Reich Chancellory
photograph of Hitler's office
Model of the Reich Chancellory
Hitler's office

drawing of large building
Speer designed and built this building in Berlin within a year

column at entrance to pavilion, eagle on top Speer's entry to the German Pavilion at the 1937 Paris Exhibition. It was at this international exhibition that Picasso's Guernica was shown (in the Spanish Pavilion), and architects and artists competed in a way that foreshadowed World War II.

Speer's style is an effort to combine classical architecture with new fascist ideas. His designs are intriguing because, although Hitler abhorred modernism, Speer's work utilizes some of the minimalism and efficiency promoted by modernists, albeit on a larger scale and for a different purpose.


Women and fascism

For twoman in uniform smoking cigarettehe first few years of the communist Soviet Union, women may have managed to get limited equality. But in fascist states, like Italy (from 1922) and Germany (from 1933), opportunities were like men's opportunities: subverted to the "needs" of the states. Ultimately, this was also the case in Stalin's Soviet Union, which had communist principles but operated like a fascist state.

I will be discussing fascism in the next lecture, and you'll be reading about it. But for now, it should suffice to present fascism as an extreme form of nationalism. In Italy, fascist government was a response to poor international treatment at the Versailles Peace Conference, post-war depression, and the desire for an Italian empire. In Germany, it was held off for awhile by the false prosperity of the 1920s, but emerged with the Nazi (National Socialist) party. In both cases, fascist government was a nationalistic alternative to socialism or communism, the fear of which emerged in response to the establishment of the Communist International in Moscow in 1919.

Soviet medal
Soviet Motherhood Medal, given to women having six children (1944)

Fascist states glorified motherhood, but not in just the sense of domesticity. Motherhood was elevated to a state responsibility. One reason was to increase the population. In his speech in 1927, Mussolini said:

It is therefore necessary to take great care of the future of the race, starting with measures to look after the health of mothers and infants. This is the purpose of the National Organization for the Protection of Mothers and Children.
Throughout the country there exist 5,700 branches for which there still is not enough money. Hence the tax on bachelors and perhaps in the future there will be a tax on childless marriages. . . .
I tell you that the most fundamental, essential element in the political, and therefore economic, and moral, influence of a nation lies in its demographic strength.
Let us be quite clear: what are 40 million Italians compared to 90 million Germans and 200 million Slavs? What are 40 million Italians compared to 40 million Frenchmen, plus 90 million inhabitants of their colonies, or 46 million Englishmen plus 450 million people who live in their colonies?
Italy, if she is to count for anything in the world, must have a population of not less than 60 million inhabitants by the middle of this century.

Mothers' Cross
Cross of Honour of the German Mother (for 8 children)

This is a tricky area for feminist history. Does it mean that women were confined to domestic tasks? Or does it mean that motherhood finally got the public respect and support it has always deserved, but which it is denied in most systems?

Fascist organizations could provide opportunities for women; many young Nazis were women. Motherhood, like in the ancient days of Sparta, was seen as a job requiring great strength and endurance. In Nazi youth camps, women's bodies were strengthened (like men's) in vigorous exercise. But fascist governments were clearly patriarchal in nature, despite the fact that Italy allowed women to vote.

Some women resisted fascist domination of their lives. One pamphlet, circulated by a women's committee associated with the German socialist party in 1932, said:

The Nazis demand the death sentence for abortion.
They want to turn you into compliant birth-machines.
You are to be servants and maids for men.
Your human dignity is to be trampled underfoot.
Your families will be driven to
desperation from ever greater hunger
The Nazis are the deadly enemies of liberation
and equal rights of women.
You must refuse to deal with them!
Whatever party or world-view you favor -
come and join together in anti-fascist action...
Form united committees for the joint battle against
hunger, fascism, and war!


Modern Art and Music

Modernist art was naturally both an expression of the anxiety that marks this era, and a harbinger of things to come. There are several movements worth tracking.

Immediately after the Great War, art began to change. Art as social criticism continued, as you can see with George Grosz in Germany. But another reaction was an international movement called Dada, which strove to end the academic arguments about art by presenting common objects as art. It was both a form of ridicule and a form of art itself.

Art of the Western World:
Grosz and Dada

Another is minimalism, here demonstrated by the abstractions of Constantin Brancusi. Notice that Michael Wood puts this art in a social context, in that it calls for a utopian community.

Art of the Western World:

The last crucial movement was that of the Bauhaus, in Germany.

Art of the Western World:
The Bauhaus

click here for audio part 2 Much Bauhaus work is representative of the major movement in art at this time: constructivism. With constructivism, we get minimalist work that is completely abstract, detached from any representational portrayals of nature. Constructivists sought a new art that would deal realistically with social and economic problems, creating a utopian goal that could be achieved by all people.

Some samples:

Mondrian's painting, with large red square, small blue square lower left, smaller yellow rectangle lower right, white background, black lines separating seven areas
Composition with Red, Blue, Yellow
You may recall that Mondrian's work began before the Great War, as he abstracted images with a concrete object at their core. Mondrian's work continued after the war, and became more abstract. He came to represent the De Stijl movement 1917- 1931. This is my favorite. This type of art is also called Neo-Plasticism.
This is Wassily Kandinky's On White II (1923). Kandinsky was a particular admirer of Schoenberg's music, which you heard on the entry page. In his book On the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky paralleled art to music, which he felt was a superior art form. He sought rhythm in his work, and a feeling of peace and tranquillity in the viewer. This was achieved through "melody" in composition, by removing the object itself from the image. A spiritual feeling of balance should be felt in the viewer. I respond to this kind of work now, though I didn't when I was younger. (But I don't think I'll get used to Schoenberg.) Kandinsky's painting, with white background andmulticolored shapes springing out from the center
Miro's painting, with dark brown background at the bottom and light brown at the top, on which sit blobs or amorphous shapes in dull red, blue, yellow, browns To the left is surrealist Jean Miró's Dutch Interior II (Intérieur hollandais II) of 1928.
Calder's mobile: several branches of metal wire, each ending with shape in earth colors: ovals, half circle, leaf
Steel Fish (1934)

Alexander Calder was an American artist who created mobiles and stabiles in addition to drawings. He had been trained as an engineer. The term "mobile" was coined by Duchamp's Nudehis friend Marcel Duchamp, whose work Nude Descending a Staircase (right) had caused a sensation back in 1912. The term "stabile" was coined by surrealist Jean Miró. Working in Paris in the early 1930s, Calder was inspired by Mondrian's work, which started him on the style that would become his own. What he did came to be called kinetic art, because its movement was part of the experience.

You can take an entire QuickTime virtual tour of Calder's work at the National Gallery of Art website.

In music, modernism led to the atonal movement like we heard with Schoenberg, at the opening page of this lecture. But of far more importance for popular music was jazz, after which the 1920s were named the Jazz Age.

One of the finest practitioners of this art was Louis Armstrong, of New Orleans. Listen to this while looking at the above pictures and you will be feeling very modern, in an early 20th century kind of way!

Louis Armstrong: S.O.L. Blues click here for audio of song

Now maybe I'll never get used to Arnold Schoenberg, but I could listen to Louis Armstrong all day long.



All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.