Arthur Haberman, 1930: Europe in the Shadow of the Beast
(Wildred Lurier University Press)
Anxiety reigned in Europe in 1930. The Wall Street stock market crash of the previous October and the ensuing economic crisis that was spreading across the globe threatened to undo much of the progress that had been made in Europe after recovering from the self-inflicted catastrophe of World War I. A new form of government termed fascism was firmly in place in Italy, based on xenophobic nationalism, irrationality, and an all-powerful state. Fascism seemed antithetical in just about every way to the universal, secular and cosmopolitan values of the 18th century Enlightenment. In what was by then known as the Soviet Union, moreover, the Bolsheviks who had seized control during World War I were firmly in power in 1930 and were still threatening, as they had in the immediate post-war years, to spread anti-capitalist revolution westward across Europe. And in Germany, Adolph Hitler and his unruly Nazi party realized previously unimaginable success in legislative elections in 1930, as they challenged the fragile Weimar democracy. But if anti-democratic political movements and economic upheavals made average citizens across Europe anxious in 1930, few foresaw the extent of the carnage and destruction that the next 15 years would bring. Things were about to get worse — much worse.
In 1930: Europe in the Shadow of the Beast, Arthur Haberman, professor of history and humanities at York University, seeks to capture the intellectual and cultural zeitgeist of 1930. “What makes 1930 such a watershed is that rarely have so many important minds worked independently on issues so closely related,” Haberman writes. “All argued that something was seriously amiss and asked that people become aware of the dilemma” (p.1). Haberman focuses on how a handful of familiar thinkers and artists expressed the anxiety that their fellow citizens felt; and how, in different ways, these figures foreshadowed the calamities that lay ahead for Europe. There are separate chapters on Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley, Ortega y Gasset, Bertolt Brecht, and Sigmund Freud, each the subject of a short biographical sketch. But each either published a major work or had one in progress in the 1929-31 time frame, and Haberman’s sketches revolve around these works. He also includes two lesser known sisters, Paulette and Jane Nardal, two Frenchwomen of African descent who promoted writing that expressed identity and solidarity between blacks in Europe, the Americas and Africa. Another chapter treats the visual arts in 1930, with a dissection of the various schools and tendencies of the time, among them surrealism, cubism, and fauvism.
But before getting to these figures and their works, Haberman starts with a description of an unnamed, composite European middle class couple living in a major but unidentified city in one of the World War I belligerents. With all the maimed young men walking the streets using canes and crutches, the “metaphor of sickness and a need to be healed was part of everyday life” (p.7) for the couple. The couple’s unease was “mirrored by the intellectuals they admired, as they all grappled with what Europe had become and where it was heading” (p.15).
In an extensive final chapter, “Yesterday and Today,” and an Epilogue, “”Europeans Today” — together about one quarter of the book — Haberman assigns himself the herculean task of demonstrating the continued relevance of his figures in contemporary Europe. Here, he seeks to summarize European anxiety today and the much-discussed European crisis of confidence, especially in the aftermath of the 2008 economic downturn. It’s an overly ambitious undertaking and the least successful portion of the book.
The key figures Haberman portrays in the book’s first portions were a diverse lot, and it would be an uphill task to tie them together into a neat conceptual package. But if there is a common denominator linking them, it is the specter of World War I, the “Great War,” and the reassessment of Western civilization that it prompted. The Great War ended the illusion that Europe was at the forefront of civilization and introduced “deep cultural malaise” (p.6). The “so-called most civilized people on earth committed unprecedented a carnage on themselves” (p.36). It was thus necessary to think in new ways.
Haberman identifies a cluster of related subjects that both represented this new thinking and heightened the anxiety that average Europeans were sensing about themselves and their future in 1930. They include: the viability of secular Enlightenment values; coming to terms with a darker view of human nature; the rise of the politics of irrationality; mass culture and its dangers; fascism as a norm or aberration; identity and the Other in the midst of Western Civilization; finding ways to represent the post war world visually; and dystopian trends of thought. The new thinking thus focused squarely on what it meant to be European and human in 1930.
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None of the figures in Haberman’s study addressed more of these subjects in a single work than the Spanish thinker Ortega y Gasset, whose Revolt of the Masses appeared in 1930. Here, Ortega confronted the question of the viability of liberal democracy and the durability of the Enlightenment’s core values. Ortega emphasized liberal democracy’s potential for irrationality and emotion to override reason in determining public choices. He described a new “mass man” who behaved through “instinct and desire,” could be “violent and brutal” (p.55), and “will accept, even forward, both political and social tyranny” (p.53). Ortega referred to Bolshevism and Fascism as “retrograde and a new kind of primitivism” (p.54). The two ideologies, he concluded, gave legitimacy to the brutality he saw cropping up across Europe.
Although Ortega posited a dark view of human nature, it was not far from what had been apparent in the works of Sigmund Freud for decades prior to 1930. Freud, whom Haberman ranks on par with Einstein as the most famous and influential intellect of his time, was 74 years old in 1930. Although ill with throat cancer that year, Freud used an extended essay, Civilization and its Discontents, to reflect upon the conscious and unconscious, on sanity, insanity, and madness, and on the contradictions we live with. His reflections became “central to how humans understood themselves as individuals and social beings” (p.143).
Culture and civilization are more fragile than we had thought, Freud contended. We must constantly reinforce those things that keep civilization going: “the limitations on our sexual life, the rule of law, the restrictions on our aggressive nature, and the hopeless commandment to love our neighbors, even if we don’t like them” (p.150). The insights from Civilization and its Discontents and Freud’s other works were used in literature, art and the study of religion, along with philosophy, politics and history. These insights – these Freudian insights — opened for discussion “matters that had been sealed” (p.162), changing the way we think about ourselves and our nature. Freud “tried to be a healer in a difficult time,” Habermas writes, one who “changed the discourse about humans and society forever” (p.162).
Virginia Woolf claimed she had not read Freud when she worked on The Waves, an experimental novel, throughout 1930. The Waves nonetheless seemed to echo Freud, especially in its idea that the unconscious is a “layer of our personality, perhaps the main layer. All of her characters attempt to deal with their inner lives, their perceptions” (p.44). In The Waves, Woolf adopted the idea that human nature is “very complex, that we are sometimes defined by our consciousness of things, events, people and ourselves, and that there are layers of personality” (p.43). There are six different narrative voices to The Waves. The characters sometimes seem to meld into one another.
Woolf had already distinguished herself as a writer heavily invested in the women’s suffragette movement and had addressed in earlier writings how women can achieve freedom independently of men. Haberman sees Woolf as part of a group of thinkers who “set the stage for the more formal introduction of existentialism after the Second World War . . . She belongs not only to literature but to modern philosophy” (p.46).
With Mario and the Magician, completed in 1930, novelist Thomas Mann made his first explicit foray into political matters. Mann, as famous in Germany as Woolf was in Britain, suggested in his novel that culture and politics were intertwined in 1930 as never before. By that year, Mann had become an outspoken opponent of the Nazi party, which he described as a “wave of anomalous barbarism, of primitive popular vulgarity” (p.29). Mario and the Magician, involving a German family visiting Italy, addressed the implications of fascism for Italy and Europe generally.
Like Ortega, Mann in his novel examined the “abandonment of personality and individual responsibility on the part of the person who joins the crowd” (p.24). Like Freud, Mann saw humanity as far more irrational and complicated than liberal democracy assumed. The deified fascist leader in Mann’s view goes beyond offering simply policy solutions to “appeal to feelings deep in our unconscious and [tries] to give them an outlet” (p.24). Mann was in Switzerland when the Nazis assumed power in 1933. His children advised him not to return to Germany, and he did not do so until 1949. He was stripped of his German citizenship in 1936 as a traitor to the Reich.
Still another consequential novel that appeared in 1930, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, was one of the 20th century’s first overtly dystopian works of fiction, along with Yevgeny Zamiatin’s We (both influenced George Orwell’s 1984, as detailed in Dorian Lynskey’s study of Orwell’s novel, reviewed here last month). Brave New World used “both science and psychology to create a future world where all are happy, there is stability, and conflict is ended” (p.132). The dystopian novel opened the question of the ethics of genetic engineering. In 1930, eugenics was considered a legitimate branch of science, a way governments sought to deal with the undesirables in their population, especially those they regarded as unfit. Although bioethics was not yet a field in 1930, Huxley’s Brave New World made a contribution to its founding. Huxley’s dystopian work is a “cautionary tale that asks what might happen next. It is science fiction, political philosophy, ethics, and a reflection on human nature all at once” (p.132).
Haberman’s least familiar figures, and for that reason perhaps the most intriguing, are the Nardal sisters, Paulette and Jane, French citizens of African descent, born in Martinique and living in 1930 in Paris. The sisters published no major works equivalent to Civilization and Its Discontents or Revolt of the Masses. But they founded the highly consequential La Revue du Monde Noir, a bi-lingual, French and English publication that featured contributions from African-American writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance, along with French-language intellectuals. Writings in La Revue challenged head-on the notions underlying French colonialism.
Although France in 1930 was far more welcoming to blacks than the United States, the French vision of what it meant to be black was, as Haberman puts it, a “colonialist construction seen through the eyes of mainly white, wealthy elites” (p.89) that failed to acknowledge the richness and variety of black cultures around the world. Educated blacks in France were perceived as being “in the process of becoming cosmopolitan, cultured people in the French tradition, a process they [the French] called their mission civilatrice” (p.89). Like many blacks in France, Paulette and Jane Nardal “refused to accept this formulation and decided that their identity was more varied and complex than anything the French understood” (p.89).
The Nardal sisters advanced the notion of multiple identities, arguing that the black spirit could be “informed and aided by the association with the West, without losing its own core” (p.92). Blacks have an “alternative history from that of anyone who was white and born in France. Hence, they needed to attempt to get to a far more complex concept of self, one deeper and richer than those in the majority and the mainstream” (p.100). The Nardals also came to understand the connection between black culture in Europe and gender. Black women, “like many females, are a double Other, and this makes them different not only from whites but from Black men as well” (p.101; but conspicuously missing in this work is any sustained discussion of the Jew as the Other, even though anti-Semitism was rising alarmingly in Germany and elsewhere in Europe in 1930).
Between 1927 and 1933, Bertold Brecht collaborated with Kurt Weill to rethink theatre and opera. Brecht, alone among the thinkers Haberman portrays, brought an explicit Marxist perspective to his work. Brecht supplied both the lyrics and dialogue to the pair’s plays, while Weill composed the music. The Three Penny Opera, their joint work first performed in Berlin in 1928, was a decidedly non-traditional opera that proved to be spectacular success in Weimar Germany.
In 1930, the Brecht and Weill produced The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, an even less traditional production. Brecht termed Mahagonny “epic theatre,” whose purpose was “not to entertain or provide the audience with an imitation of their lives” (p.70), but rather to engage the audience in issues of social justice. Epic theatre was designed to “force the spectator to be active, to query his own assumptions”(p.78).
Haberman describes Mahagonny as an angry anti-capitalist production, a strange sort of “utopia of desire,” where money rules. Its lesson: in a capitalist society, all is “commoditized, no relationship is authentic . . . [M]oney cannot satisfy human needs” (p.81-82). The Nazis, who enjoyed increased popular support throughout 1930, regularly demonstrated against Mahagonny performances. Both Brecht and Weill fled Germany when the Nazis came to power in early 1933. Neither The Three Penny Opera nor Mahagonny was performed again in Germany until after World War II.
Haberman sees Brecht and Weill as stage and musical companions to surrealist painters such as René Magritte and Salvador Dali, who were also juxtaposing traditional elements to force audiences to ask what was really going on. Magritte’s The Key to Dreams, a name that is a direct reference to Freud, was a painting about painting and how we construct reality. Words are not the objects themselves, Magritte seemed to be saying. Paintings can refer to an object but are not the object itself. Salvador Dali was the rising star of surrealism in 1930. His paintings were at once “provocative, mythic, and phallic, while also using juxtaposition to great effect” (p.115). As with Magritte, the code of understanding in Dali paintings is “closer to Freudian psychology than it is to ‘reason’” (p.115).
The most transformative shift in the visual arts by 1930 was the abandonment of mimesis, the idea that a work of art should represent external reality. Artists from the many varying schools regarded external reality as “just appearance, not realty at all. Now it was necessary to go through or beyond appearance to investigate what was real” (p.107). Artists like Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Henri Matisse “wanted a painting to be seen holistically before being analyzed in its parts” (p.118). Like Woolf in literature, these artists by 1930 were depicting “multiple realities,” with the “whole, deep world of the unconscious guiding us” (p.108).
In the end, Haberman concludes, the perspective of the major artists of 1930 was in line with that of the writers he portrays. All in their own way:
feared where humanity was headed, in some cases they feared what they discovered about human nature. They wrote and created art. They did so in order to both help us know about ourselves and offer some redemption for a hard time. They did so because, in spite of their fears, and in spite of their pessimism, they had hope that our better nature would triumph. Their works are relevant today as they were in 1930 (p.212).
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Articulating their contemporary relevance is the purpose of Haberman’s extensive final chapter and epilogue, where he also seeks to summarize contemporary Europe’s zeitgeist. The Enlightenment faith in the idea and inevitability of progress has now “more or less ended,” he argues, and the world “no longer seems as automatically better as time moves on” (p.171) – the core insight which World War I provided to the generation of 1930. The politics of irrationality of the type that so worried Ortega seems again resurgent in today’s Europe. Nationalism – in Haberman’s view, the most influential of the modern ideologies born in the 19th century – “persists and appears to be growing in Europe in a more frightening manner, in the rise of racist neo-fascist and quasi-fascist parties in many countries. What was once thought impossible after the defeat of Hitlerian Germany is now coming into being” (p.168).
Despite the rise of European social democracy in the aftermath of World War II, there is a trend toward appropriation of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, with the gap between the rich and poor widening. Traditional religion has less hold on Europeans today than it did in 1930 — although it had no apparent hold on any of the writers and artists Haberman features. The question of the place for the Other – marginalized groups like the blacks of the Nardal sisters’ project – has come to the fore in today’s Europe. Haberman frames the question as whether today’s Europe, theoretically open, liberal, tolerant and egalitarian, is so “only for those who conform to the norm – who are white, indigenous to whatever place they live, nominally or deeply Christian, and identifying strongly with the nation.” Or is there something “built into European culture as it is taught and practiced that automatically marginalizes women, Blacks, Jews, Roma, and Muslims?” (p.185).
After posing this unanswerable question, Haberman finishes by returning to his composite couple, explaining how their lives were changed by events between 1930 and 1945. They lost a son in battle in World War II and some civilian relatives were also killed. Haberman then fast-forwards to the couple’s granddaughter, born in 1982, who married at age 30 and is now pregnant. She and her husband are ambivalent about their future. Peace is taken for granted in the way it was not in 1930. But there is pessimism in the economic sphere. The couple sees the tacit social contract between generations fraying. The issues that move the couple most deeply are the environment and concerns about climate change.
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Through his individual portraits, Haberman provides a creative elaboration upon the ideas which leading thinkers and artists wrestled with in the anxious year of 1930. Describing contemporary applications of these ideas , as he attempts to do in the latter portion of his work, would be a notable accomplishment for an entire book and his attempt to do so here falls flat.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
March 15, 2020