Blom described how, after the devastation of the war, “Europe was in shellshock”: men had gone to war to fight for something, only to have this belief shattered in battles where killing machines took men’s lives indiscriminately, without a reference to their valour or values. The Battle of the Somme proved the turning point when disillusionment took over. Soldiers’ diaries reveal how pervasive the notion that “‘we were sacrificed for nothing’” became throughout Europe. Despair became the defining feature of the interwar years, reaching its culmination with the Wall Street Crash and its devastating repercussions.
The relationship between man and machine was radically re-evaluated in the 1920s and 1930s, and is still evolving and being hotly debated today. Before 1914 technology had been associated with progress yet, during the war, this ‘progress’ turned against man. Societies reeled from the horror of the mass slaughter of their peoples by grenades, bombs, tanks, poison gas and other fruits of this advancement: man seemed powerless against the machine. This reassessment is reflected in the art and cinema of the period: Blom cited the 1931 film production of Frankenstein, where man and machine starkly collide in the creation of the monster.
The rise of radical ideologies and regimes in the 1920s and 1930s can also, in part, be attributed to the legacy of the war. Societies across Europe questioned how man could be a match for the towering power of technology. The obvious example is the Soviet experiment, which asked its citizens to integrate themselves as cogs in the machinery of society. The rest of Europe watched closely, Blom noted, to see if socialism, not democracy, would provide a way for men to master the machines that had irrevocably damaged their societies.
Two features, the quest for new hope and the impact of such massive technological change, had a transformative effect on culture and society in the interwar period, Blom explained. They drove young people to reject the traditional ideologies of yesteryear, and instead “they joined the Communist party, the Nazi party—or they simply partied”.
- Video: After the Crash, Before the War—full lecture by Philipp Blom [Watch]
- Transcript: After the Crash, Before the War—by Philipp Blom [Download]
- Photos: After the Crash, Before the War [View]
- Seminar: Happy Days: Britain’s 'Great' Depression, 19 November 2015 [Details]
About the Speaker
Philipp Blom is a prize-winning author, journalist, and translator based in Vienna. He began writing whilst studying for a D.Phil. in Modern History at Oxford University, and has since published several historical books exploring culture and society in the twentieth century. His latest work, Fracture: Life and Culture in the West, 1918-1938, focuses on these themes during the interwar period in the West and follows on from The Vertigo Years: Change and Culture in the West, 1900-1914. He also presents a cultural discussion programme on Austrian national radio and lectures on historical and philosophical themes, mainly in Europe, the USA and South America. Aside from historical studies he also is the author of several works of fiction.
About the History of Capitalism Series
This series of lectures, which forms part of the Legatum Institute's 'The Culture of Prosperity' programme, investigates the origins and development of a movement of thought and endeavour which has transformed the human condition. Capitalism's characteristic emphasis on freedom of trade and market expansion has encouraged social mobility, global exploration and intellectual curiosity. Wherever and whenever it has appeared across the world's continents capitalism has undermined monopolies, economic protectionism and restrictive practices. The series' lecturers therefore assess case studies in business history and the individual biographies of thinkers, writers and inventors as well as describing particular periods in the histories of cities, states and nations. Further information available here.