LAWRENCE — In many ways, the previous century was defined by its wars. But a new book argues that an equally important and perhaps even more significant period existed between World War I and II.
“This sense of crisis, of ennui, of worry about where we find ourselves in the 2020s is very much an echo of what was happening in the 1920s,” said Andrew Denning, associate professor of history at the University of Kansas. “We have a lot to learn from studying what happened and how things worked or didn’t work.”
“The Interwar World” collects an international group of contributors to discuss, analyze and interpret this crucial period (1918-1939) in 20th century history. Each chapter takes a global, thematic approach, integrating world regions into a shared narrative. It’s published by Routledge.
“These are pivotal moments that historians dedicate their entire lives to,” said Denning, who co-edited “The Interwar World” with Heidi Tworek of the University of British Columbia.
“It’s when fascism arises. It’s when European empires are at their territorial apex. We’re seeing those empires at their strongest and the seeds of their destruction being sown. We have the rise of communism in the Soviet Union. We have the United States arriving as the preeminent global power, but we also have the Great Depression.”
Denning and Tworek recruited 53 contributors from 25 countries. The book is divided into six sections: Structures; Institutions; Identity and Ways of Life; Knowledge and Information; Ideologies and Practices; and Trade and Production. Chapters cover such topics as “Violence and Genocide,” “International Law,” “The Middle Classes” and “Women’s Rights and Feminism.”
“Something my co-editor and I realized is the interwar period is among the most studied and written-about periods, but it’s not a historical era that has its own scholarly societies, conferences or journals in the way that, for instance, the Cold War or Victorian era does,” Denning said.
The authors also found this era to be one of true paradox.
“People were suffering. Extreme ideologies were popularized and taking root in major countries like Germany, Italy, Japan and the Soviet Union. Yet there was a sense of much promise in these years as well. New technologies and mutual curiosity knit together a global culture for the first time. Truly global cultures of things like soccer and jazz and fashion solidified in this time period,” he said.
Modern readers should keep in mind, Denning said, that even extreme ideologies such as fascism or communism were considered by their fledgling practitioners to be utopian.
“Many thought they were building a perfect world,” he said. “These paradoxes are what make this era so catastrophic.”
A KU faculty member since 2015, Denning specializes in 20th century European history. His work has appeared in American Historical Review, The Atlantic and Journal of Modern History. He is also the recently appointed director of KU’s Museum Studies Program.
Denning said, “In my teaching, the interwar period has always been part of longer trends. If I teach a course on Nazi Germany, that’s part of it, but I’ve often considered it as only a prelude to World War II and the Holocaust. Doing this work has helped me understand that we need to think about this as a distinct, coherent period of time.”
He hopes the book will launch a move to treat interwar studies as its own field of study, that it’s no longer subsumed in the longer age of catastrophe — as just the interregnum between World War I and II —but has specific historical dynamics that define this era in a global sense.
“There are important lessons to be learned in terms of what it means to live through an era in which see ourselves as globally interconnected,” Denning said.
“We share a widespread sense today that there are contemporary crises of climate change or of political extremism. Studying the paradoxes, crises and tensions of the interwar period helps us better understand what is going on in the 2020s. We can learn what is truly new and what is an echo or a new gloss on things that were happening a hundred years ago.”
Top photo: Macedonians protest in Bulgaria during the 1930s. Wikimedia Commons photo.