4.11 The Interwar Period

Early Twentieth-Century Cultural Change

The Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent creation of the USSR represents perhaps the most striking political event of its time, but it occurred during a period of profound political, cultural, and intellectual instability across Europe and much of the world. The first few decades of the twentieth century revolved around World War I in many ways, but even before the war began Western society was riven with cultural and political conflict. It was an incredibly tumultuous time, one in which “Western Civilization” struggled to define itself in the face of scientific progress and social change that seemed to be speeding forward ever faster.

Part of this phenomenon was the fact that the old order of monarchy and nobility was finally, definitively destroyed, a casualty of World War I. Never again would kings and emperors and noblemen share power over European countries. At the same time, the great political project of the nineteenth century, republican democracy, seemed profoundly disappointing to many Europeans, who had watched it degenerate into partisan squabbles that were helpless to prevent the Great War and its terrible aftermath. In that aftermath there was a terrific flowering of cultural and intellectual production even as the continent struggled to recover economically. It is tempting to see these years, especially the interwar period between 1918 and 1939, as nothing more than the staging ground for World War II, but a more accurate picture reveals them as being much more than just a prequel.


Modernism in the arts refers to a specific period starting around 1900 and coming into its own in the 1920s. It expressed a set of common attitudes and assumptions that centered on a rejection of established authority. It was a movement of skepticism directed toward the post-Victorian middle class, an overhaul of the entire legacy of comfort, security, paranoia, rigidity, and hierarchy. It rejected the premise of melodrama, namely clear moral messages in art and literature that were meant to edify and instruct. Socially, it was a reaction against the complacency of the bourgeoisie, of their willingness to start wars over empire and notions of nationalism.

Modernist art and literature sometimes openly attacked the moral values of mainstream society, but sometimes experimented with form itself and simply ignored moral issues. Artists broke with the idea that art should “represent” something noble and beautiful, and instead many indulged in wild experiments and deliberately created disturbing pieces meant to provoke their audience. Sometimes, modernists were really “modern” in glorifying industrialism and technology, while other times they were modern in that they were experimenting with entirely novel approaches to creation.

Modernism was not confined to literature and the visual arts. Some composers and musicians in the first decades of the twentieth century sought to shatter musical traditions, defying the expectations of their listeners by altering the very scales, notes, and tempos that western audiences were used to hearing. Some of the resulting pieces eventually became classics in their own right, while others tended to become part of the history of music more so than music very many people actually listened to.

Ultimately, artistic modernism in the arts, music, and literature questioned the post-Victorian obsession with traditional morality, hierarchy, and control. The inner life was not straightforward – it was a complicated mess of conflicting values, urges, and drives, and traditional morality was often a smokescreen over a system of repression and violence. Certain modernist artists attacked the system, while others exposed its vacuity, its emptiness or shallowness, against the darker, more complex reality they thought lay underneath.


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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