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1930: Europe in the Shadow of the Beast

by Arthur Haberman

Histories of Europe in 1930 often focus on the road to war – knowing what is to come means it can be hard to look at this time through any other lens. In 1930: Europe in the Shadow of the Beast, Arthur Haberman, professor of history and humanities at York University, instead introduces us to people who were not taken in by extreme philosophies and thus represent a middle ground lost in the years that followed.

The book consists of short chapters profiling representatives of cultural industries confronting a radically altered society after the First World War. These surveys illustrate the widespread understanding that the carnage showed the result of “progress” in a new light. For one thing, the continent could no longer claim to represent the pinnacle of civilization. For another, humans were clearly irrational at their core. And finally, politics and art could no longer be considered separate spheres; it was the role of the writer, philosopher, or artist to bring awareness to the masses of the danger of extremism at any end of the political spectrum.

For a reader familiar with the rise of interwar “isms,” it is eye-opening to discover how much consensus existed among those who preferred to chart a middle path. Many chapters offer a new perspective on well-known figures; take, for example, Virginia Woolf’s conviction that writers need to engage in politics. Several chapters offer introductions to subjects that may be less well known today, such as Ortega y Gasset’s analysis of mass man and the Nardal sisters’ spotlight on Black culture in the journal La Revue du Monde Noir.

The only weakness of the book is the last chapter, “Yesterday and Today.” While Haberman’s links between 1930 and today are persuasive, they are somewhat lost in a highly detailed analysis of 21st-century society’s ills. Nevertheless, it is not much of a stretch to draw parallels between the 1930s fight against the politics of irrationality and our contemporary struggle to avoid a resurgence of nationalistic, exclusionist ideology. 1930 has a lot to teach us about how to stand up for values that should be universal and gives hope that we could choose a different path than the one chosen before.