Roaring Twenties? Europe in the interwar period
It’s rather sad, to belong as we do, to a lost generation. I’m sure in history the two wars will count as one war, and that we shall be squashed out of it altogether, and people will forget we ever existed.
So said Linda, chief protagonist in Nancy Mitford’s bestselling and semi-autobiographical novel The Pursuit of Love, published at the end of the Second World War in 1945. It is likely that Linda’s reflections, made while taking shelter from the war on her family’s estate, matched the ponderings of the author. Like Linda, Mitford and her five sisters were Bright Young Things of the 1920s (men and women of the upper and upper-middle classes who came of age during or just after the First World War and enjoyed a bohemian and carefree lifestyle), who subsequently became deeply embroiled in the political polarisations of the 1930s. One sister, Diana, eloped with and married Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, at the home of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, while another, Jessica, eloped with the socialist journalist Esmond Romilly, and together they travelled to Spain to assist in the war against General Franco. Of course the Mitford sisters and other Bright Young Things did not become a lost generation – instead they rose to prominence in the popular memory of the ‘Roaring Twenties’.
However, the Mitford quote captures a second, important element in our understanding of the interwar years in Europe: the way in which war has hung so heavily over the period, as even the term, ‘interwar’, so commonly used by historians, implies. And because of this, in the literature on interwar society, we are often presented with two competing narratives: one of hedonism and frivolity, as a new generation, having been exposed to the horrors of modern war, threw off the shackles of tradition to embrace new pleasures in an almost apocalyptic manner; and one of pessimism, in which European civilisation was perceived to be in crisis, as society was plagued by discontent and political extremism, and war seemed perpetually on the horizon. The long hold of these narratives is demonstrated by the publication only eighteen months apart of two books on British society in the interwar period: Martin Pugh’s We Danced All Night (first published in 2008) and Richard Overy’s The Morbid Age (first published in 2009).
At the heart of both of these narratives is an attempt to explain the experience of modernity in Europe during the interwar years. You will recognise some features of modernity in this course – for example, the increasing visibility of, and new rights granted to, women, and the promotion of emerging technologies – as well as some of the tensions which modern life spawned.
This OpenLearn course is an adapted extract from the Open University course.