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Roaring Twenties? Europe in the interwar period
Roaring Twenties? Europe in the interwar period

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4 Mass media and the transformation of popular culture

Rosalind Crone

Those living in the city, and increasingly those living outside the city, were exposed to new forms of mass media in the interwar period, which sparked a transformation in popular culture. Given that cinema and radio were regarded by many as forms of entertainment, you might well ask why I have applied the label ‘popular culture’ rather than ‘leisure’. First, this is because the term ‘leisure’, and its use by historians, suggests that people in the past neatly divided their time into periods spent in work and in relaxation. Work hours became shorter and more regulated for many (for example, those in industrial and white-collar employment) across Europe in the first decades of the twentieth century, but there were several groups for whom the segregation of work and leisure time did not apply, including women and the unemployed. Second, the term ‘popular culture’ highlights the relationship between these phenomena and the way in which its consumers saw the world around them. Third, it is necessary to distinguish between these popular entertainments, which were available and often patronised by all, and the cultural products of the intelligentsia, often referred to as ‘high culture’ and typically inaccessible to many ordinary people because of their price or their form. (For instance, we could group a substantial amount of the output from the artistic movement of modernism, referred to earlier in this course, in this category.) However, we would do well to remember too that the participation of ‘cultural elites’ in popular culture meant that these entertainments and the themes or messages that they promoted had some impact on the creativity of the avant-garde.

In what ways was popular culture transformed during the interwar years? First, and most obviously, it was transformed by technology, so that it is possible to refer to a process of modernisation at work in the entertainments enjoyed by the people. Radio was a new invention; film had existed before the First World War but took off dramatically after 1918, and the introduction of sound further increased its appeal in many countries during the 1930s. Popular culture was thus experienced in new ways. But be aware that the new media did not always replace older entertainments that survived from the nineteenth century. Second, the growth of the middle class, combined with an increase in the spending power of many urban workers and changing methods of production and dissemination, which drove down prices and increased the ability to cater for large audiences, led to the emergence of ‘mass’ audiences for many phenomena. The 1920s and 1930s formed a key moment in the development of mass culture – entertainment made for the people but not by the people. However, as you will see below, you should be wary of the term ‘mass culture’ because audiences often continued to be fragmented in various ways by age, class and gender, and audiences, as paying consumers, continued to have some role in the creation of popular culture. The authenticity of popular culture was challenged but not eradicated. Similarly, it is worth noting the impact of the rise of modern totalitarian regimes, especially those that publicly decried modern forms of leisure and promoted traditional lifestyles. As was evident in the material on modern Berlin that you explored in Activity 3, there was no clear anti-modern rhetoric: instead, regimes such as Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Soviet Russia recognised the possibilities offered by mass media in their pursuit of mass politics, particularly for propaganda purposes.