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

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As this course has demonstrated, the interwar period was one of fundamental social change. Many of the developments fit with notions of modernisation. Many cities acquired a new and exciting character as centres of modern life. Radio and film brought about transformations in popular culture, bringing new forms of entertainment and new ideas to whole populations. State governments accepted responsibility to help support the most vulnerable members of society, but their policies also created new expectations of how individuals should look after their own health.

While it is easy to see change, it is harder to pin down the exact motors of it, and especially the role played by the First World War in setting such developments in train. For example, with respect to women, it is true that for many war brought new employment opportunities and greater freedom in behaviour, and some historians have even argued that enfranchisement was awarded to women in some countries in recognition of their service during the conflict. At the same time, many historians have argued that such developments were part of a longer, more gradual process, the effects of which became more visible in the 1920s. Similarly, in other ways, the war had little impact on the progress of fundamental social change. Urbanisation, and greater state responsibility for the health and welfare of populations, had begun long before 1914, and continued through the 1920s and 1930s.

The uneven influence of war on social change serves as a reminder that the experience of change also varied hugely across Europe. Rural life in eastern Europe was largely untouched by film, radio, new modes of transport or new fashions. Even in rural Britain, while people may have been aware of these innovations, they may have had little direct contact with them. Finally, change was not always viewed positively: for contemporaries, Berlin was both an exciting tourist attraction and a symbol of moral decay, and the new fashions and perceived freedoms of women sparked moral panics. To complicate matters further, we cannot view contemporary attitudes as diametrically pro- and anti-modern – those who promoted more traditional ways of life harnessed modern media to project their message. Take, for example, the dictatorships of the Italian Fascists and German National Socialists. Both were modern, mass political movements, whose glorification of the past was in fact used to promote a ‘futurist’ vision of a new society, captured in their ambitious urban redevelopment projects, the Piazza Augusto Imperatore in Rome, and Germania in Berlin.