Philipp Blom is the author of the new book Fracture: Life & Culture in the West, 1918-1938. His other books include A Wicked Company and The Vertigo Years. He hosts a program on Austrian national radio, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications. He is based in Vienna, Austria.
Q: Why did you decide to examine the 1918-1938 period, and why did you choose “Fracture” as the title of the book?
A: I thought about a title long and hard, and the more I tried to find a single image to encapsulate the period, the more I became aware that it was precisely the disparate nature of politics and culture which are so characteristic.
It was a time of deep despair and messianic hope, of fervent political beliefs and profound cynicism, of deep and often violent conflict. Fracture seemed to me the key which unlocks this time.
Q: You note that your chapters, organized year by year, don’t follow the “familiar great historical milestones.” How did you figure out which themes to highlight as you examined Europe and the United States in the wake of World War I and the lead-up to World War II?
A: The thing about the great milestones is that we all know them, and that often obscures the view, because it overlays whatever happened with a thick coat of narrative that has accrued over the decades. By looking at slightly less well-known aspects you can often get a clearer view.
Composing the chapters was a challenge, though, an intricate puzzle, because I wanted the different aspects of the societies of this period to be represented: politics, the arts, science, social movements.
It takes a lot of research to find the right emblematic episodes, but the great advantage is that it gives the reader a narrative path into the time, concrete events and real people which can then lead on to broader panoramas and analysis.
Q: You write, “The relationship between man and machine is one of the recurring themes of this book.” What were some of the changes in that relationship over the course of these two decades?
A: One of the most important dates of this relationship, a relationship that has only become more important today, is July 1916, the beginning of the Battle at the Somme at the Western Front. By 1916 the war had changed decisively: no more romantic cavalry charges, but a dreary, brutal, technological reality of killing and attrition.
In this battle, millions of soldiers were for the first time in human history confronted with the fact that they hardly mattered anymore, that the war had become a war between machines - long-range artillery, tanks, gas grenades, machine guns, airplanes - in which human beings are little more than parasitical organisms feeding the technological killers.
During the interwar years, this feeling haunted European and American societies: would the robots take over? Where is the border between biology and technology? Will technology create a new paradise or a nightmarish vision of death? Films like "Metropolis", "Frankenstein" and Chaplin's "Modern Times" reflect these fascinations and these fears.
Q: What is the legacy today of the 1918-1938 period?
A: There are so many! The ambivalent story of men and machines, of a technologization of our work, our entertainment, and even of our intimate lives continues, of course.
But there are also the political maps that were drawn in these years, especially in the Middle East, and the old conflicts which are still festering today.
Take the war in the eastern Ukraine, which goes back to Stalin's artificial famine in the winter 1932/33 during which some four million people (nobody knows how many exactly) perished. The empty villages were repopulated by ethnic Russians, and when Putin says today that one third of the population there is ethnically Russian he is quite right, but this is a bitter legacy of mass murder.
But there are also other continuities, which are equally worrying: for the first time since the Second World War, we see western societies being corroded by an erosion of democracy, a belief that other forces, today it is the Market, are better at managing our lives than we are ourselves through democratic decision-making.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A wonderful project with the working title "The Nightmare of Reason" in which I go back to my interest in the Enlightenment and try to look at our present societies, asking how far we have really come along this way.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb