A majestic and highly readable history of the most distressing of decades.
Cambridge historian Brendon (Eminent Edwardians, not reviewed) finds the 1930s depressing, viewing them largely as a long and winding slide into the abyss of WWII. Luckily his prose is sharp and clever enough to propel the reader happily through all of the impending doom and gloom. Alternating among the seven nations that would constitute the primary combatants (England, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the US), he argues, fairly convincingly, that the use of propaganda and spectacle was the hallmark of the decade in all of them. Certainly none of the theses presented here are daring or new, and Brendon rarely departs from the standard schoolboy’s idea of the decade’s progression. But the scope and organization of the story he tells are pulled off masterfully, and the sketches of impossibly well-known figures such as Churchill, Stalin, and Mussolini are intriguing, even strangely humanizing. At times the narrative threatens to bog down into a series of lists: French governments, New Deal initiatives, purged Bolsheviks, Nazi demands, Japanese plots, English witticisms. And names and events likely to be unfamiliar to those educated on this side of the Atlantic are dropped without explanation. What is more, there are glaring omissions—apparently nothing happened in the British Empire outside of London during the whole decade, while China and Africa make appearances only when they are invaded. These are minor, and perhaps inevitable, complaints, however, given the admittedly panoramic aims of the project. The comprehensiveness and thoughtfulness of its execution are more than ample recompense.
Compelling and propelled by a gathering momentum, this all but begs for a sequel.