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Cultural & Intellectual Trends Between WWI & WWII

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  • 0:01 Interwar War Period
  • 0:59 Mass Communication in…
  • 5:50 Social, Artist, &…
  • 7:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore the cultural and intellectual trends during the interwar period. Specifically, we will focus on the role of mass communication, as well as social and artistic trends during this time.

The Interwar War Period

About two years ago, I had the unique opportunity of playing an extra in a History Channel documentary. I played a British soldier in the mini-series, The World Wars. One interesting thing about this mini-series is the approach it sets forth. It presents World War I and World War II not as two separate wars but one continuous war separated by a 20-year truce. This interwar period, or this period of 'peace' (if we can call it that) was a fascinating time.

It was a time of hope and despair - hope for the future, and yet despair over the destruction brought about by World War I. It was a time characterized by modernity. It was a time of innovation, and cultural blossoming. This was true not only in the United States but also around the world. Let's dig a little deeper, and explore some of the cultural and intellectual trends of the interwar period.

Mass Communication in the 1920s and 1930s

World War I ended in 1918, and for much of the following decade, the world enjoyed economic prosperity. Mass communication blossomed during the interwar period, which was between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II. Advances in print technology launched a 'golden age' in advertising. Store windows were plastered with posters advertising the latest product. All kind of magazines and newspapers were born, often with sophisticated advertisements inside. For example, Time was first published in 1923, while the New Yorker began running two years later.

Two of the most significant innovations in mass communication were the radio and the moving picture (or movie). Radio technology developed throughout the end of the 19th century, but did not become commonplace until the early 1920s. Most historians consider the broadcast of KDKA out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to be the first commercial radio broadcast. It went on air November 2, 1920 with the results of that year's presidential election. Soon, radio stations were popping up all over the country. Between 1923 and 1930, 60% of American families had purchased radios.

Think about how you and I rely on television or the Internet for information; that is kind of like how it was for families in the 1920s - they would gather in the living room and listen to radio broadcasts. News, weather, sports, and entertaining fictional programs brought delight to listeners. Children would listen to tales about cowboys and Indians, and were sure to 'tune in next week to find out what happens… '

Throughout the 1920s, radio technology exploded around the world. In Germany, a new right-wing political party called the National Socialist Germany Worker's Party (we call them the Nazis) became particularly effective in using radio as a propaganda tool. Under the leadership of Joseph Goebbels, who held the title of Minister of Propaganda, the Nazi Party used radio to spread their message of anti-Semitism and anti-communism throughout Europe. Adolf Hitler's rise to power in the 1920s and 1930s was due partly to the Nazi's exceptional ability to harness mass communication and exploit it for political purposes.

Motion picture or film technology, like radio technology, developed gradually throughout the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Early 20th century motion pictures were typically silent films because the audio technology was not yet developed. However, by the mid-1920s this began to change. The first motion pictures containing sound were called 'talkies,' which was short for 'talking pictures.' The first feature 'talkie' film was The Jazz Singer in 1927. By the 1930s, silent films had become obsolete.

Not surprisingly, Joseph Goebbels and his Nazis also used motion picture technology to effectively spread their hateful message. Produced just after the start of World War II, in 1940, The Eternal Jew is one of the most well-known Nazi propaganda films. Germany was not alone in using motion pictures for political purposes. By the 1930s, moving pictures were increasingly used to capture political events, such as elections or regime changes.

After the start of the Great Depression in 1929, attending the cinema became a form of escape. For a meager amount of change, Americans could forget their troubles for a few hours inside a cinema. In fact, President Roosevelt once said, 'During the Depression, when the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.'

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