Article May 3, 2024

Adding Global Temporalities to Interwar History: A Book Review of "The Interwar World" (eds. Denning and Tworek)

This review was collaboratively authored by the Interwar Histories Working Group at the European University Institute, comprising of Wouter Baas, Anna Breidenbach, Ferdinand Valentin Mowinckel and Thomas Porsborg Sørensen. Read an interview with the co-editors of the volume reviewed below, The Interwar World (Routledge 2023), here

The chapters of Andrew Denning and Heidi Tworek’s edited volume, The Interwar World, seem to rebel against the volume’s title. The book’s 38 chapters (written by over 50 contributors) do their best to convince the reader that the label of a 1919-1939 ‘interwar’ is a Eurocentric way to judge the events of this period. An Interwar World would at best be a European World. ‘Interwar’ as a periodization loses much of its value when looked at from the global stage, from places like Japan, Ethiopia, or Mexico. Furthermore, the category of ‘World’ is deprived of its globality when forced into an Interwar mould. The volume manages to turn the term ‘Interwar’ against itself, and by the end of the book it becomes clear that by doing so it has redeemed it.

Denning and Tworek state in their introduction that the Interwar is “in need of definition, theorization, and even reinvention.” (pg. 3) Through the basic yet central questions of when, where, and how global the Interwar was, they aim to decouple the period from Europe as a vantage point. They question the periodization not only by asking ‘what happened?’ in the 1920s and 1930s, but rather about ‘what ended?’, ‘what started?’ and ‘what changed?’.  The Interwar World is divided into six parts, each consisting of between five to eight chapters. The parts are titled ‘Structures’, ‘Institutions’, ‘Identity and Ways of Life’, ‘Knowledge and Information’, ‘Ideologies and Practices’ and ‘Trade and Production’. Economic, technological, and scientific processes command the bulk of attention, along with institutions, ideologies, and social movements. Comparatively less attention is placed on social and cultural histories, though the range of topics is well balanced. This review does not aim to give a comprehensive summary of the parts and chapters. Rather, we assess the programme of history writing that the volume sets out by rethinking the Interwar’s geographies and temporalities.

Part I (‘Structures’) offers a birds-eye view on the ‘underlying deep factors’ that support, influence, and frame social and political processes. These chapters argue that trends such as growth and health and human environmental impact outgrew the boundaries of 1918-1939. Part II (‘Institutions’) examines the organizational actors in global politics: States, armies, supranational institutions, as well as smaller associations and civil society groups. While their direct involvement in war and peace-work makes the history of these actors rather compatible with the ‘interwar’ periodization, the part introduces important instances of deviations. The chapters in Part III on ‘Identity and ways of life’ take a closer look at identity factors such as gender, class, and religion. They bring out some provocative examples of actors and events that reflect the themes of utopianism, progress, decline and crisis. Where the aim to ‘decentre’ Europe is otherwise successful, the subject matter of Part IV (‘Knowledge and information’) shows how difficult it is to escape the role of Europe as a centre of global diffusion. The part focuses on different sciences, which, which were developed primarily in and by the ‘West’ and continued to shape the worldviews and perceptions of actors in other parts of the world’. By contrast, local trends are plentiful in Part V (‘Ideologies and practices’). Here, the effort to chart the changes in the public perceptions of world and one’s own place within it follows a fruitful juxtaposition of hegemonic ideologies such as nationalism and imperialism with emerging counter-ideologies of fascism, anticolonialism and feminism. The last part, Part VI (‘Trade and Production’), describes the economic development of the world in the Interwar period. The chapters are divided evenly between economic developments that were disrupted, such as trade and agricultural production and novel forces such as economic planning and industrialisation outside the imperial core.

Many chapters in the volume succeed at re-periodizing the Interwar. Some chapters shorten it: Michelle Tusan’s chapter on ‘Violence and Genocide’, for example, explains why the First World War refused to end in the Middle East, while capturing how the messy break-up of the Ottoman empire included a number of different, notably Indian, actors. A similarly surgical revision can be found in Jeremy A. Yellen’s chapter on ‘International relations and diplomacy’ places East-Asian politics in the framework of the Washington Conference of 1921. According to Yellen, the conference treaties managed to contain Japanese imperial designs in mainland China until the Manchurian Incident of 1931 initiated the long breakdown of the ‘Washington System’. Other chapters stretch the Interwar, such as Iris Borowy’s and Edward Ross Dickinson’s complementary chapters on ‘Health’ and ‘Population’, that demonstrate how the world’s overall population growth increased even despite destructive wars, famines, and epidemics. Neither shortening nor stretching the Interwar bracket, Jaehwan Hyun’s analysis of anthropometric practices at the Seoul-based Keijō Imperial University during Japan’s East Asian expansion posits a periodization surprisingly similar to the Eurocentric one, in self-conscious contrast to some of the traditional periodizations of Japanese historiography. Rarely have we seen a book where the chapters so self-consciously reflect on the periodization of the 1920s and the 1930s, showing how analytically productive such an exercise can be.

The Interwar World historicizes what is meant with the ‘World’. As Antoinette Burton points out in the volume’s ‘Epilogue’:

We get a unique sense of how an intentionally designed global history of these decades contributes to our understanding of the historicity of the global itself. For the global is not just a methodology, it’s a multiform historical phenomenon—an object of historical inquiry whose lineaments and contours, whose impacts and felt experiences, this volume helps us discern in new ways (pg. 692)

Indeed, Fredrik Meiton, ‘Technology and infrastructure’, argues that the Interwar ‘constitutes a bridge’ between different eras of globalization and at the same time witnessed “the most dramatic rise in global economic inequality in history.” (pg.77) Similarly, in his chapter on ‘The Rural’, Yves Segers outlines that while protectionist agricultural policies were a thing of the nineteenth century, the interwar years saw important technological innovations and revolutionary land reforms. He usefully zooms in on the cases of Mexico and the Congo Free state, demonstrating not just how ‘modernization’ shaped colonized and metropolitan areas alike, but also how it provoked a cultural backlash in the form of a widespread pastoral nostalgia. The volume uses an Interwar lens on both the global and anti-global, and in doing so forces us to rethink global processes that we usually tend to locate outside this period.

Not only does the Interwar World historicize the global, it also spatializes the Interwar. It questions a Eurocentric understanding of where the Interwar took place. John Tseh-han Chen, in his excellent chapter on ‘Religion and spirituality’, can be credited with what is perhaps the single-most powerful example of the global interconnections in the entire volume: “A Chinese Muslim reflecting simultaneously on Nazi antisemitism and the British and Zionist colonization of Palestine.” (pg.296) Chen’s example pinpoints two localities that stand out as global laboratories throughout the volume: the Mandatory Palestine and the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo. Koji Hatara’s chapter on ‘Industry’, for example, describes Japan’s industrialization as a dual entity with a liberal consumer-goods oriented sector in the metropole and a state-led Soviet-inspired heavy industry sector run by the army in Manchukuo. Similarly, Takashi Fujitani in his chapter on ‘Imperialism’ highlights the emerging consensus around a new form of imperialism of a more informal kind, inspired by creditor-debtor relations and USA hegemony over the Americas. The success of this imperial model explains why a new imperialist power like Japan chose to create the nominally independent state of Manchukuo instead of making occupied Manchuria a downright dominion. As a mirror image, Meghna Chaudhuri and Sara Marzagora’s chapter on ‘Pan-movements’ compellingly recounts anti-colonial activism for Palestine as a joint rallying point for Muslim Indians and Palestinians, showcasing the many overlaps between Pan-Arabism, Pan-Asianism and Pan-Africanism. Rather than tracing developments in the Interwar through ‘intercontinental flows’, as the volume’s editors claim to do in the introduction, the examples of Palestine and Manchukuo offer the opportunity to do a global history through a specific locality. They make us reflect on how global processes of the Interwar such as imperialism and anticolonial resistance played out in specific regions and created ‘global moments’ and shared imagined geographies around the world.

The global laboratories of Mandatory Palestine and Manchukuo teach us that global histories do not always have to be either connective or comparative histories. The potential disadvantages of such approaches are most apparent in Part IV (‘Knowledge and information’). Humberto Beck, for instance, starts his chapter about ‘Humanities’ with the claim about the “global dimension of humanistic discourse.” (pg. 372) He focuses on the dismantling of European civilizational superiority and the development of an alternative idealism in Latin America, based not on rationality but emotion and spirituality. While this productive criticism is linked to a global perception of the First World War as a European crisis, the new progress happened still in relation to, and mostly within, the scientific system that was developed by Europeans. This prevalence of ‘Western’ standards and scientific tools and rules is not only apparent in the humanistic disciplines, but also in the natural and social sciences and in international law, as other chapters show. This goes beyond the chapters on scientific discipline. Iris Borowy’s chapter on ‘Health’, for example, emphasizes the global spread of European concepts of health, but does not devote much space to alternative concepts of health in places like India and China. Too strong a focus on connective histories or ‘intercontinental flows’ thus runs the risk of obfuscating global histories from a local perspective.

At their best, the volume’s chapters manage to combine different approaches, to connect and compare, to re-periodize and re-spatialize, to decentre the West and let localities speak for themselves. Chen’s religion chapter retraces how the study of religion in the West forced a false commensurability onto global belief systems, providing rhetorical justification to new forms of exclusion based on race, nationality, and civilizational hierarchies. Simultaneously, he shows how the trauma of the First World war, the collapse of religiously legitimated monarchy and the rise of new transportation and communication technologies enabled new and hybrid forms of spirituality, emancipatory theologies, and pilgrimages such as the Hajj. Another example of how different global history approaches reinforce one another is Nova Robinson’s chapter on ‘Women’s Rights and Feminism’, which explains how racist, imperialist, and exclusionary practices hampered cooperation between feminists from different parts of the world. Rather than presenting a story of ‘the West’ and ‘the rest’, she takes us around the globe and shows how women in both the periphery and semi-periphery organized themselves and understood their feminist struggle in the context of ongoing imperial legacies and national enmities In chapters like these, the Interwar, presented as a World, is eminently useful as a historical concept, and succeeds in bringing to light the new actors that research into this period needs to retain its relevance.

The Interwar World is a product of ‘Interwar history’ that deeply reflects on what this period that we as historians all seem to take for granted, actually is. In this sense, The Interwar World is a supreme exercise in self-reflexivity. The book speaks to what we, doctoral researchers and members of the Interwar Histories Working Group of the European University Institute, try to achieve in our own research practice. Most of us are Europe-focused but use the methodologies and ideas of global history to add stories to the Interwar, highlighting actors and connections previously overlooked and questioning pre-existing narratives. The Interwar is a concept we use but often do not reflect on. The Interwar Worldshows us processes that were not just simply simultaneous but connected or responsive, both geographically and temporally. The book’s success is that it challenges us historians to rethink what we do when we work on ‘Interwar histories’, to not discard the term but to use it, consciously and critically.

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