Interviews May 3, 2024

The Interwar World: Where, When, and How?

This interview engages the co-editors of the new edited volume, The Interwar World (Routledge 2023), Andrew Denning and Heidi J. S. Tworek. Expansive both in its breadth as well as in methodological scope, the volume engages more than 50 authors around the critical questions of where and when was the "interwar", as well as the more existential question of the usefulness of this framework of historical temporality and spatiality. The scholarly value of such an endeavour lies perhaps most acutely in its collaborative ethos, at a time when the professionalization of the academy seems only to further ossify the silos of spatial, temporal, and theoretical specializations. Thematically organized, the framing of this volume seems to push its contributors to engage with broader communities of historical scholarship and subsequently be unflinchingly self-reflexive in their use of the "interwar" as an analytic. I had a chance to interview the architects of this volume, Andrew Denning and Heidi Tworek, about the impetus behind such a massive project as well as some of the challenges and questions they faced in both in its planning and its ultimate execution. 

- Poorvi Bellur, Princeton University

Read a review of this edited volume authored by the Interwar Histories Working Group at the European University Institute HERE

PB: Thank you both for agreeing to this interview. Given the immensity of scope with a project such as this one, I’d like to start with a basic question of practice: how did you decide where to start, and what were the guiding analytic concerns that shaped your approach to this project?
HT and AD: From the beginning, we agreed that our largest contribution to the volume as editors would be to frame the interwar era from thematic and methodological standpoints. Although the title corresponds with Routledge’s “worlds” framing, we editors agreed at an early point that we were eager to frame less as a “world” history than a “global” history that emphasized connection and disconnection, flows and disjunctures, and multidirectional interactions across regions and continents. 

We recognized our own limitations and blind spots as editors, particularly given our shared training in graduate programs in the United States, common interest and publications in German history, and the like. In our overall conceptualization of the interwar decades as well as our organization of the volume, we wanted to avoid a paradigm that highlighted the initiatives of Western Europe and the United States (starting wars, ending wars, starting economic crises, advancing empire, building international organizations) and assumed that the rest of the world then reacted to Euro-American agency. We wanted to show how those Euro-American states and empires (along with other recognized interwar powers such as Japan and the Soviet Union) wielded global influence without being hegemonic, and that their field of action was circumscribed and itself shaped by other places and peoples.

From these analytic foundations, we were eager to recruit a diverse group of authors, defined in many different ways. We wanted to be sure to include scholars at all career stages, including both tenured faculty as well as pre-tenure and contingent faculty and postdoctoral scholars to develop wide-ranging perspectives informed by the authors’ specific teaching and research activities. We recruited scholars who self-identify as “global historians” as well as those who saw themselves instead as scholars of empire, or diplomacy, or institutions in specific geographical frameworks, but who were eager to challenge themselves to examine the global and comparative dynamics of their area of study. Further, we wished to recognize that some of the most provocative and novel approaches to global history are being done by scholars whose expertise in non-Western languages and historiographies allows them to trace the varied responses to common global challenges in the interwar decades. By recruiting authors working in languages such as Ethiopian, Hindi, Polish, and Turkish, we were able to bring multiple perspectives to global interactions and decenter usual assumptions of core-periphery relations in these decades. We also found that drawing scholars from varied institutions across the world advanced our overall goal of globalizing perspectives on the interwar. Finally, we encouraged our authors to work with collaborators on their chapters, drawing more voices into the discussion and fostering deliberately connected and comparative conversations across the globe.


PB: Could you elaborate a bit on the decision to structure the contributions to this volume into the following thematic categories, namely structures, institutions, identity/ways of life, knowledge/information, ideologies/practices, and finally trade/production? Would you say that such a thematic categorization arose naturally from the task of historicizing the interwar period, or is it in any way particularly suited to the interwar over other historical epochs? 

AD and HT: We recognized that all scholars have their geographic realms of training, each with their specific historiographies and debates, but we decided that all chapters would be thematic and orient towards global dynamics, rather than framing chapters around specific areas/regions/continents. We did this for three main reasons. The first was to avoid the “coverage” model of such books. Inevitably, some geographies will be under-represented. More pragmatically, if any author took longer, we would have to delay the whole volume for them as each geographical chapter would be indispensable. 

Second, the thematic approach helped us to build a volume with sections that made a subtle argument about which themes were foundational but often less examined. So we elected not to start with the category dealing with probably the most famous event of this period: the Great Depression. Instead our first section on structures included chapters where some authors showed the relative unimportance of the interwar period, for example for demography. We decided to end with trade and production, the category where pretty much all the authors agreed on the importance of the Great Depression as a turning point, although they examined it from very different angles and geographical starting points. 

Third, these sections enabled us to group together authors who might not otherwise have chapters close to each other in a book. That juxtaposition, we hope, raises new ways of thinking about this era. For instance, placing the middle classes next to religion helps us to think together ways of life that are often separated. 

Overall, a thematic approach works particularly well for an era that is so ill-defined and where one of the basic questions remains its temporal boundaries. The thematic approach enabled our authors to keep questioning the chronology of the interwar. We also felt it was important to avoid the classic focus on Europe and North America as the purported originators of trends in, say, humanities. Still, we could see this approach working for any era. By eschewing geographical categories, we push readers to think differently about how to organize global history for particular eras. 

Andrew Denning, University of Kansas

PB: One of the effects of a volume like yours is to challenge and indeed push at the ways the “interwar” is conceptualised temporally, geographically and indeed methodologically. Having undertaken this venture, what value does the construction of the “interwar” hold for you in your own work? 

AD: Having worked on my monograph on technology, infrastructure, and European empire at the same time that Heidi and I conceptualized the volume and edited the chapters, I’ve thought a lot about how meaningful the “interwar” is in my work. As a scholar of Western European empires, I’ve come to decide that the interwar is more vital than I had imagined before I had the opportunity to evaluate it theoretically, not necessarily because everything changed, but because the perception that it might became ubiquitous. From the metropolitan European perspective, it’s hard to understate the shift occasioned by the end of World War I. The outcome of the war made clear the shrinking material advantages of European states and the ideological and moral bankruptcy of their global political and economic projects. European states (whether empires or not) emerged from the war convinced that empire was a necessary hedge against global competition, and autarkic and neo-mercantile inclinations became increasingly prevalent. We might describe the dynamics of this global interwar in the paradox of a world bound by shared visions of division, one which international institutions (the League of Nations) and cooperative visions (Eurafricanism, Pan-Asianism) sought to reverse and recast. As Heidi and I noted in our introduction, we saw the global interwar as defined by antinomies of order and disorder, utopia and crisis, progress and decline. Recognizing that these were shared global phenomena, and that they were defined not by obsessions with the beginning and end of European wars but truly global discussions encompassing mass culture, the role of institutions, and social identities is what made the interwar decades so monumental. As a result, I found that the interwar era wasn’t so much about entirely novel developments, but about the globalization of existing ones, the interplay of which amplified some trends, while creating dissonance among others.

HT: I find that the interwar remains a useful heuristic but like any chronological designation, is hopefully now receiving its long-deserved critiques. Ironically, scholars like Charles Maier questioned the value of temporal units like the twentieth century in 2000, long before historians pushed at the idea of the interwar. But a debated designation can still illuminate in several ways, whether as an actors’ category after World War II or a common language for scholars. In my own work, I still find the “interwar” helpful as a container for discussions around issues like (de)globalization. In my own work, I’ve argued that this period illuminates how we have to separate out the strands of globalization, as the movement of information, goods, and people do not necessarily increase and decrease simultaneously. The 1920s and 1930s saw an increased movement of information, for example through new technologies like radio, though this increase was contested through practices like jamming. At the same time, decreases occurred in the movement of trade and people. That finding questions one of the key assumptions about the interwar as mainly a period of deglobalization and decreasing ties, an assumption we find both in the historiography and in popular perceptions. 


PB: Another aspect of this project that becomes clear from its framing is the effort to render clear the Eurocentrism of the “interwar” periodization model when left uninterrogated. In researching the historiographical trajectory of the “interwar”, did you come across alternative periodization/models, perhaps outside of the sphere of the Euro-American or Anglophone academy? 

HT and AD: One of the most enlightening aspects of editing this project and convening the authors was learning about the different metanarratives of the modern era that have been established in various fields. Although we began the project somewhat critical of what some have termed an “area studies” model of global history, in the end we found those approaches, when combined with theoretical and methodological insights from the “new” global history, revealed exciting new paths for reassessing the interwar era in temporal and geographic terms.

One particularly useful periodization emerges from the field of Asian history in the form of the “transwar,” encompassing a broad series of changes that spanned the 1920s to the 1960s. These decades formed a nexus that bridged the colonial/postcolonial and the traditional interwar-World War II-Cold War temporal divides and which saw common political, social, and economic questions engaged by states domestically and in the international realm. Meanwhile, some national histories—Japanese conflicts of empire, 1894-1945; Indian assertions of self-governance and direct anticolonial actions, 1892-1947—offer alternative models that span beyond the traditional interwar decades. For yet others like many Indigenous peoples, the world wars offered less of a useful dividing line than developments in 19th-century colonialism which laid the foundations for land displacement, impoverishment, health disparities, and cultural suppression that have lasted up to today. 

We also found it just as useful to think about how developments across the world complicate our understanding of the “traditional” interwar of 1918-1939. As our authors show, Euro-American power was often attenuated, and many outside of Europe and North America considered the interwar a meaningful timeframe precisely because the global order was so clearly in flux, with many seeing the old world crumbling and the new one not yet defined. For example, World War I was less important in Latin America as an armed conflict but more for changing perceptions of Euro-American power and prestige, opening up space for the elaboration and implementation of endogenous Latin American ideas and practices developed in the late 19th century. 

Heidi J.S. Tworek, University of British Columbia

PB: Now that the volume is out, what would you say are the next steps in accomplishing a reinvention of the “interwar”? 

AD and HT: Hopefully, this volume is the start of a broader scholarly conversation about the issue, including further work by our talented authors. It would be great to see even more historians take up this topic and contribute by examining themes that our volume didn’t cover, or elaborating further on those treated in the volume. We also included a few authors from other disciplines such as international relations and art history. It would be wonderful to see other fields engage in this debate and push it further using a wider range of tools and theories. 

Finally, it would be fascinating to put our work on the interwar into dialogue with others questioning temporal markers such as the global 1970s crowd. That would raise even bigger questions like how global history contributes to probing chronologies of change. We hope that our work doesn’t just push scholars to unthinkingly discard any and every chronological designation, but rather to ask the more critical questions of when, where, and how global any such marker actually was.


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