Living the Twenties: M,N,O

By Sarah Zama

Sarah Zama, @jazzfeathers on twitter and a writer of historical fantasy stories set in the 1920s, did 26 blog posts in 2020 as an A-Z challenge on the cultural and political aspects of the 1920s over on her blog The Old Shelter. We're reposting these here as they talk about an area of History ripe for AH. Today we have the entries for M, N and O.

It is worth noting that an extended version of this series is available to buy.

The 1920s was a time of contrasting fortunes for minorities. In the USA, African Americans, saw both the Harlem Renaissance of African Americans who in the Great Migration had moved North and the brutal massacres of African Americans in the South, at places like Tulsa and Elaine, that led to that movement.

Though prosperity might not have been as diffused as we generally think, the 1920s were still good times for many people. The overall number of people who could afford a better life (at least in comparison to before) increased and this included minorities. The new prosperity gave the opportunity to many social groups to emerge and have – if sometimes only for a short time – the opportunity to express themselves more freely.

Still, the Twenties were also a time of great uncertainty and reactionary pushback at the ‘other’. The very prosperity of minorities led to hostility against that. The prosperity of the Greenwood district in Tulsa was part of why it was a target.

The ‘Other’ in the 1920s

It would be difficult to give a univocal definition of ‘the other’ in the 1920s. The era showed shattered perceptions of the different person and the different culture. Different from Western Culture, that is.

Maybe the only thing they had in common is that they were indeed perceptions. Ideas. And almost always they were far from reality.

In the 1920s, who was ‘different’ was either very good or very bad. The perceived characteristics of the different culture could bring great good to Western society or could bring destruction. There was never any kind of equality. Always the minority was ‘the other’. Even when these minorities had long lived (sometimes for centuries) in among the main culture, the majority of the population still perceived them as alien. As something extraneous. It was never a ‘different’ part of the dominant culture.

Primitivism, the perceived goodness of Africa

On the side of the perceived goodness of ‘the other’ was Primitivism. This was the perception of the so-called ‘primitive cultures’, primarily from Africa.

Primitivism wasn’t new to the Western World. It had started in the 1800s. It was the idea that these cultures, most of which were considered more primitive than the Western culture, were somehow luckier. They still retained the innocence and also the vitality that the Western culture had lost, weighed down by its history and its attachment to modernity. The idea of the ‘good savage’ belonged to this form of perception.

In the 1920s a new form of Primitivism manifested itself when jazz stormed over the US and then the rest of the world.

Although this music had its roots in African music, it wasn’t music from Africa. It had originated in the US, from an African American community, that at that time had been American for many generations.

Still, jazz was perceived as primitive music, coming from a primitive people, and so was simpler, and more vital and even refreshing – but also beastly and brutal.

If these perceptions were totally unrealistic, they opened up very real spaces for the people who created that music. In the 1920s, the African American community in Harlem knew a Renaissance in both arts and active political life that allowed real advancement to the community. Everybody wanted to be part of that vitality. This sometimes allowed for a crossing of the colour line that was previously unthinkable, with black Jazz artists such as Louis Armstrong playing to white audiences. It may have not survived the Jazz Age, but the fact that it happened left an indelible mark on the American society.

Anti-Semitism, the perceived danger of Judaism

Jews had been part of European history at least since the Middle Ages, though they were always ‘different’ and ‘other’. European countries had segregated Jewish communities inside ghettos sometimes located in isolated places. But inside those community, Jews kept their culture alive through the centuries.

In Eastern Europe, Jewish communities tended to be more conservative. They spoke their own language, Yiddish, read Yiddish books and attended Yiddish theatres and movies. Older people often dressed traditionally, and led a traditional life, though younger people were more open to the dominant culture outside.

In Western Europe, Jewish communities had instead always tried to integrate into the dominant culture, to the point that the younger generation often considered themselves as belonging to the dominant nationality as well as the Jewish.

This was the case of Germany, where the Jewish community was particularly numerous and ancient and almost entirely concentrated in Berlin.

When the Weimar Republic rose, Jews, as well as other minorities, found that spaces opened for them that were previously closed. Educated as they often were (Jewish had always considered education extremely important, and a means to a freer life), they found space in the republican system, as well as in the arts and cultures, where they dominated in the 1920s.

German Jews considered themselves German. Still, they were seen as aliens by many other Germans because of their cosmopolitanism and their perceived dual loyalties. When the financial and political situation of the Weimar Republic started to deteriorate, German people turned against Jews, because it must be their fault.

German Jews were a tiny percentage of all the German population, but because they were very visible both in the republican system as in the arts, the perception was that they were conquering essential positions in the life of Germany. And the perception was often blown out of proportion. The idea that the majority of lawyers in Weimer Germany were Jewish was so prominent that it was repeated as fact by the US government during WWII, but in actual fact only 16% were.

Once the idea was established that the Jews had such disproportionate power, then the step to violent anti-Semitism was very short.

The idea of nationalism came of age in the first few decades of the 20th century, but its origin is older. It goes back to the end of the Enlightenment and the rise of the national states. In that time, the ideas of people and of nation started to form.

The People and the Nation

The concept of both a ‘nation’ and of a 'people' are relatively new. They arose from the Enlightenment, then from Romanticism, when the idea of ‘a people’ started to emerge in the philosophical arena. The idea of ‘a People’ is an entity that is born when a group of individuals agree on common values, common behaviours and common representatives of the common will. It is, in itself, an act of will.

‘Nation’ has nothing to do with that will. It is instead a natural state. It’s an ethnic conception which – as Adam Smith argued – may be new and original when it manifests but sinks its roots in an ancient group of individuals who shared origin, language, race and all other elements that we group up in the concept of ‘tradition’. The nation is then a condition that grows and becomes more complex over time. It’s layered and multifaceted, and because it grows over time, it is very difficult, and it requires as much time and effort to destroy. It’s a heritage, something that comes to the individual whether they want it or not. Will is not involved in the concept of nation.

It was the French Revolution that started to bring together the idea of people and of nation. The Revolution defined the nation by its people, and the people became a free expression of the natural state of a nation.

From this union, the national states, as we know them today, started to emerge. The idea that a people is the expression of a nation (and so of a particular history, culture, ethnicity) and that a nation occupies a particular space where the people express themselves.

As this new concept became more widespread, the aspiration of different nations to be free and independent arose, giving birth to a series of wars for national independence during the 1800s as the old multinational empires of Spain, Austria and Turkey began to weaken.

Nationalism arises

Nationalism was originally the idea that people and nation should match perfectly. It was this very concept that allowed the national states to arise between the beginning of the 19th century and the end of WWI.

The protected environment that flourished in the countries adhering to the Concert of Europe fostered the idea that a state should be a people’s nation.

In the mid-1800s, the idea of the nation was still quite liberal. All nations deserved to be independent and free to express themselves. Most people accepted this idea. Upholding the people’s right to express their culture and history inside their nations freely was the first form of nationalism. It was the root and first impulse to the constitution of the national states.

But while this liberal interpretation of nation was all well and acceptable inside Europe, when the European borders were crossed, things became a lot more complicated. In a time of colonialism, how to cope with the right of a colonised country to express themselves? Didn’t all nationalities have the same right to express themselves freely and independently?

Of course, the answer could never be ‘yes’ or colonialism would have been unacceptable. There needed to be a different answer.

So the answer was that yes, ideally all nationalities should be able to express themselves freely. Unfortunately, not all nations have the same level of advancement. Some nations are more civilised and more advanced than others. They have a moral duty to dominate the lesser nations so to help them bring themselves – one day, as far away as possible – to the same level.

Nationalism then ceased to be a liberal idea and became an oppressive one, which required and employed violence and conquest.

This was the situation at the beginning of the 20th century. Then WWI broke out.

Inter-war-year nationalisms

When WWI broke out, many people expected the same kind of war they'd imagined previous wars had been, as a sort of chivalrous sport. It was an accepted way to settle differences when diplomacy was not available or recommended. One side would win quickly, and the other would fold and agree light terms with little permanent change achieved.

But an industrial war was unlike any other ever seen before. It brought in a level of cruelty and death that nobody expected, nobody could explain, nobody could accept, and nobody could forgive. The opposing party ceased to be a chivalrous opponent and turned into an enemy, a lesser being who would use horrible means to win. The only option was to use means just as horrible.

A lot of historians explain this as the violence and brutality of the colonial space breaking into the European space as Armies headed by old colonial hands began to fight each other. All the nations started to think of their opponents in the same terms they thought of their colonial victims. Consequently, they would think of themselves as superior, more civilised and of course, deserving of more space to conquest than the other European nations.

This had been predicted by many anti-colonists who felt that Imperialism taught brutality. As Georg Ledebour of the SPD put it "colonialism will drive this process of brutalization into European society, ... [so that they] completely abandon even the little bit of civilization, cultural sensitivity, and humanity that they had so far preserved in our capitalist era."

In the treaties that ended World War I, Germany was explicitly stripped of her African colonies, not as a trophy of war but as a moral punishment for a country that had proved itself, through the cruelty of the Herero and Nama genocide, to be unworthy of the moral duty of the imperialist's' burden. France, Belgium, Italy and the UK had apparently not proved themselves unworthy despite their own brutality in their colonies. Germany had not just lost, she was condemned as being morally unworthy to belong in the imperialist's club of the more civilised and advanced nations

This ‘punishment’ only strengthened the national feelings of Germany and raised nationalism in the country to alarming levels. Germany was certainly not the only Western Country where nationalism rose during the interwar years, but the circumstances was such to make her nationalism the most explosive. She would almost seem to driven to prove that 'punishment' correct as the cruelty of African imperialism would indeed be bought into Europe, in a most terrible way.

Orientalism arose as a concept between the 18th and 20th centuries as a result of colonialism and increased global trade, which allowed citizens of European countries to come into increased contact with the Orient (a poorly defined term largely referring to Asia) and learn about their history and culture.

This contact created a fascination of the Western World for the Asian realities and a cultural appreciation that started in the Napoleonic times and never really faded.


What Orient?

The concept of Orientalism existed for a couple of centuries. But Palestinian anthropologist Edward Said first described it in his 1978 essay Orientalism.

Said theorised that Orientalism isn’t a knowledge of any actual Asian culture or history, or of any Asian nation with a specific geographic location. But it’s an ensemble of ideas, myths and exotic images that don’t describe what it’s ‘Asian’, but what it’s ‘not Western’.

Orientalism was, therefore, a way in which the Western World defined itself by describing Asia and the Asian culture as the opposite.

Like all stereotypes, Orientalism tends to lump together different cultures in the same concept: all of Islam, all of India, even all of the Asian countries. It then gives them consolidated characteristic – spirituality, irrationality, fanaticism – which may exist in different cultures but that don’t mean anything when jammed together.

Although more often than not, Orientalism expresses a fascination in a positive way, the object of that fascination is, in fact, a fabrication. It’s a form of exoticism whose object doesn’t really exist.

Europe’s fascination with the Orient

Europe’s fascination with the Orient started in the 1700s when The One Hundred and One Nights was first translated and became extremely popular throughout Europe. This work was, of course, no realistic depiction of the Orient, but constituted the first step toward that fictitious creation that would become the European idea of the Orient.

In the 1800s, the arts became enamoured with Asian aesthetics, which Art Nouveau often integrated in its creations.

At the beginning of the 1900s, the first Japanese prints arrived in Europe and found Art Deco growing. The Japanese clean, stylised lines spoke the same language as the Art Deco, which soon incorporated that aesthetic in its work.

In all these examples, it was never a specific Asian reality that became known. Particular aspects, often taken away from their original context, were reinvented and redesigned. And so became something totally different.


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Sarah Zama writes historical fantasy stories set in the 1920s and blogs about the culture of that time period at The Old Shelter. An extended version of this series can be bought here.