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Humanities in the Western Tradition , First Edition
Marvin Perry, Baruch College, City University of New York, Emeritus
J. Wayne Baker, University of Akron
Pamela Pfeiffer Hollinger, The University of Akron
Chapter Summary
Chapter 25: The Era of Totalitarianism and World War II: Descent into the Abyss


Social and political unrest after World War I led many Europeans to embrace totalitarianism.  This chapter discusses the rise of totalitarian regimes, the second world war they helped to provoke, and developments in the arts during this period.

Totalitarian dictatorships work to achieve absolute obedience and control. The dictatorial leader advances an ideology that, like religion, offers an exclusive truth and a coherent picture of the world.  Promising fulfillment of a heroic destiny, the leader wins the support of the masses by appealing to their emotions, stirring their hatred of an imaginary historical enemy that would deny them that destiny.  Once in power, the leader mobilizes the nation's resources behind this struggle.  The regime uses propaganda and all the instruments of government to enforce loyalty and ideological purity.  Employing various forms of coercion and terror, the regime suppresses independent thought and controls every aspect of daily life.  Individuals become mere instruments of the state, cogs in the ideological machine.  Dissenters are vilified, forced to submit, or killed.

Such regimes emerged throughout Europe between the wars.  However, only communist Russia and Nazi Germany truly exemplify modern totalitarianism.  Pitting the Russian proletariat against various class enemies, Stalin used purges, terror, and mass starvation to strengthen his absolute rule and realize his Five-Year industrialization plans.  Co-opting German nationalism, fear of political unrest, and resentment at the Versailles Treaty, Hitler set the Volk against "inferior" races, particularly the demonized Jews.  As Mussolini never achieved the degree of control exercised by Stalin and Hitler, Fascist Italy was less totalitarian than authoritarian.

Hitler's pursuit of Nazi ideological aims sparked World War II.  After winning leadership of the Weimar Republic, Hitler imposed Nazism on the country, proclaiming himself Fürher and extending party control to every aspect of German life.  British and French appeasement policies enabled Hitler to rearm Germany and retain territories annexed to create a greater German homeland.  WW2 commenced with the German invasion of Poland and continued with its invasions of France and Russia.  By late 1941, Japan had joined the war on the side of Germany and Italy, and the United States on the side of the Allies.  As the war proceeded, the Nazi state implemented its "New Order," systematically enslaving, torturing, and murdering six million Jews and millions of others deemed racially inferior or ideologically suspect.  By August of 1945, the Allies had defeated the fascist powers, with Japan succumbing to the American atomic bombs.

During this period, writers addressed economic dislocation, political oppression, and war.  Steinbeck examined the plight of Americans displaced by the Great Depression and Midwestern agricultural crisis.   Applying his theory of epic theater, Brecht wrote dramas designed to provoke audiences into considering a variety of social issues.  Appalled by Stalin's regime, Koestler and Orwell wrote novels indicting totalitarian communism, while Silone attacked all ideology as totalitarian.  After WW2, Holocaust literature—exemplified by Wiesel's memoirs, Schwarz-Bart's fiction, and Frank's diary—emerged to commemorate the Jews murdered in Nazi death camps.  Novelists including Shaw, Mailer, and Heller represented the soldier's wartime experience with harsh realism, psychological insight, and satiric wit.  Böll and Grass confronted their fellow Germans with the moral questions raised by their country's recent Nazi past.  In America, Richard Wright attacked racist society with savage Naturalism, and Ellison blended symbol with Realism to highlight the dehumanizing psychology of racism.

As totalitarianism rose, new trends in art emerged.  To control artistic expression, Stalin codified Socialist Realism, while Hitler suppressed "degenerate" Modernism, promoting a style that glorified Nazi values.  Some avant-gardists, such as Dali, embraced totalitarianism, but most opposed it, including Picasso whose Guernica protested its militaristic violence.   Although the passage of art and artists over the Atlantic nurtured an American Modernism, important artists were exploring other directions by the thirties.  These included Hopper, who cultivated Realism to portray loneliness and isolation; O'Keefe, who developed an experimental style independent of Modernism while depicting the desert southwest; Lange, whose photos of Depression-era migrants established a new form of documentary photography; and Adams, whose images popularized nature photography.  The architects Gropius, van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier pioneered the International Style that emphasized modern structural materials assembled into flat, unadorned structures.  Against this style Frank Lloyd Wright set his organic architecture, stressing local materials and designs that integrate structures with their natural surroundings.

Jazz and blues continued to develop during this period.  The leading blues singer was Holiday, who perfected a style marked by unique phrasing, clear diction, superb improvisational skill, and emotional delivery.  Big band swing became the preeminent jazz form, emphasizing dance music performed by tight ensembles that featured star soloists.  Though most bands were segregated, some top leaders, such as Goodman, used their popularity to promote mixed ensembles featuring some of finest musicians of the day.  In the forties, Bebop emerged as mainly a small-group form built around complex rhythms and harmonies.  More than big band music, Bebop was a soloist's art, and its approach to composition and performance became the basis for subsequent developments in jazz, including free jazz.

Already scarred by WW1 and the doubt it cast on Enlightenment values, European consciousness was further damaged by the brutalities of totalitarianism and WW2.  After these catastrophes, questions concerning the place of reason in Western civilization, questions that had troubled thinkers since the late nineteenth century, assumed even greater urgency.  The war and Holocaust demonstrated how irrational ideologies coupled with rationally organized states could reduce individuals to mere things to be used and destroyed at will.  Without the support of universally accepted standards of thought and belief, intellectuals could formulate no ready solution to this crisis of reason.


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