1920's Europe: The Major Centers

In novelty of expression, defeated Germany took the lead. This was perhaps natural since German society was so much more gravely disturbed by the war and its aftermath than were the societies of France or Britain. In Germany, the former ruling classes--and the culture they embodied--had abdicated their authority. The prewar Reich had exuded an atmosphere of stuffiness and selfsatisfaction; in postwar Germany, the cultural temper was raffish, tormented, and revolutionary. For a number of years, the young insurgents had the arts almost entirely to themselves, and even when life became somewhat more stable, the cultural atmosphere of Weimar Germany remained incomparably lively and diverse. Only in the quieter university towns did intellectual activity continue much as before. These towns kept their previous eminence--as did the artistic and literary center of Munich. But the great novelty was the sudden emergence of Berlin, modern, untrammeled by tradition, and the largest city on the European continent, as the most experimental and daring center of all.

Paris, however, still eclipsed Berlin in range of cultural activity. The city on the Seine remained what it had been for centuries--the literary and artistic capital of Europe. Indeed, in certain respects Paris increased its earlier lead. In the field of painting it had no rival: the School of Paris drew into its orbit not only the most varied talents from all parts of France but also the eager and ambitious who poured in from Spain and Italy, from Russia and America. In the ballet, in the theater, in the novel, Paris enjoyed a preeminence that was reinforced by the talents of foreigners. The Russian ballet, the American expatriate novelists like Ernest Hemingway suggest how postwar conditions intensified artists' long-established tendency to seek in Paris the ideal city for cultural creation.

In different ways, then, Berlin and Paris both profited because other centers had apparently become less hospitable to talent. American writers fled to France in revulsion against postwar conventionality and "materialism" in their own country. Austr ians and Hungarians, who had become accustomed to life in great capital cities, felt cramped and stifled within the narrow confines to which the settlement of 1919 had reduced their national communities. Tens of thousands of educated Russians fled from Bolshevik tyranny, as did a smaller number of Italians after the establishment of the Fascist dictatorship. Thus the 1920's saw the beginnings of that uprooting of European intellectuals which was to become almost a mass movement in the next two decades.

Two further changes occurred. In England, the decade of the 1920's was characterized by an extraordinary deprovincializing of cultural life. No longer did Britain seem so separated from the Continent as it had once been; no longer were the British themselves so satisfied with their traditional island ways. Now they were much more ready to learn from the French and the Germans, the Russians and the Austrians. Here again the experience of four years of fighting in a continental war doubtless contributed to the change of attitude. Before 1914, the "Bloomsbury circle," for example, had been a group of very young writers without much influence; now it set the intellectual fashions by quiet but persuasive propaganda for French painting, the Russian ballet, and Viennese psychoanalysis. The Bloomsbury group had grown up in the intense intellectual atmosphere of Cambridge--and the 1920's were also to be the period in which the preeminence of Cambridge in physics and philosophy won nearly universal recognition. The twenties likewise saw a form of art, music--that Britain for two centuries had chiefly regarded as an alien importation from the Continent--at length achieving a new status, as major native composers awakened the interest of an alert and educated public.

Finally, in this remarkable decade Spain emerged from its long intellectual isolation. In the philosopher Ortega and the poet Lorca, Spain produced writers whose interests were European in scope and who were read throughout the Continent. In retrospect this intellectual revival in the Iberian Peninsula was to seem tragically futile when, a decade later, it was cut off by civil war and the ensuing dictatorship of General Franco. The war cost Lorca his life and drove Ortega into uncompromising opposition to Franco's repression of intellectual liberty.

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