Countless predictions in recent years have sounded a warning that the 1930s — the modern world’s darkest decade — is back. The decade has become shorthand for rampant nationalism, the rise of the far right and the collapse of democracy. Those were the years when the world appeared to turn its back on globalism, when widespread unemployment and hunger drove advanced economies to the brink, when borders tightened, and when fanaticism triumphed in politics, paving the way for the genocidal 1940s.
Yet the decade as we know it started much earlier than 1930. As Tara Zahra argues in her new book Against the World: Anti-Globalism and Mass Politics Between the World Wars, the retreat from liberalism and international cooperation in Europe and the United States began during the first world war and then intensified when postwar hunger and deprivation drove combatant populations away from the ideals of internationalism and cooperation that had once appeared unstoppable.
From the late nineteenth century, global flows of people, money, goods and ideas crossed borders faster than ever before, as new technologies transformed transportation, communication and refrigeration. Tens of millions of Europeans were on the move, a vast majority of them emigrating to North and South America.
But the war suddenly shut down these globalising forces. As Zahra writes, “European countries devoted all of their destructive energies to damming international flows of people, supplies and intelligence.” The results were catastrophic and far-reaching. Hundreds of thousands of Central Europeans starved to death. In Germany, which relied on imports for about a third of its food supply, imports declined by 60 per cent. Poor seasons and the loss of men to the front killed domestic harvests. In Berlin, food prices rose to 800 times their prewar level.
The crisis was similar in the disintegrating Austro-Hungarian Empire. Although less dependent than Germany on food imports, Austria’s agricultural output fell by almost half. Hungary lost a third of its harvest, and officials stopped sending food to nearby Viennese workers who depended on it. Food rationing exacerbated people’s hunger, and queuing at food depots became a full-time occupation.
Manès Sperber, a ten-year-old in Vienna, recalled long wartime nights of queueing in the cold and wet only to find that “the ‘Sold-out’ sign would be put up just as you finally managed to reach the threshold of the shop.” By the end of the war, Viennese were surviving on just 830 calories a day. “To obey the food laws is equivalent to suicide,” one middle-class Viennese woman wrote in her diary in 1918. Indeed, it was women who led the protests against the food shortages — protests that often turned violent — across Europe. Police sent to quell the protesters often joined in instead.
Zahra uses her exceptional skills as a historian to show how globalisation (not a term in use at the time, though certainly a phenomenon traceable to the nineteenth century) and its demise divided and politicised millions. She shows how the dissolution of Austria-Hungary, long a focus of her scholarship, left Austria adrift. The Paris Peace Treaty cemented the collapse of the imperial order and its fragmentation into warring economic units. Once the largest free-trade zone in Europe, Austria lost much of its food supply and raw materials to the economic nationalist policies implemented by its new neighbours, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.
“Of the fragments into which the old empire was divided, Austria was by far the most miserable,” League of Nations official Arthur Salter wrote in 1924. In his memoir The World of Yesterday Stefan Zweig lamented the disappearance of Austria as a centre of cultural and intellectual cosmopolitanism, represented by its multinational, multilingual and geographic diversity. The empire had stood in for the whole world not only because of its diversity of population and languages, but also because of its economic self-sufficiency. Now, it had become a head without a body.
Across Europe, back-to-the-land movements emerged as one of the more popular solutions to the food crisis. Supporters from both sides of politics were keen to develop economic self-sufficiency among local populations as a bulwark against future threats and to boost national economies. Autarky became a unifying goal for populations who had experienced hunger and humiliation.
As Zahra writes, “The importance of food security was seared into the bodies of hungry citizens.” In Italy, land was occupied by returning veterans and women, angry they had not received acreages promised in return for their wartime sacrifice. In Austria, calls for the “inner colonisation” of rural land by unemployed men and women appeared to offer the promise of food, jobs, houses and dignity; in reality, unwanted minorities (Slavs and Jews) were expelled from borderlands to free up space. Later, the same ideas were incorporated by the Nazis into the imperial concept of Großraumwirtschaft (greater area economy), which they used to justify their annexation of lands to Germany’s east and the expulsion of millions.
The settlement movement gained even more followers after the Great Depression, as disillusionment with capitalism spread. Faced with bad soil, bad weather, insufficient skills and an almost complete lack of infrastructure, these efforts weren’t always successful.
Women fared the worst. One of Zahra’s most significant contributions is her focus on the experience of women, who often faced the greatest of anti-globalism’s excesses. The back-to-the-land movement was about not only a return to the land but also a return to traditional gender values. Women were expected to work for up to fourteen hours a day doing backbreaking farm labour and unpaid domestic tasks alongside their children to free men up for paid work.
Mass politics on both sides blamed globalism for the drastic decline in living standards, and governments colluded in deflecting blame for the crisis in civilian mortality onto outside forces. Many European countries seemed on the brink of a socialist revolution, a threat that became a reality for a short time in Hungary and Germany, generating counter-revolutionary violence on the right, as fascists and socialists clashed openly in city streets.
As Zahra shows throughout Against the World, the search for scapegoats often led to Jews, who were perceived as “emblems of globalisation par excellence.” Forced by discrimination and persecution into jobs that demanded mobility — as pedlars and traders, for example — they were seen as perennial outsiders, facilitators of global networks of commerce, finance and trade, rootless and without loyalty to the state.
“Jews were targeted as symbols of international finance, unchecked migration, cosmopolitanism, and national disloyalty,” Zahra writes, with alarming echoes of today. German leaders disseminated a “stab in the back” legend that attributed the German and Austrian defeat to internal traitors, namely Jews and communists (the two were often conflated) working for foreign interests.
After Russia’s Bolshevik revolution, the twin “global” threats of Judaism and Bolshevism led to vicious attacks on the Jewish Hungarian population. These pogroms were even more violent in Poland and the Ukraine. Between 1918 and 1921, between 40,000 and 100,000 Jews were killed, around 600,000 displaced and millions of properties looted or destroyed.
Jews were the group most affected by the “epidemic of statelessness” that followed the postwar collapse of empires and the creation of nation-states. These emerging states engaged in a violent new form of political engineering designed to create nationally homogeneous populations. Minorities were persecuted, murdered, expelled or, at the very least, actively encouraged to emigrate; “reliable” citizens were called home or prevented from leaving.
These efforts to purify national populations helped to invent a new kind of migrant: the refugee. In response, a new League of Nations Refugee Commission was created, one of the myriad international commissions and organisations that descended on Europe after 1918 to help those worst affected by the war and its aftermath. The International Save the Children Fund, the Near East Relief Committee and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee were just some of the agencies on hand to assist the vast number of stateless people and refugees created by new and closed borders.
Adding to the chaos from 1919 was the Spanish influenza pandemic, which killed as many as thirty-nine million people worldwide, reinforcing political elites’ desire to tighten borders against “diseased” foreigners. In the United States those foreigners were often imagined as Eastern European and Jewish. The 1924 Johnson–Reed Act introduced “national origins” quotas, effectively reducing immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe to America to a trickle.
While it had once been relatively easy for European (though not Asian) individuals fleeing poverty, war or persecution to find refuge in the United States, the closed borders of this new era of anti-globalism left millions in limbo. Ellis Island, repurposed as a detention centre, was emblematic of this shift. The Austrian writer Joseph Roth imagined a Jewish migrant’s fate in 1927: “A high fence protects America from him. Through the bars of his prison, he sees the Statue of Liberty and he doesn’t know whether it’s himself or Liberty that has been incarcerated.”
One of the strengths of Against the World is Zahra’s interest in how the people of the period — the activists, visionaries, nationalists and industrialists invested in globalism, and its discontents — saw the world and themselves in it.
Rosika Schwimmer, a Hungarian Jewish feminist, is one of the more fascinating characters to accompany us throughout this history. We meet her at the beginning of the book as she oversees the annual meeting of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance in Budapest. For the delegates, internationalism was crucial to the project of enlightening and emboldening (white) women across the globe.
An early pacifist, Schwimmer spent her life attempting to find ways towards world peace. She appears initially as somewhat naive and opinionated, yet also hopeful. By 1919, a victim of anti-Semitism and sexism, refused a passport to leave Hungary, she is forced to smuggle herself first to safety in Austria and then to the United States, where her application for citizenship is denied. Her transformation from “citizen of the world” to “stateless refugee,” writes Zahra, “was emblematic of the fate of internationalism in interwar Europe.”
In one of the more bizarre encounters Zahra describes, Schwimmer convinced the industrialist and anti-Semite Henry Ford to charter a peace ship to end the war, an expedition that failed amid the derision of American journalists. Ford’s politics were self-serving and contradictory: an anti-globalist who relied on migrant labour, he made his workers perform their assimilation in an eccentric ceremony that involved climbing into a giant papier-mâché “melting pot” in national dress and, moments later, “graduating” in American clothing singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Ford also enforced his own back-to-the-land lifestyle for his company employees, demanding his workers move out of the cities and plant gardens to grow food. Yet he was global in his business aspirations, exporting millions of his cars overseas, including to the Soviet Union, and building plants across the globe. His virulent anti-Semitism also found an international supporter: Hitler praised him in Mein Kampf.
Others who make an appearance include Gandhi, whose own program of self-reliance, or swadeshi, Zahra includes within her anti-globalism frame. Gandhi’s determination to free India from Britain’s imperial chains and its subordination in the global economy resonated around the British empire, including in Ireland, where boycotts of British food caused an economic tariff war between the two countries.
“In a world of falling prices, no stock has dropped more catastrophically than International Cooperation,” the journalist Dorothy Thompson lamented in 1931. When Zahra sat down to write this book in 2016, Donald Trump had just been elected president and Britain had voted for Brexit: “There was a refugee crisis, and populist, right-wing parties were winning elections across Europe with anti-migrant platforms.” Covid and the war in Ukraine followed. (Zahra doesn’t mention here the tensions with China or the wars in the Middle East, equally destabilising.) Globalisation’s future, she writes, appeared uncertain.
Zahra’s neat binary of globalism and anti-globalism might bother some, but I found Against the World a refreshing and intelligent account of a period studied perhaps more than any other. This is a book about the fragility of democracy in the face of economic breakdown. Millions across the political spectrum faced hunger, homelessness, financial ruin and family separation in the wake of the first world war. Both the left and the right offered alternatives to the havoc wreaked by reliance on the global economy.
There are clear differences between the anti-globalisation movements of the interwar years that empowered fascism and those of our own times. But there are clear echoes in today’s widespread disenchantment with democracy’s ability to combat the inequalities associated with lost jobs, farms and homes; with the capacity of our international institutions to mediate conflicts; and with foreign competition and free trade. The other frightening echo is in the easy politics of fear, which sees the world’s most vulnerable cast out by demagogues seeking easy targets.
It’s hard to imagine how a world turned inwards will be able to tackle the biggest global challenges of our time. “The earth heaves,” warned a pessimistic John Maynard Keynes in 1919, “and no one is aware of the rumblings.” •
Against the World: Anti-Globalism and Mass Politics Between the World Wars
By Tara Zahra | W.W. Norton & Company | $57.99 | 400 pages