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The dark valley : a panorama of the 1930s / Piers Brendon.

By: Brendon, Piers.
Material type: materialTypeLabelBookPublisher: London : Pimlico, 2001Description: xviii, 701 pages, [24] pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm.Content type: text Media type: unmediated Carrier type: volumeISBN: 0712667148 (pbk.).Subject(s): World politics -- 1933-1945 | National socialism | Nineteen thirties | History, Modern -- 20th century | World politics -- 1919-1932 | Europe History 1914-1939 | World history | Europe -- History -- 1918-1945 | Japan -- History -- 1926-1945 | Soviet Union -- History -- 1925-1953DDC classification:
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Enhanced descriptions from Syndetics:

Piers Brendon's magisterial overview of the 1930s is the story of the dark, dishonest decade - child of one world war and parent of the next - that determined the course of the twentieth century.

Dealing individually with each of the period's great powers - the USA, Germany, Italy, France, Britain, Japan, Spain and Russia - Brendon takes us through the ten years dominated by the Great Depression and political turmoil. When Broadway, Piccadilly Circus, the Kurfurstendamm and the Ginza - neon metaphors of hope after four years of carnage - grew dim as the giants of unemployment, hardship, strife and fear took their hold. From the concentration camps of Dachau and Kolyma, the Ukraine famine and the American Dust Bowl, to the Moscow metro, the Empire State Building and the Paris Exposition, The Dark Valley brings the 1930's back to life through meticulous scholarship.

Brendon examines the great leaders - Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao Tse-Tung, Haile Selassie and countless others - not with hindsight but in the context of their age; but also, through a vivid chronicling of contemporary experience, he gives us a sense of what it was to be living then.

Originally published: London: Jonathan Cape, 2000.

Includes bibliographical references (p. [676]-678) and index.


Excerpt provided by Syndetics

I the harvest of armageddon Well before dawn on 21 February 1916, when powdery snow lightened the darkness shrouding the lines of trenches gashed across the face of northern France, a 15-inch Krupp naval gun fired the first shot in the battle of Verdun. Its long barrel rising through the camouflage netting of its hiding-place in a wood near Loisin, it gave a full-throated roar and vomited a huge projectile 15 miles into the fortified city. The shell burst in the courtyard of the Bishop's Palace, "knocking a corner off the cathedral". Others followed but not until sunrise did the main German bombardment begin. In the dead silence moments before the onslaught, French soldiers of the 56th and 59th Light Infantry Battalions, dug into a bosky hillside north of Verdun known as the Bois des Caures , saw snow fall from trembling branches. Then they were engulfed by a tornado of fire and steel. The barrage could be heard a hundred miles away in the Vosges Mountains, "an incessant rumble of drums, punctuated by the pounding of big basses." Close at hand its impact was tremendous. One of the earliest victims was a water carrier who, with his horse and cart, was blown to smithereens by a direct hit from one of the 1,200 German guns. His comrades expected the same fate as they clung to the earth and, Jules Romains wrote, breathed "the smell of a tormented world, a smell like that of a planet in the process of being reduced to ashes." The trenches of the First World War have been compared to the concentration camps of the Second. So they were, in the sense that they witnessed bestial suffering. By that analogy Verdun was Auschwitz. Actually Verdun was not the bloodiest battle of the war--that grisly distinction belongs to the Somme. Moreover, the carnage was so unspeakable elsewhere, notably on the Eastern Front, that governments sought refuge in censorship and lies, reporters dealt in euphemisms like "baptism of fire" and even poets felt lost for words. In every sector the combatants saw a new vision of hell, experienced an "iron nightmare." They occupied killing fields in which the quick and the dead were buried in the same stretch of tortured soil, men gouging holes in the ground like the rats which fed on corpses regularly exhumed by scorching metal. Amid the stench and squalor of a gigantic shambles, legions of doomed youth emerged to be scythed down by machine-guns and crucified on barbed wire. They endured an inferno of shells: shrapnel which tore flesh to pieces and high explosive which pulverised bone and stone alike. They encountered the hideous inventions of perverted technology: flame-throwers and poison gas. Even in so-called "quiet sectors" of the line, those in which (one French officer complained) generals "plague us with their visits." A 2nd lieutenant's commission was, as Wyndham Lewis said, tantamount to a death warrant. Yet, even taking Passchendaele into account, Verdun was the most terrible battle of the war. This was because of time and space: it lasted longest and was most concentrated. It continued at maximum intensity for much of 1916 and erupted sporadically until the armistice. And the kind of fighting which no one chronicled with more Zolaesque vehemence than Henri Barbusse was aimed at a single target on the narrowest of fronts: the woods are sliced down like cornfields, the dug-outs marked and burst in even when they've three thicknesses of beams . . . all the roads blown into the air and changed into long heaps of smashed convoys and wrecked guns, corpses twisted together as though shovelled up. You could see thirty chaps laid out by one shot at the crossroads; you could see fellows whirling around as they went up, always about fifteen yards, and bits of trousers caught and stuck on the tops of the trees that were left . . . And that went on for months on end, months on end! Probably more soldiers were killed per square yard in defence of Verdun, symbol of French honour, than in any other conflict before or since. The figures are difficult to compute, but nearly 300,000 Frenchmen and Germans died and another 450,000 were wounded. The German commander, General Erich von Falkenhayn, thus fulfilled his ambition to bleed the enemy white. Admittedly, his own forces paid an almost equally horrifying price. But the French armies, most of which were sooner or later dragged into the charnel-house of Verdun, suffered more. They were crushed by a weight of artillery "against which courage had no resource." Soon hopes of glory gave way to talk of butchery. French soldiers had entered the war with sublime faith in the offensive, symbolised by their red képis and pantaloons (where the British wore khaki and the Germans grey). Now some began to think in terms of a defensive strategy whereby casualties would be kept to a minimum. The embodiment of this philosophy was General Philippe Pétain. Pétain was given command at Verdun when a German breakthrough seemed imminent. A peasant's son with a patrician's air, he looked every inch a general--always an important consideration with the military. He was a large, impassive man with icy blue eyes, a sweeping white moustache and pale, marmoreal features. As Pétain himself acknowledged, "I have a chilling mask." Coldness, indeed, was the characteristic which this stoical soldier presented to the world: he treated politicians with glacial disdain and adopted a frigid formality with his staff. But passions seethed beneath Pétain's arctic exterior. He had many love affairs, often with other men's wives and once with a woman apparently procured for him by the Germans. When summoned to Verdun he was nowhere to be found; his ADC finally tracked him down in the Hotel Terminus at the Gare du Nord  in Paris. Outside a bedroom door he was able to identify "the great  commander's yellowish boots with the long leggings, which, however,  on that evening were agreeably accompanied by some charming little molière slippers, utterly feminine." Being, as a friend once said, more of a slave to his flesh than to his duty, Pétain insisted on finishing the business of the night. But once at Verdun he showed a stern regard for the flesh of the French poilu. He limited losses, relying on matériel rather than men. He acted defensively, reorganising the artillery and keeping it well supplied with ammunition. He constantly sent fresh troops to relieve those exhausted by the attrition of the firing line. He visited casualty clearing stations--unlike the British Commander-in-Chief, Douglas Haig, who felt it his duty not to sicken himself by such experiences. Eventually Pétain became the "saviour of Verdun." He thus earned himself lasting fame and popularity. In 1935 he came top of a newspaper poll conducted to find a dictator for France. However, Pétain's methods were anathema to the offensive-minded high command. So, in April 1917, General Robert Nivelle was permitted to launch another frontal attack, this time against well-protected German lines on the Aisne. It was a disaster. Though incurring a modest loss compared to the hecatombs of Verdun, it broke the fighting spirit of the French armies. Two-thirds of their units were now affected by mutinies. These ranged from minor acts of indiscipline to violent disturbances. Some troops sang the "Internationale" and proposed to march on Paris. But most were protesting against the slaughter caused by futile assaults on heavily fortified positions. The authorities effectively hushed up the mutinies, punishing the ring-leaders (50 of whom were executed) and making concessions (more leave, better food) to the rest. But this spontaneous insurrection terrified the leaders of France, because it raised the twin ghouls  of defeat and revolution. Pétain himself, infected by a pessimism that amounted to defeatism, muttered that France should begin peace negotiations. As it happened, all belligerent nations experienced mutinies or considered peace proposals in 1917. But it was in France, whose poignant war memorials would record the loss of 1.3 million soldiers (over a quarter of all men aged between 18 and 27), that the mood of war-weariness was overwhelming. That mood was prophetically expressed by a character in Barbusse's Under Fire who exclaimed: The future, the future! The work of the future will be to wipe out the present, to wipe it out more than we can imagine, to wipe it out like something abominable and shameful . . . Shame on military glory, shame on armies, shame on the soldier's calling that changes men by turns into stupid victims and ignoble brutes. Looking forward to the arrival of the Americans, French poilus were for the present prepared at least to defend the motherland. And defence was later to be elevated to the status of a cult, its fetish being the Maginot Line, modelled on the fortresses which had protected Verdun. But hostility to war and, by extension, to the military, became so widespread during the 1920s and '30s that cadets at St. Cyr were advised to doff their uniforms and go out wearing civilian clothes. Verdun spawned a feeling in France, so passionate as to be palpable, that this must be the war to end war. As a young lieutenant wrote in his diary just before his death in that battle, "They will not be able to make us do it again." The Great War invaded the mind of mankind, becoming "the essential condition of consciousness in the twentieth century." The pain and grief of Verdun, in particular, seared the French psyche like phosgene gas in a soldier's lungs. People had their own recurring nightmares: of men drowning in shell-holes; or walking on corpses during an attack; or going mad in the underground fighting in Forts Vaux and Douaumont; or being more anguished by their horses' suffering than by their own; or collapsing from hunger, thirst and exhaustion when supplies failed to reach the front line; or weeping just because they could no longer bear the mud, the lice and the squalor. Despite horrors best captured in Otto Dix's grotesque paintings of mutilated war victims, or perhaps because of those horrors, Verdun exercised such a fascination that during the 1930s survivors constantly returned to it. They visited the grim ossuary of Douaumont, formally inaugurated in 1932. It was said to contain the bones of 130,000 soldiers, but they were not arranged in ornamental patterns like the frieze of skulls and the tracery of tibias that imposed a macabre retrospective order on battle in the ossuary at Solferino; instead they were heaped together  higgledy-piggledy to represent the chaos of conflict. The Verdun ossuary remains the most extraordinary monument commemorating the First World War: a long, rounded chamber resembling the casemate of a fort, surmounted by a "funerary stela" less like an obelisk than an enormous high-explosive shell. This and the other war memorials, notably the one to the Unknown Soldier (carefully exhumed from an area of Verdun deemed free of Jewish and Negro corpses) at the Arc de Triomphe, reinforced French feelings that such an immense sacrifice "must never be allowed to happen again." So did the still-shattered landscape of Verdun, to which the ancient combatants were drawn. There they would reminisce and explore, trying to find the location of this dugout or that battery. "I was  in Death Ravine . . ." "Which one?" Some of these pilgrims camped  amid the mounds and craters, occasionally "getting their heads blown off when their fire heated up an explosive shell." At Verdun the iron entered into the Gallic soul. According to a myth much propagated by writers, a kind of camaraderie had existed between soldiers facing each other across No Man's Land. They were supposed to be united in mutual respect, and in common contempt for staff officers safely behind the lines who could blithely order them to fight to the last man. The myth was not without foundation, but anyone who reads the unpublished diaries and letters of poilus or tommies will be more impressed by their violent hatred of the foe. The hatred was compounded by an abiding fear, which was particularly pervasive in France, where the war produced a disastrous fall in the number of births. In 1928 Charles Lambert warned that "the demographic peril" was "as formidable as the German army."17 Population stasis, which occurred in the 1930s, weakened the nation's capacity in every way, helping to make the Depression France's "economic Sedan." France won in 1918. But Falkenhayn, whose own hair turned white during the months of Verdun, had succeeded in bleeding it white. As the politician Georges Mandel said in 1940, France's people believed that it "could not stand another bleeding like that." Another such bloodbath was a frightful prospect. But as France tasted the sweets of victory there were many in Germany who were consumed by the bitterness of defeat. They vowed to reverse the verdict and to exact vengeance at whatever cost. And they believed that Verdun had forged a new Teutonic cadre: ruthless, mechanised, steel-helmeted "proletarians of destruction" for whom, Arnold Zweig wrote, there "is no truth, and everything is permitted." The most fanatical of these nationalists was, of course, a young Austrian corporal named Adolf Hitler. As a down-and-out artist in Munich he had welcomed the war with rapture, thanking God for having matched him with this hour. Though said to be lacking in leadership qualities, he had conducted himself bravely. He had been wounded and had won the Iron Cross, first class, allegedly for capturing single-handed more than a dozen French soldiers--cynics later suggested that  he had surrounded them. Writing from the trenches he had expressed a fervent hope that a new, purer Germany would emerge from the crucible of war, so that by the sacrifice and agony which so many hundreds of thousands of us endure every day, that by the river of blood which flows here  daily . . . not only will Germany's enemies from the outside be smashed, but also our domestic internationalism [a euphemism for Jewry] will be  broken up. Pale-faced, with intense, staring eyes and a much fuller moustache than he later wore, Hitler oscillated between moods of lethargic day-dreaming and daemonic enthusiasm. His fellows regarded him as a Bohemian and an eccentric. But Hitler was far from alone in finding a kind of fulfilment in the war. It gave him comradeship, discipline, the excitement of taking part in an heroic adventure and the sense of purpose which stemmed from proving that he and his race were fittest to survive. This social-Darwinist destiny was abruptly denied him in 1918. On 13 October Hitler was temporarily blinded in a British gas attack south of Ypres. He was sent to Pasewalk hospital in Pomerania. It was here, a month later, that the chaplain gave him the news of the armistice. As he described the moment in Mein Kampf: Everything went black before my eyes; I tottered and groped my way back to the dormitory, threw myself on my bunk and dug my burning head into my blanket and pillow . . . And so it had all been in vain. In vain all the sacrifices and privations; in vain the hunger and thirst of months which were often endless; in vain the hours in which, with mortal fear clutching at our hearts, we nevertheless did our duty; and in vain the death of two millions . . . Would [their graves] not open and send the silent mud- and blood-covered heroes back as spirits of vengeance to the homeland which had cheated them with such mockery of the highest sacrifice which a man can make to his people in this world? The language was melodramatic, as befitted a propagandist tract dictated by a demagogue of genius. The history was tendentious: here was the unvarnished myth that the new provisional government--in reality forced to act as a result of military, political and social collapse--had stabbed an undefeated Germany in the back. The autobiography was misleading: this was not quite the turning-point in his career that Hitler claimed. But all too real was the molten passion, from which Hitler would forge his brutal weapon of Nazism. As he wrote, "The more I tried to achieve clarity on the monstrous event in this hour, the more the shame of indignation and disgrace burned my brow . . . I, for my part, decided to go into politics." Nazism was not the only revolutionary growth to spring from Great War battlefields so prodigally fertilised with blood. During and after what was a cultural caesura as well as a political watershed, rebels and insurrectionaries mounted attacks on every aspect of an old order that had so patently failed. Its famed douceur de vivre had culminated in a stupendous conflict. Its religion had bestowed divine sanction on the carnage. Its industrial achievements had made possible assembly-line massacres. Its mass media of communication had manufactured propaganda on an unprecedented scale. A botched civilisation, as Ezra Pound called it, had begotten scientific barbarism. Barbarism bred more barbarism, which in Russia took the form of Bolshevism. The point was well made by Boris Pasternak, who (in Doctor Zhivago) blamed the war for shifting the world from a "calm, innocent, measured way of living to blood and tears, to mass insanity and to the savagery of daily, hourly, legalised, rewarded slaughter." Moral disintegration followed, in which individuals lost the power to speak, and even to know, the truth. "It was then that falsehood came into our Russia." Excerpted from The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s by Piers Brendon All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Reviews provided by Syndetics

Library Journal Review

Relying on a wide variety of secondary sources, Brendon (Churchill Archives and Churchill Coll., Cambridge) surveys the domestic and international scenes in Britain, France, the United States, Japan, and the Soviet Union during the tumultuous 1930s. Although primarily a narrative, the book presents useful analytical insights into the causes and consequences of governmental policy in both dictatorships and democracies. Brendon advances no radical reworking of the historiography, but he offers useful perspectives into Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. His chapters on the United States and Great Britain give readers insight into the rise of totalitarianism and the maintenance of democracy during crisis. One of the book's main strengths is in demonstrating the interdependence of international events throughout the decade. Although the author focuses primarily on political and economic issues, he gives some analysis of everyday life. This well-written book is recommended for most libraries.DFrederic Krome, Jacob Rader Marcus Ctr. of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Publishers Weekly Review

Brendon's latest book is ambitious, covering the world's convulsive descent from the economic and political chaos of the 1930s into the global slaughter of the war-torn 1940s. Taking his title from Churchill's address to Stalin on May 8, 1945, Brendon (Hurrell Froude and the Oxford Movement; etc.) analyzes the decade from the start of the Depression to the eve of WWII, a period of economic collapse in the democracies and aggressive totalitarianism in the nations that would ultimately form the Axis. Brendon traces how each of seven nations (the U.S., Britain, France, Spain, Italy, Russia and Japan) responded to the era's economic upheavals. In Germany, Italy and Japan the answer to the Depression was massive rearmament, to which the democracies responded, as Brendon details, with temporizing and appeasement. Brendon is especially interested in mechanisms for distorting the truth, including propaganda and censorship. His writing is superlative, his vocabulary precise and extensive; he displays remarkable talent for the revealing phrase and the polished anecdote. Each of the decade's personalities, from Hoover to Orwell, from Haile Selassie to Harry Hopkins, is pinned down in a trenchant sketch, and the dominant characters, such as Roosevelt, Mussolini and Hitler, are examined carefully. Most important, Brendon demonstrates why one cannot understand the appalling violence of the Second World War without first mastering the tumultuous decade in which the seeds of the war were planted. 24 pages of photos not seen by PW. Agent, Andrew Best. 50,000 first printing. (Oct) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


This chronological narrative focuses on how the US, Germany, Italy, France, Britain, Japan, and the USSR experienced the throes of the Great Depression, the "Dark Valley." The topographical metaphor is sustained throughout the volume's five parts: "Approach" (three chapters set the scene from WW I to the Wall Street Crash of 1929); "Into the Abyss" (11 chapters examine the several national experiences of these times); "Canyon" (two chapters address the Spanish Civil War as "the defining episode of the 1930s"); "Deepening Gloom" (10 chapters recount the national political landscapes as they encounter totalitarianism and militarism); and, finally, "Chasm" (the "terminal point of the dark valley of Depression," WW II). Dozens of dramatis personae stud a narrative that is underpinned by anecdote, fine social detail, and ambience of place and time. Brendon also covers various strategies of the "dissemination of falsehood" employed by communists, fascists, national-socialists, and imperialists alike in their preoccupation with monumentalism, public spectacle, and mass communications. As Brendon puts it, it was a period when "political power obscured knowledge, and economic catastrophe darkened understanding." Well written, well illustrated, and well referenced, this volume is as rich and nuanced as it is thick. All collections. B. Osborne; Queen's University at Kingston

Booklist Review

With the benefit of six decades of hindsight, the 1930s seem to have been dominated by almost criminal blindness. How could most Western statesmen be so blind to the dangers of fascism? How could so many "useful idiots" on the left ignore the increasingly obvious nightmare of Stalin? How could members of the Catholic Church hierarchy, including Pope Pius XI, believe that Mussolini would "regenerate" Italy? This brilliant and utterly fascinating study valiantly re-creates the hopes, fears, and hatreds in the U.S., the major European powers, and Japan. Brendon, a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, masterfully reveals the tensions brought on by intolerable contradictions in each nation, such as glittering urban cultural showcases surrounded by the almost unbearable squalor of the Great Depression and political leaders mouthing platitudes about freedom while using brutal repression against internal opposition. All the while, the specter of World War I's unprecedented slaughter constantly haunted leaders and the general population. This book is an essential contribution to the understanding of the horrors of World War II and its legacy. --Jay Freeman

Kirkus Book Review

A majestic and highly readable history of the most distressing of decades. Cambridge historian Brendon (Eminent Edwardians, not reviewed) finds the 1930s depressing, viewing them largely as a long and winding slide into the abyss of WWII. Luckily his prose is sharp and clever enough to propel the reader happily through all of the impending doom and gloom. Alternating among the seven nations that would constitute the primary combatants (England, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the US), he argues, fairly convincingly, that the use of propaganda and spectacle was the hallmark of the decade in all of them. Certainly none of the theses presented here are daring or new, and Brendon rarely departs from the standard schoolboy's idea of the decade's progression. But the scope and organization of the story he tells are pulled off masterfully, and the sketches of impossibly well-known figures such as Churchill, Stalin, and Mussolini are intriguing, even strangely humanizing. At times the narrative threatens to bog down into a series of lists: French governments, New Deal initiatives, purged Bolsheviks, Nazi demands, Japanese plots, English witticisms. And names and events likely to be unfamiliar to those educated on this side of the Atlantic are dropped without explanation. What is more, there are glaring omissions--apparently nothing happened in the British Empire outside of London during the whole decade, while China and Africa make appearances only when they are invaded. These are minor, and perhaps inevitable, complaints, however, given the admittedly panoramic aims of the project. The comprehensiveness and thoughtfulness of its execution are more than ample recompense. Compelling and propelled by a gathering momentum, this all but begs for a sequel. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.