USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Conclusion to Introduction

The years between 1914 and 1945 were defined by crises. The most acute area of crisis came in international affairs—and resulted in 1914 in the start of the First World War, which set the stage for thirty years of global instability. Against Rivera’s conception of the unity of peoples and the organic unity of the earth, WWI and the subsequent decades highlighted hardening borders, divisive nationalism, and reductive racial and ethno-historical definitions.

The period between 1914 and 1945 is also defined by economic crises, the most acute of which occurred in 1929 and lasted well into the 1930s—the Great Depression. This economic crisis put tremendous pressure on social and political institutions, ultimately resulting in widespread political radicalism. The harmonious industrial scene depicted by Rivera in 1932-1933 must be juxtaposed with the Nazi seizure of power in March of 1933 in Germany. The first move Hitler made after taking control was to turn on the German workers’ parties, the communists and socialists, while embracing the German industrial elite.

To international and economic crisis, then, one must add political crisis. In the search for some kind of stability amid real and perceived economic, cultural and military threats, country after country in the 1920s and 1930s turned to radical political solutions: Stalinism in Russia, fascism in Italy, Nazism in Germany, and authoritarian movements in Turkey, Japan, China, Brazil, Poland, and many more—not to mention the brutal authoritarianism throughout the colonial world. The concert of democracies imagined by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson at the end of WWI became by the 1930s an impossible dream—as naïve a fantasy, perhaps, as Rivera’s industrial wonderland depicted in Detroit Industry.

Finally, during these years from 1914 to 1945 there was a widespread crisis of identity as the dynamics of globalization put pressure on traditional ways of life. Both small-scale manufacturing and localized, small agricultural production were giving way to massive factory production and large farming enterprises. Migrations, both from one country to another and from one area of a country to another—commonly from rural zone to cities—gave rise to a host of anxieties and identity dilemmas. The next chapter on Gandhi explores one such "identity crisis." In the cities, as seen with Paris, cultural life was a complex blend of influences—denying any notion of cultural uniformity. Backlash against just such cultural hybridity could be extreme—and not only in Nazi Germany.

Given the manifold nature of crisis in the early 1930s, it seems fitting to begin this book with Rivera’s Detroit Industry—a vision of racial harmony in the midst of racial discord, a portrait of economic optimism in the midst of global economic catastrophe, a picture of social unity in the midst of social stratification, a representation of the organic unity of the earth at a time of the hardening of borders and increasing belligerence across the globe, and, finally, a statement of respect for indigenous or traditional societies during years when the notion of unmitigated historical progress could be used to justify horrendous oppression of other human beings and violent, thoughtless exploitation of the natural world.

Artist Frida Kahlo's Self Portrait Along the Borderline between Mexico and the United States, pictured above and also painted in 1932, offers a very interesting point of comparison and contrast to Rivera's Detroit Industry. Any ideas? Here is a good start from the scholar Warren Carter, who places the painting in context and connects that context to contemporary times.

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