Harbingers of the Depression Era
“Behold, I will bring evil upon this people, even the fruits of their thoughts, because they have not harkened…” (Jeremiah 6, 19)
Many of the problems of the depression era had been presaged in the early 1920s. Many continued to fester during the 1930s as they were not tended and finally erupted into World War II. The economic boom of World War I deflated in 1920. Although industrial production recovered swiftly during the jazz era, agriculture did not. The agricultural slump continued throughout the 1920s and finally culminated in the Midwest dust-bowl Oakie exodus of the 1930s, about which John Steinbeck (1902-1968) wrote so eloquently in his 1939 Grapes of Wrath. It followed his 1937 Of Mice and Men. Earlier, in 1933, novelist Erskine Caldwell (1903-1987) adapted his Tobacco Road into a hit Broadway play that challenged Abie’s Irish Rose for Broadway’s long-run title. The 1930 agriculture depression was a major theme in 1930s literature.
Overseas, Lenin gained full power in Russia in 1921, having defeated the ‘white’ forces as well as seeing the joint American, British and other allied occupation forces withdraw. Upon winning, Lenin had to reverse his economic policies and institute his less repressive New Economic Policy (NEP). He died, possibly murdered, in 1924 and Stalin began his bloody march to power, succeeding in 1926. In Italy, Mussolini led his jack-booted ‘black-shirts’ in the Fascist march on Rome in 1922 where he took power. Hitler, capitalizing on the German hyperinflation of 12923, launched his unsuccessful beer hall putsch in 1923. It resulted in his imprisonment and time for him to write Mein Kampf, a prophetic, but disbelieve, warning of his future plans.
The year 1923 also saw Japanese politics begin to become unsettled in the aftermath of the economic consequences of the great Tokyo earthquake. In India, the first major Indian-Muslim religious clashes of modern times began in 1921 in the Punjab and Malabar regions, while Gandhi launched his first civil disobedience campaign December 4th of that year. In the Middle East, Atatürk, a genius Turkish nationalist general, defeated the combined allied armies that occupied his country and dictated a new peace treaty on July 24, 1923. He also began the massive revamping of Turkish society from language to religion. On August 24, 1924, Ibn Saud, with his conservative Wahabi tribesmen, captured Mecca and established the present dynasty over that future oil-rich land. The year 1923 also saw Lithuania sponsor an insurrection in Memel over inter-allied control, severing that town from Germany, a situation Hitler reversed in 1938-9. In Spain, a 1923 military coup place General DeRibera in control of the country, following which he drove out liberals such as the writers Ibañez and Unamundo. Dissatisfaction with his rule eventually resulted in the Spanish Civil War in 1936.
Age of Anxiety
On ‘black Friday’ in October 1929, the clock finally struck midnight on the jazz era’s ball. It was the timing signal for the beginning of the great depression and the collapse of the U. S. stock market. It initiated a major reassessment of a number of social verities. For decades, society had viewed itself as a half-filled glass; now it aw itself as half-empty. An ‘age of anxiety’ was now ushered in, as delineated by Leonard Bernstein in his Second Symphony which used that title. Prophetically his first was called the Jeremiah. The surety that had carried America confidently into the twentieth century and which had survived the first World War was shaken. Man’s confident belief that solutions could be found and hat there were ultimately achievable final answers had dissolved into anxiety. While new answers might be offered, they were not necessarily ones that America wanted. The belief in American style democracy together with the Puritan work ethic that had been at the heart of much American progress was having its underpinnings attacked by a series of challenges that came to fruition in the 1930s, although some had been more than a half-century in developing.
Americans, and the world, became anxious about five basic areas where confidence and faith in the future were challenged. Among other lesser areas, these were: a) the received text of the Christian bible, b) the concept that the form of man was immutable and had always been in the present form, c) the solidity of things, e.g. the touchable physical nature of reality, d) the unchanging nature of institutions and, finally, e) the reliability of the economic theories of capitalism.
Challenge to these five ‘verities’ generated great anxiety and uncertainty whenever ‘new’ solutions were proposed. One consequence of such anxiety is the use of social anodynes. Past societies have had serious challenges to their basic principles and met them in a variety of ways. One was to freeze social structures. This was done by Egypt under the threats of desertification, and the Hyksos invasions. They met the threat of monotheism under Ikhnaton by denial and erasure of his existence. Rome met the challenge of barbarian invasions by widening roman citizenship and turning to religion for solace.
In the 1930s, the drive for stability led to the successful rise of dictatorships where leaders promised sureties, such as trains that ran on time or the regaining of national pride. The turn to faith saw many in the West look to Communism as a new faith, blinding them in denial to its flaws when they were revealed. Another response was escapism. America took to this and made the movie industry burgeon. Even small things such as the stability of a hobby was influenced by the need to regain certainty. In this respect, stamp collecting offered both a sense of stability with its catalogs and printed albums as well as socially acceptable escapism. In the age of anxiety of the great depression, stamp collecting approached the zenith of its popularity.