A magisterial, unprecedented overview of the clouded and turbulent years before World War II. It was a decade dominated worldwide by the Great Depression, by unemployment and hardship; a time when human achievement was matched by pervasive fear; when the great neon metaphors of hope that rose up after World War I--Broadway, Piccadilly Circus, the Kurfürstendamm, the Ginza--grew dim both literally and figuratively. It was a decade during which darkness often masqueraded as light--Hitler's abolition of unemployment in Germany; Stalin's plans for progress and social equality in Russia; Mussolini's "revival" of Italy--while governments established and maintained control through brutal physical repression and the more insidious, lasting repressions of truth: sanctioned deception and relentless propaganda. It was a decade during which a diffuse economic and social crisis condensed into a massive political and military storm. Focusing individually on each of the primary staging grounds for history during the 1930s--the United States, Germany, Italy, France, Britain, Japan, Russia and Spain--Piers Brendon traces the particular and diverse experiences of the decade. Political and economic circumstances form the framework of this breathtaking work of scholarship, but it is also the story of people: both of crucial figures--Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Roosevelt, Franco, Chiang Kai-Shek and Mussolini, to name a few--and of a secondary, but no less fascinating, cast of characters, including George Orwell, Leni Riefenstahl and Ernest Hemingway. Brendon vividly conjures the texture and tone of life in places as far-flung as Paris and Kyoto, Vienna and Shanghai, Magnitogorsk in the Ural Mountains and Norris in the Tennessee Valley. He depicts the circumstances of the Ukrainian famine and the American Dust Bowl, the Night of the Long Knives and the conquest of Ethiopia, the bombing of Guernica, the Anschluss and the great Soviet purges. He describes the clothes people wore, the food they ate, the books and newspapers they read, the work they did or lacked, the beliefs they held, the pleasures they enjoyed, the sufferings they endured. The public sphere and the personal realm, the collective lives of nations and the details of individual lives--each element of the book contributes to its brilliant elucidation of the ways in which, during the 1930s, political power obscured knowledge, economic catastrophe darkened understanding and the foundation was laid for the most profound and far-reaching crisis of modern times. The Dark Valley is a revelation of the ten years that set the course for the remainder of the twentieth century.--Publisher description.
As a side note, this somewhat ADD-style of piling up anecdotes also makes the writing less wonderful than it could have been. Brendon's obviously a talented stylist, but it's difficult to appreciate that when every sentence introduces a new epitome, rather than building on previous sentences, every paragraph introduces a new anecdote rather than explaining more fully the previous paragraph, and so on.
The book is written in an episodic format with each chapter covering a period of time in one country. On occasion this means that one event is covered multiple times in separate chapters – not necessarily a bad thing when it allows a different perspective on the event. It also means that the narrative weaves back and forth through time: the chapter on France might end in 1936 but the next step in Italy starts in 1931. The effect of both is to make each chapter stand on its own but keeps the whole from quite fitting seamlessly together. Though Brendon does try to knit the chapters together by introducing the country covered in the next chapter in the last pages of the previous this tactic feels clunky more often than not. This is not a showstopper, just something to keep in mind.
The chapters on Japan and Italy are especially strong, possibly because so few writers of popular history have given much attention to either country’s experience during the 1930s lately. The chapters on Spain and France are quite good also. Oddly, considering that Brendon is English, the chapters on the UK are surprisingly patchy. The chapters on the United States are, on occasion, a bit odd. Brendon’s take on the Supreme Court was surprisingly ill-informed and his sudden segue into Hollywood was downright bizarre. After paying little attention to culture in general Brendon spends pages essentially complaining about the output of the movie factories. I’m still wondering what the line “Even monsters like Boris Karloff and Shirley Temple did not seem credible” is supposed to mean. Does he mean the characters they played? Boris and Shirley as individuals? Is this a bon mot gone flat? Even more strangely, Brendon keeps referencing Citizen Kane, a great movie but one made in 1940 and released in 1941. Pop culture critiques are not Brendon’s strength.
The subtitle, A Panorama of the 1930s, is apt. This is not a comprehensive history. What Brendon covers and ignores verges on idiosyncratic at times. He’s not trying for completeness but rather to give the reader the feeling of the 1930s: a slow, exorable descent into chaos and ultimately the dark valley of war. The sheer breadth of what the book attempts to cover deserves the attention of any reader interested in the times.