The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s By Piers Brendon Alfred A. Knopf 795 pp., $35
At the end of the European phase of World War II, Winston Churchill referred to the "the sacrifices and sufferings of the dark valley through which we have marched together."
But the "dark valley" which this epic tome traverses is not the war itself but the quagmire of the 1930s. It was a period during which intelligent people could discern the eventual outcome of the growth of totalitarianism, but also a period in which no nation possessed the will to prevent the coming disaster.
Piers Brendon is the keeper of the Churchill Archives and the author of several books of lesser scope than this superlative attempt to re-create the world that passed away in 1939. It was a world fraught with domestic challenges brought on by the Great Depression. And those domestic concerns made it impossible for the politicians in the United States, Britain, and France to take meaningful steps to hem in the burgeoning Nazi power. On the other hand, the domestic upheaval caused by the Depression made it easier for the future Axis powers - Germany, Japan, and Italy - to curtail the freedom of their citizens.
Using a deft combination of historical fact, anecdotal material about each nation's leaders, and gripping description, Brendon has written a history that even a general reader will have trouble putting down. He has also interwoven a dominant subtext throughout the book - the degree to which each nation had insufficient information about the other, and the degree to which nations indulged in deception. Brendon writes that the book "investigates how, and how far, contemporaries knew what they knew and the extent to which our own view of the time is fogged by their uncertainty. It surveys the strategies of delusion and self-delusion, the techniques of obfuscation, euphemism and selective amnesia, the mechanisms of willingly suspending disbelief and accepting the evidence of things not seen. Above all it elucidates the way in which political power obscured knowledge and economic catastrophe darkened understanding."
As an example of the lack of perspective, he quotes a New York Times article on Mussolini's seizure of power as a "revolution of the peculiar and relatively harmless Italian type." Hitler later saw the march on Rome in 1922 as one of the turning points in history.
The author begins with the disaster of the Versailles Peace Treaty, which one French diplomat claimed to have "laid the foundations for a 'just and durable war.' " He then goes on to treat the main contenders of the period - the democracies, the Axis powers, and the Soviet Union, in three "time capsules" - three chapters each on how each nation handled the coming of worldwide depression, the early '30s, and finally the two or three years leading up to the war. There's also a two-chapter recount of the Spanish Civil War, which Brendon regards as the turning point of the period.
"The civil conflict in Spain can be seen as the hinge between global slump and global war. For the Depression not only fostered extremism, it also undermined liberalism. It sapped the will of Britain, France, and (to a lesser extent) the United States to resist fascist aggression."
Typical of the obfuscation caused by official propaganda, Brendon notes how good-hearted people, confronted with the reality of the Soviet purges and the Soviets' denial that purges were taking place, decided that something "in between" was probably true.
This was a period saved from being entirely dismal only by the later heroic actions of the democracies. It remains a period, if not to savor, at least to hold in constant memory. This sweeping panorama will help sustain that memory.
Richard A. Nenneman is a former editor in chief of the Monitor.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society