A century ago, on the first day of the 1920s, The Times printed a compelling letter from a gloomy reader. The past decade, wrote E. A. Burroughs, had been summed up by a single word: ‘Disillusionment.’
All over the world, he thought, men and women were saying to themselves: ‘The universe has betrayed us.’
For four long years after 1914, millions had fought and died for a better world. Yet selfishness was ‘more blatant than ever’, and politics was governed by ‘moral perversion and heartlessness’.
Lessons from history: A flapper girl is turned upside-down in the arms of a man while dancing in a 1920s film. Women over the age of 30 could vote for the first time during this decade. And their younger sisters, the famous flappers, with their daringly short skirts and bobbed hair, felt emboldened to drink, drive and dance into the small hours
‘Do we really expect a turn for the better in this senseless, pitiless tide of events?’ asked Mr Burroughs. ‘If so, from what quarter is improvement to come?’
Nothing changes, you may think. And after all the political turmoil, economic anxiety and social division of the last ten years, it is tempting to ask, like E. A. Burroughs, whether our Twenties — the 2020s — will really be better.
So what lessons can we learn from the events of a century ago?
What hints of our future can we find in the events of the original Roaring Twenties — the years of jazz, flappers, radio and whodunnits; Art Deco, Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh; Irish independence, the first Labour government and the birth of Nazism?
One obvious difference between then and now is that the world entered the 1920s traumatised by mass killing. At least eight million men had been killed in World War I, while a further 50 million people had been killed by the worldwide flu pandemic immediately afterwards.
Death hung over Britain in the Twenties. On November 11, 1920 — Armistice Day — everything stopped. Thousands lined London’s streets to watch the interment of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey, a moment of profound solemnity.
And, a year later, the British Legion sold the first Remembrance Day poppies to raise money for injured veterans, as well as the families of the fallen.
Yet already, only a few years after the guns had fallen silent on the Western Front, people knew there was no end to war. Indeed, one of the things that made the 1920s so bitterly conflicted was that the fighting never really stopped.
In Ireland, some 2,000 people died in guerrilla warfare between the newly formed IRA and the British authorities before a truce was agreed in July 1921.
Dame Nellie Melba is pictured making her first wireless broadcast in 1920. The Mail sponsored Britain’s first live radio broadcast, in which the soprano Melba performed at the Marconi wireless factory in Chelmsford, Essex
The following December, the British and Irish signed a treaty under which the Catholic-dominated South broke away from the United Kingdom, while six Protestant counties remained as Northern Ireland.
It says a great deal about the continuity of history that we are still grappling with that legacy. Indeed, there seems every chance that with Brexit still in the balance, the vexed issue of the Irish border will still make headlines in the 2020s, as it did a century ago.
At Westminster, meanwhile, the reality of the Twenties was very far removed from the jolly Jazz Age stereotype.
In 1920, by far the dominant politician in the land was the Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George: a charismatic showman, but also an unashamed liar and adulterer.
‘My supreme idea,’ he told his long-suffering wife, ‘is to get on. To this idea I shall sacrifice everything . . . even love itself under the wheels of my juggernaut if it obstructs the way.’
Remind you of anyone?
In late 1922, Lloyd George fell from office and was replaced by the Tory leader Andrew Bonar Law. But Law, stricken with terminal cancer, resigned a year later and was succeeded by Stanley Baldwin.
Baldwin promptly called a snap election and lost his majority. So for the first time the new Labour Party under Ramsay MacDonald formed a minority government. It lasted only ten months before yet another election — the third in three years — saw Baldwin return with a handsome Tory majority.
Even this rollercoaster narrative doesn’t quite capture the unstable, anxious, embittered mood of the day — 1920s Britain was not a happy country.
For much of the decade, unemployment was well over 10 per cent. The first few years were scarred by damaging strikes, and in May 1926 the trade unions called a General Strike in support of Britain’s coal miners, who were outraged that the mine owners wanted to slash their wages.
The General Strike exposed the bitter divisions at the heart of British society. On one side were almost two million strikers, who shut down great swathes of industry, transport and the public services.
Crowds were restrained by police outside 10 Downing Street, London, during treaty negotiations between representatives of Sinn Fein and the British government. It would be easy to sketch a possible course for the 2020s along the lines of events a century ago. Strikes, elections and political unrest in Britain; the resurgence of terrorism in Ireland; the rise of the far-Right in Europe
On the other was Baldwin’s Conservative government, which enlisted volunteers as special constables and even printed its own newspaper, the British Gazette, edited by Winston Churchill.
After nine days the strike ended when the unions effectively gave in. But the passions behind it have never entirely gone away. Even today some Labour activists maintain that the strikers were betrayed by their leaders, a familiar theme among the hard-Left.
At the time, many people genuinely feared that the strike would be the first step towards a Communist revolution, which was far from an outlandish prospect. The Western world was transfixed by the Red Menace.
Only a few years earlier, Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky had seized power in Russia and plunged their vast empire into an orgy of destruction, with at least ten million people losing their lives to bombs, bullets, knives and starvation by the middle of the 1920s.
Suffused with ideological fanaticism, the Russian leaders made no secret of their ambitions to export revolution to the rest of Europe. Their Communist International was explicitly committed to ‘struggle by all available means, including armed force, for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie and the creation of an international Soviet republic’.
Throughout the decade, Communist agents worked tirelessly to undermine democracy — not unlike Putin’s operatives today.
One of their chief targets, not surprisingly, was Germany, exhausted, demoralised and disorientated after the shock of losing World War I, its Kaiser and its overseas colonies.
By 1923, Germany’s economy had been destroyed by hyperinflation. That November a single U.S. dollar would buy you an astonishing 4.2 trillion German marks.
No wonder many Germans looked to radical alternatives. And chillingly, one of the little parties vying for their vote was an organisation founded in Munich in 1920, which called itself the National Socialist German Workers’ Party — or Nazis, for short.
In November 1923, the Nazis launched their first bid for power from a Munich beer hall. When it collapsed, their leader Adolf Hitler was sentenced to five years in prison but was released after less than one, using his time inside to write his baleful manifesto Mein Kampf.
Few people then imagined what a shadow Hitler would cast over Europe. And few would have imagined that a century on, his far-Right heirs — the AfD — would still be on the march, whipping up public anxiety about mass immigration.
David Lloyd George with his new wife Miss Frances Stevenson after their wedding ceremony in October 1943. In late 1922, Lloyd George fell from office and was replaced by the Tory leader Andrew Bonar Law
The story of the 1920s was not all doom and gloom. For many British women these were years of unprecedented opportunity.
Women over the age of 30 could vote for the first time. And their younger sisters, the famous flappers, with their daringly short skirts and bobbed hair, felt emboldened to drink, drive and dance into the small hours.
In many ways this was a cultural golden age — not just the years of James Joyce’s Ulysses and T.S. Eliot’s great poem The Waste Land, but the heyday of Agatha Christie’s peerless Hercule Poirot, P. G. Wodehouse’s wonderful Jeeves and Wooster and Richmal Crompton’s hilarious William Brown.
And, then as now, we lived in an age of dramatic technological change, symbolised by two enduring inventions. The first was the radio, thanks not least to the Daily Mail. For in June 1920 the Mail sponsored Britain’s first live radio broadcast, in which the soprano Nellie Melba performed at the Marconi wireless factory in Chelmsford, Essex.
By 1922 public interest in radio was so great that the government set up a British Broadcasting Company, formed by the biggest wireless manufacturers. The strongly religious John Reith became its first boss, determined to elevate the minds of the masses.
How far his heirs have followed his example is very debatable. Radio was a huge hit: within 20 years, almost ten million people had bought their own set.
The second invention was the talking picture, a film with sound. Here the great breakthrough was Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, released in 1927, which captivated audiences across the world.
In a sign of things to come, some people feared that films and jazz would bring a creeping Americanisation of British life. ‘The scenes in the cabaret and the women,’ remarked the Tory MP Lieutenant-Colonel Reginald Applin, ‘are not the kind of thing we British people want to see.’
But Applin knew he was fighting a lost cause. Many young people, he said, ‘talk America, think America and dream America. We have several million people, mostly women, who, to all intent and purpose, are temporary American citizens.’
You need only tweak his phrasing a little bit, and you could be listening to any number of critics today.
It was in America that the Twenties reached their ominous conclusion. In the autumn of 1929, the New York stock market stumbled, wobbled and then fell like a stone.
On October 28 shares fell by a staggering 12 per cent, and the next day they lost another 12 per cent. Even the world’s most dynamic economy was not immune to the twists of fate. Within months the world was heading for the Great Depression — and the dictators had been given their opportunity.
To some people, perhaps, all this sounds like ancient history. But I can’t help noticing the extraordinary parallels with our own age.
We, too, live in an era of intense political anxiety, economic uncertainty and technological upheaval. We, too, have learned to be wary of a tyrant in the Kremlin, who dispatches his agents to undermine our democratic way of life.
Now, as then, many young people are repelled by what they see as the failures of capitalism, and seduced by the siren voices of far-Left and far-Right extremism.
And now, as then, people are worried about the pace of cultural and moral change, and Britain’s place in a globalised world.
It would be easy to sketch a possible course for the 2020s along the lines of events a century ago. Strikes, elections and political unrest in Britain; the resurgence of terrorism in Ireland; the rise of the far-Right in Europe; seismic turbulence in the gigantic U.S. and Chinese economies; the widening of the worldwide generation gap — it could all happen, and doubtless some of it will.
But the past never truly repeats itself. After all, one lesson from the Twenties is that events will unfold in a way none of us can possibly anticipate. Nobody in 1920 predicted the rise of Hitler, the General Strike or the Wall Street Crash, just as none of us can genuinely see the future today.
But perhaps we shouldn’t be too pessimistic. As much as we love to flagellate ourselves, we live in a better world than our ancestors did a century ago. We live longer, healthier, more colourful lives; our society is less formal and more tolerant; and we enjoy comforts and opportunities that our forebears could barely have imagined.
At the same time, it strikes me that our predecessors were remarkably lucky to live where they did.
Whatever its faults, Britain in the 1920s was the most moderate, sensible and stable country on the planet, which escaped the worst horrors of racist extremism and the violent consequences of fanatical utopianism.
That hasn’t changed. Deep down, despite all the political chaos of the past three years, Britain remains the decent, patriotic place it was a century ago.
And if we can uphold our predecessors’ values in the years ahead, then we, too, will be well placed to enjoy the sunshine and weather the storms that are undoubtedly waiting for us in the next ten years.