Acts of the Apostles

After Long Silence

by Michael Straight
Norton, 351 pp., $17.50

Michael Straight
Michael Straight; drawing by David Levine

To Europeans, the 1930s are an unforgettable decade. Those who were young then were marked by it for life, and still, in their old age, live under its shadow: not till they are dead will it sink into its historical context and become objectively comparable with other periods. For those were very special years, different from the decades that had preceded and would follow them. Society was divided not only by class or nation but also, more sharply than is usual, by generation.

The shift came about the time that Hitler took power in Germany. I was myself an undergraduate at that time and could observe the change. The problems of the 1930s loomed before us all: economic, political, ideological; but young and old faced them from radically different positions. The old hated war and feared Bolshevism: they remembered 1914-1918 and the revolution in Russia. The young, who remembered neither of these events, were more tolerant of both. They were prepared to regard communism and even war as preferable to the new and visible horrors of economic chaos and fascism. The period of crisis began with the Spanish Civil War in 1936; it culminated in 1938, at the time of the Munich surrender—the last victory of those who, through fear of war, believed in unconditional “appeasement.” Munich, in particular, divided generation against generation within families. The division was healed next year, but only by the palpable failure of appeasement and the sheer necessity of a new, defensive war.

I have said that the shift came about the time when Hitler came to power. That was January 1933. Next month, the Oxford Union debated the famous motion “That this House will in no circumstances fight for king and country.” I well remember the furor which followed the passing of that motion. Afterward it was said that Hitler and Mussolini were much encouraged by it. But in fact the event was insignificant. Hitler was not then a dictator, nor did he yet have an army: his public utterances were professions of peace. The motion was therefore unrelated to any real threat. It was an expression of the pacifism, and the unreality, still surviving from the 1920s; and its author was the London philosopher C.E.M. Joad, an elderly pacifist whose opinions had been formed long ago. In the following years, as the menace of Marxism grew, the attitude of the young would change. Under the impact of events, pacifism would dissolve and in a period of political and ideological bewilderment the propagandists of a new faith would see their chance: the Communist International would move in.

Omne ignotum pro magnifico. To the young of 1933 Soviet Russia was unknown except through its propagandists, and as the bugbear of their elders and of the bourgeoisie in general. Ever since the revolution it had been sealed off from the West. Only a few privileged visitors had…

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