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The Bitter, Contested History of Globalization

Historians often interpret the history of Europe between the two world wars as an epochal struggle between emergent and entrenched systems of governance: communism versus fascism, democracy versus dictatorship. Yet in her new book, Against the World: Anti-Globalism and Mass Politics Between the World Wars, Tara Zahra offers a different frame for grasping the interwar period. Zahra, a professor of Eastern European history at the University of Chicago, sees these years as a mass political reaction to the advent of a truly globalized world and the consequences of a global economy (and the interwar depression) that affected the lives of millions.

Anti-global sentiments could be found on all points of the political spectrum. Zahra casts an eye on the far-right nationalist movements in Europe, namely fascism in Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Nazi Germany, but she also shows that anti-globalism could be found in the liberatory programs of oppressed peoples throughout the world as well—from Mahatma Gandhi’s drive for Indian economic independence to Marcus Garvey’s Pan-Africanism movement. In doing so, she exposes the general anxieties—immigration, the 1918 flu pandemic, the Great Depression—that undergirded the first half of the 20th century. In this manner, Against the World offers a refreshing new history of the period by unpacking the interplay between the forces of globalization and anti-globalization—a tension that continues to haunt the present.

I spoke with Tara Zahra about her book, liberal optimism over a borderless world before World War I, and the present debates over globalization. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

—Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins

DANIEL STEINMETZ-JENKINS: The history of Europe between the world wars is typically framed as a battle between fascism and communism or a contest between democracy and dictatorship. What do you find limiting about interpreting the interwar period in this manner?

TARA ZAHRA: I don’t think that those interpretations are wrong—these were the critical ideological and political battles of the interwar years. But if we want to understand why those two decades produced such radical forms of politics, I think we need to consider the anxieties that underpinned them, and these anxieties clearly transcended political divisions.

Globalization was one of the most pressing issues of the time, even if they didn’t call it that. The years leading up to the First World War were a time of rapidly accelerating globalization in the realms of transportation, communication, and finance. It was a high point for mass migration as well, with millions of people moving across borders. All this upheaval was already generating a reaction at the turn of the 20th century in the form of rising xenophobia, migration restrictions, and tariffs—but the war was still a sharp breaking point.

For example, passports were introduced during the war. It was supposed to be a temporary security requirement, but it wasn’t lifted once the war ended. Trade was upended, and then the Allies blockaded the Central Powers, cutting off food supplies to civilians. Hunger taught millions of people that it was very dangerous to depend on imports for life’s necessities. After the war, there was an even greater determination among many states to achieve a degree of independence from the global economy. But it wasn’t only in Germany and Italy, the places that veered toward fascism—for example, in the United States, Congress refused to join the League of Nations. In 1924, transatlantic migration was sharply reduced by the Johnson-Reed Act, due to fears about “racial degeneration.” The Ku Klux Klan was on the rise as well.

The Great Depression dealt an even more fatal blow to globalization. The very fact that it was such a global economic crisis—that the bankruptcy of an Austrian bank or a Wall Street firm translated into the unemployment of millions of people around the world—suggested that too much entanglement in the global economy was dangerous. Many individuals, experts, and political leaders were convinced that the age of globalization and of economic liberalism was truly over. These views were widespread on the right and the left.

Read entire article at The Nation