The Dark Valley

The Dark Valley (a panorama of the 1930s) by Piers Brendon (Knopf, 2000)

Maybe all history just describes the efforts of the acquisitive and the powerful to hold on to what sustains them, and the struggles of the people against the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. But we like to see parallels between ages. In A Distant Mirror Barbara Tuchmann saw the paradoxes of the twentieth century reflected in the stresses of the fourteenth. I see much in common between the 1930s and the present decade – not so far back that I cannot recognize some of the key participants, but remote enough for balanced analysis on them to be performed. The 1930s displayed many of the themes that consume us today: poorly understood ideologies threatening the democracies, themselves inherently not tough enough to act firmly; the memory of recent war encouraging widespread pacific responses to aggression; a feeble and largely irrelevant international organization standing by; the excesses and unpredictability of capitalism provoking renewed calls for more state interference, or even Socialism, in many countries.

Piers Brendon, Keeper of the Churchill archives, and Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, characterizes the Thirties as The Dark Valley – a term recurring in Japanese lore, in a message from Churchill to Stalin, and in a poem by Akhmatova. But this is not your father’s history book, filled with deep economic statistics, comparisons of pig-iron production, or accounts of machinations in smoke-filled rooms. It is vibrant, colorful, dominated by larger-than-life characters whose presence is enriched by the unrefined dramas of their public and private lives. It is a panorama stretching from the US to Japan, describing the sights, sounds and smells of history as richly as the political decisions that shaped (or mis-shaped) the lives of billions of citizens. It uses an exhaustive background of research, and is as gripping in describing Mussolini’s rape of Ethiopia, or the realities of Stalin’s purges, as it is in recounting the dictatorial measures of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

In his Introduction, Brendon writes that his clear purpose was “to shed new light on a dark, dishonest decade” (a phrase he fails to attribute to Auden).  No major new theories emerge, but the author freshly integrates the patterns of everyday life with the posturings of those who claimed to lead their people. His coverage of the seven major countries is balanced and insightful, and while many of us may be familiar with the goings-on in Europe and the U.S.A during this time, Brendon very skillfully links in an equally detailed exposition of Japan’s concurrent turmoil. His characterization of some of the fanaticism rampant there makes it appear eerily similar to the extravagancies of today’s Islamic zealots.

You have to get past this rather pretentious Introduction, where Brendon effectively offers a self-congratulatory critique of his opus. He is surely wrong in simplifying the realities of the Dark Valley as being common across all seven countries. He says that his book suggests questions (such as “Should democracies appease or oppose alien dictatorships?”) that still demand answers, but his narrative offers no new insights into such politico-philosophical issues, and his work might have been an inferior one if it had tried to. His claim that “the book is therefore a case study of the global perils lurking at the heart of a major recession” seems to me a mis-representation of his research and a distortion of the evidence. His text is not deep on economic analysis, and I think he overstates the degree to which The Dark Valley “surveys the strategies of delusion and self-delusion, the techniques of obfuscation, euphemism and selective amnesia”, as he offers no novel perspective on the topic of propaganda. And he occasionally gets carried away in his florid style, adding colorful but irrelevant details.

Beyond the author’s claims the volume still offers huge enjoyment through its rollicking exuberance, its synthesis of disparate threads, its witty asides, and the utter sensuousness of the narrative. There must be something in this book for everybody: it would have brought joy to Cecil B. de Mille, and, despite its hefty three pounds, I would recommend it as ideal beach-reading this summer for the history-buff.

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