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Thursday, April 21, 2016

“The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s”, by Piers Brendon

816 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., ISBN-13: 978-0375408816

The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s by Piers Brendon concentrates on the political and social developments in the big powers of the time. Beautifully written with a style that is fluid and easy (but keep a thick dictionary at the ready, just in case), Brendon provides an entertaining panorama of a dark era. The ground covered should be familiar to the any reader with good or detailed knowledge of the history of the period; few (if any) new insights are offered, and while several dazzling details of the events and men in power during this remarkable era are provided, the book is at times cynical and more than a little pretentious. No new historical revelations, really, and the attribution of all the troubles of the 1930s to the Great Depression is overly simplistic, but the era is fascinatingly described; we don’t much learn the essential why of it all, but that’s not its purpose: this is a bauble of a book, not an academic analysis of the period.

Still, The Dark Valley gives a tantalizing look at almost every national leader and world event with a reporter’s eye for minute detail; we experience fascinating details of events in Germany, Italy, Spain, England, Russia, Ethiopia, Japan, China, and (far too little) the United States and FDR, along with excruciating details of the gulags and the breadlines, the silly lust for power, the cut of Mussolini’s jaw, Chamberlain’s insipid fawning over Hitler, etc. ad nauseam. On occasion one cannot but help but wonder whether some of the sources have been accepted too unquestioningly by author – for example, is the otherwise mysterious Cardboard Crucifix: The Story Of A Pilot In Spain by (supposedly) Oloff De Wet of 1938 a reliable source for details of the Condor Legion’s off-duty pastimes, which sound too stereotypical to be true? One would also wish for corroborative evidence with supporting references that Britain did indeed used poison gas in colonial warfare, as is here alleged. The gibe elsewhere about military intelligence being a tautology is neither original nor worthy.

If the book has a fault it is that in its final section, on the final countdown to World War, it underplays the importance of British rearmament and of the grim resolution of the mass of the British people. It may be argued that the rearmament process started too late, but it was effective nonetheless, though by the narrowest of margins, and combined with a dogged determination not to submit to Fascist domination, it led to the survival of the free world. This story is the counterpoint to the apparently unstoppable march of the dictatorships. The book is all the poorer by underestimating its importance

The Dark Valley is highly readable popular history in the tradition of Barbara Tuchman and Will Durant. It’s accessible to the non-specialist without being dumbed down. No new ground is broken, but it's written in that British prose that is so impeccable and stylish; witty, profound, and memorable. The chapters on Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia are especially mesmerizing in their horror. The whole book gives a vivid sense of what the stakes were during that terrible decade. Not perfect and filled with flaws, but an enjoyable read of cumulative thumb-nail sketches.

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