The 1920s seemed to have contrasting attitudes towards minorities.
Though prosperity might not have been as diffused as we generally think, the 1920s were good times for many people. The overall number of people who could afford a better life (at least in comparison to before) increased.
The perceived increment prosperity gave the opportunity to many social groups to emerge and have – if sometimes for a short time – the opportunity to express themselves more freely.
Still, the Twenties were also a time of great uncertainty and therefore irrational fears, that often fell over the ‘diverse’, the ‘other’.
The ‘Other’ in the 1920s
It would be difficult to give a univocal definition of ‘the other’ in the 1920. The era showed shattered perceptions of the different person and the different culture. Different from Western Culture, that is.
Maybe the only thing they had in common is that they were indeed perceptions. Ideas. And almost always they were far from reality.The 1920s perceived increment in prosperity gave the opportunity to many social groups to emerge and have express themselves more freely #history #minorities Click To Tweet
In the 1920s, who was ‘different’ was either very good or very bad. The perceived characteristics of the different culture could bring great good to Western society or could bring destruction. There was never any kind of equality. Always the minority was ‘the other’. Even when these minorities had lived long (sometimes long centuries) in among the main culture, the majority of the population still perceived them as alien. As something extraneous. It was never a ‘different’ part of the dominant culture.
Primitivism, the perceived goodness of Africa
On the side of the perceived goodness of ‘the other’ was Primitivism. This was the perception of the so-called ‘primitive cultures’, primarily from Africa.
Primitivism wasn’t new to the Western World. It had started in the 1800s. It was the idea that these cultures, most of which were considered more primitive than the Western culture, were somehow luckier. They still retained the innocence and also the vitality that the Western culture had lost, weighed down by its history and its attachment to modernity. The idea of the ‘good savage’ belonged to this form of perception.
In the 1920s a new form of Primitivism manifested itself when jazz stormed over the US and then the rest of the world.
Although this music had its roots in African music, it wasn’t a music from Africa. It had originated in the US, from the African American community, that at that time had been American for many generations.
Still, jazz was perceived as primitive music, coming from a primitive people, and so was simpler, and more vital and even refreshing – but also beastly and brutal.
If these perceptions were totally unrealistic, they opened up very real spaces for the people who created that music. In the 1920s, the African American community knew a Renaissance in both arts and active political life that allowed real advancement to the entire community. Everybody wanted to be part of that vitality. This sometimes allowed for a crossing of the colour line that was previously unthinkable. It may have not survived the Jazz Age, but the fact that it happened left an indelible mark on the American society.
Anti-Semitism, the perceived danger of Judaism
Jews had been part of European history at least since the Middle Ages, though they were always ‘different’ and ‘other’. European countries had segregated Jewish communities inside ghettos sometimes located in asolated places. But inside those community, Jews kept their culture alive through the centuries.
In Eastern Europe, Jewish communities tended to be more conservative. They spoke their own language, Yiddish, read Yiddish books and attended Yiddish theatres and movies. Older people often dressed traditionally, and led a traditional life, though younger people were more open to the dominant culture outside.
In Western Europe, Jewish communities had instead always tried to integrate into the dominant culture, to the point that the younger generation often considered themselves as belonging to the dominant nationality as well as the Jewish.
This was the case of Germany, where the Jewish community was particularly numerous and ancient and almost entirely concentrated in Berlin.
When the Weimar Republic rose, Jews, as well as other minorities, found that spaces opened for them that were previously close. Educated as they often were (Jewish had always considered education extremely important, and a means to a freer life), they found space in the republican system, as well as in the arts and cultures, where they dominated in the 1920s.
German Jewish considered themselves German. Still, they were seen as aliens by the German themselves because of their cosmopolitanism and their dual souls. When the financial and political situation of the Weimar Republic started to deteriorate, German people turned against Jews, because it must be their fault.
German Jews were a tiny percentage of all the German population, but because they were very visible both in the republican system as in the arts, the perception was that they were conquering essential positions in the life of Germany.
The step to anti-Semitism was very short.
Perrish, Michael E., Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression, 1920-1941. W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., New York, 1992
Munford, Kevin J., Interzones. Black/White Sex Districts in Chicago and New York in the Early Twentieth Century. Columbia University Press, New York, 1997
Ogren, Kathy J., The Jazz Revolution. Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz. Oxford University Press, New York, 1989
Eric D. Weitz, Weimar Germany. Promise and Tragedy. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2007