A lot of dieselpunk revolves around the World War II era. This is understandable, since it offers big themes, classic retro styles, easily recognizable iconography, and gives the impression of a simpler time (not too long ago) with clearer moral choices and more unity of purpose. Yet dieselpunk draws inspiration from the period of (about) 1920-1949; thirty years, almost two thirds of which lay under the shadow of another war.
They called it the Great War. When it was over, optimists called it the War To End All Wars. It was more than four years of the bloodiest fighting the world had ever seen; and it changed the world forever.
June of 1914, ninety-six years ago: the last golden summer, the end of an age. The world was still in the four years of post-Edwardian lull. Things were stirring under the surface, no one could doubt; revolutions in Portugal and China had brought down ancient monarchies, and the sinking of the RMS Titanic just two years earlier created a nervous insecurity about the stability of all world-views once thought unsinkable. There could be an iceberg looming up out of the darkness anywhere; all the more reason to steam headlong into the darkness, while the band played on. Better to live in that carefree world of the airy, fanciful Art Nouveau, where all cares would vanish in a draught of absinthe.
June 28, 1914. Two pistol shots. The iceberg was now clearly visible, and there was no time to change course. Yet the summer dragged on for another month, and people believed that maybe the danger had passed, for now. And yet... not all were pleased by that thought. There were so many outstanding issues and complaints, so much that was unacceptable about the way the world was, had been for more than forty-three years. The Victorian consensus was unraveling; chaos was looming; why not strike now and put an end to all those nagging complaints once and for all? Why waste time over diplomatic haggling, when in a few months on the battlefield it could all be hashed out with a jolly good row, and may the best country win!
Yet as the ship slid against the iceberg, each shuddering crash tearing another hole in its none-too-firmly riveted plates (28 July, Austria attacks Serbia; 30 July, Russia mobilizes against Austria; 1 August, Germany declares war on Russia and occupies Luxembourg; 3 August, Germany declares war on France; 4 August, Germany invades Belgium and Britain declares war on Germany) there were some who had doubts. Looking out at the lamplighters igniting the gaslights on the evening of August 3, Sir Edward Grey said, "The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again
in our lifetime."
Four years, three months and one week later, the guns suddenly fell silent on the Western Front; and victor and vanquished alike, peering out of their trenches, beheld a world changed beyond recognition.
People of my generation, who grew up under a cloud of atomic horror, believed that the world had ended and begun again at Hiroshima and that we were now living on borrowed time. The people who survived on November 11, 1918 lived under no less of a cloud. They did not know atomic weapons, as yet; but they had seen poison gas and flamethrowers and the devastation of no-man's land. They had seen entire armies cut to pieces by machine gun fire. They had hidden in cellars when the spectral forms of the great zeppelins had appeared in the searchlights, and a great city was, for the first time ever, bombed from the air. They knew that humanity had at last discovered the power to destroy itself. Less than two years later, Sara Teasdale imagined a post-apocalyptic spring: "Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree, If mankind perished utterly." And although peace had come, there was no assurance that war would not break out again.
In 1945, despite the horrors of the past six years, it was possible to
think that one could restart the clocks from where they had stopped in 1939. In 1918, that thought was not even possible; the clock had not been merely stopped, but smashed. There was no going back to the past.
Four great empires had collapsed and shattered into fragments. The glittering aristocracy of a continent had fled into exile, or had been cut down by bullets. In their place were new movements that appealed to the common man and (for the first time) woman on the lower ranks of society: Socialism, Communism, Fascism, Democracy. The victors even more than the vanquished shuddered at the thought of another war.
Their first task, therefore, was to forget. And if you wish to forget the past, what better way than to think of the future? Perhaps the war could be made worth it if the ingenious means by which it had been fought could be turned to peaceful uses.
In wartime, society had been regimented and ordered to an unprecedented degree: government had requisitioned supplies and set conditions for contractors to fill, and when inefficient schedules and bad planning had threatened delays, they had stepped in to set things right. Perhaps this was the wave of the future; perhaps a scientific government, planning rationally, could wipe away the scourges of want and hunger.
Even social morals could be changed: they say that in Russia, they're getting rid of money! And in the U.S.A.? Say good-bye to demon rum! No more will we be prey to the scourges of drunkenness, filth, licence, immorality and crime!
Chemists in the war had come up with poisons that could maim and kill, but had also invented the means of neutralizing those poisons. Perhaps they could come up with useful compounds that would save lives, preserve foods, build better and stronger goods.
Millions of wounded men had passed through hospitals. Maybe doctors could build upon their knowledge to cure wounds faster, prevent disease, slow the advance of old age.
Wartime shortages had transformed clothing from something stiff, thick, cumbrous, and wasteful of fabric into more practical styles. Now there was a chance to wear something really sensible: throw away your corset! Bob your hair! The fashionable woman of 1920 looked back at her pre-war self with unmitigated scorn.
Radio, crude and uncertain though it was, had linked the trenches with forward outposts not yet wired by telephone. Now radio, legitimized and regulated, would reach millions of people with news bulletins and popular tunes. In 1920, radio broadcasts began in America, and soon almost every household had a radio set; you no longer needed a piano player in the family or an expensive phonograph collection to hear the latest thing in music. How does it work, mama? Oh... the sound goes through the air... like magic!
Airplanes, before the war just the plaything of deranged mechanics and rich hotheads, had become weapons of war, sturdier and faster than ever before. Perhaps they could serve the cause of peace by linking together distant nations in the chains of amity and commerce. And the dreadful zeppelins, too, could unite the world over even longer distances, plying the air like great ships, shrinking the world to a manageable size.
And was the world the limit of humanity's dreams? In 1919, Professor Goddard wrote that we could send a rocket to the Moon. Oh, what a fool! But if it were possible...
The world had changed. A Rip van Winkle who had fallen asleep in 1914 and woken after the war would not have recognized it. Before the war, the dominant theme was continuity with the past; now it was progress to the future. Much that was valuable was lost; but much that was necessary was built anew. It wasn't a golden age that was dawning; it started, indeed, with fear and uncertainty; but for a while there was hope, and a vision for the future, and a sense that every day that future was becoming clearer to the eye.