Chapter IV of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier made many interesting points about poverty and housing conditions in Interwar England. Orwell developed a very in depth study of the living conditions and how this may have affected the psyche of the inhabitants.
The Interwar Period was very concerned with behavior and order, especially in the wake of the Great War’s chaos. Psychology was one way in which many scholars began to try to understand the actions of both society and the individual. This type of study also began to influence other academic areas, like History, Anthropology and Literature. Orwell demonstrates, in questioning the behavior of this group, how various areas of study had become more interwoven.
Orwell at one point in Chapter IV discusses how some impoverished families portrayed themselves as more economically comfortable. Many Corporation houses seem to have been filled with well-maintained furniture; these items seemed to belong in a more financially stable house—a family that is not living at or below the poverty line. Orwell argues “it is in the rooms upstairs that the gauntness of poverty really discloses itself.” (60) He believes that it is a matter of pride to protect the nicer, more valuable pieces of furniture so that the family can appear to be less impoverished. These had most likely been passed down within the family throughout generations. It is the items that need to be bought every few years or months that were more difficult for these families to afford (i.e. bedclothes), and therefore, fewer families in more desperate financial situations had access to many basic items, like bedclothes.
This excerpt shares some similarities with Leora Auslanders’s article “’National Taste?’ Citizenship Law, State Form, and Everyday Aesthetics in Modern France and Germany, 1920-1940.” Both pieces referred to the tendency to “keep up with the Joneses.” How did this idea, needing to present a better image to the public or society, reflect larger themes from this period? Was this a reaction to the chaos of the war? Or a reaction to the uncertainty of the period? Or would this type of behavior have occurred regardless of wars, death and economic troubles?
In Leora Auslander’s ‘National Taste’? she explains how the German and French populations addressed questions about the conceptions of citizenship by examining the tastes and preferences of various citizens within specific regions and also the nation-state as a whole. Although each country had its own unique concept of citizenship; the French interpreted citizenship using a just soli policy (citizenship determined by region of birth), whereas in Germany citizenship was determined by ancestral lineage and blood lines, both cultures developed their own “language of goods.” This “language of goods” enabled citizens to look beyond the mere race or appearance of a person and instead focus on their material possessions to gain a cohesiveness between distinct social groups and form a national identity. The Jewish populations were oftentimes ostracized and blamed for many of the misfortunes that proceeded WWI without just cause. In reality they were not culturally different from the non-jewish citizens, they were incorporated into either German or French societies, forming a part of the nation-state and adopting the accepted customs.
In chapter four of Dan Stone’s Breeding Superman he examines the relationship between race and social class that existed in British eugenic theory throughout the interwar period. The racial component of eugenics has always existed, however Britain has been traditionally viewed as a government that focused primarily on the social components of eugenics while disregarding that of race. Stone explains how this is a misconception because the reality is that the racial and social components are inseparable. Many British officials believed in a racial hierarchy that saw white Europeans at the top and black Africans at the bottom. While policy makers sought to boost their respective populations, they wished to do so in a manner that limited the reproduction of the unproductive and parasitic social classes, and the ‘inferior races’ as well. The Nazi government of the Third Reich is singled out for their racist policies, and although they implemented these policies to an extreme degree, they were by no means the only country to do so. It was a common practice throughout most of Europe.
Leora Auslander’s “’National Taste?’ Citizenship Law, State Form, and Everyday Aesthetics in Modern France and Germany, 1920-1940” described the way in which the French and German nations had dealt with the issue of identity and citizenship, specifically in terms of the Jewish populations. This text illustrated the similarities between Parisian and Berliner Jews and the larger French and German populations. These groups were marginalized in various and different ways in each country, but, through analyzing personal belongs and furnishings, Auslander discovered a cultural cohesion throughout the groups. Because the Jews and the non-Jewish French and German populations decorated their houses in much the same way (the French decorated similarly, but their style was different from that of the German populations), indicating that these populations (German or French versus Jewish) were not fundamentally different as many eugenicists had argued during this same era.
Throughout the Interwar Period especially, eugenics evolved and advanced as an area of study that gained more and more influence in politics. In Chapter Four of Breeding Superman, the author, Dan Stone argues that eugenics held a key place in British politics throughout the beginning of the 20th Century, as the Empire fought to preserve its strength. This same argument can be applied to France and Germany during this period. Both countries became more concerned with the strength of their populations, especially in light of the massive loses caused by World War I. Each of these three countries defined citizenship differently, though each definition inherently placed some groups above others. The Jews in each case were understood to be inferior to the “native” population. In France, however, this argument became more complex as there was a hierarchy between French Jews and foreign Jews. (This distinction would prove to be very important as both the Occupied and Non-occupied Zones began to deport Jews in 1942.)
Eugenics was not the sole factor in this hierarchy. Auslander explains in “’National Taste?’” that culture was another very important aspect in determining national identity. Citizenship in France became directly linked to culture as the law changed to jus soli (citizenship determined by territory of birth). That is not to say, however, that eugenics did not influence the French during this period. Eugenics shaped politics or political thought throughout most of Europe. While many aspects of eugenics were racist, as Stone acknowledges, this was not forcibly the case; today, people across the world view eugenics in a very negative light due to the policies and actions of Nazi Germany during the war.