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Well, 2022 turned out to be quite a year. The surprising outcome of the fall elections—as well as their results going virtually uncontested—will make the history books for the domestic scene, as will the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the international front. We might also have just witnessed a decisive turn to green energy and the comeuppance of a particularly notable rogues’ gallery: Vladmir Putin and Donald Trump, Alex Jones and Harvey Weinstein, Elon Musk and Sam Bankman-Fried and the doofus currently known as Ye. 

Not With a Bang but a Whimper

So, should we expect equally big things of 2023? If we go back a hundred years, per my annual practice, and make a guess, odds are that the answer is no. That is, compared to the big bangs of 1922, 1923 offered mostly whimpers, by which augury 2023 should pale in comparison to 2022. But even if that turns out to be true, small signals can have big reverberations, so we shouldn’t stop paying attention to the year that lies ahead.     

To review the mountain peaks of 1922. The Red Army put down all remaining resistance in the Russian civil war, and the USSR was formally declared on December 30. The follow-up in 1923 would be Lenin’s third stroke and the permanent stilling of his voice. In 1922 Benito Mussolini staged the March on Rome to institute Europe’s first fascist regime; in 1923, all non-fascist political parties would be declared illegal. 

In 1922 Turkish forces defeated the Greeks in Anatolia and drove the vast majority of them out of the country; 1923 saw this outcome ratified with the Treaty of Lausanne that formally instituted the Turkish Republic and ended the 624-year run of the Ottoman Empire. The civil war that broke out in Ireland at the start of 1922 came to an end in May 1923, enabling the Irish Free State to stride upon the world scene at the League of Nations that September. 

The Ultimate Inflation

100,000 Marks equal to $1 US

The one wave that did keep on mounting was the hyperinflation of the German mark. From 48 to the dollar at the dawn of 1920, it had ballooned to 90:1 in June 1921. Then the reparation payments ordered by the Treaty of Versailles began. By March 1922 the ratio reached 320:1; by year’s end, 7400:1. With that, the Weimar government suspended reparations payments, and French forces entered and occupied the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland. The mark then went into free-fall: 353 thousand to the dollar by July 1923, 4.6 million within a month, 4 billion by mid-October, and then—the bottom—4.2 trillion to the dollar by November 11, the fifth anniversary of the end of World War I. 

Hitler, 1923

Naturally, domestic discord exploded. Germans resisted the French incursion with a general strike. Right-wing and left-wing uprisings spread across the country, some successful, some not. The most momentous happened that November 8 with Adolf Hitler’s attempted putsch at a beer hall in Munich. He was arrested three days later, with sixteen people dead. Duly sentenced to prison, he was released early and went on a ten-year campaign whining about the unfairness of it all, about his destiny to make Germany great again, and about the vengeance he would wreak on all enemies, foreign and domestic. The descent of the Great Depression of the 1930s would make this a winning formula, but for the moment, at the end of 1923, he might have seemed a scary mist blown away by the winds of time.

From Elite to Popular Culture

The new year paled on the literary front too, compared to the Modernist marvels of 1922: Ulysses, “The Waste Land,” Tales of the Jazz Age, and Siddhartha. The Nobel in literature for 1923 went to William Butler Yeats, but that was a retrospective—if well-deserved—salute. Likewise with Willa Cather’s Pulitzer that year for One of Ours, topically hot on the war and the great influenza epidemic but not her ablest writing. A worthy sign of what was to come was Jean Toomer’s Cane, announcing the Harlem Renaissance; while Le Corbusier’s Toward an Architecture, Freud’s The Ego and the Id, and D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in American Literature from 1923 bear comparison to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Einstein’s Four Lectures on Relativity from 1922. 

The new year’s real distinction lay in the realm of popular culture. The best-selling books of 1923 included gems from Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and P. G. Wodehouse, not to mention The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. Louis Armstrong cut his first record, “Chimes Blues,” with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band.

On the big screen, Cecil B. DeMille re-did God and Moses with The Ten Commandments, Lon Cheney chewed the scenery in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Hollywood boosted the future Christian Reformed Church Synod’s anathema on movie-going with Flaming Youth, Souls for Sale, and The Blue Lagoon (little sister and brother stranded on a desert island start growing up and…). 

What was Dying and What was Born

Notable deaths included Ernst Troeltsch, heir of the grand German theological tradition; the actress of the age, Sarah Bernhardt; the grand architect, Gustav Eiffel; and the less-than-grand American president, Warren Harding, struck down by heart attack on August 2 in San Francisco at age 57. Did the fatal stress stem from rumors of an illegitimate child he allegedly sired in a White House cloak room, or the prospect of all-too-verified reports (coming that October) of corrupt oil-field leases, heralding the Teapot Dome scandal? And why did his wife adamantly refuse to allow an autopsy? The sensationalist press of the Roaring Twenties had a feast over the question. But not quite so much as it did over the opening of King Tut’s sarcophagus back in February.  

Rosewood Massacre

All in all, the one world-historical event of the year was probably Hitler’s failed putsch. But some new formations that year were signs of trends that would shape the nation for years to come: Yankee Stadium, the Walt Disney Company, Warner Brothers, Time magazine. The Hollywood sign was unveiled up on the land’s new high holy place. Just before Memorial Day the U.S. Attorney General ruled that women might not be barred from wearing trousers. Firestone debuted the inflatable tire, and Toronto scientists received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for developing insulin. The year opened with a Ku Klux Klan massacre in Black precincts of Rosewood, Florida. It closed with the first transatlantic radio broadcast on New Year’s Eve. 

Was anyone capable of reading all these signs of those times? Are we, of ours?

*****

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James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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