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Anti-globalism, then and now: Professor Tara Zahra on resistance to globalization and mass politics between the World Wars

Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Tara Zahra, Homer J. Livingston Professor of East European History at the University of Chicago, about her fascinating new book, Against the World: Anti-Globalism and Mass Politics Between the World Wars.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Tara Zahra, the Livingston Professor of Eastern European history at the University of Chicago and a leading scholar on the transnational history of modern Europe, migration, the family, nationalism, and humanitarianism. She’s the author of the fascinating new book, Against the World: Anti-Globalism and Mass Politics Between the World Wars, which documents the sociopolitical developments in the inter-war era and their insights and lessons for the modern age. I’m grateful to speak with her about the rise of nationalism in the first half of the 20th century and its parallels to today. Tara, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

TARA ZAHRA: Thank you so much for inviting me.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s start with a bit of historical context if that’s okay. A common narrative in the historiography is that sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century we experienced a period of globalization that’s reflected in migration patterns, flows of investments and goods, et cetera. Canada is a major part of that story. Under the prime ministership of Sir Wilfrid Laurier from 1896 to 1911, Canada accepted in different years as many as 400,000 immigrants annually. What catalyzed this period of globalization, and perhaps talk a bit about how it manifested itself around the world?

TARA ZAHRA: Right. So this period is thought of as the first great wave of globalization, and I think there were several factors that catalyzed it. One being simply technology, that it got a lot cheaper, faster, and safer to get across the Atlantic Ocean. And actually, one of the things that’s fascinating—I’m not sure about the statistic for Canada—but in the U.S. context, 30 to 40 percent of the migrants who came actually went home again or made multiple round trips. So there was just a huge amount of mobility, and a lot of that was linked to labour market opportunities that were available and that people knew about, which leads to a second technological factor, which is improvements in communication. So the telegraph, for example, made it possible for news to travel in days or hours that had once taken weeks. So people were more aware of the world and aware of the opportunities that they had.

SEAN SPEER: Now, a prevailing view is that World War I represents something of an endpoint of this so-called “golden age” of globalization. I’ve heard you say elsewhere that you started the project with that view in mind but ultimately came to the conclusion that it wasn’t quite right. Why not? What led to a growing resistance to globalization even prior to the start of the First World War?

TARA ZAHRA: Yeah. So I started with the traditional view from the economics literature, which was globalization before World War I and then de-globalization after World War I. But what I quickly realized is, of course, that resistance to globalization began with globalization itself almost immediately. And what catalyzed that was the same factors that would ultimately energize anti-global movements after World War I: The loss of family members to immigration, for example, and workers and soldiers who were leaving home and didn’t come back. The growing inequalities that globalization was producing both domestically and internationally, the perceived threat to national cultures. So all of those, and of course, anti-migrant sentiment, I have to mention, and restrictions against migration, began really to intensify in the 1880s already in the U.S. context. So the discontent was already—I would just say it didn’t really rise on a mass level to a central feature of mass politics and state policy until after World War I.

SEAN SPEER: To follow up on that question, the book is organized into three parts: The pre-war era, the immediate post-war era, and then the turbulent 1930s. We’ve talked a little bit about the pre-war period. Why don’t you just unpack the sociopolitical, economic, and ideational climate of the post-war era and how it fits into your story?

TARA ZAHRA: I eventually came to see the period from 1918 to around 1924 as a distinct moment of anti-globalism that really was propelled by the experience of the war itself and the consequences of the war. So I would say one of the biggest game changers was the food crisis that hit Central Europe during the war, not accidentally but because the allies blockaded Germany and Austria-Hungary, the Central Powers, and prevented food and critical supplies from reaching civilians. The historians argue about how effective that actually was or how many deaths it caused. But the fact is that the people at the time believed that they had been starved into submission and were convinced that it was dangerous to be reliant on imports for basic necessities like food. So that produced a huge wave of energy toward becoming more self-reliant or self-sufficient in the production of food after the First World War.

A second really important thing that came out of the war is restrictions on migration just really intensified. Like I said, it was already happening before the war, but before World War I, for example, you didn’t really need a passport to travel, and passports were introduced as a security measure during the First World War, but that measure wasn’t lifted after the war. The Spanish flu was a factor, I think, in the anti-global turn, and that was something that I personally didn’t even think about until March 2020, when I was writing the book in quarantine and realized I needed a chapter that discussed disease because people were very aware at the time when the flu was spreading, disease was a byproduct of globalization, the speed with which germs could travel around the world as well as people and things.

And then there was the collapse of the continental empires. The Austria-Hungarian Empire in particular had been the largest free-trade zone in Europe before the war. And at the end of the war, it splintered into nine states that were often either physically at war with one another or started engaging in trade wars against each other.

SEAN SPEER: Drawing on the Canadian experience, one finds growing evidence of political radicalism during the period that you just unpacked. We have, for instance, the Winnipeg general strike in 1919, which, up until then, mass strikes and such labour actions hadn’t been part of the Canadian political economy experience. We also have credible communist movements, including the election of a communist member of parliament in the period between the two wars. Let’s talk a bit about ideas. Tara, what’s the causal relationship here? Is the rise of anti-globalization and political turmoil that you document a manifestation of intellectual developments, or are these intellectual developments themselves a response to these broader political economy trends?

TARA ZAHRA: I think there’s a little bit of both. I mean, it’s a really good question. I really wanted to write a book that focused on mass politics, which is in the title. So I think my own account tends to privilege the movement from below, for lack of a better phrase, and the ways in which the demands of ordinary people and the politics of ordinary people were appropriated or included in movements like the fascist movement, the Nazi Party, socialists, parties across the political spectrum. And that’s one of the important, I think, arguments of the book is to show how this is not a right-wing thing or a left-wing thing and it doesn’t lead inevitably to fascism, but it was a broad movement.

I think, of course, ideas are also important. I follow some really important thinkers. John Maynard Keynes becomes a character in my book because he’s somebody who is really observing these trends very early on. In 1919, he already writes a kind of obituary for globalization. And he becomes one of the most prominent thinkers to respond to anti-globalism in his work at the Bretton Woods Conference after the Second World War when it really was thinkers and policymakers, economists, who gathered together to try and pick up all the pieces and reconstruct the global economy. I also look at some lesser-known intellectuals like the people working in the League of Nations, economists, and others who—it’s not that internationalism just disappeared or the internationalists just decided to go home during the interwar period. It was a period of burgeoning internationalism, and a lot of those experts were focused on the victims of de-globalization or anti-globalism, and trying to come up with new ways of reconnecting people, reconnecting economies, and so on and so forth.

SEAN SPEER: As you say, Tara, a key takeaway from the book is that the rise of anti-globalization in this era isn’t the purview of one side of the ideological or political spectrum. While it may be overstated to call it a consensus, there is evidence that the messages that you use as a proxy for anti-globalization, like self-sufficiency or autarky or whatever, find resonance on both ends of the political spectrum. What do you think is behind something of a political convergence around these ideas, and in turn, a scrambling of the political spectrum from a Left-Right dynamic to those who are succeeding in support a globalized economy, and those who preference borders and a sense of national identity?

TARA ZAHRA: Sure. I mean, I think at the broadest level, inequality is key, and it’s something that people are responding to on the Right and the Left and everywhere in between. But beyond that, I think also you really do need to look at local contexts, which is why I organized the book as these local case studies. Because, for example, in Austria after World War I, socialists were big proponents of self-sufficiency, and they had this whole movement of small gardeners who were growing their own food, sometimes literally under train tracks, and so on and so forth. But they were really responding to the very specific experience and crisis of the First World War. Whereas, I don’t know, for example, if you look at the United States and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, the Red Scare on the Right, that was, I would say, still more of a response to the mass migration of the pre-war period and to domestic development and fears as well as, of course, the Russian revolution. 

So I would say even though there was a broad consensus that different issues came to the fore in different movements and also different solutions, if that makes sense, or different victims were highlighted. So for right-wing anti-global movements, migrants and Jews, in particular, were often cast as the enemies. On the Left, I would say it was more workers who were seen as the victims of globalization rather than the nation.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a great segue to my next question. Another striking line of analysis in the book is, as you say, the relationship between global and national developments. While these sociopolitical trends took on a national character similar incidentally to the current rise of populism and anti-globalization, there’s also a universal element. Do you want to elaborate on the feedback loop between the global and the national and, interestingly, the unique role of Central Europe in your story?

TARA ZAHRA: Right. I mean, that’s a great question. And you’re right that the global and the national, and the local really—they do form a feedback loop. So to a certain extent, anti-globalists are responding to anti-globalism in other countries, if that makes sense. And everybody claims to be the victims of other people’s anti-global movement. So that’s the case, particularly in Germany, which, at the end of the First World War, as losers at Versailles, they’re really making the case that what the Allies are trying to do is essentially kick them out of the global economy and that they will then have no choice but to become self-sufficient. So there’s that kind of argument. You can see politicians and policymakers at a national level responding to international developments. And Central Europe, I think, does play an important role because, as I said, the Habsburg Empire had been the largest free-trade zone in Europe. It was multinational, multilingual, and its breakup for many people at the time was a microcosm of the dissolution of global ties.

SEAN SPEER: That’s fascinating. I would just say, in parentheses, that that resonates a great deal with the Canadian experience, of course, which, as an economy so dependent on trade with the United States, the experience of the Smoot–Hawley Tariffs really are a kind of provocative development for Canadian policymakers who then have to scramble to think about the implications for the national economy, which pushes, as you say, in the direction of reconceptualizing the role of global trade and the importance of so-called self-sufficiency.

TARA ZAHRA: I have another great example, actually, that I wanted to throw in there that you just made me think of. So when the U.S. closes its doors to migrants from Eastern Europe and Southern Europe after the First World War with the Johnson–Reed Act, which introduces the quota system, suddenly these countries that were relying on immigration to deal with the problems of poverty and overpopulation have a whole lot of people who are unemployed and unable to feed themselves and have no place to go. So I would say, for example, particularly in Mussolini’s Italy, the projects to make the country more self-sufficient were also basically a kind of unemployment program to give all of these workers and farmers who had been emigrating to the U.S. something to do at home.

SEAN SPEER: If the era is marked by anti-globalization sentiment, the inverse may be described as nationalism. Two-part question. One, would you agree with that characterization? Is nationalism, in your mind, the antonym of anti-globalism? And the second question would be, what is the cause and effect of the rise of this kind of nationalism and the two world wars that bookend your story?

TARA ZAHRA: Right. So to answer your first question, whether, nationalism is the opposite of globalization?” I would say no, not always, often, but not always. And one great example of that is Gandhi’s India, which was struggling for independence from the British Empire, of course, after the First World War. And Gandhi was in some ways both an anti-globalist and an internationalist at the same time because he was arguing for greater economic self-sufficiency for India. But that was all supposed to lead to a more genuine and universal form of internationalism or globalism that wasn’t based on colonial exploitation. So sometimes these ideas depart or cross in surprising ways, even if often the opposite of globalism is nationalism. The cause-and-effect question is hard to answer, I think. Again, nationalism was there before the First World War already. So here, I think, it’s a broad trend, and as we said before, there’s these feedback loops happening, but it’s also specific to a particular context.

So, for example, in the countries that lost the First World War, there was a sense. For example, in Germany, there was a rise in nationalism that was associated with that loss. But the United States was the biggest winner in some ways of the First World War in terms of its rise as a world power. And you also see a huge surge of nationalism there after the war. So I don’t think I can pinpoint a single factor except that everywhere in the world there was—I think, not everywhere in the world, but in many parts of the world, and in many of the contexts I write about—you do have the rise of mass politics; that the people most affected by globalization, workers, peasants, lower middle class, artisans, and so on and so forth, who had basically been excluded from political participation in various ways in the 19th century, were able to express themselves in the streets at the ballot box and their voices mattered more in politics. So there were more opportunities to give voice and more incentives to politicians to cater to those voices, to the discontent.

SEAN SPEER: One way in which I interpreted the book is insight into the costs and limits of bringing expression to these ideas in public policy. Again, using the Canadian example, I’m familiar with efforts to renew the Commonwealth trading regime in the 1930s, which couldn’t compete with the market forces pulling Canadian trading commerce in a north-south direction. You similarly write about domestic boycotts and so on. In some ways, again, as I interpreted the era, it demonstrates the limits on a program of economic nationalism. Let me ask a two-part question. First, do you agree with that interpretation? And secondly, do you want to talk a bit more about it?

TARA ZAHRA: Yes. The limits are—that’s something I thought about a lot because when you look at these various schemes to reverse globalization or to limit it, whether it’s through an imperial tariff union or through a settlement program that’s going to turn workers into self-sufficient farmers, most of them fail pretty miserably in one way or another. Nazi Germany, of course, was one of the most infamous states that was pursuing autarky. And behind the scenes, even as they were promoting this propaganda of self-sufficiency, economists at the time, in the late ‘30s, were saying, “There’s no way, even if we had 20 million sheep, we couldn’t produce enough wool, or rubber, or many of the foods and resources that the German war machine required, that the German state required.”

There were a lot of limits, but what I would say is the fact that there were limits that these schemes were not successful doesn’t mean that they didn’t have long-term consequences. So limited but consequential is what I would say. That, for example, in Nazi Germany, the realization that autarky was not a realistic goal was one of the driving factors behind conquest in the East, which was supposed to give Hitler the kind of empire that he envied in the United States, that was one of the only countries in the world that could provide for itself completely in this period. And that’s just one example; there are lots of ways in which failed programs were still consequential.

SEAN SPEER: I would just say in parentheses, total coincidence: we’re having this conversation on Valentine’s Day, February 14th, and today, this afternoon, in the Financial Times, the economic columnist, Martin Wolf, has a column entitled, “The new interventionism could pose a threat to global trade”, which unpacks some of the risks associated with modern efforts to try to establish greater self-sufficiency in the name of security concerns and so on. Which may be a good segue to shift to the contemporary lessons of the book. But before we get there, I want to ask you directly: How would you characterize the similarities and differences between the two eras?

TARA ZAHRA: So, I mean, not surprisingly, this book was very much inspired by current events. I began writing it in 2016, with the vote for Brexit, the election of Donald Trump. There was a migration crisis in Europe. And all of those things led me to see the interwar period in a different way, in terms of a reaction against globalization. But of course, you can only push the parallels so far, and there’s a couple things that are really different about today’s moment. One is, today a lot of anti-globalists on the Left are really concerned about the environment, and that’s an issue that doesn’t come up at all, really, in the minds of my interwar anti-globalists. So I think that’s a real, really important shift in terms of thinking about the forces driving anti-globalism.

The other thing that I think is important to think about is that even as, for example, the Trump administration sought to limit the flow of migrants into the United States or the flow of imported goods, capital still flowed very freely internationally. And I would say that the mobility of capital has not been curtailed as much as it was in the interwar period with, for example, the fall of the gold standard, which was a huge blow to globalization at that time. And then, I think, a lot of people would say, “Well, the internet, right? You can’t stop the internet. And that we now have a technological force that accelerates and intensifies globalization. And on the one hand, that’s true, but on the other hand, I think we’re seeing all the ways in which censorship, false news, and other kinds of manipulation of social media and the internet can curtail global conversations almost as effectively as cutting the telegraph lines. So there, I think, it’s on the surface, a difference, but maybe there are some underlying similarities.

SEAN SPEER: You mentioned John Maynard Keynes and efforts at Bretton Woods to try to rebuild something resembling the prewar, liberal international order. Do you want to discuss how ultimately these sentiments came to be harnessed in a more constructive direction following World War II and what those lessons might be for today?

TARA ZAHRA: Yeah, absolutely. I realized, as I was writing the book, that I couldn’t ignore, as I mentioned before, the internationalists who were still around during the ‘20s and ‘30s and already at work I would say in the late ‘30s and thinking about how they could reconstruct the global economy. And in particular, there were these economists in the League of Nations who, even though the U.S. didn’t participate in the league, Princeton University hosted them during the Second World War in exile. So there they were in Princeton, and they started talking about ways to make the global economy more fair and more stable.

I think there were two key pathways that got entrenched in the Bretton Woods agreement. One was to try and make participation in the global economy compatible with the rise of the welfare state and full employment, and a real focus on consumption in economies and increasing consumption. And on building a safety net. So when you have these global, these cycles, these business cycles that affect the whole world simultaneously, that people have something to fall back on.

And then the second, with the establishment of the World Bank, whatever it became and whatever critics may say about it, was intended to try and even out some of the inequalities globally through programs for economic development. So those two things, I think, were intended by experts at the time to try and address some of globalization’s structural weaknesses. And I think they do offer a clue to the way forward in our own moment in the sense that I think what has to come out of this moment is not the abandonment of globalization but rather reforms to the architecture of globalization that make participation in the global economy somehow more just and equitable.

SEAN SPEER: Yeah. To that point, as I read those sections of the book, I thought a lot about Harvard economist Dani Rodrik’s work on trying to reconcile globalization with local democratic decision-making, including, as you say, with respect to the modern welfare state. Let me just put it to you directly: is one of the lessons here that pro-globalization voices need to be prepared to put a bit of water in their wine if they want to preserve globalization in broad terms?

TARA ZAHRA: Yeah, absolutely. I love Dani Rodrik’s work, actually. And I think what’s important—I think in the ’90s after the fall of communism and with the rise of neoliberal economics, the talk about globalization was just that it was inevitable. It was happening, and it would continue to happen no matter what you did. It was natural. There was a kind of teleological force to it. And I think we now know that that’s not true, first of all. But I think that simply telling people who are negatively affected by globalization that there’s nothing they can do about it, it’s inevitable, is not a very effective response. So I hope that we’ll see more creative attempts to address some of the discontents with globalization that have been bubbling up for the last five to 10 years, really.

SEAN SPEER: Final question. One of my favourite parts of the book is that you choose to tell the story through a series of fascinating characters, ranging from, if pronounce the name correctly, Rosika Schwimmer, a Hungarian-born exponent of the area’s internationalism, to Stefan Zweig, an Austrian writer, and, of course, Henry Ford and Adolf Hitler. Why did you choose to convey the history through these different figures, and who is the most interesting person that you discovered through your extensive research?

TARA ZAHRA: Well, I mean, history is always more interesting when it’s told through the lens of individual lives. And say, my two favourite characters in the book, not because they’re heroes necessarily because they were both very complicated in various ways, were Schwimmer and Tomas Bata, the “shoe king” of Czechoslovakia. It’s probably not surprising that I’m choosing Central European characters because those are my origins as a historian.

But Schwimmer, I chose because she just embodied the rise and fall of globalism and internationalism in such a really tragic way. She was this feminist internationalist, socialist Jew who reached the peak of her powers right before the First World War, and the future looked bright for the causes she believed in. And she ends her life stateless in the United States, having applied for U.S. citizenship but being denied ultimately by a decision of the Supreme Court of the United States because she was a pacifist and would not promise to bear weapons in defence of the United States.

Of course, she was, by that point, a, I think, 50-plus-year-old diabetic woman. So the whole question was purely hypothetical, but her refusal to answer that question positively meant that at the end of the day, she had no nationality or citizenship.

And then Bata is a fascinating character because he’s a kind of exception that proves the rule, and also is just a fascinating story. The Bata shoe company in the 1930s, which it’s based in Zlín in what’s now the Czech Republic, was faced with the problem of what to do with an empire that had collapsed, their market disappeared, and Czechoslovakia just didn’t have enough people, enough feet, to wear all the shoes that they began producing through methods of mass production borrowed from Ford.

So Bata, in the face of rising tariffs and anti-foreigner sentiment, said, “Okay, if people are going to build tariff walls, we’ll fly over them.” And he started exporting his factories instead of his shoes and advertising the shoes everywhere he went as local products. I was just talking to a historian of Africa yesterday who grew up in Nigeria, and he said he was surprised to learn that Bata was not a Nigerian firm. And I’ve heard the same from people who grew up in India. So they really succeeded in that, in giving that impression of being local, even though Bata was one of the pioneers of globalization as we know it, of the kind of multinational firm that produces its goods overseas.

SEAN SPEER: I would just concede the same, Tara. The family, as I understand it, ultimately ended up in Canada, and you can see the Bata Shoe Museum in the city of Toronto, which was, I understand, established by his late wife.

This has been a fascinating conversation chock full of insights, just as the book is: Against the World: Anti-globalism and Mass Politics Between the World Wars. Tara Zahra, professor of history at the University of Chicago, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

TARA ZAHRA: Thank you.