From the Print Journal

A Violent Peace: Media, Truth, and Power at the League of Nations by Carolyn N. Biltoft

Cover of A Violent Peace by Carolyn N. Biltoft, in the style of a newspaper headline
A Violent Peace: Media, Truth, and Power at the League of Nations. Carolyn N. Biltoft. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2021. Pp. 202. $95.00 (cloth); $35.00 (paper); $34.99 (eBook).

© 2023 Johns Hopkins University Press

The title of this swift, powerfully written monograph on the archives of the League of Nations in Geneva offers a prodigious portrait of its real object of study: the so-called “interwar” period in European culture. Rather than a mere history of the League itself, A Violent Peace reads like a humanistic treatise on the most magmatic chronotope of western late-modernity: the ironically utopian, painfully bureaucratic, Freudianly fascist years that put into question, arguably for good, earlier concepts of reality, opinion, State, and world. Through the philosophical aspirations and material remains of a quintessentially stateless, translingual, and transnational institution, this book retraces the cultural genealogies of some of the most influential myths of modernity, still alive in current conceptions of globalism, populism, “fake news,” and “alternative facts.”

Biltoft’s main argument is that uniforming impulses to solve conflicts and regulate chaos tend to emerge from (and, more importantly, lead back to) illiberal suffocating structures. As she puts it in her preface, “sometimes urges to ‘fix’ things . . . grow from or lead to rigid desires for ‘fixity’” (xi). Looking back, from the vantage point of the current recrudescence of authoritarianism in western democracies, to the supposed primordial soup of totalitarianism in Europe, A Violent Peace stigmatizes apparently benevolent aspirations to order and stability across history. It shows us the regulatory and mass-media counterpart of what we call, in the study of literature and high art, rappel à l’ordre, mobilizing the destiny of languages, currencies, and newsprint at the birth of a truly international “public opinion.” The way the League built and maintained its reputation—its symbolic capital, its “brand” even—during such a shift of paradigm for global history (a shift that, we learn from this book, was in large part conjured by the League itself) reveals that reason, truth, and unity are not necessarily antidotes to fascism. Counterintuitively, as Biltoft proposes by convoking Arendt and other witnesses of the brief but consequential spell of troubled peace in between the World Wars, such rational values can be the very substance (and justification) of illiberalism and destruction.

The book starts from Carl Gustav Jung’s The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man, which connects the League of Nations with cinema, jazz music, capitalism, and, after its 1935 edition, totalitarianism. Biltoft invites her reader to “think of the League as a global planetarium” (3): a site of contemplation against whose metaphoric dome archival and public documents project the constellations that emerged from the proverbial galaxy evoked by McLuhan to define media theory. Recurring to Eco’s notion of “Ur-fascism,” Biltoft argues that an interdisciplinary investigation of such an astronomy offers insight into the irreducible structures of absolutism. Throughout the first chapter, which works like an introduction, she clarifies how the history of the League of Nations is, in her study, more a tool to illuminate its cultural context than an object of investigation in itself. Conceived as an instrument for peace, this experimental institution is not to be exposed, per se, as a failure, or a betrayal of its own mission. More fruitfully, Biltoft uses it as a macroscopic example to warn posthumous readers against the ubiquitous, enduring threats of what Michel Foucault called the “fascism within,” and Susan Sontag dubbed “fascinating fascism.”

The chapter in which the book’s methodological premise is manifested most effectively is the fifth, titled “Fiat Lux?”. In it, Biltoft unearths the League’s efforts to discipline and govern the international reactions to the shocking suicide of Slovak Jewish intellectual Stefan Lux. In 1936, Lux shot himself on the Assembly floor to protest the antisemitic and imperialist violence of Hitler’s Germany. The League was then investing its cultural and political power in a condemnation of falsehood and dissimulation in public media, and specifically in the press. Ironically, the cover-up of the tragic scandal employed the very same practical and rhetorical strategies that the League tasked itself to uncover and disband—and that would lead, of course, to the Shoah just a few years later. With remarkable attention to detail and, at the same time, an aerial global perspective, Biltoft reads the documents and proceedings revolving around the stigmatization of false news along with the story of Lux’s life and altruistic suicide, establishing a powerful link through scholarly fabulation. This pendulum between a rather public personal microhistory and the League’s hypocritical “Conference on False News” is put into motion by a philological reflection on Lux’s serendipitously meaningful name, the second word ever printed in the history of books. Rather than merely evaluating historical facts, Biltoft puts them in dialogue with their afterlife and reception, forming a veritable theory of information predicated against determinism, reductionism, and the comforting simplifications of utilitarian practicality.

The previous three chapters build up to such a theory by analyzing language (from the debates on Esperanto to the regulation of linguistic minorities and the various national aspiration to idiomatic purity) and money (in particular, the competition between gold and paper money) as the fundamental media (along with the press) through which the protagonists of Violent Peace shaped their alternative versions of reality. Biltoft is interested in the simultaneity of these narratives: in their competition in (and for) the information space. The line between authentic and artificial, solid and counterfeit, real and fake is blurred in each of the chapters, showing that the same questions that animated the debate between the avant-garde and the supposed tradition, or between realism and meta-literature, were informing economic, political, and linguistic discourses in the interwar period. As chapter two (“Rebranding the World”) shows thoroughly, offering the most Geneva-centered cluster of cases, the League acted, in these discourses, as a “production company, or an information factory continually producing words, images, charts, and sound bites” (18). After unveiling its mechanisms and its more or less aware self-fashioning strategies, Biltoft connects the League’s conferences and initiatives to pivotal coeval events, such as the exhibition of “degenerative” modern art in 1937 Munich (see 86–88) and the publication of the first Dadaist Manifesto (59), exploding her encyclopedic archive towards an equally well-known and expertly conjured continental panorama.

The conclusion of the book returns on its methodological premise, underlying the danger of reducing the history of the League of Nations to its apparent material inconsequentiality. It is precisely the lack of concrete action within a giant cloud of discourse (papers, minutes, campaigns, propaganda, etc.) that makes this institution a unique key to unlock the most influential phenomena of the interwar period. Any scholar interested in the twentieth century will find in A Violent Peace an important resource to understand the intellectual climate that shaped modernity and modernism, leading to some of the defining features of our present. Besides her ability to give life to an immense and overlooked archive, Biltoft shows an uncommon command not only of the political and economic world of the 1920s and 1930s, but also of the visual, literary, and philosophical trends that made those decades so defining for Europe’s culture. In addition, she is a wonderful writer, able to combine scholarly exactness with the clarity, elegance, and urgency of someone who truly thinks through storytelling.