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  • World’s Fairs on the Eve of War: Science, Technology, & Modernity, 1937–1942 by Robert H. Kargon et al.
  • Cheryl R. Ganz (bio)
World’s Fairs on the Eve of War: Science, Technology, & Modernity, 1937–1942. By Robert H. Kargon, Karen Fiss, Morris Low, and Arthur P. Molella. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015. Pp. 216. $34.95.

Four scholars of technology have pooled their research to illuminate how five nations—France, Germany, the United States, Japan, and Italy—engaged in and showcased contemporary ideological struggles to shape a future before World War II. World’s Fairs on the Eve of War is the collaborative result. During the interwar years, governments in the five nations purposefully reshaped the thinking of their citizenry by using radio, television, film, art, architecture, graphics, and exhibits to propagandize. Each combined this media impact and amplified it by staging international expositions, at which millions of visitors actually experienced a redefining of their relationship to the state and its future. At the same time, governments intentionally projected other messages of identity at these same fairs to reach worldwide visitors and dignitaries. At the five world’s fairs held or planned between 1937 and 1942, states displayed scientific and technological progress and prowess to make statements about national character tied to modernity.

The study includes individual chapters for the three fairs by Axis nations and two by Allied nations: the 1937 Paris Exposition, the 1937 exhibit Schaffendes Volk (A People at Work) in Düsseldorf, the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the 1940 Grand International Exposition of Japan, and the 1942 Esposizione Universale di Roma (EUR). War interrupted plans for the Japanese and Italian fairs, but various proposals left in archives detail intended propaganda messages. Besides hosting fairs, both Axis and Allied powers participated with pavilions and displays at international expositions in other countries. By examining these, the authors also offer glimpses at British and Soviet posturing. To emphasize change over time and the redefining of new roles in the emerging global order, the final chapter explores the first postwar world’s fair, held in Brussels in 1958.

While organizers of the 1937 French exposition joined art, craft, and science to emphasize human creativity over the mechanical to spotlight France’s leadership in aesthetic taste and creative modernity, many foreign [End Page 273] pavilions projected overt political messages. The Soviet Union and National Socialist Germany positioned massive, towering buildings across from each other on a main axis. The Soviets demonstrated their resources, industrialization, and modernization, and Germany demonstrated its superiority in futuristic technology. Italy’s exhibits stressed its ancient traditions, all linked to conquest, industry, and public works under Mussolini. Japan combined its traditional arts and crafts with European modernist construction to show its mastery of Western ideas. The U.S. pavilion promoted New Deal projects and the upcoming New York fair. The four chapters that follow articulate how these nations changed their identity and messages at world’s fairs during the next five years as they prepared for and entered war.

Classroom opportunities abound with this book. The chapter texts total 148 of the 216 pages, offering a readable, illustrated work that students can easily digest and find inspiring. Connections weave throughout. The authors wisely did not spend the concluding chapter pointing out all of these contrasts and comparisons. Instead, students can do so in discussions and papers on any number of themes. World’s Fairs on the Eve of War successfully places ephemeral world’s fairs and the reasoning behind their multifaceted displays into the context of a world relentlessly marching toward calamity.

The book diverges from the traditional presentation of world’s fair studies by examining multiple, intertwined themes on a global scale at a crucial moment in history. As a result, the authors offer fresh insights on these nations as they prepared for war. Historians and scholars of the twentieth century, popular culture, visual arts, world’s fairs, science and technology, and the military will find here a plethora of information and ideas. Historiography and other resources for readers offer paths for expanding their knowledge on the themes and fairs. Warning: thoughts of how your own research intersects with...


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pp. 273-274
Launched on MUSE
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