The Fabulous Forties: Romanticizing a Harrowing Period

People talk a lot about the glamour of the 1940s.

Of course, we all know what they mean. The classy outfits. The perfectly curled hair. Epic Hollywood blockbusters and dazzling Hollywood stars, from Casablanca to Citizen Kane, from Bergman to Bogart. Swing bands and soda fountains and “going steady” … and over it all, the distant rumble of foreign war. Just foreign enough to be thrilling, rather than terrifying.

Yes, it’s easy to think of the 40s as a glamorous time. But as any reader of fairy and fae stories knows, the word “glamour” has another meaning—not such a nice meaning. In fae terms, “glamour” is a magical mask meant to hide a creature’s true face. Usually because their true face is something dark, twisted, sad, or ugly. If you want a metaphor for how Americans view the “Fabulous Forties,” you can’t do much better than fairy glamour.

The 40s, after all, were the decade of the Second World War.

And we don’t talk anywhere near enough about how ugly that was.

Is this all we remember of WWII?

Sure, most educated folks have some knowledge of the Holocaust. But even the Holocaust gets shoved into the neat, sterile package of “six million deaths”—just a number. The Holocaust was more than a number. The Holocaust was blood, and poison gas, and ashes. Empty shoes. Broken eyeglasses. Piles and piles of stolen wedding rings. Old grandmothers, tiny babies, shot to death in a heartbeat. German soldiers given the chance not to shoot them and doing it anyway, because they didn’t want to appear “weak” in front of their comrades. (Source: Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning, an eye-opening though harrowing study.)

The horrors of World War II don’t stop with the Holocaust. What about the Rape of Nanjing? What about the Dutch Hunger Winter? Japanese comfort women, or Japanese prisoners of war? Or what about area bombing? The Nazis killed forty thousand British civilians in the London Blitz; the RAF retaliated with their own “blitz” campaign that killed three hundred thousand. In Dresden alone, twenty-five thousand German men, women, and children burned to death in just two days. Lest we in the United States grow complacent because such atrocities “didn’t happen here”—we were the ones who imprisoned innocent Japanese-Americans. We were the ones who turned away Jewish refugees, sending them home to their deaths. And we were the ones who fought Hitler with a segregated army. Believe me, black soldiers shunted off into separate units were well aware of the irony.

Oh, and that little myth about how World War II veterans didn’t get PTSD? That’s because they were told not to talk about it. You can read all about the campaign of silence in The Warrior Image, by Andrew J. Huebner.

Now, I don’t mean to trash the 1940s. I’m not here to minimize the decade’s good points. But I take exception to its being painted as some kind of “golden age” for America, let alone the world. Racism, militarism, and unprecedented mass violence do not a golden age make. That’s nothing but a trick of our age-old human desire to avoid confronting darkness.

But this time, it’s not a magic trick. We’re not victims of fae deception. No evil fairy cast a spell over our memory, our perception, or our understanding.

No … this is one spell we put on ourselves.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jessica Prescott is a former homeschool student and current graduate student, pursuing a master’s degree in American history with a focus on immigration studies. In her (sadly limited) free time, she can usually be found listening to “Hamilton” or Celine Dion or Twenty One Pilots and dreaming up new ideas for historical fiction novels. Which, she hopes, will someday make her famous. Someday. She also blogs.

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