Modernization, Democratization and Politicization: Mass Media in 1920s Europe

1920s Europe witnessed the development of a “mass media ensemble” of press and illustrated magazines, radio, and sound film, which, as Axel Schildt (2001) has argued, remained stable until the proliferation of television in the 1960s. While the differences between the national “versions” of this ensemble were profound a number of factors were found across 1920s Europe: first, where the press had been the dominant mass medium, it retained this role expanding its reach and diversifying its product range, but it also was subjected to increased economic pressure and concentration. Second, radio rose as the new mass medium of the 1920s. In most European countries, the state played a central role in its establishment, but the result was often not straightforward state control but a hybrid model, particularly in the United Kingdom, Sweden, and the Netherlands. While radio programming differed considerably, the conception of radio as a tool of public education (often modeled on ideas of “high culture”) seemed to be a European‐wide approach.

The development of the media ensemble of the 1920s, with radio and tabloid news- papers as its most spectacular representatives, caused consternation among the political and intellectual elites in many European countries. They were unified in an attempt to curtail the supposedly corrupting influence of popular media, fearing the undermining of traditional morals and the loss of national cultural character. However, it is clear from the above that such fears of social fragmentation and cultural homogenization were unfounded: particularly in places such as the Netherlands and Italy, the continuing influence of social milieus and cultural traditions still fundamentally shaped the production and consumption of media content. In many European countries, the real cultural division lay in the rural–urban divide: while European city dwellers had access to the developing new media ensemble of the 1920s – and its supposedly corrupting influence – much of the rural population only read or heard about it through their traditional media.