During the 1930s, the USA ended Prohibition and found itself contending with domestic crime like never before, Europe and Asia were inching ever closer to war. In the east, Japan asserted its dominance, while in the West, the rise of Hitler and the terror of Stalin saw two powerful dictatorships emerge, joining forces as the Second World War began.
Lindbergh baby kidnapping (March 1932)
Described with much hyperbole as the “biggest story since the resurrection” by one newspaper and the “trial of the century” by those in law, March 1st, 1932 saw baby Charles Augustus Lindbergh kidnapped from his crib in New Jersey, USA. Son of two famous aviators, the story swept the nation, and a full-scale investigation took place, leading to ransom notes and eventually the body of the dead baby by the side of a road on May 12th, 1932. It took two years for an arrest to be made, 3 months for the case to reach court, and less than 6 weeks to find him guilty and sentence him to death. The accused maintained his innocence until the end but was executed by electric chair in April 1936.
The death of Bonnie and Clyde (May 1934)
America’s most famous and beloved criminal couple met their end this decade. First meeting in 1930, Clyde was already involved in crime and had spent a number of years in prison, and on meeting Bonnie, the pair began their career of bank robberies and car thefts. They didn’t act alone, however, forming a small gang around themselves and beginning a crime spree that made them top the most wanted list for a year. The media reported their every movement, and in the height of the Great Depression, everyday people read it and rallied around them against the oppressive enforcement agencies. In light of this, efforts stepped up to capture or kill the couple, and shootouts erupted all over America as traps failed. But on May 23rd, 1934 the FBI got wind of their location, and Bonnie and Clyde were gunned down in their car before they could drive away.
John Dillinger killed by the FBI (July 1934)
The US war on crime ramped up, this time stretching to the organized crime group led by John Dillinger. Accused of robbing dozens of banks, Dillinger had proved a tough one for the FBI to pin down. He had been arrested on multiple occasions but escaped twice, and evaded conviction many times over. Similar to Bonnie and Clyde, during the Great Depression, and not long after the end of the Prohibition Era of US law, American citizens sympathized with the Robin Hood type figure, and the media reveled in exaggerating tales of his fortunes, successes, escapes, and trials. Dillinger himself saw the powers of publicity, thrusting himself into the public eye. But on July 22nd, 1934, after leaving a theater in Chicago, he was tracked by the FBI and gunned down in the street while trying to escape.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs released (December 1937)
With the world spiraling into another major conflict, cinema and literature still managed to breakthrough. Gone with the Wind was released in 1939, and the written works Brave New World and The Hobbit were both published in the 1930s too. But the significant release of the decade was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – the first full-length animated feature film and established Disney as a titan of cinema. Beginning life from the pen of the Brothers Grimm, and reaching Broadway in 1912, it was an incredibly time-consuming and costly project, but adjusting for inflation, no animated movie has made more money worldwide, and its influence on the industry is still felt decades later.
Stalin’s Great Purge (August 1936 to March 1938)
Having spent the 1920’s shouldering his rivals out the way on his rise to the top of Soviet leadership, Joseph Stalin spent much of the latter years of the 1930s destroying his enemies and making his rule uncontestable. Initial support for Stalin had begun to waver by the middle of the decade, which he responded to by ordering the death of Kirov, a popular former ally. The investigation that followed may have revealed a plot to overthrow Stalin himself, but more likely, as pressure mounted from within the party, he became intensely paranoid and sought to eliminate everyone who could possibly replace him, much like he had done to a much lesser extent on his rise to power. He authorized the Great Purge (also known as the Great Terror) to begin in 1936, and by 1938 when it was ended, approximately 700,000 people were dead.
The Rape of Nanjing (December 1937 to January 1938)
Following the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, tensions rose in China resulting in the beginning the Second World War in the east. The Battle of Shanghai saw success for the Japanese but hopes to force a settlement made way to imperial ambition, and the Battle of Nanjing (the Chinese capital) followed. Marching from Shanghai to Nanjing and destroying Chinese forces en route, the Japanese took the city and committed horrifying acts that damaged their reputation to western onlookers. Looting and rape turned into random murder of soldiers and civilians, and by the end of the massacre the following month, between 40,000 and 200,000 had been killed. But China did not surrender and bogged down Japanese forces in the East for eight years.
The beginning of World War Two (September 1939)
With their popularity rate soaring during the 1920s and 1930s, thanks partly to the Great Depression, the Nazi Party’s Adolf Hitler became German Chancellor in 1933, absolute ruler the following year, and triggered the Second World War by the end of the decade. Their invasion of Poland between September and October threw multiple nations into war, but there had been several other steps taken to get to this point: Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, then China itself in 1937 to spark war in the east, and Germany and the Soviet Union signed their Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, giving both reassurances in their joint interest in the Balkans. Nazi Germany overran Poland starting from September 1st, 1939, joined by the Soviets on the 17th. Though war began, the partnership between both powers was to be short-lived.