What was it like to believe in the future? Ninety years ago, people knew that, very soon, passengers would be going regularly and quickly across the Atlantic Ocean by air instead of by ship. How they would do it was an open question—the Italian aviator Italo Balbo envisioned fleets of sleek, shining seaplanes; the German Hugo Eckener predicted majestic zeppelins.
One way or another, though, routine air travel would come to be, and with it, a new state of affairs for humanity. “Closer international relations become unavoidable as the vague distances of an old era are measured on a new scale of relativity,” Charles Lindbergh told the League of Nations in 1930, speaking alongside Balbo and Eckener.
At that moment, David Hanna writes in Broken Icarus: The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, the Golden Age of Aviation, and the Rise of Fascism, the three men were proposing “an opportunity for cooperation and peaceful collaboration over aggression, with aviation leading mankind to a better world.”
Yet already Balbo’s seaplanes bore a stylized geometric fasces on their hulls, and he and his bold intercontinental aviators wore “black shirts underneath their flight suits.” A few years after their remarks, Lindbergh would be the leading proponent of Fascism in the United States, and Eckener would be flying his zeppelins, albeit reluctantly, for the Nazis.
The echoes of current life in Hanna’s account are unavoidable—“Coverage of giant rallies, and an endless barrage of chauvinism, half-truths, and outright lies poured forth from cheap new mass-produced radios,” he writes of Germany under the newly ascendant Hitler—but where our 21st century hangs helplessly between crisis and stasis, here the 1930s are self-consciously dynamic. Balbo’s derring-do was of a piece with Mussolini, smitten by the spirit of futurism, “calling for men of action to lead the way in the age of machines.”
Broken Icarus is less interested in narrating the story of how the grim events of the decade would unfold than it is in simply winding back the stories we already know, to reach the moment when our historical certainties were only possibilities among other possibilities. The best vantage point to see these converging and diverging contingencies, in Hanna’s reckoning, is the edge of Lake Michigan, at the 1933 World’s Fair—an event caught in its own ambivalent place in history, “planned in one era of plenty and carried out in another of austerity.”
Hanna writes that “it took some time for the psychology of the times to catch up to the evident historical realities.” The Roaring 20s were dead, but the scope of the Depression was still being discovered; Fascism was rising, but the League of Nations had not failed yet. Awash in shifting color schemes—beyond the capability of the era’s nascent color photography to document—designed and lit by the Broadway set designer Joseph Urban, the 1933 fair was a celebration of the possibilities of progress, built to be disassembled and dispersed when its run was over. “From the perspective of the twenty-first century, it can be quite frustrating to realize that almost nothing is left of the 1933 World’s Fair,” Hanna writes. “But this was the plan all along.”
Before this temporary realm of the future ceased to be—leaving us with the first appearances of microwave popcorn, Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, and the baseball All-Star Game—it was the essential destination, or launching point, for pioneers of the air: Balbo and his seaplane armada, Eckener and his Graf Zeppelin, and the high-altitude husband-and-wife balloonists Jean and Jeannette Piccard, in a proto–space race against the Russians to ascend to the edge of the atmosphere.
The aviators were “still to a large degree making this up as they went,” Hanna writes. Jean Piccard would be bumped from his own planned Chicago flight in favor of a navy pilot, who tore the balloon shortly after its ceremonial takeoff, while one of Balbo’s 25 seaplanes would crash, with one fatality, before even making it out of Europe.
If they were making it up, though, they were also making it real. Before Balbo’s remaining two dozen planes arrived in dazzling mass formation at Lake Michigan, “only five aircraft had succeeded in making the North Atlantic crossing from east to west,” Hanna writes. “That number now rose to twenty-nine.”
Eckener’s airships, too, redefined what was possible in their era. “Hundreds of intercontinental, transoceanic journeys were made between 1930 and 1937,” Hanna notes, “in which thousands of paying passengers were safely transported over hundreds of thousands of miles.” That era would end in a ball of flaming hydrogen over New Jersey, with the destruction of the Graf Zeppelin’s sister vessel, the Hindenburg. “What was broken?,” Hanna writes. “The Hindenburg, the Zeppelin project as a whole, the dream of aviation as a force for global unity and progress: all of these.”
Was flight into a better future ever achievable? Hanna devotes several pages, and a map, to investigating a minor moment of possible resistance, on Eckener’s flight path into Chicago. For its flight to the World’s Fair, the Graf Zeppelin bore new livery: while the starboard sides of its stabilizer fins showed the black, white, and red tricolor of the recently revived German imperial flag, the port sides displayed 20-foot swastikas. Hanna writes that, by some accounts—including that of the U.S. representative of the Zeppelin Company—Eckener’s arrival took a circuitous route, looping around Chicago to keep the swastikas facing away from the heart of the city, “to show up the Nazis.” Other reports were contradictory or ambiguous.
By 1938, desperate to keep the zeppelin industry alive after the Hindenburg disaster, Eckener would accede to Nazi demands to publicly support the Anschluss, so as not to be “torn away from my life work at this critical moment.” It didn’t help—the Graf Zeppelin would be scrapped two years later, because Hermann Göring “wanted the aluminum in its skeleton for use by the Luftwaffe.”
Italo Balbo, for all his violent enthusiasm for Fascism, would be sidelined by Mussolini, assigned to Africa during the war, and killed by friendly fire. The Piccards would get their balloon back and would reach the stratosphere in 1934; a young Gene Roddenberry, enchanted by the fair from afar, would grow up to include a version of their name in his vision of a future among the stars.
But that is just television now, in reruns. We went to the moon and then we stopped going there, stalled out in the jet age. “Over eighty years on,” Hanna writes, “we’re now further away from the future envisioned on the shores of Lake Michigan than we were fifty years ago.”
Tom Scocca is the former politics editor of Slate and the editor of Hmm Weekly