The Prohibition era, which for most Americans conjures images of “untouchable” lawmen, tommy-gun-toting gangsters, and jazz-filled speakeasies, is easily one of the most romanticized periods in U.S. history. It’s also one of the most misunderstood. We now vilify the temperance activists who promoted public welfare and excuse corrupt and murderous gangsters such as Al Capone as “legitimate businessmen” who only wanted to slake the thirst of paying customers. The whole concept is topsy-turvy.
How did that all happen? What caused Prohibition? The real answer might surprise you.
In pop-culture portrayals and serious academic histories, the usual explanation boils down to what one author called “a political crazy quilt”: Bible-thumping American conservatives legislating morality, temperance and women’s-rights busybodies meddling in the world of male leisure, the Ku Klux Klan “disciplining” Black people and immigrants, and all of them whipped into an irrational anti-German, anti-beer frenzy by World War I.
But the temperance movement wasn’t an example of American exceptionalism; it was a globe-spanning network of activists and politicians who tilted not against sin but against the economic exploitation of trafficking in highly addictive substances. In the early 20th century, scores of countries restricted the liquor trade in the interest of public well-being. Outside the United States, a dozen countries, including the Russian empire, Norway, and Turkey, as well as expansive swaths of colonial Africa and India, adopted prohibition.
With so many global experiences to examine, it’d be foolish to extrapolate the causes of prohibitionism from just any single case study, even the well-known American one.
In Russia (the first country to introduce a version of prohibition), critics of the imperial autocracy—which included the great writer Leo Tolstoy and the revolutionaries Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky—condemned the czar’s vodka monopoly, which funded royal splendor on the drunken misery of the masses. Social Democrats in Sweden pushed for a government monopoly on the liquor traffic so that profits would benefit the whole society, not just the ultra-wealthy. Belgian Social Democrats drew parallels between the liquor subjugation of the working classes and the brutalized Africans in Belgium’s Congo colony. In the autocratic German and Austro-Hungarian empires, social democrats were joined by liberals—such as the Czechoslovak founding father Tomáš Masaryk—who saw a sober and uplifted population as a precondition for political independence and democratic self-government.