Europe After World War I: November 1918-August 1931

On May 7, 1919, in a room in the grand Versailles Palace outside Paris, German foreign minister Count Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau arrived at the head of a delegation of diplomats. They came to negotiate with representatives of the major Allied powers -- Britain, France, Italy, Japan, and the United States -- following the armistice that had ended World War I in Europe. Instead of finding seats laid out for his delegation, Brockdorff-Rantzau and his colleagues, dressed stiffly in frock coats and wing collars, were made to stand like so many errant schoolboys. This was the first of many humiliations imposed on the Germans after World War I.

The Allied powers thought they had won the war and that Germany had been the architect of its outbreak. The German view that an armistice was really a truce, rather than surrender, was ignored.


The origins of this humiliation lay five years before, in the crisis that led to the outbreak of what became known as the Great War. The victorious Allies blamed Germany and Austria-Hungary for causing that war, but the explanation is more complex. Before 1914 Europe had entered a new phase in its history with the emergence of a group of powerful, industrialized, and heavily armed states, each of which had imperial interests to defend. National competition became the key characteristic of the age.

Earlier, in the 19th century, these states had collaborated to keep the peace, because the kings and aristocrats who dominated the political scene had a strong interest in avoiding conflict. But by the turn of the 20th century, the old regimes were in retreat and modern political movements -- many of them strongly nationalist in outlook -- had begun to emerge. The new working classes, thrown up by rapid industrialization, offered a different kind of threat, though many of them could be won over to a patriotic cause. Throughout Eastern and Southern Europe, where there existed a mixture of nationalities under imperial Prussian or Austrian or Russian rule, mass politics led to agitation for national self-determination. This issue was at its most acute in the Habsburg Empire, whose capital was in Vienna. Its rulers maintained a precarious hold on a territory that comprised a dozen nationalities, many of them eager for autonomy.

It is no accident that it was there, in the national patchwork of the Habsburg Empire, that the immediate origins of the war of 1914-18 are found. The empire seethed with conflicts -- between rival nationalities, between different classes, and between the new democratic parties and the authoritarian monarchy that ran the system. Most acute of all was the crisis with the southern Slav populations of the monarchy. Backed by the independent state of Serbia, Slav nationalists in the empire looked for a southern Slav state (Yugoslavia). In Vienna, fears arose that the Serbs would provoke the breakup of the old order.

On June 28, 1914, on an official visit to Sarajevo (capital of the recently annexed province of Bosnia), the heir to the Habsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, together with his wife Sophie, were assassinated by a young Bosnian terrorist named Gavrilo Princip. The Austrian authorities demanded action. They blamed Serbia for encouraging the Black Hand society to which Princip belonged, and demanded that Serbia accept Austrian interference in their internal investigation of the murder. The Serbs accepted parts of Austria's ultimatum but balked at other portions. This was the trigger for Austria's declaration of war.

None of the other European powers had expected or planned for war in 1914, but it was a fear that each of them had harbored. In the 10 years before 1914, many such crises had arisen. Each power's fear of the other powers fueled an arms race that produced large armies and navies with little to do but plan ways of outmaneuvering perceived enemies. Armaments did not cause war, as many believed at the time, but they contributed to a growing sense of instability and antagonism, and lessened the capacity of states to restrain the military when crisis beckoned.

This is what happened in 1914. Austria was prepared to go to war with Serbia without the other powers intervening, but it needed the support of Germany, its ally, and the neutralization of any threat from Russia. Austria got full support from Berlin, but Russia -- fearful that Austria would use the crisis to dominate the Slavic Balkans and stall Russian imperial ambitions in the region -- backed up Serbia and began to mobilize.

This decision produced a domino effect. In Berlin, it was assumed that Russian mobilization was the result of French and British encouragement. The German military persuaded the German emperor to let them carry out the so-called Schlieffen Plan, to attack France first and then to turn and defeat Russia. When Austria finally invaded Serbia, Germany prepared to attack France. Britain sided with France when the Germans invaded Belgium, which was in violation of the agreement to respect its neutrality. By August 4, 1914, all the major powers of Europe were at war.

The remarkable fact is that few of the powers that entered the war really understood what form it would take. The prevailing thought was that the conflict might be resolved by a few large set-piece battles and be "over by Christmas." The war that developed could not have been more different. A stalemate developed on the Western Front, while there was much movement back and forth on the Eastern Front. Combat was dominated by artillery and the newly developed machine gun. Warfare stagnated into a terrible contest of attrition in which both sides sustained losses on scales unimaginable before 1914.

The conflict was presented as a life-and-death struggle for national survival. The Turkish Empire joined the conflict in 1914, siding with Germany and Austria. Italy entered in 1915, siding with the Western Allies. In 1917 the United States, entirely distant from the conflict when it broke out, moved to belligerency in response to Germany's unrestricted use of submarines against American shipping. In three years, the war between Austria and Serbia had become global.

To win the war, the major combatants found themselves facing an unprecedented task. It became necessary for the states to control their economies, to regiment agriculture, to direct trade, and to conscript labor (and to draw in an army of female workers). Production was directed more and more to armaments. The inflated demands of this new form of national conflict came to be known as "total war," a term coined by German general Erich von Ludendorff in 1919 to describe the mobilization of the entire economic, social, and moral energies of the nation. In the end, the economic resources of the Allied powers proved greater than those of Germany and its allies. Tanks and aircraft began to change the nature of war, and the Allies had more of both. With its allies having already been defeated and its own army beaten, Germany sought an armistice, which was signed on November 11, 1918.

In the next section, learn how Europe was reshaped after the events of World War I.

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The Reshaping of Europe After World War I

The cost of the World War I conflict in terms of human losses was colossal. More than nine million soldiers were killed, millions were permanently maimed, and an unknown number of civilians died from malnutrition, disease, and combat. In 1918 and 1919, an influenza epidemic wiped out millions more from a population debilitated by four years of growing privation.

It is against this background that the decision to blame the Central Powers for the war must be understood. When the Treaty of Peace was drawn up in the spring of 1919, a clause was inserted that made clear the responsibility of the Central Powers for reparation. Clause 231, the "War Guilt" clause, was signed by the German delegation, under protest, on June 28, 1919.


The Germans believed that the conditions imposed on them were exceptionally harsh. The German armed forces and fortifications were to be disbanded, and Germany was allowed to retain only a rump 100,000-man army to keep domestic peace. Germany was denied the right to possess aircraft, submarines, and most forms of heavy army weapons. All German colonies were taken and distributed as mandates to the victorious powers. Territory taken by Prussia or Germany in the past was returned to Germany's neighbors. France took back Alsace-Lorraine, seized by Germany in 1870, while the restored Polish state was awarded the rich coal and steel region of Silesia. To compensate for damages caused by the war, Germany was eventually required to pay 132 billion gold marks, in installments, up to the year 1988.

No other issue so united Germans in their resentment of the victors than the question of reparations. Though Germany managed to avoid paying much of what it was supposed to pay, and borrowed and then repudiated vast sums, the important point is that ordinary Germans perceived reparations to be a punitive sanction. They were determined to overturn the Diktat (dictated peace).

The final year of war had ushered in a period of momentous transformation worldwide. In 1917 the Russian war effort collapsed and the emperor, Nicholas II, was forced to abdicate. The revolutionary regime tried to continue the fight, but economic conditions and military capability deteriorated sharply. In October 1917, Lenin's Bolshevik Party -- the most radical wing of the Russian revolutionary movement -- seized power in Petrograd (St. Petersburg), and declared a Communist regime.

Bolshevik leaders expected that their revolt would herald the onset of worldwide revolution. After three years of bitter civil war, Bolshevik rule was secured by 1921 but world revolution did not follow. Short Communist revolts erupted in Hungary and Germany in 1919, and violent confrontations occurred between workers and the state in Italy and Spain in the immediate postwar years, but no other European society saw a Communist takeover. The Communist movement outside Russia was violently suppressed, and many of its leaders were murdered or imprisoned.

The end of the war transformed the political geography of Europe and the Middle East. After the fall of the Russian Empire, the German, Austrian, and Ottoman Turkish empires also disappeared. They were replaced by new, small states from the Baltic Sea to the Suez Canal. The former Turkish provinces in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine were handed over as mandates to Britain and France.

The former imperial territories in Europe held by Russia, Austria, and Germany all became independent national states. This was consistent with the demand expressed by U.S. president Woodrow Wilson that the peoples of Europe should be allowed national "self-determination." From 1919 to 1921, more treaties were drawn up and signed with Germany's allies -- Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey -- which confirmed the new shape of the continent. In every case, the national settlements were messy. Small national fractions were isolated in the territory of other states.

The end of the war produced a paradox of crisis coexisting with a mood of optimism about the future. Parliamentary democracy was introduced everywhere in the areas dominated by the prewar monarchies (except for Russia), and in 1920 almost every European state was, in formal terms, democratic, even though millions of women still lacked the vote. The settlement in 1919 was supposed to pave the way for a new world order based on collaboration and mutual respect. At Versailles, the foundations were laid for the League of Nations, which was committed to isolating international aggression and providing a framework for the peaceful resolution of conflicts.

In 1920 the League of Nations finally met in session in the Swiss city of Geneva, chosen because of Switzerland's long tradition of neutrality. The League reflected a widespread revulsion against war. The Covenant of the League of Nations committed all its members to work toward universal disarmament.

On the next page, learn about how the hard-won peace after World War I began to collapse.

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The New World Order Disintegrates

As the terrible human costs of World War I were inscribed on thousands of monuments to the war dead across Europe, the popular mood echoed the slogan that the Great War had really been "The War to End All Wars." In 1928 German author Erich Maria Remarque published his classic account of the war, All Quiet on the Western Front. The novel was immediately translated into other languages. The book's vivid descriptions of death and mutilation reminded Europeans of the futility of war.

From the start, it was difficult to operate the new postwar order on the idealistic terms in which it had been constructed. The peace settlement sparked a wide range of grievances for those states that regarded themselves as victims. Even the victors were not entirely happy. Italy got little out of the territorial readjustments, and Italian nationalists condemned what they called "the mutilated peace." Japan was resentful at what it regarded as the race prejudice of the other victorious states. In Britain, the peace was viewed as unnecessarily harsh.


In the United States, whose president had been the main architect of the new order, the peace settlement was rejected by Congress as the result of a growing backlash against the European Allies, who were seen as self-interested imperial states exploiting American assistance for their own ambitions. The United States abandoned the League and the peace settlement altogether. It refused to ratify the treaty with France intended to ensure that the French would not detach the left bank of the Rhine from battered Germany.

The Soviet Union regarded the new order as a mask to cover the interests of imperialist capitalism. It was excluded from the League because of the prevailing hostility toward communism. As the principal former enemy, Germany was also excluded from the League until 1926. This placed the three potentially most powerful economic and military states outside the prevailing order. The situation only enhanced the opinion that the League really was a Franco-British puppet designed, in the words of American "radio priest" Father Charles Coughlin, "to make the world safe for hypocrisy."

The system was also weakened by economic crisis. The pre-1914 world trading economy could not be fully revived, and during the 1920s widespread unemployment and poverty existed across much of Europe. From 1919 to 1924, currency collapsed completely in Russia, France, Germany, Austria, and Hungary. Bank accounts and paper assets became worthless. The result was the dispossession of broad sections of the European middle class, leaving behind a legacy of bitterness that fueled the growth of radical right-wing politics.

In the next section, read about the early careers of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, who set the stage for World War II.

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The Rise of Hitler and Mussolini

The development of sharp ideological divisions in European politics -- which eventually led to World War II -- can be explained not only by the rise of communism and socialism but also by the collapse of the established conservative order in much of Europe and the emergence of mass nationalism.

Many World War I ex-soldiers returned home angry at failure in the war and resentful of the workers and wealthy who had stayed behind. They preached a new kind of nationalism that was hostile to the old order and fanatically anti-Communist. They were attracted to new forms of authoritarian and collectivist rule. The first evidence of what this new politics meant was seen in Italy, where a young, militant veteran, Benito Mussolini, established the Italian Fascist movement in 1919.


Fascism took its name from the arrangement of rods and axes -- the fasces -- that had been a symbol of authority in ancient Rome. Soon the term "Fascist" became shorthand for any political group that combined a radical nationalist and social policy and called for dictatorial rule. In Munich in southern Germany, another veteran -- young Austrian agitator Adolf Hitler -- assumed leadership in 1921 of a small political party, the National Socialist German Workers' Party. Its name made clear a joint commitment to national revival and radical social change.

If fascism had just remained a small fringe movement, the history of the post-Great War years would have been very different. But Mussolini's new party, through a combination of effective propaganda and street violence, soon became a contender for power. In October 1922, after threatening a march on Rome, Mussolini was offered the premiership. Within four years, he had subverted parliamentary rule, destroyed the Italian left, and established a one-party state with himself as Il Duce (The Leader).

Fascism was imitated in every European state. It traded on each country's grievances but also promised a bright utopian future. Militarism was a central feature of Fascist appeal, and thousands of young Europeans flocked into the movements and their paramilitary organizations.

In 1923, at the height of the European inflationary crisis, Adolf Hitler moved to imitate Benito Mussolini. In addition to planning a march on Berlin, he staged a coup in Munich on November 8-9 as a prelude to a national seizure of power. His putsch was suppressed, and Hitler was imprisoned. However, he emerged a year later, reestablished his leadership of the National Socialist movement, and launched a campaign of violent anti-Marxism side-by-side with a struggle for parliamentary seats. Both Mussolini and Hitler were unwilling to accept the postwar settlement. Their rhetoric suggested that a "new order" was needed to replace a liberal international system that they regarded as decadent.

On the next page, learn how economic woes throughout Europe and the world led to an unstable atmosphere ripe for World War II.

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Economic Woes Lead to World War II

Adolf Hitler found a ready audience for his message (conveyed in his book Mein Kampf), which offered hope and a new order through National Socialism.

The threat posed by fascism lay in the future. In the 1920s, the international order was dominated by the interests of Britain and France, and there was little to menace it. In 1925 a pact was signed at Locarno between Britain, France, Italy, Germany, and other European countries that gave a mutual guarantee of the frontiers agreed upon in 1919. In 1926, thanks to the efforts of German foreign minister Gustav Stresemann, Germany was admitted to the League with a permanent seat on the Council. The willingness of the United States, despite the failure to join the League, to shore up the European economy with generous credits helped to produce a brief period of economic stability from 1924 to 1928.

The high point of the postwar decade was reached in 1928, when U.S. secretary of state Frank Kellogg and French foreign minister Aristide Briand invited the states of the world to Paris to sign a solemn declaration that they would never again resort to war as a means of settling disputes between them. The Pact of Paris was signed by more than 60 states, including the representatives of Italy, Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union (each of which would launch wars of aggression in the 1930s).


The fragility of the existing order was exposed suddenly in 1929 by a severe economic crisis. The world economy had never returned to full health after 1919, but the buoyant American boom of the 1920s, fueled by expectations of a secure trading future, had masked the underlying problems. When the speculative share bubble broke on Wall Street in October 1929, the impact was catastrophic. Desperate American lenders tried to recall their money at home and abroad, provoking a wave of bankruptcies and widespread unemployment. The economic orthodoxy of the time preached retrenchment and cuts on spending at points of crisis. As governments tried to balance their budgets and the balance of payments, a further wave of economic crisis followed.

The downward spiral was not halted for some time. World trade fell by 60 percent from 1928 to 1932, and unemployment worldwide reached an estimated 40 million workers. The weaker economies, already hit by wartime losses and the inflation crisis, suffered most. In Germany, 30 percent of the workforce was unemployed by 1932 and industrial output was halved. Unwilling to honor debts abroad, Germany faced serious problems. It was rescued only by the American decision to suspend debt repayments for a year. By that stage, the United States faced a business-cycle crisis so severe that many observers assumed that Marx must have been right to predict that overheated capitalism was destined to collapse in revolution.

The political fallout from the economic slump was equally severe. International collaboration to avert disaster evaporated. National economies were protected by new protective walls. In the U.S. in 1930, the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act (named after the two congressmen who introduced it) placed severe limits on imports. Two years later, Britain adopted a system of Imperial Preference, giving a privileged position to empire traders. Thus, the two largest trading economies in the world became committed to saving their own interests first in order to avoid further risk of domestic political crisis.

In Germany, politics was polarized between extreme right and left. In the 1930 parliamentary elections, both German Communists and National Socialists made substantial gains, taking almost one-third of the popular vote between them. All parties became united in hostility to the major Western countries. The economic slump inflamed existing resentments and ignited new ones. The mood of cautious optimism that had characterized the brief period of stability in the 1920s was replaced with an overwhelming sense of foreboding.

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John S. D, Eisenhower, Senator Daniel K. Inouye, Rochard Overy Ph.D., David J. A. Stone, Wim Coleman, Martin F. Graham, James H. Hallas, Mark Johnston Ph.D., Christy Nadalin M.A., Pat Perrin, Peter Stanley Ph.D.