Europe After World War I: November 1918-August 1931

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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