European society and culture since 1914 » The Great War and its
aftermath » The mood of Versailles
The peace conference that met in Paris from January 1919 to January 1920
and which produced, among other things, the Treaty of Versailles was
both vengeful and idealistic.
Public opinion in France and Britain wished to impose harsh terms,
especially on Germany. French military circles sought not only to
recover Alsace and Lorraine and to occupy the Saar but also to detach
the Rhineland from Germany. Members of the British Parliament lobbied to
increase the reparations Germany was to pay, despite the objections of
several farsighted economists, including John Maynard Keynes.
The Versailles treaty, signed on June 28, 1919, met most of these
demands. It also stripped Germany of its colonies and imposed severe
restrictions on the rebuilding of its army and fleet. In these ways, the
peace settlement could be seen as punishing the defeated enemy, as well
as reducing its status and strength. Not unnaturally, this caused
resentment among the Germans and helped to stimulate the quest for
At the same time, however, Versailles was imbued with more
constructive aims and hopes. In January 1918 the U.S. president, Woodrow
Wilson, set out his peace proposals in the “Fourteen Points.” The
general principles were open covenants openly arrived at, freedom of
navigation, equality of trading conditions, the reduction of armaments,
and the adjustment of colonial claims. Wilson also proposed “a general
association,” which became the League of Nations, but his more specific
suggestions were concerned less with unity among nations than with
national self-determination. His aim, in effect, was to secure justice,
peace, and democracy by making the countries of Europe more perfect
Among other measures, this involved readjusting Germany’s borders.
Alsace-Lorraine was duly returned to France and Eupen-Malmédy to
Belgium, while Germany also lost territory to the east. But the
Versailles and associated settlements went further still in dealing with
central Europe. They broke up the Austro-Hungarian Empire, they created
or re-created sovereign states, and they sought to make frontiers
coincide with the boundaries between ethnic, linguistic, and cultural
groups. This consecration of nationalism proved a highly equivocal
legacy; for example, in Northern Ireland or in the German-speaking
Sudetenland of Bohemia.
In succession to the Habsburg empire, Austria and Hungary became
small, separate, landlocked states. Poland was restored and acquired new
territory; so did Greece, Italy, and Romania, which doubled its former
size. Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia came into existence as composite
states. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania won independence from Russia.
Parallel to the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a
further result of the war was the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Most
of its eastern Mediterranean territory, together with Iraq, was placed
under mandate to France and to Britain, which backed a ring of Arab
sheikdoms around the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean.
Turkey was reduced to a mere 300,000 square miles. The peace terms
initially agreed upon by the Treaty of Sèvres were rejected by the
sultan until British troops occupied Istanbul, and even then the
National Assembly in Ankara organized resistance. A war with Greece in
1921–22 ended in the Peace of Lausanne, giving Turkey better terms than
those decided at Sèvres. Soon, however, the secular sultanate and the
religious caliphate were abolished, and Kemal Atatürk became president
of a new, secular republic, which, among other Westernizing measures,
adopted the Latin alphabet in place of Arabic script.
The drawing of new frontiers could never definitively satisfy those
who lived on either side of them, and the problem of minorities became
an important factor in the instability that marked Europe after World
War I. The new composite state of Czechoslovakia, for instance, included
not only industrialized Bohemia, formerly Austrian, but also rustic
Slovakia and Ruthenia, formerly Hungarian. Romania similarly comprised
both Transylvania, formerly Hungarian, and Bessarabia, formerly Russian.
Reconstituted Poland was equally an amalgam, and in 1921, after Józef
Piłsudski’s campaign against the U.S.S.R., it moved its eastern frontier
more than 100 miles beyond the so-called Curzon Line established in
1920. Yugoslavia, finally, was based mainly on Serbia; but it also
included Westernized Croatia, formerly Austro-Hungarian, and part of
Easternized Macedonia, formerly Turkish, as well as other territories.
The rest of Macedonia was now Greek; but an exchange of minorities
between Greece and Bulgaria put many Macedonians under Bulgarian rule,
sparking off an armed rebellion. Similar turbulence agitated Albania.
Altogether, the Balkans became a synonym for violent nationalistic
Two global developments, moreover, formed an ominous backdrop to
Europe’s territorial disputes. One was the Russian Revolution of 1917,
which inspired a few idealists but mainly aroused fear throughout the
rest of Europe lest bolshevism spread westward. The other was the active
intervention of the United States, which had entered the
war—decisively—in 1917 and played a determinant role in shaping the
European society and culture since 1914 » The interwar years » Hopes in
Woodrow Wilson’s vision of a general association of nations took shape
in the League of Nations, founded in 1920. Its basic constitution was
the Covenant—Wilson’s word, chosen, as he said, “because I am an old
Presbyterian.” The Covenant was embodied in the Versailles and other
peace treaties. The League’s institutions, established in Geneva,
consisted of an Assembly, in which each member country had a veto and an
equal vote, and a smaller Council of four permanent members and four
(later six, then nine) temporary members chosen by the Assembly.
The basic principle of the League was collective security, whereby
its signatories were pledged both to seek peaceful solutions to disputes
and to assist each other against aggression. As such, it was novel and
potentially far-reaching; it could have developed into a powerful
instrument for peace. It did indeed settle a number of practical
disputes—between Finland and Sweden, Albania and Yugoslavia, Poland and
Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. It also set up subordinate bodies
to deal with particular problems, among them the status of Danzig and
the Saar, narcotics, refugees, and leprosy. It was complemented by a
Permanent Court of International Justice in The Hague, Neth., and by the
International Labor Organization.
Yet the League of Nations disappointed its founders’ hopes. From the
start it lacked teeth, and most of its members were unwilling to see it
develop. It thus became little more than a permanent version of the
congresses (of Vienna, etc.) that had founded the old-style Concert of
Its first weakness was the veto: all its decisions had to be
unanimous, or at least unopposed. Secondly, when in March 1920 the U.S.
Congress failed to ratify the Versailles treaty by the necessary
two-thirds majority, the United States was debarred from joining the
League. Nor, at that time, were Germany and Russia among its members.
Germany belonged from 1926 to 1933, and the U.S.S.R. from 1934 to 1939.
Turkey joined in 1932, but Brazil withdrew in 1926, Japan in 1933, and
Italy in 1937.
American suspicion of the League, reflecting general isolationism,
centred on Article 10 of the Covenant. This called on member states
to respect and preserve as against external aggression the
territorial integrity and existing political independence of all the
Members of the League. In case of any such aggression or in case of any
threat or danger of such aggression the Council shall advise upon the
means by which this obligation shall be fulfilled.
The means envisaged were known as sanctions—an economic boycott
authorized under Article 16 of the Covenant and invoked in October 1935
against Italy for invading Abyssinia. However, as a conciliatory
gesture, the League excluded oil, iron, and steel from the boycott,
making the sanctions ineffective. Within less than a year they were
lifted, and they were not applied at all when Germany sent troops into
the Rhineland in 1936.
Nevertheless, the League did witness one effort to go beyond mere
cooperation between governments. It proved abortive, but in retrospect
it was highly significant. This was the proposal for European unity made
by the French statesman Aristide Briand.
When taking office as foreign minister in 1925 he had declared his
ambition to establish “a United States of Europe,” and on Sept. 9, 1929,
he made a speech to the then 27 European members of the League in which
he proposed a federal union. Seven months later, on May 1, 1930, he laid
before them a closely and cogently argued “Memorandum from the French
Government on the Organization of a Regime of European Federal Union.”
The text was elegantly worded; its actual author was the
secretary-general of the French Foreign Ministry, Alexis Léger—better
known to readers of poetry under his pen name Saint-John Perse and later
a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Briand’s proposal evoked “the very real feeling of collective
responsibility in the face of the danger that threatens the peace of
Europe,” and the need to counter Europe’s “territorial fragmentation” by
a “bond of solidarity which would enable European nations at last to
take account of Europe’s geographical unity.” To this end, Briand
proposed a pact establishing a European Conference within the League of
Nations, with a permanent political committee and a small secretariat,
putting politics before economics in this European community, but
nevertheless working toward a “common market” in which “the movement of
goods, capital, and people” would be gradually liberalized and
simplified. The practical details, Briand suggested, should be worked
out by the governments concerned.
Briand’s Memorandum was careful to specify that agreement between the
European nations must be reached on the basis of “absolute sovereignty
and total political independence.”
Is it not the genius of each nation to be able to affirm itself still
more consciously by co-operating in the collective effort within a
federal union that fully respects the traditions and characteristics of
each of its constituent peoples?
Despite these precautions, the other members of the League did little
to implement the French initiative. Except for Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and
(with some reservations) Czechoslovakia, Greece, and Norway, their
general response was at best skeptical and at worst politely hostile.
None save The Netherlands saw any need to limit or pool national
sovereignty. Many—including Denmark, Italy, The Netherlands, Poland,
Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom—expressed fears for the
integrity of the League. Several saw no point in setting up new
institutions. Some wanted to recruit other European nations such as the
U.S.S.R. and Turkey, which were not then members of the League; others
insisted on their own world responsibilities, as did the United Kingdom.
A large number—understandably, after the Wall Street crash—thought that
Europe’s really urgent tasks were economic, not political.
Briand defended his paper with vigour, but on Sept. 8, 1930, the
European members of the League effectively buried it, with a few
rhetorical flowers—“close collaboration,” “in full agreement with the
League of Nations,” “respecting all the principles of the Pact”—by
voting to put it on the agenda of the plenary Assembly. All that
followed was a series of meetings, which ended with Briand’s death in
Earlier, Briand had worked closely with the German foreign minister
Gustav Stresemann, with whom he had negotiated the Locarno Treaties of
1925, confirming, among other things, the new western frontiers of
Germany. A fervent nationalist during the war, Stresemann had come to
the conclusion that Germany must respect the Versailles treaty, however
harsh its provisions, though initially he had hoped to revise it. As a
champion of peace (for which he had won the Nobel Prize in 1926), he
would surely have supported Briand’s federal union plan. But Stresemann
died in 1929, and Chancellor Heinrich Brüning of the Catholic Centre
Party proved no less negative than most of his colleagues elsewhere. By
that time, too, Germany’s fragile postwar Weimar Republic was under
growing threat of collapse.
European society and culture since 1914 » The interwar years » The
lottery in Weimar
Germany’s Weimar Republic was born of defeat, revolution, and civil war.
It was plagued by political violence but distinguished by cosmopolitan
culture that influenced both Europe and the wider world.
On Oct. 28, 1918, the sailors at the Kiel naval base mutinied, and on
November 8 the Independent Socialist Kurt Eisner declared Bavaria a
republic. On the following day the chancellor, Prince Maximilian von
Baden, resigned in favour of the Social Democrat leader Friedrich Ebert
and announced the abdication of the emperor William II. That same day,
November 9, the Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed all of
Germany a republic. Two days later, on November 11, Germany concluded
the armistice that ended World War I.
The new republic was soon under pressure from both left and right.
Left-wing socialists and Marxist “Spartacists,” led by Karl Liebknecht
and Rosa Luxemburg, fomented strikes and founded Workers’ and Soldiers’
Councils like those in the U.S.S.R., but on Jan. 15, 1919, both
revolutionaries were arrested and brutally killed. On the right,
meanwhile, ex-officers and others formed the paramilitary Freikorps. In
the event, it was from the right that the deadliest challenges came.
Elections to a constitutional convention, or assembly, were held on
Jan. 19, 1919. They gave the Social Democrats 163 seats, the Catholic
Centre Party 89, and the new and progressive Democratic Party 75; other
parties won smaller numbers of seats. These three groups were
like-minded enough to form a coalition and powerful enough—for the
present—to dominate the new republic. Their rivals on the right were the
old conservatives (now called the National People’s Party), with 42
seats, and the new People’s Party, with 21. On the left, the Independent
Socialists had 22 seats.
The National Assembly met on Feb. 6, 1919, at Weimar on the Ilm
River. The choice of venue was only partly a tribute to the city’s
historic associations with Goethe, Schiller, and Herder; the main
concern was to avoid the danger of violence in Berlin. Not until the
spring of 1920 did the new republic’s Parliament (still called the
Reichstag, or “Imperial Diet”) meet in the German capital. By then, the
name Weimar Republic had stuck.
Its constitution, completed on July 31, 1919, was the most modern and
democratic imaginable, based on universal suffrage, proportional
representation, and referenda. But it was a flimsy cap over a political
The first sign of trouble, in March 1920, was an attempted monarchist
coup d’état. It failed, but the elections that followed in June marked a
defeat for the republicans. The centrist Democrats lost almost
two-thirds of their strength and the Social Democrats almost half of
theirs. The right-wing parties and the left-wing Independent Socialists,
plus various splinter groups, made heavy gains. The Weimar coalition no
longer had a majority. Within the Parliament, the extremists had
triumphed. Outside it, violence was on the increase.
On Aug. 26, 1921, two ex-officers shot and killed Matthias Erzberger,
a Catholic Centre Party deputy who had negotiated the peace terms. On
June 24, 1922, three right-wing students shot dead Walther Rathenau, the
newly appointed foreign minister, who was Jewish. On Nov. 8–9, 1923, an
extremist group staged an abortive putsch in Munich. The conspirators
included Hermann Göring and Adolf Hitler.
Racked by economic problems, shaken by internal crises and shifting
alliances, reviled by the far left and the far right, successive
centrist governments struggled ahead for another 10 years. Although
politically precarious, the Weimar Republic nonetheless witnessed and
helped to foster an extraordinary explosion of creative talent, notably
in the arts.
Wassily Kandinsky and Max Ernst in painting, Bruno Walter in music,
Bertolt Brecht and Max Reinhardt in the theatre, Walter Gropius in
architecture, Albert Einstein in physics, Erwin Panofsky in art history,
Ernst Cassirer in philosophy, Paul Tillich in theology, Wolfgang Köhler
in psychology, Fritz Lang in films—all these became household names,
partly because every one of them took refuge abroad after Hitler came to
power in 1933.
All, in their various ways, were part of the cosmopolitan “Modern
movement” that pervaded the whole of Europe. Kandinsky was a typical
example. Born in Russia, he learned a great deal from French Fauves such
as André Derain and Henri Matisse, then settled in Munich, where he
developed his own characteristic style. German Expressionist theatre and
cinema, likewise, drew inspiration from abroad, in particular from
Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg. Germany was equally influenced by
Austrians: Sigmund Freud in psychiatry, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Arthur
Schnitzler in the theatre, and Karl Kraus in the press. In architecture
the clean, functional lines of Gropius’ Bauhaus school found imitators
Like all such phenomena, the Modern movement was not wholly novel.
Many of its practitioners and their artifacts had predated or coincided
with World War I. Even Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Futurism, so dominant
in 1920s Italy, was a relic of the prewar past.
But the mood after 1918 was no longer so euphoric as at the beginning
of the century. Before the war, the French novelist André Gide and the
German poet Rainer Maria Rilke had exchanged letters in leisurely French
like two survivors from the 18th century. After it, following a six-year
silence, Rilke wrote of “the crumbling of a world,” and both complained
of the complications caused by passports and frontier formalities,
looking back nostalgically to the carefree “journeys of long ago.”
The postwar world, as seen by writers and other artists, had the
fragmentary, disillusioned quality of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land,
published in 1922. It was self-conscious and introspective, as in Luigi
Pirandello’s 1921 play Six Characters in Search of an Author. It was
more open to the unconscious, as in Dada and Surrealism. It was more
aware of man’s dark fears and instincts, as in Franz Kafka’s The Trial
(1925) and The Castle (1926). It was more responsive to the appeal of
“the primitive,” whether in African sculpture or in jazz—the
quintessential art of the 1920s, which also influenced mainstream music,
notably in the Austrian composer Ernst Krenek’s 1927 opera Jonny spielt
auf (“Johnny Strikes up the Band”).
No less pervasive, however, was the brittle hedonism typified by the
gossip-column antics of the “Bright Young Things.” They were not wholly
isolated. Already in 1918 Thomas Mann had published his Reflections by
an Unpolitical Man; this was a mental label thankfully worn by many who,
after the rigours of war, were eager to pursue private happiness,
whether in metropolitan society or in placid suburbia. The Europe of
Weimar also was the Europe of the detective story and the crossword
puzzle. Both were analgesics at a time of political uncertainty and
European society and culture since 1914 » The interwar years » The
impact of the slump
Economically, Europe emerged from World War I much weakened, partly by
the purchases that had had to be made in the United States. Even in 1914
the United States had been the world’s leading economic power. By 1918
profits had enabled it to invest more than $9 billion abroad, compared
with $2.5 billion before the war. The Allies, meanwhile, had used up
much of the capital they had invested in the United States and had
accumulated large public debts, many of them to the U.S. Treasury.
American financial dominance and European debt overshadowed economic
relations in the first decade after the war. The debts included those
owed by the Allies to each other, especially to Britain, as well as
those owed, especially by Britain, to the United States. A third baneful
factor was reparations, the financial penalties imposed on Germany by
the Treaty of Versailles.
Keynes described reparations as morally detestable, politically
foolish, and economically nonsensical. Winston Churchill called them “a
sad story of complicated idiocy.” Essentially, they meant demanding from
Germany either goods—which would have dislocated industry in the
recipient countries—or money. This the Germans could obtain only by
contracting vast and almost unrepayable loans in the United States—to
whom the European recipients of reparations promptly returned much of
the cash in an effort to settle their own transatlantic debts.
In April 1921 the Allied Reparations Committee set Germany’s
reparations bill at 132 billion gold marks, to be increased later if the
Germans proved able to pay more. The first installment of one billion
gold marks was due by the end of May.
Understandably resentful, the Germans wavered between two possible
responses: refusal to pay, as urged by ultra-nationalists and some
industrialists, and the so-called Erfüllungspolitik, or “policy of
fulfillment,” advocated by Rathenau and Stresemann. They proposed to
meet initial demands for reparations so as to reestablish trust and then
negotiate for better terms. This was the policy adopted by the Weimar
Even so, Germany paid the first tranche only in August 1921, in
response to a threat to occupy the Ruhr, and the money had to come from
a bank loan raised in London. Thereafter, it paid in kind but not in
cash, until at the beginning of 1923 it announced that payments must
cease. The French and the Belgians, backed by Italy but opposed by the
United States and Britain, thereupon occupied the whole of the Ruhr.
With the German government’s connivance, Ruhr industrialists and
workers brought production to a virtual halt, and the Treasury printed a
reckless flood of paper money. By 1924 the mark was almost worthless,
enriching speculators and owners of real property but ruining rentier
savers and others on fixed incomes. This removed an important stabilizer
from German society, making it all the easier for extremism to triumph
in the Nazi victory 10 years later.
For the moment, however, the Allies formed a committee of financial
experts, chaired by the American Charles G. Dawes, to find a lasting
solution to the reparations problem. It proposed, and the governments
accepted, a two-year moratorium, the return of the Ruhr to Germany, a
foreign loan of 800 million marks, and a new rate for reparation
payments: 1–2.5 billion gold marks annually, which continued for five
years. In 1929 a further committee, chaired by Owen D. Young, revised
the Dawes Plan. Germany was to have a new loan of 1.2 billion marks and
to spread reparations over the next 59 years. Although the German
Parliament and people (by referendum) reluctantly agreed to the Young
Plan, reparations finally ceased in 1932.
Germany’s was an extreme case, but it was not the only European
country to suffer after World War I. The Allies also experienced
inflation and were saddled with debts. While the United States was
willing in the long run to write off the political debts of reparations,
it would not do the same with the commercial debts contracted by
Britain, Italy, and France: one by one, they had to sign agreements to
Despite these obligations, Europe in the 1920s enjoyed a modicum of
the economic growth that was so rapid and spectacular in the United
States. In 1913, Britain’s income had been £2.021 billion. By 1921, it
had fallen to £1.804 billion; but by 1929 it had risen again, this time
to £2.319 billion. The corresponding figures for France (in 1938 francs)
were 328 billion, 250 billion, and 453 billion. Even Germany, whose 1914
income had been 45.7 billion gold marks, had recovered enough by 1931 to
be earning 57.5 billion.
Yet postwar prosperity was precarious. The American boom was a
speculative affair. Fueled by optimism, production was soaring. To shift
the accumulating goods, customers were urged to buy on credit or to
borrow from the banks, which thereby earned large profits. The stock
market was riding high. But at any sign of a credit squeeze or a loss of
confidence, everything was likely to collapse. Demand would fall, goods
would pile up, and prices would plummet. This was precisely what
happened on “Black Tuesday,” Oct. 24, 1929, the day of the Wall Street
Its first foreign victims were in Latin America, which was dependent
on the American market for selling raw materials. Europe was not
affected immediately; American loans and investments there dwindled only
slowly. By 1931, however, the flow of capital had virtually ceased, and
direct investment dried up in the following year. Worse still, to pay
their own debts, Americans repatriated huge sums of money. Germany,
Austria, and Britain were the hardest hit. Between the end of May and
the middle of July in 1931, the German central bank, the Reichsbank,
lost $2 billion in gold and foreign currency. To compound Europe’s
problems, on June 17, 1930, the United States enacted the protective
Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, increasing the average import duty level to
about 50 percent.
The combined results were catastrophic. Highly respected banks
failed, first among them the great Kreditanstalt of Vienna, which
collapsed in May 1931. The Bank of England, at that time, was losing
gold at the rate of £2.5 million a day. Everywhere, industrial
production fell: by 40 percent in Germany, 14 percent in Britain, and 29
percent in France.
On June 20, 1931, U.S. President Herbert Hoover announced a year’s
moratorium on all government debts. When it expired in June 1932, the
secretary of state, Henry Stimson, proposed a year’s extension, but
Hoover refused. The Europeans had meanwhile agreed to cancel their
claims on German reparations but not to ratify this decision unless the
United States wrote off their war debts. The Americans, seeing this as a
European conspiracy, demanded continued payment. At this, all the
European nations except Finland dug their heels in, exacerbating U.S.
isolationism and making a global solution of the crisis still more
In June 1933, nevertheless, a World Economic Conference met in
London. Hoover’s successor as president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, made his
secretary of state, Cordell Hull, the head of the U.S. delegation. Hull
was a free-trader, but in July 1933 Roosevelt sent a message to the
conference insisting that its main concern must be monetary exchanges,
and in January 1934 the United States passed the Johnson Act, forbidding
even private loans to countries that had not paid their war debts.
So there was no global solution: it was every man for himself. Some
European countries—Germany in 1930–32, France until 1936—responded by
deflation; they maintained the external value of their currencies but
reduced their export prices by cutting wages and costs. The result was
social unrest. In Germany, Chancellor Brüning’s 1930 decrees of the
dissolution of the Reichstag and government by presidential order led to
107 Nazis and 77 Communists being elected to Parliament that September.
In France, Pierre Laval’s decrees led to the 1936 success of the
left-wing Popular Front.
Other countries took to devaluation, leaving the gold standard to
which Belgium, France, Italy, The Netherlands, and Switzerland still
clung from 1931 to 1935. Britain devalued in September 1931, the United
States in April 1933, and France in September 1936. This had the effect
of making exports cheaper, but since it made imports more expensive it
worked only if they could be discouraged by high tariffs (as in the
United States) or if the country in question had access to cheap raw
materials (as in Britain’s system of imperial preference).
A third option was to impose exchange controls to cut the economy off
from world markets. This was the solution adopted by Germany in 1932 and
by most of central Europe and the Balkans. It had the effect of creating
German hegemony, since those central European and Balkan countries that
needed to sell to the large German market were unable to repatriate
their earnings and had to buy German goods. In 1932 Germany saw exchange
controls and their effects as a temporary expedient. For Adolf Hitler
and the Nazi party, however, they became part of a settled and sinister
European society and culture since 1914 » The interwar years » The
trappings of dictatorship
Totalitarian dictatorship was a phenomenon first localized in
20th-century Europe. A number of developments made it possible. Since
the 19th century the machine gun had greatly facilitated drastic crowd
control. Public address systems, radio, and, later, television made it
easy for an individual orator to move a multitude. Films offered new
scope for propaganda. Psychology and pharmaceuticals lent themselves to
brainwashing. Miniature cameras and electronic listening devices
simplified surveillance. Heavy artillery, aircraft, and fast armoured
vehicles provided the means for waging a Blitzkrieg, or “lightning war.”
Bullies and brutality, of course, there had always been.
The European dictatorships were far from identical. They differed in
their historical roots, their social contexts, their ideologies, and
their trappings. But they bore a family resemblance. Political analysis
may underplay it; to their victims, it was all too obvious.
Europe’s first practical dictatorship was established in Russia by
the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Its emblem, the hammer and sickle,
represented physical labour in factory or field; there was no symbol for
the scientist, the statesman, or the scholar. The aims of the
revolution—liquidating the capitalist economic system, increasing public
wealth, raising the material and cultural standard of working people—had
wide appeal. But in its concern to industrialize and modernize a huge,
backward union of republics with a long cultural legacy of tsarist
domination that had been replaced by a centralizing socialist ideology,
it relied on a one-party state, heavy censorship, the suppression of
individual liberty, and the murder of awkward opponents. Theoretically,
it foresaw “the withering away of the state.” For the time being, it
embodied “the dictatorship of the proletariat”—or rather of a single
leader, first Vladimir Ilich Lenin, then Joseph Stalin.
Two years after the Russian Revolution, in 1919, Benito Mussolini
founded the fascist party in Italy. Its emblem, the fasces (a bundle of
rods with an axe in the centre), was a symbol of state power adopted
from ancient Rome. Explicitly anticommunist, it was as opposed to the
withering away of the state as it was to individualistic liberalism.
“For the Fascist,” wrote Mussolini, “everything is the State.” His own
regime, partially established in 1924 and completed in 1928–29, had its
bullyboys and castor-oil torture, its murders and aggressive wars. But,
for sociological and cultural, as well as political, reasons, it was
both less systematic and less brutal than some other European
dictatorships. Italy had a long tradition of regional diversity that
resisted uniformity, and Italian society was permeated—in complex,
sometimes contradictory ways—by the ubiquitous influence of the Roman
Forms of fascism took root in other Latin countries. In Spain in 1923
General Miguel Primo de Rivera seized power with the approval of the
king. He dissolved Parliament, imprisoned democratic leaders, suspended
trial by jury, censored the press, and placed the country under martial
law. He tried to establish a fully fascist regime based on “Country,
Religion, and the Monarchy,” but he met resistance from students and
workers and abandoned the attempt in 1925, although he remained prime
minister until 1930. In 1931 a republic was proclaimed, headed by a
provisional government of republicans and socialists.
Meanwhile, in neighbouring Portugal, António de Oliveira Salazar, a
professor of economics, had been made finance minister after a military
coup d’état in 1926; and, although he had resigned soon afterward, he
had been recalled in 1928. After reorganizing the Portuguese budget, in
1932 he was offered the premiership. His conception of what he called
the “Estado Novo,” or “New State,” was corporatist and fascist. Its
authoritarian constitution, endorsed by plebiscite in 1933, allowed only
one political party, the National Union (União Nacional).
In 1936 a general election in Spain gave a clear majority to the
left. On May 10, Manuel Azaña, the Popular Front leader, was elected
president, but two months later a group of army officers led by General
Francisco Franco staged a fascist revolt. Supplied with arms, air power,
and “volunteers” by Mussolini and Hitler, Franco’s forces won the
ensuing Spanish Civil War—although it dragged on until 1939, when the
U.S.S.R. finally cut off the aid it had given to the Republican
government. The French and British governments pursued a policy of
nonintervention, although an International Brigade of private volunteers
fought alongside the Republicans. One significant feature of the Spanish
Civil War was its use by Nazi pilots as a training ground for the
dive-bombing tactics they later employed in World War II.
Nazi Germany, in fact, was Europe’s most elaborately developed
dictatorship. Characteristically, Hitler took great care with the design
of its emblem, a black swastika in a white circle on a red background;
as iconography, it has long survived its regime. The swastika,
originally the obverse of the Nazi version, was an Eastern mystic symbol
brought into Europe in the 6th century—and Nazi ideology was no less
mystical. It differed from fascism in at least two respects. It regarded
the state as a means, rather than an end in itself; and the end it
envisaged was the supremacy of what Hitler believed to be “the Aryan
master race.” The final result—Hitler’s so-called Final Solution—was the
systematic slaughter of at least six million Jews and millions of others
whom the Nazis referred to as inferior peoples.
Born in Austria, Hitler had fought in World War I in the Bavarian
infantry, twice winning the Iron Cross. In September 1919, six months
after Mussolini founded the Italian fascist party, Hitler joined a
German nationalist group that took the name of National Socialist German
Workers’ Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei),
nicknamed “Nazi,” a truncation of Nationalsozialistische. Its policies
included anti-Semitism and fierce opposition to the Treaty of
Versailles. After his abortive Munich coup in 1923, Hitler was sentenced
to five years’ imprisonment, of which he served nine months. While in
prison, he wrote his autobiographical manifesto, Mein Kampf.
In 1930, with 107 seats, the Nazis became the second largest party in
Parliament. On Jan. 30, 1933, after three ineffectual chancellors,
President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Hitler to the post, believing
that the vice-chancellor, Franz von Papen, would counterbalance any Nazi
Four weeks later the Reichstag building in Berlin was gutted by a
fire probably started by a foolish young Dutch communist, but certainly
exploited by the Nazis as evidence of an alleged communist plot. Hitler
used the excuse to enact decrees that gave his party totalitarian
powers. In the following June he eliminated most potential rivals, and
when Hindenburg died on Aug. 2, 1934, Hitler was proclaimed Führer, or
leader of the German Reich.
Hitler’s foreign policy triumphs followed: the reoccupation of the
Rhineland and the alliance with Mussolini in 1936; the Anschluss
(“union”) with Austria and the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938–39;
and in 1939 the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. Until Hitler’s
invasion of Poland in September of that year, it sometimes seemed as if
Europe’s democracies could only look on, prevaricate, and tremble.
European society and culture since 1914 » The interwar
years » The phony peace
The early months of World War II, marked by no major hostilities,
came to be known as “the Phony War.” The 1930s, marked by war in Spain
and the fear of war throughout Europe, might as aptly be called “the
Economically, that decade saw a gradual revival of prosperity in most
of Europe. For the middle classes in some countries, indeed, it was a
slightly hollow golden age. Many could still afford servants, often
drawn from the ranks of unmarried girls from poor families with few
skills to sell. “Ribbon development” of suburbs was providing new houses
on the cleaner outskirts of cities, served by expanding urban transport
systems. Every suburb had one or more palatial cinemas showing talking
pictures, some of them even in colour. Gramophones and records were
improving their quality, radio sets were growing more compact and
versatile, and, toward the end of the decade, television began. Cheaper
automobiles were appearing on the market, telephones and refrigerators
were becoming general, and some homes began to boast washing machines.
Air travel was still a rarity but was no longer unheard of. The cheap
franc made France a playground for tourists from countries with harder
For those less privileged, daily life was far less benign. Deference
was still deeply ingrained in European society. The humbler classes
dressed differently, ate differently, and spoke differently; they even
walked and stood differently. They certainly had different homes, often
lacking a bathroom or an indoor lavatory. Unemployment was still
widespread. In Britain, in the Tyneside town of Jarrow, starting point
of the 1936 protest march to Westminster, almost 70 percent of the work
force was out of a job. Those in work still faced long hours; dirty,
noisy, and dangerous conditions; and monotonous, repetitive
assembly-line tasks. Some of the workers were women, but, despite their
“liberation” during World War I, many had returned to domesticity, which
to some seemed drudgery. Young people had yet to acquire the affluence
that later gave them such independence and self-assurance as an economic
and cultural group.
Beneath the placid surface, moreover, there were undercurrents of
unease. On the right, especially in France and Germany, there was still
much fear of bolshevism. Some, for this reason, saw merits in Mussolini,
while a few were attracted by Hitler. On the left, conversely, many
admired the U.S.S.R.—although some, such as the French writer André Gide,
changed their minds when they had seen it. But left, right, and centre
in most of the democracies had one thing in common, though they differed
radically about how to deal with it. What they shared was a growing fear
of war. Having fought and won, with American help, “the war to end war,”
were they now to face the same peril all over again?
This fear became acute toward the end of the decade, as Hitler’s
ambitions grew more and more plain. But underlying it was a broader,
deeper, and less specific disquiet, especially in continental Europe.
In 1918 the German philosopher of history Oswald Spengler published
Der Untergang des Abendlandes, translated in 1926–28 as The Decline of
the West. In 1920 the French geographer Albert Demangeon produced The
Decline of Europe. In 1927 Julien Benda published his classic study The
Great Betrayal, and in 1930 José Ortega y Gasset produced The Revolt of
the Masses. All these works—and many others—evoked what the Dutch
historian Johan Huizinga called, in the title of a book published in
1928, The Crisis of Civilisation. That same year, coincidentally, saw
René Guenon’s The Crisis of the Modern World. Similar concerns were
voiced in Britain almost a decade later, when the French-born Roman
Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc published The Crisis of Our Civilization.
Many such writers were pessimistic. Paul Valéry, in Glimpses of the
Modern World (1931), warned Europeans against abandoning intellectual
discipline and embracing chauvinism, fanaticism, and war. Thomas Mann,
in Warning Europe (1938), asked: “Has European humanism become incapable
of resurrection?” “For the moment,” wrote Carl J. Burckhardt, “it . . .
seems that the world will be destroyed before one of the great nations
of Europe gives up its demand for supremacy.”
At Munich in September 1938 the British prime minister Neville
Chamberlain and his French counterpart Édouard Daladier bought time with
“appeasement”—betraying Czechoslovakia and handing the Sudetenland to
Hitler. Millions cheered the empty pledge they brought back with them:
“Peace for our time.” Within 11 months Hitler had invaded Poland and
World War II had begun.
European society and culture since 1914 » The blast of
World War II
World War II was the most destructive war in history. Estimates
of those killed vary from 50 million to 64 million—about as many as the
entire current population of Britain or France. The total for Europe
alone was 15 million to 20 million—more than twice as many as in World
War I. At least 6 million, not all of them Jews or Roma (Gypsies), died
in Hitler’s extermination camps. Nor were the Germans themselves spared.
By 1945, in a population of some 70 million, there were 7 million more
German women than men.
One after another, most of the countries in continental Europe had
been invaded and occupied: Austria, Czechoslovakia, Albania, Poland,
Finland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, France,
Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Greece,
Yugoslavia, and the U.S.S.R. and then, when the tide turned, Italy and
Germany. Many countries had been fought over twice.
The resulting devastation had turned much of Europe into a moonscape:
cities laid waste or consumed by fire storms, the countryside charred
and blackened, roads pitted with shell holes or bomb craters, railways
out of action, bridges destroyed or truncated, harbours filled with
sunken, listing ships. “Berlin,” said General Lucius D. Clay, the deputy
military governor in the U.S. zone of postwar Germany, “was like a city
of the dead.”
Between 1939 and 1945, moreover, at least 60 million European
civilians had been uprooted from their homes; 27 million had left their
own countries or been driven out by force. Four and a half million had
been deported by the Nazis for forced labour; many thousands more had
been sent to Siberia by the Russians. When the war ended, 2.5 million
Poles and Czechs were transferred to the U.S.S.R., and more than 12
million Germans fled or were expelled from eastern Europe. At one period
in 1945, 40,000 refugees a week poured into northwestern Germany.
Death, destruction, and mass displacements—all had demonstrated how
fragile and vulnerable Europe’s proud nations had become. In most
earlier conflicts the state’s defenses had been its frontiers or its
front line: its armies had been a carapace protecting the civilians
within. Now, even more than in World War I, this was no longer so. Air
raids, rockets, mass conscription, blitzkrieg invasion, commando raids,
parachute drops, Resistance sabotage, and guerrilla warfare had put
everyone, as the phrase went, “in the front line.” More accurately,
national frontiers had shown how flimsy they were, and the “front line”
metaphor had lost its force. Even the distinction between civilians and
soldiers had become blurred. Civilians had fought in Resistance
circuits—and been shot, sometimes as hostages, and when the Allies or
the Axis practiced area bombing, civilians were the main victims. The
most extreme instances were the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and
Nagasaki in Japan. They not only ignored the civilian-military
distinction; they utterly transformed the nature of war.
Hitler’s death camps, likewise, made World War II unique. The
appalling product of spurious science, evil fanaticism, blind
bureaucratic obedience, sadistic perversion, and pedantic callousness,
they left an unhealing wound. They reminded humanity of the depths to
which human beings can sink and of the vital need to expunge racism of
all kinds—including the reflex, understandable at the time, of regarding
the Germans as solely capable of committing Nazi-type crimes.
The Nürnberg trials were a further unique feature of World War II
(although war trials were written into the treaties following World War
I). By arraigning and punishing major surviving Nazi leaders, they
undoubtedly supplied a salutary form of catharsis, if nothing else. They
proved beyond a doubt the wickedness of Hitler’s regime; at one point,
when films of the death camps were shown, they actually sickened and
shamed the defendants. In some eyes, however, the trials were tainted.
Although scrupulously conducted, they smacked slightly of show trials,
with the victorious Allies playing both prosecutor and judge. Given the
purges of millions under Stalin, the participation of Soviet judges
seemed especially hypocritical. The charges included not only war
crimes, of which many of the accused were manifestly guilty, but also
“waging aggressive war”—a novel addition to the statute book. Finally, a
number of war criminals certainly slipped through the Nürnberg net. The
overall intention, however, was surely honourable: to establish once and
for all that international affairs were not immune from ethical
considerations and that international law—unlike the League of
Nations—was growing teeth.
In two further respects, World War II left a lasting mark on Europe.
The first and most obvious was its division between East and West. Both
U.S. and Soviet troops, from opposite directions, had helped to liberate
Europe, and on April 25, 1945, they met on the Elbe River. They toasted
each other and posed for the photographers; then the Soviets dug
themselves into new defensive positions, still facing west.
It was not a confrontation, but it was symbolic. Stalin had long made
clear that he sought to recover the three Baltic republics of Latvia,
Lithuania, and Estonia, as well as the part of Poland that the Poles had
seized after Versailles. He also expected a free hand in exerting
influence on the rest of eastern Europe. At a meeting in Moscow in
October 1944, Churchill had largely conceded this principle, proposing
90 percent Soviet influence in Romania, 90 percent British influence in
Greece, 75 percent Soviet influence in Bulgaria, and a 50–50 split in
Yugoslavia and Hungary. Cynical as this might seem, it was a tacit
recognition of strategic and military facts. Similar considerations
determined the East-West zonal division of Germany, which endured in the
form of two German republics until their reunification in October 1990.
The fact that the U.S.S.R. and the United States now faced each other
in Europe along the so-called “Iron Curtain” denounced by Churchill in
his Fulton, Mo., speech on March 5, 1946, dramatized Europe’s final
legacy from World War II. This was a drastic reduction in wealth,
status, and power.
In financial terms, World War II had cost more than the combined
total of all European wars since the Middle Ages. Even Britain, which
had been spared invasion, had been transformed from the world’s biggest
creditor to the world’s biggest debtor, and much of continental Europe
was obliged to continue living on credit and aid. Economically, all
Europe’s once great powers were dwarfed by the world’s superpowers.
Their status was diminished still further when their remaining colonies