The Interwar Years and World War II for AP European History

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Updated on Mar 4, 2011

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The Interwar Years and World War II Review Questions for AP European History

Summary: The two decades following World War I were characterized by an economic depression and social and cultural insecurity, which led to the rise of fascism and World War II.

Key Ideas

  • The interwar years, the 1920s and 1930s, were years of economic, social, and cultural uncertainty.
  • In 1928, Joseph Stalin instituted the first of a series of five-year plans that transformed the Soviet Union into an industrial economy and created a culture of conformity.
  • In 1929, the New York Stock Exchange crash crippled an already fragile European economy, triggering the Great Depression.
  • Fascism—an ideology of the downtrodden which pandered to nationalism, racism, and fantasies of military glory—flourished in Europe.
  • In 1938 and 1939, Germany's Adolf Hitler repudiated the Treaty of Versailles with a series of aggressions that triggered, on 1 September 1939, World War II.


The 1920s was a period of deep uncertainty, as the population of Europe grappled with the experiences and consequences of World War I. In the 1930s, the politics of the extreme flourished, as fascism emerged as an ideology that appealed to the downtrodden. By 1939, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party controlled Germany, and his systematic repudiation of the Versailles Treaty led to World War II, which raged from 1939 to 1945.

The Interwar Years

The men who survived the Great War, as World War I was called in the 1920s and 1930s, came home to a world of economic, social, and cultural uncertainty.

Problems and Challenges After World War I

Governments had borrowed heavily to finance their war efforts and now interest payments were coming due. The need to pay out enormous sums in veteran and war widow benefits and unemployment benefits further burdened the economies. The inability of economies to meet the reviving demand for goods added inflation to an already grim economic mix. Across Europe, for the first 10 years following the war, Europe experienced a roller-coaster economy, as recessions followed brief periods of prosperity.

Socially, conditions were equally uncertain. Class deference was a casualty of World War I; lingering notions that the wealthier classes were somehow superior to working people were eroded by the experience of working and fighting side by side. Traditional views on gender had also been challenged by the wartime need to suspend restrictions on where and how women worked. In rapid succession, women across Europe gained the right to vote and fought to hold onto the greater freedom they had enjoyed during the war years.

Politically, the uncertainty fuelled continued radicalization. In France, ultraconservative and socialist parties vied for power. In Britain, the wartime coalition government led by David Lloyd George stayed intact and won another term in office, but the Labour Party made great gains at the expense of the Liberals. The various subjects of the British Empire, who had supported Britain in the war effort, now began to demand that their loyalty and sacrifice be rewarded, and independence movements coalesced in Ireland and India. In the newly created or reconstituted nations of East-Central Europe—Hungary, Poland, and Yugoslavia—liberal democracy failed to take root and right-wing authoritarian regimes came to power.

The cultural developments of the interwar years also reflected the deep uncertainty of the period. The 1920s have often been referred to as "the Roaring Twenties." The cabaret culture, where men and women mixed easily, seemed to reflect a loosening of social conventions and a pursuit of pleasure after the sacrifices of the war years. But cultural historians have increasingly pointed out that the culture of the interwar years seemed to reflect a deep anxiety for the future. An excellent example is Fritz Lang's film Metropolis (1925). Filmmaking became a popular art form in the interwar years and film stars became celebrities whose lifestyle seemed to epitomize the Roaring Twenties, but Lang's Metropolis depicts a world in which humans are dwarfed by an impersonal world of their own creation. Similarly, T. S. Eliot's epic poem The Wasteland (1922) depicts a world devoid of purpose or meaning.

The Weimar Republic in Germany

The problems and uncertainties of the interwar years were felt most keenly in Germany. The new government, known as the Weimar Republic, was a liberal democracy led by a moderate Social Democrat, Friedrich Ebert. It was a government doomed to failure by several factors:

  • Liberal democracy was a form of government largely alien to the German people, whose allegiance had been to the Kaiser.
  • It was a government that was perceived to have been imposed on Germany by its vengeful war enemies.
  • It was wrongly blamed for the humiliating nature of the Treaty of Versailles.
  • It was faced with insurmountable economic problems, as the general economic difficulties of interwar Europe were compounded by Germany's need to pay the huge war reparations imposed on it.

Almost immediately, the government of the Weimar Republic was challenged by Marxist revolutionaries, known as Spartacists, led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Leibknecht, who were dedicated to bringing a socialist revolution to Germany. In order to defeat them, Ebert turned to the old imperial army officers, who formed regiments of war veterans known as the Freikorps (or Free Corps). Once the right-wing forces gained the upper hand, they too tried to overthrow the Weimar government in a coup attempt in 1920 that has come to be known as the Kapp Putsch. The government was saved, ironically, by the workers of Germany, who forced the right-wing insurgents to step down by staging a general strike. Just as the Weimar government began to stabilize, it found itself unable to pay the reparations demanded of it. When the French occupied the Ruhr Valley in retaliation, Germans again went on strike. The overwhelming uncertainty caused by the situation triggered hyperinflation that made German currency essentially worthless.

The Soviet Union in Economic Ruins

By the onset of the 1920s, the bloody civil war between the monarchist "Whites" and the Bolshevik-led "Reds" was finally over and Lenin held uncontested leadership of Russia. But it was a country in ruins, whose people could find neither jobs nor food. In order to deal with the crisis, Lenin launched the New Economic Plan (NEP), which allowed rural peasants and small-business operators to manage their own land and businesses and to sell their products. This temporary compromise with capitalism worked well enough to get the Russian economy functioning again.

In July of 1923, Lenin constructed The Soviet Constitution of 1923. On paper it created a Federal State, renamed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics but, in practice, power continued to emanate from Lenin and the city that he named the capital in 1918, Moscow. Lenin died unexpectedly from a series of strokes in 1924. The man who won the power struggle to succeed him was the Communist Party Secretary, Joseph Stalin. From 1924 to 1929, Stalin used a divide-and-conquer strategy combined with his control of the party bureaucracy to gain full control of the party and, thereby, of the Soviet Union. In the autumn of 1924, Stalin announced, in a doctrine that came to be known as socialism in one country, that the Soviet Union would abandon the notion of a worldwide socialist revolution and concentrate on making the Soviet Union a successful socialist state.

In 1928, Stalin ended the NEP and initiated the first of a series of five-year plans, which rejected all notions of private enterprise and initiated the building of state-owned factories and power stations. As an extension of the plan, Stalin pursued the collectivization of agriculture, destroying the culture of the peasant village and replacing it with one organized around huge collective farms. The peasants resisted and were killed, starved, or driven into Siberia in numbers that can only be estimated but which may have been as high as eight million.

Between 1935 and 1939, Stalin set out to eliminate all centers of independent thought and action within the party and the government. In a series of purges, somewhere between seven and eight million Soviet citizens were arrested. At least a million of those were executed, while the rest were sent to work camps known as gulags. The end result was a system that demanded and rewarded complete conformity to the vision of the Communist Party as dictated by Stalin.

The Great Depression

The post–World War I European economy was built on a fragile combination of international loans (mostly from the United States), reparations payments, and foreign trade. In October of 1929, the New York stock market crashed, with stocks losing almost two-thirds of their value. Unable to obtain further credit, trade dried up. The result was an economic collapse that has come to be known as the Great Depression. Attempts to deal with the problem in traditional ways—by cutting government expenditure, tightening the supply of money, and raising tariffs on imported goods—only made things worse. By 1932, the economies of Europe were performing at levels that were only half those of 1929. Jobs became scarce as the economy contracted and large segments of the population fell into poverty.

The British economist John Maynard Keynes argued that governments needed to increase their expenditures and run temporary deficits in order to "jump start" the stagnant economy, but his ideas were only slowly accepted. Europe's economies recovered very slowly and, in the interim, parts of Europe succumbed to a new ideology of the desperate and downtrodden, fascism.

The Rise of Fascism in Italy and Germany

Historians struggle with definitions of fascism because it has no coherent ideology and its form varied from nation to nation. But all fascism was a mixture, to one degree or another, of the following ingredients:

  • an intense form of nationalism
  • a professed belief in the virtues of struggle and youth
  • a fanatical obedience to a charismatic leader
  • an expressed hatred of socialism and liberalism

Mussolini and Italian Fascism

The birthplace of fascism was Italy, which became the first country in Europe to have a fascist government. Italy, though a member of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria–Hungary, had originally chosen to remain neutral in World War I. In 1915, Italy entered the war on the side of the Entente in hopes of gaining lands from Austria–Hungary. Italian war veterans returned home doubly disillusioned, as the war experience turned out to be a nightmare and Italy gained nothing in the peace settlement. One such veteran, a former socialist named Benito Mussolini, founded the National Fascist Party in 1919. The new party began to field candidates for the Italian legislature and to establish itself as the party that could save Italy from the threat of socialism. By 1922, squads of fascist Blackshirts (squadristi), largely recruited from disgruntled war veterans, were doing battle with bands of socialist "Redshirts," and the Italian government was increasingly unable to keep order. In October of 1922, Mussolini organized 20,000 fascist supporters and announced his intention to march on Rome. King Victor Emmanuel III responded by naming Mussolini Prime Minister of the Italian government.

Mussolini quickly moved to consolidate his power by pushing through a number of constitutional changes. A showdown between Mussolini and what parliamentary forces still existed in Italy came in the summer of 1924, when fascists were implicated in the murder of the socialist member of the Italian parliament, Giacomo Matteotti. The masses supported Mussolini, and by early 1926 all opposition parties had been dissolved and declared illegal, making Mussolini the effective dictator of Italy.

Hitler and German Nazism

Understanding the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany requires an understanding of the post–World War I context. Wartime propaganda had led the German public to believe that the war was going well. As a result, Germany's surrender came as an inexplicable shock. The peace settlement seemed unfair and unduly harsh, and there was a growing sense among the German people that Germany must have been betrayed. In that context, the Nazis became popular by telling the German people several things they desperately wanted to hear:

  • The Nazis appealed to displaced veterans and young people by telling them that they would build a Germany that had a place for them.
  • They promised to get rid of the hated war reparations and to return Germany to military greatness.
  • They provided the Germans with someone to blame for defeat by claiming that the Jews had betrayed Germany.
  • They appealed to frightened business interests and the Church in Germany by promising to protect them from the socialists.

The so-called National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP), or the Nazi Party, began as a small right-wing group and one of the more than 70 extremist paramilitary organizations that sprang up in postwar Germany. It was neither socialist nor did it attract many workers; it was a party initially made up of war veterans and misfits. The man responsible for its rise to power in Germany was Adolf Hitler, a failed Austrian art student and war veteran.

Hitler incorporated military attitudes and techniques, as well as expert propaganda, to turn the NSDAP into a tightly knit organization with mass appeal. Hitler and the Nazis made their first bid for power in November of 1923 in the "Beer Hall putsch," when they tried to stage a coup to topple the Bavarian government in Munich. It failed, but Hitler gained national attention in the subsequent trial where he publicly decried the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and espoused his views of racial nationalism. Years of reorganization and building of grass-roots support produced significant electoral gains in the elections of 1930.

In the elections of 1932, the Nazis won over 35 percent of the vote. Hitler refused to take part in a coalition government and the German president, the aging military hero Paul von Hindenburg, made the crucial decision to appoint Hitler Chancellor of Germany (the equivalent of Prime Minister). Early in 1933, the German parliament building, the Reichstag, burned down. Hitler declared a state of emergency and assumed dictatorial powers. He then used them to eliminate socialist opposition to Nazi rule. In the elections of 1933, Nazis won 288 seats out of 647. With the support of 52 deputies of the nationalist party, and in the absence of communist deputies that were under arrest, the Nazis were able to rule with a majority. By bullying the Reichstag into passing the Enabling Act of March 1933, Hitler was essentially free to rule as a dictator.

Dictatorship in Spain and Portugal: Franco and Salazar

In both countries, Western-style parliamentary governments faced opposition from the Church, the army, and large landowners. In 1926, army officers overthrew the Portuguese republic that had been created in 1910, and gradually Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, an economics professor, became dictator.

In Spain, antimonarchist parties won the election of 1931 and King Alphonso XIII fled as the new Spanish Republic was set up. When a socialist cartel won the election of 1936, General Francisco Franco led a revolt against the Republic from Spanish Morocco, plunging Spain into a bloody civil war. Franco received support from the Spanish monarchy and Church, while Germany and Italy sent money and equipment. The Republic was defended by brigades of volunteers from around the world (famous writers George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway were among them), and eventually received aid from the Soviet Union. The technological might provided by the Germans allowed Franco's forces to overwhelm the defenders of the Republic. Pablo Picasso's 25-foot-long mural Guernica (1937), depicting the bombing of the town of Guernica by German planes in 1937, poignantly illustrated the nature of the mismatch. By 1939, Franco ruled Spain as a dictator.

Fascism in France

During the war, France had essentially been administered by the military. At the war's conclusion, the Parliament rushed to reassert its dominance and France was governed by moderate coalitions. But the elections of 1924 swept the Cartel des Gauches, a coalition of socialist parties, to power, causing a reaction in the form of a flurry of fascist organizations, with names like Action Francaise, The Legion, and the Jeunesses Patriots. These organizations remained on the political fringe, but they provided extremist opposition and a source of anti- Semitism, which became prominent in the collaboration of the Vichy regime during the German occupation of France in World War II.

Fascism in Britain

In Great Britain, small right-wing extremist groups were united in the 1930s under the leadership of Sir George Oswald Mosley, who created the British Union of Fascists. They were united by their hatred of socialism and their anti-Semitism. Although never politically significant in Britain, the BUF did mount a serious public disturbance in October of 1934 when they battled with socialists and Jewish groups in an incident that has come to be known as the "Battle of Cable Street." More importantly, the existence of the BUF and the initial reluctance of the British government to ban them, demonstrate the existence of some sympathy for their authoritarian and anti-Semitic views among powerful people in Britain. Once the war broke out, the BUF was banned and Mosley was jailed.

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