1914 to 1939 in Europe, One long war?

The years following World War One were anything but peaceful. Many Europeans had to come to grips with the harsh reality of life after the Great War. Disillusioned and traumatized by the war, Europeans were ready for a return to the perceived peace that had existed before. Changes in land holdings, repayment of war debt, nationalism and racism all led to social, economic and political upheavals in most European countries. These upheavals would lead to fanatical regimes and continued hardship that would directly contradict a once again perceived peace and usher the world in to another world war. This paper will focus on how Europe never truly stopped fighting after the First World War. We will look at examples of domestic physical violence following World War One, as well as economic and political warfare which would lead the continent in to World War Two.

As a direct result of the blame placed on Germany from the War Guilt Clause in the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was forced to repay the war debts of the allied nations. The United States, Britain, France and Italy all owed following the war, and they all looked to Germany to pay those costs to civilian property. As John Maynard Keynes points out, the Allies were initially not interested in factoring in Germany’s ability to pay, “The offer…does not appear to contemplate any opening up of the problem of Germany’s capacity to pay. It is only concerned with the establishment of the total bill of claims as defined in the treaty.” (Keynes p.133) The costs given to Germany were in the billions of dollars, and it was evident from the outset that it would be unable to meet the reparation costs on time. While all of the Allies desired to receive payments from Germany, France was particularly invested in making sure Germany paid it’s debts to them.

France has suffered incredible losses during the war, and had already spent billions of dollars on rebuilding it’s infrastructure, and expected Germany to foot the bill for all of those losses. Germany, realizing that it couldn’t pay the bill, asked for an extension on reparation payments, but France would not allow it. Germany was late in their payment and in 1923 the French responded by occupying the Ruhr region of Germany. The occupation of the Ruhr was met with some international scorn towards France, but the French decided to continue with the occupation.

The Ruhr region is an industrial mining center of Germany, and the French intended to run the factories and mines themselves to make up for the money that Germany was not paying to them. Because of the Treaty of Versailles, the Germans did not have a sizable force with which to mount any sort of defensive protection of their land. Instead, they used passive aggressive measures of defiance to protests the occupation which they believed was illegal. German workers stopped mining and producing good from that region. The occupation of the Ruhr is a perfect example of how the fighting never stopped after the armistice.

It could be seen that the war was continuing in the eyes of the French until they were completely reimbursed for their losses. Even though the Treaty of Versailles has been signed by all parties (forcibly or not), and peace was a desired end by most people in Europe, the French had a vested interest in milking the Germans for as much as they could. Areas of France had been occupied by Germany more than once in the years preceding World War One, and as long as the Germans were forced to repay high war debts, they were unable to fully progress after the war and thus had a harder chance of threating French interests in the future. The occupation of the Ruhr was a way for France to assert that German military might was no longer a factor in the politics between the two countries. The invasion of the Ruhr asserted French dominance over Germany and as Chauncy D. Harris says “…the Ruhr was the principle source of manufactured goods and power on which German military might was founded.” (Harris p.25) What he means, is that it was vitally important to French moral that they occupy this region and deliver a devastating moral blow to the Germans. The occupation of the Ruhr by the French is an example of international physical warfare continuing after the war, but many European countries experienced domestic warfare as well.

Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal and many other countries in Central and Eastern Europe gradually shifted to more authoritarian regimes in the years after World War One. It was often a consequence of this shift that domestic physical violence occurred. To say that violence occurred only from direct influence of these regimes would be both true and false. It is possible that the Nazis were fond of assassinating their political opponents, but it is also true that a consequence of multiple groups trying to seize power is violence.

In Germany, there were often clashes between competing political groups in the streets and in official political arenas. The communists tried to incite coups on multiple occasions, only to be brought under control by the military. Communists sought a workers revolution. Nazis would often clash with communists and other leftist groups. Most of this was due to an active campaign of intimidation on the part of the Nazis and some of it was due to the beliefs of both sides that their political ideals were what was correct for the country. Frequently when you get groups together which vehemently oppose each other, the end result will be violence. As Hitler’s influence became stronger in Germany, he used violence to murder people who had originally helped him to power. Using a possible coup as a cover, Hitler ordered the murder of his long time supporter Ernst Rohm and many others. It was acts such as these that show how domestic violence was a type of warfare used in Germany to attain specific goals.

Another method of domestic warfare used by Germany after World War One was that which was used against the Jewish people. In November 1938, as a response to the murder of the secretary of the German embassy in Paris by a Jewish boy, German secret police dressed as civilians looted Jewish businesses, burned Synagogues and physically beat Jews in their homes. This was to be called the Kristallnacht. The persecution of the Jewish people was at the very heart of the Nazi doctrine, because they believed that Jews conspired with socialists in the surrender of Germany to the allied forces. According to Nazi propaganda, Jews also favored better during the times of economic hardship that Germany faced after World War One.

In the years that followed Hitler’s rise to power, Jews saw their right to do business taken away, their property destroyed and stolen, and eventually their freedom and lives taken away from them. Although many Jews considered themselves “as German as anyone else…the German Jew was supposed to be fully integrated in Germany” (Johnson-Reuband p.62), they were not allowed to hold office or participate in Nazi party affairs. Jews could not fly the national flag, write or publish, exhibit paintings or give concerts, act on stage or screen, teach in any educational institutions, work in any bank or hospital, or sell books. (Winks & Adams p.147) This was a blatant war on race, in which the Germans blamed the Jews for their economic problems, but also believed in the superiority of the German race.

The German war on race is very important in looking at conflict after World War One. Blond haired, blue-eyed men and women were though to be racially pure. Hitler believed that “the results of art, science, and technology is almost exclusively the product of the Aryan.” (Mein Kamph – RR6) People who did not fit that mold were discouraged from having children and sometimes subjected to sterilization. Jews, Slavs and Gypsies were thought be inferior races when compared the the German master standard. Hitler described the Nazi party as “a movement for worship; it is exclusively a ‘volkic’ political doctrine based upon racial principles. In its purpose there is no mystic cult, only the care and leadership of a people defined by a common blood-relationship,” (.. – Nuremberg 9/6/1938) This way of thinking that all Germans are defined by a common blood relationship allowed Germany to justify invasion of German speaking territories to liberate true German peoples. This sort of racist nationalism was apparent all over Europe. Nations believed that their nationality as a race was superior to that of any other nation. This was apparent before World War One and after. The mindset of national superiority gave cause to people who advocated for violence against those peoples who did not belong. While Italy did not initially participate in the persecution of the Jewish people, pressure from Hitler eventually caused Mussolini to reverse his stance.

As was becoming common in the time after World War One, Mussolini would also practice domestic violence against political opponents. His main political opponent, Giacomo Matteotti, was murdered by people traced back to himself. As was the case with the Nazis, Mussolini used violence and coercion to defeat his political opponents. His fascists burned down union offices and attacked section leaders and politicians. Much of this was achieved because of Mussolini’s influence on the military and the police. An estimated 2000 people died by these acts of violence in Italy (Winks & Adams p. 131). Violence was used in many other countries as political instability continued in those countries as well. While the end of World War One brought to an end the massive international war, domestic warfare still raged on in many countries.

As show above, a direct cause of physical violence in those countries was from the changing political landscape taking place. After World War One ended and as the Great Depression took hold, many countries became convinced that the political and economic policies of the groups in power during the time had failed them. As economic hardships grew, many countries rejected the principles of those groups which were failing to deliver economic peace and prosperity. The failure of socialist governments to stabilize the economy on top of their failure to come together with leftist allies was a big cause in the rise of right-wing regimes and dictatorships in Europe at the time. Political warfare was raging in Germany and the rest of Europe.

Many Germans could not believe that they had lost the war and felt betrayed by their civilian politicians. The German commanders had never surrendered to the Allied commanders and many Germans felt as if they lost the war because of the civilian politicians. The economic instability in Germany following World War One had a great impact of the changing face of popular politics in that country. Liberals, socialists, communists and Jews were often viewed as the betrayers of the German people. Due to the War Guilt Clause, Germany was forced to pay reparations totaling 132 billion gold marks to the Allies (Winks & Adams p. 137). Politicians on the right were convinced that they should reject the bill for reparations, but the leftist Weimar politicians, who came to power following the war, feared the threat of invasion, which was justified after the invasion of the Ruhr by the French. Rising inflation and economic instability provided a back and forth in German politics between right and left politicians.

For a time, right before the depression hit, it seemed that German economic recovery might actually happen. Reparations under the Dawes Plan and the Young Plan were drastically reduced allowing Germany to regain some economic stability. The Nazis suffered losses in Reichstag seats during this brief period of economic stability, but it wasn’t going to last long. Once America started feeling the effects of the depression, they stopped investing money in the German economy. This caused the German economy to stagnate once again. Both the left and the right gained supporters once the depression was felt. While some workers were cushioned initially by workers insurance, lower-middle-class people didn’t have that to fall back on. The Nazis advocacy of economic nationalism and centralized state planning attracted many of the desperate workers. Hitler and the Nazis also eventually won support of the coal and steel magnates, which provided a large boost of support (Winks & Adams pg. 145).

Hitler and the aging president Hindenburg were the front-running candidates for the presidency in the elections of 1932. After a close race and a re-vote, Hindenburg won the presidency. It wasn’t until chancellor Papen stepped down from his position that Hitler was left as the only candidate with public support to take over the chancellorship. Shortly thereafter, Hitler dissolved the Reichstag, and fire broke out in the Reichstag building. Blame was placed on the communists, and after the elections on March 5th, communist winners were denied their seats (Wink & Adams p. 146). The Nazis now held a vast majority of votes in the Reichstag. Shortly thereafter, Hitler was in complete control of Germany. Herein lies another example of how a war of politics was raging in Germany after World War One. The political warfare that took place in Germany gave rise to Hitler and the Nazis. There was political warfare raging in other European countries as well.

Spain had it’s fair share of political warfare. After a decline of the Spanish influence abroad and little in the way of agricultural and industrial development, the Spaniards started to seek change by way of revolution. Several political groups all had their influence on Spain after World War One. Spain had a large Anarchist movement, which sought to completely overthrow the government and the church. There was also a large Marxist Socialist party that had great influence over industrial unions and labor. Spain became a republic after a parliamentary socialist victory in 1931, and the King of Spain fled the country and was forbidden to return.

After a new Spanish constitution was drafted, the right leaning politicians consisting of land owners and the church weakened the new republic with the threat of civil war. The socialists also had to worry about the anarchists whose support they did not have. There were many anarchist uprisings during that time which swayed public opinion to the right leaning politicians. In the few years following, there continued to be a back and forth of public support between the right and the left.

Civil war broke out in 1936 between the right-leaning party named the Falange, under the leadership of the Minister of War Francisco Franco, and the left-leaning political parties of the republicans, socialists and the anarchists. Aided by the Germans and Italians, Franco’s forces defeated the leftist forces in 1939. The Spanish Civil war is another example of how the period between World War One and World War Two was marred in political and physical warfare.

It is interesting to note that while the previously mentioned European countries (Germany and Italy) had been living under democratic regimes, Spain’s civil war developed while being ruled under a monarchy. Germany and Italy had been unfulfilled by democracy and capitalism, but no such hatred towards democracy could have been experienced by the Spanish directly. This is because they never truly lived under a democratic system. Mussolini describes the advantage of fascism and the right in that it “…denies, in democracy, the absur[d] conventional untruth of political equality dressed out in the garb of collective irresponsibility, and the myth of “happiness” and indefinite progress…,” (Mussolini – http://www.fordham.edu). The influence of Germany and Italy on the Falange and the right-leaning politics must have played a huge part in shaping the conscious thought concerning the perils of democracy. “The shootings were often motivated by revenge or were murders of supporters of the fascist coup i.e. those who desired to create a totalitarian regime in Spain like those in Italy and Germany,” (McKay – http://www.spunk.org). The perils that existed in Germany and Italy must have been enough to disillusion the Spanish from even attempting a democratic form of government. As such, the eventual success of Hitler and Mussolini must have played an important part in shaping the outcome of Spain’s political future as well.

In this paper we have seen how the years following World War One were anything but peaceful. Social, economic and political upheavals were happening in France, Italy, Germany and Spain as well as most other European countries. These upheavals led to fanatical regimes in most of the countries of Europe. Although, warfare stopped for the most part between foreign states, political and domestic warfare continued all over Europe. We’ve seen that those countries never truly stopped fighting after the First World War.

About Matthew Schroder

There is no shortage of science fiction reading here. No lack of appreciation for beards, love of coffee or obsession over blueberries.