Tuesday, August 26, 2014

(1919-1934) European Political Problems - World History

The end of the Great War was supposed to usher in an age of peace and disarmament, but the conflict had undermined economic stability, opened up the threat of communist revolt and left a generation of veterans alienated from parliamentary politics. The slump of 1929 left European capitalism in deep crisis and opened the way to political extremism.

IN 1919 THE POLITICAL map of Europe was transformed. The defeat of the German and Austro-Hungarian empires in 1918 (and the collapse of the Tsarist system in Russia the year before) brought to an end the long period of dynastic empires that had dominated central and eastern Europe. The Victorious Allies met at Versailles in January 1919 to try to replace the imperial regimes with a system of independent states. 

The Allies brought with them conflicting ambitions: the American president, Woodrow Wilson, hoped to broker a peace that would end war for ever and establish a liberal, democratic Europe of national states; the French wanted to punish Germany and prevent her revival; Italy, Serbia and Romania sought territorial concessions. The outcome was a messy compromise. Weak new democratic states were created, based loosely on the principle of national self-determination, but the defeated countries were heavily penalized and their national territories dismembered. The political instability of the post-war years can be traced back to the bitter legacy imposed by the peace settlement.

The settlement itself took four years to complete. New states were created: Finland, Estonia, Lithuania freed themselves from Russian rule; a Polish state was reconstituted after a bitter conflict with the new Soviet armies in the east and with German nationalist militia in the west; Czechoslovakia was carved out of northern territories of the Habsburg empire, and Yugoslavia was created. The defeated powers were forced to relinquish territory, to pay substantial reparations and to disarm. The German army was reduced to a mere 100,000 men, the Austrian forces to 30,000 and the Hungarian to 35,000.

The League of Nations

Europe was now dominated by France, the most heavily armed state in the world in the 1920s. She played a key role with Britain in running the League of Nations, which was established in 1920 as a forum for the conduct of international politics on peaceful lines. The French aim was to find a system of “collective security” which could protect her from any revival of German power. In 1926 Germany was admitted to the League and in 1928 the Kellogg-Briand Pact was signed in Paris by all the powers, committing them to the settlement of disputes without resort to war. 

The collective system was a superficial one. The League had no agreed procedures for enforcing settlement and no military back-up. The Soviet Union did not join until 1934, and the United States refused to join at all. The expectation that Europe would embrace democracy as a foundation for collaboration soon evaporated. Economic crisis and bitter social conflict, engendered by the rise of socialism and the revolutionary activity of European communists, could not be contained within weak parliamentary systems by liberal politicians often quite out of touch with popular social and nationalist agitation. Between 1922 and 1926 democracy was torn up in Italy by Mussolini and the Fascist party; Spain had military rule imposed in 1923 by Primo de Rivera and, after a brief republican interlude between 1931 and 1936, the army imposed Franco’s dictatorship. In Poland, Austria, the Baltic states, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Romania, Greece and Bulgaria, democracy was eventually suspended and nationalist regimes installed based on royal dictatorship, military coup or single-party rule.

Even in the victor powers democracy was challenged. In Ireland a bloody civil war led to the creation of an independent Irish state and the break up of the Anglo-Irish Union. In 1926 a General Strike provoked sharp social conflict in Britain. In France conflicts between right and left led to growing violence, which culminated in the storming of the French parliament in 1934 and the overthrow of the government. Yet democracy survived in both states despite the noisy agitation of right and left. 

The rise of Hitler

In Germany democracy was overcome by extremism. Despite efforts to make the new system work through coalition rule, the slump of 1929, which hit Germany harder than anywhere else, created an economic catastrophe that the government was powerless to ameliorate. German society was politically polarized. Communist support doubled, but millions of Germans turned to Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party with its promise of a New Order, neither socialist nor parliamentary. Hitler was committed to overturning Versailles, and his appointment as German chancellor in January 1933 challenged not only the German peace settlement but the whole system set up across Europe in 1919-20. Hitler emboldened radical nationalists and irredentist s everywhere who rejected liberalism and collective security in favour of dictatorship and the violent revision of the peace treaties.

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