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Between the wars – 
failure of the young democracies

Spotlights on the history of Europe in the twentieth century

© picture-alliance/akg-images - War

Fascism in Italy


Italy was actually among the winners of the First World War. But nationalists there were angry about the spoiled victory”. Italy had, in fact, been promised large swaths of territory to the north and northeast of the parliamentary kingdom, and the country thus entered the war in 1915 with sweeping territorial goals that later went unfulfilled. The first postwar years were marked by social unrest, strikes, factory occupations and land grabs. The middle classes feared the spectre of Bolshevism, against which the newly formed Fascist movement declared a crusade. The brutal 
attacks of its paramilitary units, which met with no response by the government, led to the deaths of thousands 
of Socialists.

The Fascist leader Benito Mussolini staged a March on Rome in October 1922. Faced with this show of force and intimidation, the Italian king appointed Mussolini as Prime Minister. Mussolini initially created a coalition government, which received support from the old military, economic and civil-service elites. 
A transition to dictatorship then occurred in 1925. It was based on the power monopoly of the Fascist party, the abol­i­tion of a governmental separation of powers, permanent mass mobilisation and the elimination of political foes by the Fascist police. But unlike the rule of the Nazis, Mussolini’s power was restricted by the authority of the king and the Roman Catholic Church as well as by the independence of the military.

The challenge of the Great Depression


The most fateful stock-market crash in history took place in New York City on 24 October 1929. Black Thursday marked, in fact, the beginning of a worldwide economic crisis. Banks became insolvent and American credit was rapidly withdrawn from Europe. The economy collapsed in the industrialised countries and, within a few weeks, the unemployment rate jumped to an average of 25%.

That marked the end of the “golden twenties”, a postwar boom that had largely been funded on credit. Political instability and radicalisation appeared in almost all parts of Europe. Yet, the parliamentary democracies in the United Kingdom and France proved resilient. It was the older industrial regions that suffered most in the United Kingdom during the crisis: the number of 
unemployed rose there to nearly 3 million. People took to the streets, conducting hunger marches in protest. But despite all of the domestic conflicts and economic controversies, political groups, as well as management and labour, were still able to cooperate during the crisis. The Government’s refusal to radically reduce social benefits kept radical tendencies in check.

The crisis was less serious in France, a heavily agrarian country. But even there 1 million people were soon unemployed. Extreme right-wing leagues challenged the authority of the French Fourth Republic. The social reforms introduced by the Popular Front in 1936 became politically explosive and eventually led to its collapse.

The French republic nevertheless stabilised itself again in 1938 under the bourgeois government of Édouard Daladier.

The failure of democracy in Germany


Germany seemed to be on a promising path during the second half of the 1920s. Although hyperinflation and attempted insurrections by the Left and Right shook the country in 1923, the years 1924-28 suggested a return to normality. But when the Great Depression reached Europe at the end of the decade, the weaknesses of the German democratic state became obvious. Bourgeois liberalism was severely battered, conservatives displayed no loyalty to the republic, and the vast majority of employers increasingly stoked social conflict. On 27 March 1930, the last parliamentary government, a grand coalition led by the Social Democrats, failed. In its place came a presidential system based on emergency decrees. The surging army of unemployed, which reached 6 million by 1933, as well as the radical deflationary and austerity policies of the government led by Heinrich Brüning of the Catholic Centre Party (and tolerated by the oppositional SPD), made the Communists and National Socialists extremely popular. After the parliamentary elections of July 1932, the Nazis (with 37.4%) and the Communists (14.5%) enjoyed an anti-democratic majority in the Reichstag.

The almost daily street battles between National Socialists, Communists and the police created an atmosphere reminiscent of civil war. Adolf Hitler instigated this situation but at the same time presented himself as a saviour who could fend off the “Red menace”. His calculations bore fruit on 30 January 1933, when President Hindenburg appointed him Chancellor.

The National Socialists in power


The expectations of the conservatives who hoped to tame Hitler by giving him governmental responsibility were not fulfilled. In fact, the rapid build-up of a totalitarian dictatorship was accomplished by the end of 1933. Police and Nazi storm­troopers hunted down members of the opposition after the Reichs­tag fire, which took place on the night of 28 February. The German Communist Party (KPD) was subsequently smashed. In 1933 alone, more than 100,000 people were arrested and frequently sent to newly opened concentration camps. With 43.9% of the vote, the Nazi Party improved its performance in the election of 5 March, but failed to achieve an outright majority. Nonetheless, the “brown” authorities managed to bring the German states into line and conquer local city halls. Only the SPD voted against the Enabling Act of 23 March, which amounted to a self-emasculation of the Reichs­tag. The dep­uties of the KPD, which had already been banned, could not exercise their votes. 
After the SPD was banned on 22 June, the middle-class parties decided to dissolve themselves. The unions had already 
been smashed, and the German Workers Front (DAF) was established on 10 May, soon to become the largest Nazi “mass organisation” with roughly 25 million members. Hitler also assumed the office of 
President following the death of Hindenburg on 2 August 1934. In the so-called Röhm Putsch, he disposed of his foes in 
the party by murdering them for political reasons. Following Hindenburg’s death, 
he had the army take an oath of allegiance to his person. The “Führer state”, which now brooked no further opposition, was firmly established.

On the road to a new war


From the very beginning Hitler wanted to undermine the Versailles Treaty and carry out a war of conquest in the East to gain “living space”. Germany left the League of Nations in 1934 and – in contravention of the Versailles Treaty – introduced universal conscription in 1935. A year later the German army advanced into the demilitarised Rhineland – once again in contravention of international treaties. Paris and London responded to the developments with weak protests, which only encouraged Hitler. When General Franco staged a putsch against the democratically elected government in Spain, only the democratic states complied with the agreed policy of non-intervention. Hitler and Mussolini openly fought on the side of the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War and, at the same time, established the Berlin-Rome Axis. The Western states only responded with restraint to the Austrian “Anschluss” in March 1938, because the guiding principle at the time was “appeasement”. The French and British governments believed they were safeguarding peace in Europe by signing the Munich Agreement of September 1938 and by accepting the incorporation of the Sudetenland into the Germany – thus abandoning Czechoslovakia.

The Soviet Union found itself isolated and sought an alliance with its ideological arch enemy. With the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 23 August 1939, Berlin and Moscow agreed on the joint dissol­ution of Poland and the Baltic states. The rapprochement between the two dictators paved the path to war.

Second World War


The German Wehrmacht attacked Poland on 1 September 1939. The United Kingdom and France responded by declaring war on Germany. As pre­viously agreed, the Soviet Union first 
occupied eastern Poland and then the 
Baltic states. In 1940 the Wehrmacht 
occupied Denmark and Norway, overran France, and marched into Paris on 14 June 1940. France laid down its arms on 
22 June and had to accept the division of the country into two parts. The northwest part of France was subject to German military authority. The Vichy government under Marshal Philippe Pétain ruled the unoccupied zone under German tutelage, until German troops marched in there too in 1942. The international norms governing occupation were soon violated, as in cases involving the shooting of hostages following assassinations by the French résistance.

The carting off of forced labourers to Germany led to a radicalisation of the partisan and resistance movement: 20,000 French lost their lives in the résistance. The war widened into a global conflict at the close of 1941 after Japan attacked the USA by bombing Pearl Harbor. Several days later Berlin and Rome, which had entered into a tripartite pact with Tokyo in 1940, declared war on the USA. German troops fought in North Africa from 1941, and then advanced eastward, at first seemingly relentlessly, following the invasion of the Soviet Union. The Japanese advance in the Pacific war zone also appeared practically unstoppable.

War of extermination in the East


The German campaign in Poland already displayed signs of being an ideological racial war of extermination. After first being subject to the violent policies 
of Hitler and Stalin, more than 6 million Poles lost their lives during the German occupation. Half of them were Jews murdered in the Holocaust. The invasion 
of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 was aimed from the very beginning at the acquisition of new living space for the German “master race”, and at the economic exploitation of East European “subhumans” through forced labour. The Soviet Union would suffer 27 million dead – of whom 18 million were civilians – until it 
finally repulsed the attack and then advanced all the way to Berlin to end the war in the spring of 1945. Hunger was one of the sharpest weapons in the German war of extermination. More than 3 million Soviet soldiers died of undernourishment in German prisoner-of-war camps. Almost 1 million people died of hunger during the 900-day German siege of Leningrad alone. In addition, not only Red Army 
political commissars were subjected to summary execution when they were captured; countless civilians were also killed in acts of retribution. When the war in 
the East was lost following the Battle of Stalingrad, the German Wehrmacht pursued a “scorched earth” policy during 
its subsequent retreat. The suppression of the Warsaw Uprising and the destruction of the city by the SS and the Wehrmacht in August 1944 – something the Red Army allowed to take place – became the murderous finale of the brutal war of extermination in the East.

The persecution and murder of European Jews


Antisemitism and racism became official state doctrine after Hitler’s takeover. German Jews were banned from certain occupations and professions; business owners were publicly 
vilified and tormented by boycotts. The Nuremberg Racial Laws of 1935 extended their disenfranchisement even further. Antisemitism turned into a first orgy of violence on 9 November 1938. During the November pogrom, members of the SS and SA set synagogues aflame and plundered shops and apartments. 
Tens of thousands of Jews were thrown into concentration camps and severely mistreated; several hundred were killed. Shortly thereafter, the Regulation for the Elimination of Jews from Ec­o­nomic Life forcibly brought about the compulsory Aryanisation of Jewish property. Approximately 250,000 German Jews were able to emigrate in the 1930s. But by late 1939, 190,000 had still not wanted to – or could not – leave their native country. The Holocaust became a Europe-wide phenomenon following the 
occupation of Poland. Polish Jews were herded together into 
ghettos; thousands were arbitrarily shot. The German invasion of the Soviet Union marked the beginning of a systematic genocide. As police and SS battalions began to massacre hundreds of thousands of Jews, with the support of the Wehrmacht, the SS made preparations for industrialised mass murder. The state apparatus became officially involved in the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” at the Wannsee Conference of 20 January 1942. An unprecedented programme of death was carried out at 
the extermination camps of Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka and Ausch­witz-Birkenau. A total of at least 6 million European 
Jews were murdered.

Resistance to National Socialism


Very few people put up any resis­tance to the Nazi regime. The working-class uprising long hoped for by Social Democrats and Communists failed to materialise, and the illegal groups that they formed in 1933 were soon smashed. Hitler’s successes won him the almost complete approval of the “German people’s community.” New forms of opposition first arose with the spectre of war. A 1938 conspiracy by military officers who wanted to stop Hitler’s war preparations failed after his triumph at the Munich Conference. On 8 November 1939, it was only by chance that the dictator avoided a bomb attack organised by the German carpenter Georg Elser. The Red Orchestra, a communist underground group, warned Moscow in vain about the impending German invasion of the Soviet Union. While members of the opposition remained isolated in Germany, the situation was different in the countries occupied by German forces: collaboration was certainly a part of everyday life there, yet some form of resistance movement appeared almost everywhere, challenging the occupiers with civil disobedience and eventually even arms. The resistance of the Danes and the Dutch to the deportation of their Jewish compatriots, the struggle of the partisans in France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece and the Soviet Union, the opposition in Czechoslovakia, and especially the efforts of the Polish Home Army and the inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto all became part of Europe’s fight for liberty – as did the failed assassin­ation attempt against Hitler on 20 July 1944, which, if successful, could have ended the war. What was needed to bring Germany to its knees was an external alliance of un­equal partners: the Soviet Union in the East and the USA and the UK in the West.

The end of the war and a new order


The Second World War ended in Germany on 8 May 1945. The awful number of dead in Europe had reached a staggering 45 million. The guns also fell silent in the Pacific on 
15 August, after the USA had destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic weapons. The victorious powers took over governmental control in Germany, which was divided into four zones of occupation. Their goal was lasting security against a future German threat, which was to be achieved through demilitar­isation and decentralisation as well as the denazification and democratisation of its populace. The Allies had already divided up spheres of influence amongst themselves at the Yalta Conference of February 1945, where large sections of Eastern 
Europe were promised to the Soviet Union. At the Potsdam Conference of July 1945, they agreed to set up homogenous 
nation-states in east-central Europe. East Prussia became part of the USSR in the north, whereas Poland was, with a stroke of a pen, shifted westward to the Oder and Neisse rivers.

The Potsdam Agreement allowed for the “transfer“ of the ethnic German population from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary in an “orderly and humane manner”. But things looked different in practice for the 12.5 million Germans affected by evacuation, flight and eventually expulsion beginning in 1944. The geopolitical and ideological differences between the democratically constituted West and the Communist Soviet Union emerged soon afterwards. The burgeoning East-West confrontation promoted the integration of Western Europe, which would include the Federal Republic of Germany in the 1950s.

Democracy in the West, 
dictatorship in the East


The growing chasm between the Soviet Union and the West became obvious in 1947. President Harry Truman promised support to all “free peoples” in their struggle against “totalitarianism”. 
At the same time Washington announced the Marshall Plan, which was intended 
to promote European reconstruction. 
The United States did not withdraw from Europe, as it had done after the First World War. Stalin upheld the rudiments of political plurality up to that point, but the Sovietisation of his power domain began in earnest in 1948. Com­munist party rule and economic planning were rigorously carried out. Every sign 
of opposition was persecuted, as were the churches. Armed resistance, which flared up in Poland, Romania and Ukraine after 1945, was brutally put down. Show trials produced an atmosphere of permanent terror.

An “Iron Curtain” descended on Europe that divided not just the continent but 
also Germany and Berlin. From their 
foundation, both German states were inte­g­rated into their respective political and economic systems. Whereas the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was a dictatorship from the very beginning, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) achieved legit­imacy through free elections. As almost everywhere else in Western Europe, a parliamentary democracy developed there that won more and more popular approval thanks to an economic upturn and the creation of a comprehensive state welfare 
system. Unlike the interwar period, polit­ical conflict moved from the streets to parliament, where opposing political camps were able to form governing coalitions.


© „Diktatur und Demokratie im ­Zeitalter der Extreme“, Bundesstiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur