Chapter 26 - Europe Between the Wars, 1919-1939

The Democratic States in the West

FOCUS QUESTIONS: How did France, Great Britain, and the United States respond to the various crises, including the Great Depression, that they faced in the interwar years? How did World War I affect Europe’s colonies in Asia and Africa?

Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that World War I had been fought to make the world safe for democracy, and in 1919, there seemed to be some justification for that claim. Four major European states and a host of minor ones had functioning political democracies. In a number of nations, universal male suffrage had even been replaced by universal suffrage as male politicians rewarded women for their contributions to World War I by granting them the right to vote (except in Italy, France, and Spain, where women had to wait until the end of World War II). Women also began to enter political life as deputies to parliamentary bodies. In the new German republic, for example, almost 10 percent of the deputies elected to the Reichstag in 1919 were women, although the number dropped to 6 percent by 1926.

Great Britain

After World War I, Great Britain went through a period of painful readjustment and serious economic difficulties. During the war, Britain had lost many of the markets for its industrial products, especially to the United States and Japan. The postwar decline of such staple industries as coal, steel, and textiles led to a rise in unemployment, which reached the 2 million mark in 1921. The continuing wartime coalition government led by Liberal David Lloyd George proved unable to change this situation.

By 1923, British politics experienced a major transformation when the Labour Party surged ahead of the Liberals as the second most powerful party in Britain after the Conservatives. In fact, after the elections of November 1923, a Labour-Liberal agreement enabled Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937) to become the first Labour prime minister of Britain. Dependent on Liberal support, MacDonald rejected any extreme social or economic experimentation. His government lasted only ten months, however, as the Conservative Party’s charge that his administration was friendly toward communism proved to be a highly successful campaign tactic.

Under Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947) as prime minister, the Conservatives guided Britain during an era of recovery from 1925 to 1929. This recovery, however, was relatively superficial. British exports in the 1920s never compensated for the overseas investments lost during the war, and unemployment remained at a startling 10 percent level. Coal miners suffered especially as the antiquated and inefficient British coal mines were hard-hit by a world glut of coal. Attempts by mine owners to lower coal miners’ wages led to a national strike (the General Strike of 1926) by miners and sympathetic trade unions. A compromise settled the strike, but many miners refused to accept the settlement and were eventually forced back to work at lower wages for longer hours.

In 1929, just as the Great Depression was beginning, a second Labour government came into power, but it failed to solve the nation’s economic problems and fell in 1931. A National Government (a coalition of Liberals and Conservatives) claimed credit for bringing Britain out of the worst stages of the depression, primarily by using the traditional policies of balanced budgets and protective tariffs. By 1936, unemployment had dropped to 1.6 million after reaching a depression high of 3 million in 1932.

British politicians largely ignored the new ideas of a Cambridge economist, John Maynard Keynes (KAYNZ) (1883-1946), who published his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money in 1936. He condemned the traditional view that in a free economy, depressions should be left to work themselves out. Instead, Keynes argued that unemployment stemmed not from overproduction but from a decline in demand and that demand could be increased by public works, financed, if necessary, by deficit spending to stimulate production.


After the defeat of Germany, France had become the strongest power on the European continent. Its greatest need was to rebuild the devastated areas of northern and eastern France. But no French government seemed capable of solving France’s financial problems between 1921 and 1926. Like other European countries, though, France did experience a period of relative prosperity between 1926 and 1929.

France began to feel the full effects of the Great Depression in 1932, and that economic instability soon had political repercussions. During a nineteen-month period in 1932 and 1933, six different cabinets were formed as France faced political chaos. During the same time, French right-wing groups, espousing policies similar to those of the Fascists in Italy and the Nazis in Germany, marched through the streets in numerous demonstrations. Riots in February 1934, fomented by a number of right-wing leagues, frightened many into believing that the extremists intended to seize power. These fears began to drive the French leftist parties together despite their differences and led in 1936 to the formation of the Popular Front.

The first Popular Front government was formed in June 1936 and was a coalition of the two French leftist parties, the Socialists and the Radicals. These parties shared a belief in antimilitarism, anticlericalism, and the importance of education. But despite their name, the Radicals were a democratic party of small property owners, whereas the Socialists were nominally committed to Marxist socialism. The Socialist leader, Leon Blum (LAY-ohnh BLOOM) (1872-1950), served as prime minister. The Popular Front succeeded in initiating a program for workers that some have called the French New Deal. It established the right of collective bargaining, a forty-hour workweek, two-week paid vacations, and minimum wages. The Popular Front’s policies failed to solve the problems of the depression, however. By 1938, the French were experiencing a serious decline of confidence in their political system that left them unprepared to deal with their aggressive Nazi enemy to the east.

The Scandinavian States

The Scandinavian states were particularly successful in coping with the Great Depression. Socialist parties had grown steadily in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and between the wars, they came to head the governments of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland. These Social Democratic governments encouraged the development of rural and industrial cooperative enterprises. Ninety percent of the Danish milk industry, for example, was organized on a cooperative basis by 1933. Privately owned and managed, Scandinavian cooperatives seemed to avoid the pitfalls of either Communist or purely capitalist economic systems.

Social Democratic governments also greatly expanded social services. Not only did Scandinavian governments increase old-age pensions and unemployment insurance, but they also provided such novel forms of assistance as subsidized housing, free prenatal care, maternity allowances, and annual paid vacations for workers. To achieve their social welfare states, the Scandinavian governments required high taxes and large bureaucracies, but these did not prevent both private and cooperative enterprises from prospering. Indeed, between 1900 and 1939, Sweden experienced a greater rise in real wages than any other European country.

The United States

After Germany, no Western nation was more affected by the Great Depression than the United States. By the end of 1932, industrial production was down almost 50 percent. By 1933, there were 15 million unemployed. Under these circumstances, the Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) won the 1932 presidential election by a landslide.

Roosevelt and his advisers pursued a policy of active government intervention in the economy that came to be known as the New Deal. The first New Deal created a variety of agencies designed to bring relief, recovery, and reform. To support the nation’s banks, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation was established; it insured the safety of bank deposits up to $5,000. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration provided funds to help states and local communities meet the needs of the destitute and the homeless. The Civilian Conservation Corps employed more than 2 million people on reforestation projects and federal road and conservation projects.

By 1935, it was becoming apparent that the initial efforts of Roosevelt’s administration had produced only a slow recovery at best. As his policies came under increasing criticism by people who advocated more radical change, Roosevelt inaugurated new efforts that collectively became known as the Second New Deal. These included a stepped-up program of public works, such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), established in 1935. This government organization employed between 2 and 3 million people who worked at building bridges, roads, post offices, and airports. The Roosevelt administration was also responsible for social legislation that launched the American welfare state. In 1935, the Social Security Act created a system of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 encouraged the rapid growth of labor unions. The New Deal provided some social reform measures that perhaps averted the possibility of social revolution in the United States. It did not, however, solve the unemployment problems of the Great Depression. After partial recovery between 1933 and 1937, the economy experienced another downturn during the winter of 1937-1938. In May 1937, American unemployment still stood at 7 million; by the following year, it had increased to 11 million. Only World War II and the subsequent growth of armaments industries brought American workers back to full employment.

European States and the World: The Colonial Empires

World War I and the Great Depression also had an impact on Europe’s colonial empires. Despite the war, the Allied nations had managed to hold on to their colonial empires. Great Britain and France had even added to their empires by dividing up many of Germany’s colonial possessions and, as we have seen, taking control of large parts of the Middle East through a system of mandates. In the years after the war, however, a rising tide of unrest against European political domination began to emerge in Asia and Africa and led to movements for change.

THE MIDDLE EAST For the countries of the Middle East, the period between the two world wars was a time of transition. With the fall of the Ottoman and Persian empires, new modernizing regimes emerged in Turkey and Iran. A fiercely independent government was established in Saudi Arabia in 1932. Iraq, too, gained its independence from Britain in the same year. Elsewhere in the Middle East, however, European influence remained strong as the British and French maintained their mandates in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine.

Although Britain and France had made plans to divide up Ottoman territories in the Middle East, General Mustafa Kemal (MOOS-tah-fah kuh-MAHL) (1881-1938) led Turkish forces in creating a new republic of Turkey in 1923 . Kemal wanted to modernize Turkey along Western lines. The trappings of a democratic system were put in place, although the new president did not tolerate opposition. In addition to introducing a state-run industrial system, Kemal also westernized Turkish culture. The Latin alphabet was now used in writing the Turkish language. Popular education was introduced, and old aristocratic titles were abolished. All Turkish citizens were forced to adopt family names, in the European style; Kemal himself adopted the name Ataturk (ah-tah-TIRK), meaning “Father Turk.” Ataturk made Turkey a secular republic and broke the power of the Islamic religion. New laws gave women equal rights with men in all aspects of marriage and inheritance, and in 1934, women received the right to vote. Education and the professions were now open to citizens of both sexes. By and large, the Turkish republic was the product of Ataturk s determined efforts to use nationalism and Western ways to create a modern Turkish nation.

INDIA By the time of World War I, the Indian people had already begun to refer to Mohandas Gandhi (moh-HAHN-dus GAHN-dee) as India’s “Great Soul,” or Mahatma (mah-HAHT-muh). Gandhi (1869-1948) began a movement based on nonviolent resistance whose aim was to force the British to improve the lot of the poor and grant independence to India. When the British tried to suppress Indian calls for independence, Gandhi urged his followers to follow a peaceful policy of civil disobedience by refusing to obey British regulations. Gandhi also began to manufacture his own clothes and dressed in a simple dhoti (DOH-tee) or loincloth made of coarse homespun cotton. He adopted the spinning wheel as a symbol of India’s resistance to imports of British textiles.

Although the British resisted Gandhi’s movement, in 1935 they granted India internal self-government to be implemented gradually. Legislative councils at the local level were enlarged and given responsibility for education, local affairs, and public health, and Indian participation in government slowly increased. Responsibility for law and order, land revenue, and famine relief remained under the control of the British, however. Complete independence would have to wait until after World War II.

AFRICA Black Africans who fought in World War I in the armies of the British and the French hoped for independence after the war. As one newspaper in the Gold Coast put it, if African volunteers who fought on European battlefields were “good enough to fight and die in the Empire’s cause, they were good enough to have a share in the government of their countries.” Many shared this feeling. The peace settlement after World War I turned out be a great disappointment. It stripped Germany of its African colonies and awarded them to the British and the French to administer as mandates for the League of Nations.

After World War I, Africans became more active politically. Africans who had fought in the war had learned new ideas in the West about freedom and nationalism. Even in Africa itself, missionary schools had often taught their African pupils about liberty and equality. As more Africans became aware of the enormous gulf between Western ideals and practices, they decided to seek reform. As yet independence remained only a dream.

Protest took different forms. In Nigeria and South Africa, workers organized trade unions that tried to gain benefits for workers. But there were also incidents of violent protest. In British Nigeria in 1929, a group of women protested the high taxes that were levied on the goods they were selling in the markets. During the riot that ensued, women called for all white men to leave their country. The British crushed the riot, killing fifty women in the process. Although colonial powers responded to these protest movements with force, they also began to make some reforms in the hope of satisfying the indigenous peoples. The reforms, however, were too few and too late, and by the 1930s, an increasing number of African leaders were calling for independence, not reform.

The clearest calls came from a new generation of young African leaders who had been educated in Europe and the United States. Those who went to the United States were especially influenced by the pan-African ideas of W.E.B. Du Bois (doo-BOISS) (1868-1963) and Marcus Garvey (1887-1940). Du Bois, an African American educated at Harvard, was the leader of a movement that tried to make all Africans aware of their own cultural heritage. Garvey, a Jamaican who lived in Harlem in New York, also stressed the need for the unity of all Africans. Leaders and movements also appeared in individual African nations. In his book Facing Mount Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta (JOH-moh ken-YAHT-uh) (1894-1978) of Kenya, who had been educated in Great Britain, argued that British rule was destroying the traditional culture of the peoples of black Africa.

Next Reading: 26-3 The Authoritarian and Totalitarian States