Chapter 26 - Europe Between the Wars, 1919-1939

The Authoritarian and Totalitarian States

Authoritarianism in Eastern Europe

A number of other states in Europe had conservative authoritarian governments that adopted some of the trappings of states like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, especially their wide police powers, but for these states, the greatest concern was not the creation of a mass movement aimed at establishing a new kind of society but rather the defense of the existing social order. Consequently, the authoritarian state tended to limit the participation of the masses and was content with passive obedience rather than active involvement in the goals of the regime. A number of states in eastern Europe adopted this kind of authoritarian government.

Nowhere had the map of Europe been more drastically altered by World War I than in eastern Europe. The new states of Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia adopted parliamentary systems, and the preexisting kingdoms of Romania and Bulgaria gained new parliamentary constitutions in 1920. Greece became a republic in 1924. Hungary’s government was parliamentary in form but was controlled by its landed aristocrats. At the beginning of the1920s, political democracy seemed well established, but almost everywhere in eastern Europe, parliamentary governments soon gave way to authoritarian regimes.

Several problems helped create this situation. Eastern European states had little tradition of liberalism or parliamentary politics and no substantial middle class to support them. Then, too, these states were largely rural and agrarian. Large landowners who feared the growth of agrarian peasant parties with their schemes for land redistribution still controlled much of the land. Ethnic conflicts also threatened to tear these countries apart. Fearful of land reform, Communist agrarian upheaval, and ethnic conflict, powerful landowners, the churches, and even some members of the small middle class looked to authoritarian governments to maintain the old system.

Already in the 1920s, some eastern European states began to move away from political democracy toward authoritarian structures. A military coup d’etat established an authoritarian regime in Bulgaria in 1923. Poland established an authoritarian regime in 1926 when Marshal Joseph Pilsudski (peel-SOOT-skee) (1867-1935) created a military dictatorship. In Yugoslavia, King Alexander I (1921-1934) abolished the constirution and imposed a royal dictatorship in 1929. During the 1930s, all of the remaining parliamentary regimes except Czechoslovakia succumbed to authoritarianism. Eastern European states were increasingly attracted to the authoritarian examples of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

Although Admiral Miklos Horthy (MIK-lohsh HOR-tee) (1868-1957) had ruled Hungary as “regent” since 1919, the appointment of Julius Gombos (GUM-buhsh) (1886-1936) as prime minister in 1932 brought Hungary even closer to Italy and Germany. Romania witnessed the development of a strong fascist movement led by Corneliu Codreanu (kor-NELL-yoo kaw-dree-AH-noo) (1899-1938). Known as the Legion of the Archangel Michael, it possessed its own paramilitary squad called the Iron Guard. As Codreanu’s fascist movement grew and became Romania’s third largest political party, King Carol II (1930-1940) responded in 1938 by ending parliamentary rule, crushing the leadership of the legion, and imposing authoritarian rule. In Greece, General Ioannis Metaxas (yah-AH-nees muh-tahk-SAHSS) (1871-1941) imposed a dictatorship in 1936.

Only Czechoslovakia, with its substantial middle class, liberal tradition, and strong industrial base, maintained its political democracy. Thomas Masaryk (MAS-uh-rik) (1850-1937), an able and fair leader who served as president from 1918 to 1935, was able to maintain an uneasy but stable alliance of reformist socialists, agrarians, and Catholics.

Dictatorship in the Iberian Peninsula

Parliamentary regimes also failed to survive in both Spain and Portugal. Both countries were largely agrarian, illiterate, and dominated by powerful landlords and Catholic clergy.

Spain’s parliamentary monarchy was unable to deal with the social tensions generated by the industrial boom and inflation that accompanied World War I. Supported by King Alfonso XIII (1886-1931), General Miguel Primo de Rivera (PREE-moh day ri-VAY-ruh) (1870-1930) led a successful military coup in September 1923 and created a personal dictatorship that lasted until 1930. But a faltering economy because of the Great Depression led to the collapse of Primo de Rivera’s regime in January 1930 as well as to a widespread lack of support for the monarchy. Alfonso XIII left Spain in 1931, and a new Spanish republic was instituted, governed by a coalition of democrats and reformist socialists. Political turmoil ensued as control of the government passed from leftists to rightists until the Popular Front, an antifascist coalition composed of democrats, socialists, Communists, and other leftist groups, took over in 1936. But the Popular Front was unacceptable to senior army officers. Led by General Francisco Franco (1892-1975), Spanish military forces revolted against the government and inaugurated a brutal and bloody civil war that lasted three years.

THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR The war split the country between left and right (see the box on p. 821). On the left were the Republicans who supported the Popular Front. They were concentrated in urban areas such as Madrid and Barcelona and favored modernization, workers’ rights, the expansion of manufacturing, a civilian army, and secularization. On the right were the Nationalists who supported Franco’s military coup, the monarchy, the military, an agrarian economy, and the Catholic Church.

The Spanish conflict was complicated by foreign intervention. In 1936, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union signed a Nonintervention Agreement, declaring that they would not provide economic or military support for either side. Germany and Italy quickly rejected the agreement, however, and sent troops, weapons, and military advisers to assist Franco. Hitler used the Spanish Civil War as an opportunity to test the new weapons of his revived air force. The devastating air attack on Guernica (GWAIR-nih-kuh or gair-NEE-kuh) on April 26, 1937, initiated a new level of brutally destructive warfare. Meanwhile, the British and French adhered to their position of nonintervention, so the Republicans turned to the Soviet Union for aid. The Soviets sent tanks, planes, and pilots. The Republicans also gained assistance from international brigades of volunteers, including the Abraham Lincoln Brigade from the United States.

Gradually, Franco’s forces wore down the Popular Front, and after they captured Madrid on March 28, 1939, the Spanish Civil War finally came to an end. The war had been a brutal one. Probably 400,000 people died in the war, only one-fourth of them on the battlefield. Civilians died from air raids, disease, and bloody reprisals by both sides against their enemies and their supporters. Another 200,000 people were executed in the years following Franco’s victory.

THE FRANCO REGIME General Franco soon established a dictatorship that lasted until his death in 1975. It was not a fascist government, although it was unlikely to oppose the Fascists in Italy or the Nazis in Germany. The fascist movement in Spain, known as the Falange (fuh-LANJ) and led by Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, son of the former dictator, contributed little to Franco’s success and played a minor role in the new regime. Franco’s government, which favored large landowners, business, and the Catholic clergy, was yet another example of a traditional, conservative, authoritarian regime.

PORTUGAL In 1910, the Portuguese had overthrown their monarchy and established a republic. Severe inflation after World War I, however, undermined support for the republic and helped intensify political instability. In 1926, a group of army officers seized power, and by the early 1930s, the military junta’s finance minister, Antonio Salazar (SAL-uh-zahr) (1889-1970), had become the strongman of the regime. Salazar controlled the Portuguese government for the next forty years.

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