The aftermath of the First World War witnessed two significant events — one was Communism in Russia and the other was democratic ideals and institutions to peoples who had not known them before. With the rise of communism, the single- party dictatorships — the hydra-headed monster — raised its ugly head in Germany, and Italy.
The aggressive nationalistic dictatorships allied together in order to defeat democratic governments. Communism declares proletariat democracy is the real democracy. Lenin suggests that “Proletarian democracy of which Soviet Government is one of the forms, has brought a development and expansion of democracy unprecedented in the world, for the vast majority of the population, for the exploited and working people.” Finally, in 1930s, individual- oriented single-party dictatorship was set up in Russia headed by Stalin. Formal opposition in Russia, Germany and Italy was next to impossible.
Interestingly, Fascism and Nazism — undemocratic and anti-liberal movements — later on became staunch antagonists of Communism. Japan, which had an imperialistic-militarist government, also disliked Soviet Russia because of her expansion towards Far East. Hence Japan extended her helping hands towards Germany and came to an alliance known as Anti-Comintern Pact and, later on, Italy joined it.
The war-battered Germany was pushed to its lowest ebb in matters of economy. No government before Stresemann was able to revive German economy. According to Gordon Craig the Weimar Republic was plagued with economic crisis. The experience of a total collapse of currency — in which the German mark depreciated from 20,000 to the dollar in January 1923 to 1,00,000 in June and five million in August — was bad enough.
Craig points out “Its normal state was crisis. Upon the political shock of the military defeat and the humiliation of the peace terms followed the harrowing experience of the inflation.” The result was that “millions of Germans who had passively accepted the transition from Empire to republic had suffered deprivations that shattered their faith in the democratic process and left them cynical and alienated.”
The conflict between the democratic and Fascist camps produced international tensions which culminated in the Second World War. The war was in part due to ideological conflicts and in part to conflicts of national interests. David Thomson points out that “democratic system of Parliamentary government” collapsed in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Austria, Yugoslavia, Poland and Lithuania by 1928. This recession in democracy, according to Thomson, took place because of three reasons.
(a) Unsettled social and economic conditions after the war;
(b) The shallow roots of the new democratic conditions, and
(c) The ineptitudes of parliamentary politicians.
But where democracy was deep-rooted, the deadly hit of the economic blizzard of 1929 shattered its foundation. The free institutions and the optimism of 1919 undermined the system of democratic government and shattered confidence in the suitability of democracy.
The combined operations of the ideological conflicts and conflicts of national interests produced a cleavage between nations and led to their alignment in rival groups. In the formation of these groups a common ideology was, no doubt, an important factor, but the most powerful incentive to join a particular alignment was supplied not so much by a common political faith as by considerations of furthering national interests.
The democratic allies determined to exploit the results of their victory at the cost of the vanquished — which was extremely unethical — creating a situation which produced fulmination by the parties hit by war. Germany, in particular, took it very seriously. To them, status quo was not peace, but a slave treaty.
The whole matter of Versailles Treaty offended and hurt German national sentiment to such an extent that it was pretty easy for Hitler to exploit the unfulfilled and injured German nationalism. In Italy, an authoritarian government was set up by Mussolini and, until 1929; it was able to develop the country giving efficient administration and promoted Italian national interests. This created a better image of Italy in other countries.
The great economic disaster of 1929 was effectively knocked back by Italy, earned respect from Britain and France where deep-rooted parliamentary liberal democratic administration faced stiff challenge. Popular opinion was in favour of authoritarian rule in Britain and France. In America also President Roosevelt was given extensive presidential authority in his New Deal just as President Hindenburg, the German counterpart, was given special powers.
In France the government led by Poincare was given almost dictatorial authority by the Parliament itself, although for a limited period and for specific purposes. But in this case the Parliament, however, did not loose its authority. In Britain Crown’s emergency authority was enhanced by the Emergency Power Act of 1920 and delegated it to the government temporarily for the “protection of the community in cases of emergency”.
The validity of any proclamation by this Act was fixed for one month only and parliament had to be convened immediately. So it is clear from the trend of the Parliamentary governments that in most democratic countries there was a peculiar tendency of instituting some form of constitutional dictatorship. When in the general elections the democratic governments asked for mandate from the electorates for the continuation of dictatorial authority, they got it and this makes it clear that the popular sentiment had lost all charms for democracy.
In 1931 the British government led by Ramsay McDonald was given emergency powers and to exercise this power the Government asked for popular mandate in the general elections and got overwhelming majority, which indicates that the people was in favour of such trend. In 1939 the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act delivered the government the most extensive powers to conduct the war with efficiency.
The rival systems often overlapped. Hence, to attribute the tensions and conflicts of the inter-war period to only one of these factors would be an over-simplification of fact which was essentially complex.
After the First World War there was an apparent triumph of liberal democracy all over Europe. Democratic constitutions were adopted in the European countries where the old royal dynasties — the Hohenzollern, the Hapsburg and the Romanoff — had fallen. It was only in Russia where the democratic movement became entangled with Bolshevism. But not only in Russia, within a decade of this triumph of democratic movement of Europe was confronted with the most complete denials of democratic ideals and institutions.
Two types of dictatorship sprang up — the Communist as in Russia and the Fascist as in Italy. Before, long Germany also was gripped by the Nazi dictatorship under Hitler. All these types of dictatorship, although holding different views on some of the vital problems of the day, were at one in their denunciation of the fundamental ideas of democracy such as individual freedom, freedom of speech and the press and the rights of the people to participate in the government. They stood for a totalitarian state and single-party government.
With Fascist parties in power in the two great countries of central Europe, Fascist movement became active everywhere. Outside Germany the aftermath of the Great Depression was more disturbing in its effects on government than were the actual measures needed to deal with the Depression itself. The years between 1934 and 1939 saw the advent, in almost all the European countries, of stronger extremist movements of both Right and Left.
Militant Right-wing groups and leagues in France precipitated the crisis of February 1934 in France. Certain industrialists and ultra-nationalists tended to form private army which brought down the parliamentary government in Germany and produced Hitlerism.
In Britain, the former conservative and former socialist Sir Oswald Mosley, formed a British Union of Fascists, black-shirted and violent, which brought about much rowdyism into political life. Joined with the Communists it caused enough disorder which compelled the government to pass in 1936 a new Public Order Act aiming to prevent political uniforms and provocative demonstrations. The rapid spread of these new ideas and concepts constituted a serious challenge to the democratic ways of Western Europe.
Again, Fascism was at odds with Communism and was determined to arrest its progress. Hitler determined to destroy Bolshevism at any cost. However, as a result of this, a triangular contest began to rage between the ideological forces of Communism, Fascism and Democracy. Thus there arouse in Europe a number of ideological fronts such as anti-Comintern Pact of 1936, concluded between Germany and Japan, to which Italy also subscribed next year.
In France, a popular Front was formed in 1936 to resist the advance of Fascism and preserve democratic institutions by means of social reforms. Forming electoral alliance, the Popular Front formed government in France headed by Leon Blum. But alliance partner, the Communist Party, refused to participate in the government and threatened to oust the government, by industrial strikes.
Despite a number of reform programmes and little success the Popular Front in France failed but not overthrown barely after two years. “It was smothered by the looming clouds of international crisis.” In the civil war that broke out in Spain in 1936 Germany and Italy supported insurgents headed by Franco, while Russia supported the existing government. Thus the Spanish war ceased to be the domestic concern of Spain alone, but developed into a struggle between Communism and Fascism, fought on Spanish territory.
It was a prelude to the larger struggle that followed very soon. However, the cause behind it was the opposition thrown up by the Right-wing combination of monarchists and conservatives to the Popular Front government. The Council of the League of Nations appealed to its member countries not to intervene in Spanish affairs, as Spanish government did not ask for help to the League. But in violation of the League’s appeal arms and ammunition were supplied.
Volunteer brigades could not be prevented from joining Franco. The Fascist dictators began sending considerable illegal help to Franco, whereas the legitimate government of Spain failed to procure supplies from friendly nations. Britain and France, two democratic countries, were afraid of intervening into the Spanish imbroglio.
Thomson points out that “It was, indeed, a policy of fear and appeasement, robbing Britain and France of all initiative and striking another blow at democracy as an ideal.” The single party states were not very efficient in checking the results of economic depression but were “admirably geared to preparation for foreign war”.
Fascism, however, achieved much for Italy and Nazism much for Germany. It restored the nation’s confidence in itself and made the administration of government efficient in every respect. Mussolini balanced the budget, stabilised the currency, and adjusted the differences between labour and capital so that the two should act as partners under the supervision of the state.
Fascism encouraged economic self-sufficiency and efforts were made to reduce the country’s dependence upon foreign imports of wheat, cotton and tobacco. Energetic measures were taken to develop Italy’s share of world shipping and the tourist traffic. Education was encouraged by increasing the number of schools and by enforcing the laws for compulsory school attendance.
One of Mussolini’s outstanding achievements was the settlement of the longstanding dispute with the Papacy. By the Lateran Treaty of 1929, the Pope recognised the kingdom of Italy under the House of Savoy, with Rome as its capital. The result of this pact was to secure for the state the unstinted support of the Church and thereby to remove one of the causes which had largely contributed to the weakness of the Italian government.
Like Bonapartism, Fascism made a political use of religion and saw in it a valuable aid to authority and a stabilising force against social upheaval. The Italians would no longer have to choose between their loyalty to the state and obedience to their religious head. They could be good citizens as well as- good Catholics.
Thus under the Fascist regime Italy was saved from disorder and anarchy and she came to occupy a commanding position in Europe. But these advantages were secured at a price, namely, political liberty. Fascist rule is frankly autocratic, in which there is no room for popular sovereignty which is the most important characteristic of democracy.
Parliament was not abolished, but the electoral system was so altered as to ensure Fascist predominance with the result that the Parliament was reduced to the humble position of an advisory council. The Press was rigidly censored and freedom of meeting and speech were severely restricted. Opposition of Fascism was severely punished.
The great achievement of Nazism was, in internal affairs, to unify Germany under a centralised system which neither Bismarck nor the Weimar Republic ventured to undertake. Hitler’s domestic policy was authoritarian and totalitarian in every sense. A single party that of the Nazis, ruled the state and all political opposition was suppressed. The Jews and Communists were looked upon as anti-national elements hostile to the solidarity of the state. Economics, finance, education and almost every sphere of activity were subjected to state control.
Individual freedom practically disappeared from the country. Hitler made every attempt to make Germany economically self-sufficient. Imports were discouraged, exports encouraged and raw materials rationed. A remarkable stage of industrial development was reached by the evolution of synthetic products. Strikes and lockout were prohibited and unemployment was remarkably curbed by an enormous programme of armaments and by turning the unemployed into labour corps.
When the Second World War broke out Mussolini formulated the ideological challenge in these words: “The struggle between the two worlds can permit no compromise. Either we or they.” In view of this challenge the Allied Powers declared their war aims in the Famous Atlantic Charter in 1941.
President Roosevelt summed up the war aims of the Allies as consisting of “four freedoms” — freedom from fear, freedom from wants, freedom of worship and political freedom. The same principle was announced in a joint declaration issued by Roosevelt and Churchill at the Cassablanka Conference in January 1943.