Read this article to learn about the condition of ‘Europe’; from 1919 to 1923!
New States in Europe:
The end of the First World War was accompanied by the emergence of a number of European nations as independent states.
These included Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, Poland and Czechoslovakia. Some new states were formed such as Yugoslavia by merging new territories with an already existing state.
By 1922, Ireland, which had been fighting for independence from Britain, was partitioned.
An Irish Free State was given the Dominion status while Northern Ireland (Ulster) comprising six counties retained her connection with Britain. A few years later, the Irish Free State proclaimed herself a sovereign state with the Eire (subsequently the
Republic of Ireland). Hungary and Austria became separate states with the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The settlements of the boundaries of various states in Europe as a result of the peace treaties became a source of tension and conflicts. Most countries of central, southern and Eastern Europe were dissatisfied with the boundary settlements and many of them continued to feel insecure.
Many ententes, alliances and treaties of friendship and non-aggression pacts were signed between different countries during this period and, later, many shifts in alliances and friendships took place. Some of the territorial disputes within Europe were to provide the immediate causes of the Second World War twenty years later.
Rise of Authoritarian Regimes:
In almost every country of Europe, the immediate post-war years were a period of unrest. The dislocation of the economy during the war years, the problem of reorganising it to meet the requirements of peace, the misery caused by the war in terms of the millions who had been killed and the millions who had survived but were crippled, the problem of survivors who had to return now to civilian occupations, the unemployment—all these had given rise to widespread discontent.
There were strikes in every country of Europe and attempts at revolutionary overthrow of the existing order in some countries. The example of the Russian Revolution was a source of inspiration to the working class of many countries, and the communist parties and some sections of the Social Democrats tried to organise Soviet-type revolutions.
The most serious revolutionary outbreaks took place in Germany. In Hungary, a revolutionary government, under the leadership of Bela Kun, came to power in 1919. However, by 1923, the prospect of a socialist revolution succeeding in other parts of Europe had receded—the Hungarian revolution having lasted barely five months.
The collapse of revolutionary expectations, often due to lack of unity among various socialist parties and radical groups, led to the strengthening of anti-democratic and authoritarian forces in many countries, and by the early 1930s, only a few countries of Europe had succeeded in maintaining the democratic institutions and the democratic forms of their governments.
In Hungary, an authoritarian government came to power under Horthy as Regent. In Romania and Yugoslavia, authoritarian monarchical governments came to power. In Poland, a dictatorial government was established under Josef Pilsudski.
In Greece, where monarchy had been restored, political conditions remained unsettled for many years, with kings changing and army generals staging coup d’états. In 1936, a fascist dictatorship was established there under Joannes Metaxas. In Spain, which was a monarchy, General Miguel Primo de Rivera had established military dictatorship in 1923.
The dictatorship lasted till 1930 and, in 1931, when anti-monarchical forces swept the polls, Spain became a republic. The most serious development during this period was the establishment of a fascist dictatorship in Italy, which will be described separately.
Britain, France and Czechoslovakia:
The countries that did not give way to authoritarian governments included Britain, France, Czechoslovakia and the countries of Scandinavia. These countries, however, also faced serious problems. In Britain, there were two million unemployed people in 1921.
In the 1923 elections, the Labour Party, which had been campaigning for steps to end unemployment, nationalisation of key industries, imposition of heavy taxes on the rich, increase in wages, meeting shortages of housing by launching a massive programme of construction, was victorious.
But the Labour Party’s government, which came to power in early 1924, did not last long and was able to fulfill few of its promises. During this period the French government was dominated by big industrialists and bankers.
Its ambition was to become the dominant power in Europe for which purpose it tried to bring the resources of Germany under its control. Czechoslovakia, which had emerged as a new state, was proclaimed a republic with Tomas Masaryk as president.
In 1919, Czechoslovakia adopted a democratic constitution. Many important reforms were introduced in Czechoslovakia and while most countries of eastern and southern Europe remained economically backward throughout the inter-war period, Czechoslovakia saw a period of rapid industrial growth.
In Germany, in 1919, a parliamentary republic was proclaimed. This is known as the Weimar Republic, after the name of the town where the constituent assembly had met and framed the new constitution. The constitution provided for a president enjoying many special powers, a chancellor responsible to the parliament, called the Reichstag, which was elected on the basis of universal adult franchise, and safeguards for the rights and liberties of the people.
There was much discontent in Germany against the “dictated peace” and many provisions of the Versailles Treaty were almost universally considered unjust. In spite of this, the Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party which were opposed to aggressive nationalism had emerged as powerful parties.
The Social Democratic Party was one of the ruling parties in Germany till 1930. The Communist Party had made another attempt at revolution in 1923 but had failed.
In the meantime, authoritarian groups and parties had begun to emerge. They denounced democracy, advocated repudiation of the Versailles Treaty, extolled war, organised conspiracies to overthrow the democratically elected government, and aimed for the establishment of a dictatorship.
Big business and a large section of the German army supported them. They blamed the Jews and the communists for the defeat of Germany in the war and organised assassinations and terror to rid the country of their influence.
In 1920, a putsch to capture power was organised. Berlin was occupied by the volunteers of a conspiratorial organisation and their supporters in the army. The government of the Social Democratic Party was dissolved and a new government was installed under Kapp.
This event brought together all the socialist and democratic parties. There was a general strike and the workers armed themselves to fight against the conspirators. Soon the putschists were overthrown. In 1919, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (for short, Nazi Party) had been formed. This party, led by Adolf Hitler, also attempted a putsch in 1923 but it was suppressed.
Economic Problems of the Weimar Republic:
The Weimar Republic, although it succeeded in establishing a democratic form of government in Germany, was faced with grave economic problems. These problems were aggravated by certain provisions of the Versailles Treaty and the attitude of some European powers.
The amount of reparations to be paid by Germany to the Allied Powers had been fixed at £ 6,600 million. She had paid the first installment of £ 50 million in 1921 but was incapable of fully making further payments. She simply did not have the resources to meet this obligation. In the meantime, German economy came to a near collapse because of unimaginable inflation. By the end of 1921, the value of the deutsche mark, the German currency, fell by over 50 times.
It had been 20 deutsche marks to the British pound; now it was over 1,000. In 1922, it fell further. In January 1923, Belgian and French troops occupied the Ruhr valley, which was the centre of Germany’s coal and metallurgy industry, to recover from Germany the reparations by taking over her coal and steel.
The German workers, however, refused to cooperate with them and went on strike. They resorted to passive resistance and were supported by their government. The German government started printing enormous amounts of paper money, which led to a catastrophe.
The German currency became utterly worthless by November 1923. One British pound was now valued at 50,000 milliard deutsche marks (one milliard = 1,000 million).
By the end of 1923, a currency reform was introduced, which was essential under the circumstances, but it had disastrous consequences for many sections of the German population. A new currency was introduced.
This meant that the savings of millions of people were wiped out. The worst affected were the people of the middle class and the lower middle class—the salaried people. Millions of people were suddenly impoverished.
The Nazi Party gained most from this disaster. Many people turned, in despair, to this Party for their salvation. In 1924, the German economy began to recover with the help of loans from the US and other countries.
The loans helped Germany to start building her economy again and she started paying the reparations. The payments were finally stopped when the world-wide economic crisis again brought the economy of Germany and other countries to a state of ruin.
Fascism in Italy:
The immediate post-war years in Italy, as in other countries of Europe, were years of widespread unemployment and popular unrest. The socialist movement had emerged as a powerful movement though its effectiveness was weakened by many internal divisions.
In the meantime, a violent anti-democratic movement—the fascist movement—had emerged in Italy. Armed bands, called the fasces, were formed to create terror among the people who were considered enemies of the nation—mainly the socialists, the communists, and the leaders of workers’ and peasants’ movements. They were inspired by the glory of the ancient Roman Empire and preached the cult of violence and war to revive Italy’s greatness.
The ruling classes of Italy had led their country to war on the side of the Allies. At the end of the war, they felt cheated. The Allies failed to satisfy the colonial and great power ambitions of Italy and though she gained territories in Europe at the cost of Austria, she was denied the gains in the colonies she had aspired to.
The ruling classes found in the fascist movement an instrument to satisfy their ambitions. Within the country, the fascist movement was seen as the only force that could save them from a social revolution. The National Fascist Party was formed in November 1921 under the leadership of Benito Mussolini. Thousands of ‘Black shirts’ were recruited to break up strikes and assassinate socialist and communist leaders.
The popularity of the fascist movement did not extend much beyond these armed gangs and the ruling classes—the industrialists and the big landlords. But they succeeded in smashing the strikes and demonstrations which were held to protest against the growing fascist menace.
The government chose to remain a silent spectator to the increasing fascist violence. In 1919, the fascists had failed to win even a single seat in the parliament. In 1921, they won thirty-five seats. However, the fascists’ failure to make much headway in winning popular support did not prevent the ruling classes of Italy from conniving with them.
The fascists seized the cities of Bologna and Milan by force. On 24 October 1922, they organised a march on Rome. The government, instead of crushing the armed marchers, surrendered. The King of Italy invited Mussolini, who had not even taken part in the march, to form the government. He soon assumed dictatorial powers and, in the midst of a reign of terror unleashed by the Black shirt gangsters, held elections in 1924.
When a socialist member of parliament, Giacomo Matteotti, spoke in the parliament against the violence by the fascists during the elections, he was assassinated. Shortly after, organised murders of socialists, communists and other political opponents took place and, in 1926, all non-fascist parties and organisations were declared illegal and dissolved. The methods adopted by Italian fascists were emulated in other countries, in some countries with success.