Read this article to learn about the condition of ‘Europe’; from 1924 to 1936!
Impact of the Great Depression on Europe:
The period beginning from 1924 to the Great Depression was generally a period of economic recovery and growth.
Though the danger of a revolutionary overthrow of the existing order had passed, the governments of many countries as well as the opponents of socialism continued to raise the scare of a revolution for pursuing conservative policies; in some countries fascist movements, with the backing of big industrialists and connivance of the army and the government, openly advocated the establishment of authoritarian rule.
By 1929, the period of economic recovery, which had started in the mid-1920s, came to an end. The year 1929—30 has been described as the “beginning of a nightmare”, which continued till 1933 when again a period of recovery began.
The crisis in European economies was the direct consequence of the Great Depression which had hit the US in 1929. It showed how dependent European economy had become on the US. The American loans to Europe were completely stopped and the economies of the countries that had grown as a result of the continuing supply of loans, such as Germany, were the worst affected.
As was happening in the US at that time, industrial enterprises began to close down and millions were thrown out of employment. In Germany, there were six million unemployed in 1932 and about half the population impoverished; in Britain the unemployed numbered three million.
The European countries that had remained basically agricultural were also badly affected. They depended entirely on the export of their agricultural products. The sharp fall in agricultural prices badly affected their economies.
Each country imposed restrictions on imports from other countries, which further worsened the situation. The political effects of the economic crisis in Europe were disastrous for democracy. Before this period ended, authoritarian, semi-fascist and fascist regimes had been established in most countries of Europe and even in the countries where democracy survived, fascist forces were gaining strength. In Germany, the most barbarous regime of modem times was established. Towards the end of this period, Europe and the rest of the world were relapsing into war.
Developments in Britain:
In January 1924, the first Labour Party government came to power in Britain on the basis of the promise of radical changes in the economy. It accomplished little and its rule came to an end within ten months. A forged letter meant to create scare played some part in the defeat of the Labour Party. The letter was forged in the name of Zinoviev, who was chairman of the Comintern at that time.
It instructed the communists in Britain to start uprisings in Britain and take steps to subvert the British army and navy. In October, the Conservative Party, which had used the forged letter to attack the Labour Party for being friendly to the communists, came to power and remained the ruling party till 1929.
The biggest strike in British history took place during this period although it ended in failure. In May 1926, the British coal miners went on strike against the threatened cut in wages and increased hours of work. The British government fully sided with the owners of the collieries. On 4 May 1926, three million workers struck work in support of the miners.
They included railway men, transport workers, steel workers, and workers from other industries. This is known as the “general strike”. The strike alarmed the government and the industrialists of Britain, and every effort was made to subvert it.
In the face of the total hostility of the government and the massive propaganda campaign launched by it to rouse the general population against the strikers; the strike was called off on 12 May. The miners’ strike, however, continued for many months but it ended in total failure, and workers were forced to go back to work at reduced wages and for longer hours of work. Soon after, the government declared general strikes illegal.
In 1929, the Labour Party again returned to power. When the economic crisis hit Britain, the Labour prime minister wanted to cope with the crisis by imposing cuts in wages and salaries as well as in unemployment relief and other social welfare programmes.
Most of the other ministers refused to go along with him and he resigned, only to form a new government, called the National Government, in which the majority of the ministers were from the Conservative Party. The parties supporting the National Government remained in power after the 1935 elections, though with a reduced majority. A fascist movement had also emerged in Britain, which advocated violence against the Jews and created disorder and riots.
Britain began to recover from the economic crisis after 1933, though the number of the unemployed remained at about one and a half million. The international position of Britain was further diminished during this period as a result of the growing strength of the nationalist movements in the colonies.
In 1931, the ‘White’ dominions of the British Empire became virtually free. They remained as members of what was later called the British Commonwealth of Nations, but British laws were no longer applicable to them and they pursued their own policies.
By 1936, the fascist countries had started their wars of aggression, which led to the catastrophe of another world war. The British government, however, like other Western countries, followed a policy of appeasement of fascism though efforts were made by anti-fascist parties and groups to rouse the people against the dangerous consequences of this policy.
Political Instability in France:
In France, this period was one of instability. France had ambitions of becoming the dominant power in Europe and had launched a massive armament programme. When Germany was unable to pay the reparation as agreed by the Treaty of Versailles, France occupied the Ruhr Valley in order to take over Germany’s coal and steel industry.
After 1924, France had to withdraw from the Ruhr Valley. There were frequent changes in the government which was generally dominated by influential business interests and corrupt politicians. During the economic crisis, when the number of unemployed rose to about one and a half million and industrial and agricultural production fell by over 30 per cent, the socialist and communist parties gained in strength.
At the same time, however, a strong fascist movement also arose and took to methods of violence and terror to capture power. In 1933, a major scandal rocked France. Alexander Stavisky, a speculator, had amassed six hundred million francs through fraudulent means and by cheating people.
When the scandal unearthed, it was found that many politicians, including those holding positions in the government, were also involved and were the beneficiaries of Stavisky’s corrupt dealings. Making use of this scandal, the fascists tried to occupy Paris, dissolve the government and take over power.
However, the communists and the socialists mobilised workers to prevent the fascist from taking over the reigns of the government. There were violent clashes between them and the fascists, and the fascists’ attempt to seize power was foiled.
In 1936, a significant development took place. This was the formation of the Popular Front comprising Communist, Socialist and Radical Socialist parties to counter the danger of fascism and bring about long-needed economic reforms, particularly relating to the promotion of workers’ welfare.
The Popular Front swept the polls and the Socialist and the Radical Socialist parties formed the Popular Front government. The government lasted for a little over two years.
During the first one year of its rule when Leon Blum was the prime minister, the Popular Front government took many important steps— the armament industry was nationalised, the cuts in wages and salaries were withdrawn and forty-hour week was introduced for the workers.
The foreign policy of France aimed at the realisation of her great power ambitions as well as to safeguard herself against any possible German aggression. She had encouraged what is known as the Little Entente comprising Romania, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia and provided it with arms in the hope that these countries would help divert any future German aggression to be concentrated against her.
In the 1920s, she had also started constructing strong defences to prevent a quick German advance into France, as had happened at the beginning of the First World War. This defence system is known as the Maginot Line.
In 1935 she signed a mutual aid agreement with the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union signed a similar treaty with France’s ally, Czechoslovakia. Thus, in a sense, a tripartite mutual aid pact was signed. When the Popular Front government was formed, it was hoped that France would take a forthright stand against fascist aggression. However, the Popular Front came to an end in 1938. The government headed by Edouard Daladier followed the British government in appeasing fascist countries, and she was to betray her ally, Czechoslovakia, soon.
Portugal and Spain:
Similar to the other authoritarian and semi-fascist governments in Hungary, Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia and other countries other countries of Europe, in Portugal too, Salazar had established a fascist dictatorship, with the help of the army.
He was sympathetic to the fascist regimes in Italy and Germany and helped in the overthrow of the Republicans in Spain even while maintaining friendly relations with Britain. After proclaiming her a republic, Spain underwent many serious difficulties.
In 1932, there was a revolt led by an army general but it was crushed. In the meantime, a fascist movement, called Falange, had started growing in strength. The movement was supported by the Catholic Church. The Spanish fascists committed political murders and won many supporters in the army. The fascists and the monarchists were promised aid by Mussolini and there was an uprising with the objective of uniting anti-fascist forces but it was crushed.
In October 1935, the miners in Asturia rose in revolt and General Francisco Franco was asked to crush the rebellion against the unpopular government. In 1936, elections were held in Spain. The Popular Front, which was formed to resist the fascist danger, was victorious in the elections. It comprised all the socialist parties— the Communist Party, the Anarchists and the Republican Left.
Thousands of political prisoners were released by the Popular Front government and major economic and political reforms were initiated. However, soon Spain was plunged into a civil war when the Spanish fascists—the Falange joined together with the army generals, and with the active support of fascist countries, to overthrow the Republican government.
Triumph of Nazism in Germany:
The most serious development during this period was the triumph of fascism in Germany. The Nazis came together during a time of crisis in Germany. The nation was defeated in the First World War and was imposed a humiliating Treaty of Versailles, with reparations huge enough for the economy to collapse.
The impact of the post-war inflation and the terrible misery caused by the economic crisis of 1929 dealt a further blow to the German attempts at economic recovery. The Nazis made use of these crises for strengthening their position. Nazis also attempted a putsch similar to the one that had brought Mussolini to power in Italy.
Nazism, as the German version of fascism is called, was the most barbarous form of fascism. Like the Italian fascism, Nazism also held political democracy and civil liberties in contempt and glorified war, and like the Italian fascists’ slogan of reviving the Roman Empire, the Nazis wanted to revive the greatness of the Teutonic empire.
The Nazis aroused anti-Semitism—hatred of the Jews—-among the non-Jewish Germans, holding the Jews responsible for the defeat of Germany and for all other miseries that the German people faced after the war.
The Nazis extolled the purity of the German race— “pure blond Aryan”—and considered it superior to other races over whom they thought they had a right to rule. They aimed at uniting all the people of the German ‘race’ under one state and to form a greater Germany, and further claimed “land and territory for the nourishment of our people” and for settling their surplus population.
The idea of a great leader who would set everything right and would make Germany great was fostered. Communism was viewed by the Nazis as their greatest enemy and its destruction as their main aim. The Nazis made use of the sense of humiliation of the German people for their defeat in the war and the “dictated peace” with its many unjust clauses, including the war guilt and the reparations, and promised to restore their national pride.
These ideas also found much support in the army, with its officers drawn mostly from the class of big landlords, who wanted to avenge the humiliation of their defeat. Most of all, they received the full backing of the German industrialists who were alarmed at the growth of the socialist and communist parties and thought of the Nazis as their only saviour.
The Nazis, like the Italian fascists, organised gangs of armed volunteers, called the SA, popularly known as the Brown shirts, which increasingly resorted to beating and murdering anti-fascists and Jews, destroying their property and perpetrating various other acts of public humiliation. By 1930, the Brown shirts numbered about 100,000.
There were frequent violent clashes between them and the communists, but the government did little to stop the Nazi brutalities. Before the 1929 economic crisis, however, the Nazis’ popular support was limited.
In 1928, they had won only 12 seats in the Reichstag. They had polled about 800,000 votes as against nine million polled by the Social Democrats and over three million by the Communists.
In the 1930 elections, however, the Nazi vote rose to about 6.5 million while the Social Democrats polled 8.5 million and the Communists over 4.5 million. In the elections for the presidency held in April 1932, Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg, who had led the German armies in the First World War and was now in his eighties, was elected, polling over 18.5 million votes.
He had been supported by the Social Democrats. Hitler polled over 11 million votes in this election while the Communist candidate Ernst Thalmann, polled over 3.7 million votes. In the elections to the Reichstag in July 1932, the Nazi Party emerged as the single largest party, polling over 13.7 million votes against the Social Democrats’ eight million and the Communists’ 5.2 million. In November, there was another election to the Reichstag in which the Nazi vote declined by about 2 million while the Communist vote rose to about 6 million.
However, other forces were now at work, which ultimately brought the Nazis to power. On 30 January 1933, Hindenburg appointed Hitler as the Chancellor of Germany.
Thus, his coming to power was not the result of a victory in elections nor of a violent overthrow of the existing government but it was part of a “backstage deal” with the politicians of the right-wing parties. These parties along with the bankers, the industrialists and the big landowners had persuaded Hindenburg to make Hitler the chancellor.
After coming to power, Hitler set about consolidating his rule. He persuaded Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag and call for another election on 5 March 1933. On 27 February 1933, five days before the elections, the Reichstag building was set on fire.
It was widely believed, though it has not been established, that the Nazis themselves had set the building on fire in order to create terror and to intimidate voters. The government blamed the Communists for the fire.
Thousands of people were immediately arrested, including Georgi Dimitrov who was a leader of the Bulgarian Communist Party and was in Germany at that time. The elections were held in the midst of these developments but even then Hitler failed to secure a majority.
Within a few months, however, Hitler consolidated his dictatorial rule by the use of terror and assassination against Social Democrats, Communists, trade union leaders, and other anti-Nazis. The Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party were banned.
Over 60,000 people were imprisoned or sent to concentration camps. By mid-1933, all other parties were also dissolved. In 1934, Hitler became President of Germany.
Within a few months of coming to power, Hitler perfected his machinery of terror and had begun to command the absolute obedience of the German people. The entire country was soon transformed into an armed camp.
Soon after coming to power, Hitler secretly began the rearmament of the country and took a whole series of steps in violation of the Treaty of Versailles. In October 1933, Germany withdrew from the League of Nations.
The building of an air force was taken up, which had been specifically prohibited by the treaty. In March 1935, Hitler announced that Germany was no longer bound by the restrictions which the treaty had imposed on the strength of the German military, and along with the army and the air force started building a navy.
In March 1936, the Rhineland, which had been demilitarised, was occupied by German troops. All these moves, which were in total defiance of the treaty, met with no resistance from the Western powers. By 1936, Germany had built her military strength and the stage was set for acts of aggression which later led to the Second World War.