VI. The World Wars and the Interwar Period, 1914–1945 > C. Europe, 1919–1945
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
(See Economic and Social Changes)
C. Europe, 1919–1945
1. Economic and Social Changes
Three events define this period in European history: World War I, the Depression, and World War II. The impact of the First World War was truly revolutionary. The total number of casualties, including killed, wounded, and missing, is figured at 37.5 million. The greatest burden of war dead and wounded, about 6 million, was suffered by Germany. France's losses were 5.5 million, but with a population less than two-thirds that of Germany, France suffered proportionally more. An outbreak of influenza in the autumn of 1918 compounded the death toll as it swept through populations already weakened by the nutritional privations of total war.  1
Economically, Europe was in ruins. Governments had borrowed heavily to fund the war, and had responded to this debt after the war by printing more money. The result was inflation, felt most disastrously in Germany. Yet the victors, especially France, depended upon German reparations to revive their economies. Germany's inability to pay led first to confrontation, as in the French and Belgian occupation of the Ruhr, and later to peaceful settlements, like the Dawes and Young plans. Wartime disruption helped cause a sharp recession in 1920–21, and some longer-term trends toward agricultural overproduction. For most nations, prosperity returned only in the mid-1920s. Ongoing economic uncertainty prompted many families to continue trends toward lower birth rates.  2
The catastrophic toll of the war also resulted in a new, looser code of morality, especially in a growing urban environment. A new generation, decimated by war, felt betrayed by their elders and rejected the more austere standards of conduct they had been taught as children. In the age of jazz and the flapper this was most notable in changing attitudes toward sexuality. While in France contraception became illegal because of population concerns, women like Marie Stopes in England actively supported contraception and a more open attitude toward sex. In Berlin, Mangus Hirshfeld opened the Institute for Sexual Science in 1919, an institution designed to further the study of sexuality and promote understanding, including gay rights. Sexuality became the subject of great popular interest, reflected in prescriptive literature, but this also fueled the impression among conservatives and rural populations that this was a degenerate age.  3
The devastation of the war also produced a strong pacifist movement, questioning duty to the state. Many argued that there was no suitable reason ever to reproduce the amount of bloodletting witnessed during World War I, “the war to end all wars.” Though the League of Nations was unable to develop this into a concrete system to avoid war, this sentiment helps explain the policy of appeasement Western Europe followed in the face of Nazi aggression.  4
On the political stage, the revolutionary dream of national unity firstintroduced by the French Revolution became reality in Eastern Europe. The creation of new nation states heralded the end of multinational empires, though one was to reemerge in the Soviet Union. Throughout the 1920s democracy also triumphed. Not only did working-class men gain suffrage, but in most nations women too acquired the vote. France and Italy were notable exceptions.  5
Government also became “big government” during the war and afterward. The demands of total war necessitated government involvement in all walks of life. Governments established minimum and maximum wages and prices, curtailed production in industries not deemed necessary to the war effort, and introduced rationing when necessary. Administrations grew as liberal notions of free trade gave way to planned economies. Since morale on the home front was as important as in the trenches, governments also attempted to influence behavior through extensive propaganda campaigns. With the problems of demobilization and continued economic hardships, governments did not readily decrease their activities with the war's end. Indeed, administrations continued to grow as various states instituted the early trappings of the welfare state, such as unemployment insurance, housing allotments, and accident insurance for workers.  6
The success of the Communist Revolution in Russia also entered a new element into European politics. For many in Eastern Europe it justified early shifts to right-wing governments and the end of democracy. In Western Europe the impact of the Russian Revolution was a split in the Socialist parties, as Communists formed their own parties, allied closely to the Third International, and revisionists gained control of the Socialist parties. Throughout Europe the “specter of world Communism” was also the force behind domestic policies, such as social and land reforms, designed to integrate workers and peasants into noncommunist political and economic systems.  7
The next defining event in interwar Europe was the world depression that followed the U.S. stock market crash of 1929. Europe did not feel the full brunt until the early thirties, but when it did, whole economies were devastated. Peasants were unable to acquire credit or obtain loans as world market prices plummeted. Unemployment reached disastrous proportions throughout Europe, making insecurity a reality for millions. While factory workers suffered most, the growing white-collar and professional sectors also experienced massive loss of jobs. Many were now willing to support radical attempts to deal with the crisis by both democratic leaders and dictators.  8
The responses to the Depression differed significantly. In Britain, for example, the government followed orthodox economic theory by balancing its budget, but unemployed workers did receive enough welfare simply to survive. In Scandinavia, however, a cooperative tradition and strong Socialist influence in government since the end of the war generated a reformist socialism that responded to economic crisis with deficit spending and vast public works programs. In nations with weak democratic traditions, however, the response to economic crisis was dictatorship. This was a result not so much of the economic solutions proffered by various totalitarian leaders, but of the general fear that economic insecurity generated, a fear of disorder and revolution that only force could prevent. Millions surrendered civil liberties for such security.  9
The rise of fascism (See March 23), which depended on an aggressive foreign policy and the glory of conquest, led to expansionist policies that resulted first in the disappearance of countries like Albania, Austria, and Czechoslovakia, and eventually in the outbreak of World War II in 1939. As in World War I, the demands of modern warfare dictated total war. As men were conscripted into the armed services, women were conscripted into the workforce. In England, the Women's Power Committee was able to win equal insurance and benefits for women workers in 1943, but the government consistently fought demands for equal pay. Rationing once again became a fact of life as governments planned every aspect of the economy. Civil liberties were curtailed in the name of security, and governments launched more extensive propaganda campaigns to retain popular support.  10
Occupied nations responded differently to the Nazis. In the western portions of the Soviet Union, for example, the invading Germans were first greeted as liberators. In Western Europe, resistance developed quickly to Nazi occupation, growing in intensity with the influx of Communists after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. The combination of various political beliefs among resistance fighters sometimes led to violence within resistance movements and set the tone for postwar political battles. In all occupied nations, industry was retooled for the German war effort, while forced labor led many into slave conditions in German factories. The Nazis also transported their racist policies into occupied areas, forcing Jews, Gypsies, and others into ghettos and later into concentration camps. (See Economic and Social Changes)  11
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.