VI. The World Wars and the Interwar Period, 1914–1945 > C. Europe, 1919–1945 > 2. Intellectual and Religious Trends
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
(See 1912)
2. Intellectual and Religious Trends
The most important development in thought after World War I was the rejection of the rational. While a few philosophers had moved in this direction in the last years of the 19th century, the barbarism of world war convinced many that the previous century's faith in reason and progress was misplaced. This revolt went in two directions. On the Continent, existentialism rose to prominence. Although it truly came into its own after World War II, the interwar years witnessed its birth in the works of Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), Karl Jaspers (1883–1969), and the early works of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80). Existentialists held that human beings simply existed in an absurd world without a supreme being, left to define themselves only through their actions. Any sense of hope could come only by “engaging” in life and thereby finding meaning in it.  1
Logical empiricism found more supporters in England, though its main proponent was the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951). Wittgenstein argued in 1922 that philosophy is only the logical clarification of thoughts, and therefore its study is the study of language, which expresses thoughts. Gone were the days when primary philosophical topics were God, freedom, and morality; the new scope of philosophy was greatly reduced to only those things that could be proved. To talk of anything else was a waste of time.  2
Still others turned to religion. But unlike the theologians of the late 19th century, who attempted to merge religion with science by portraying Christ primarily as the greatest moral teacher, theologians of interwar Europe stressed the frailty of humankind and the “supernatural” aspects of God. Building on the works of Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55), leading scholars like Karl Barth (1886–1968), Gabriel Marcel (1887–1973), Jacques Maritain (1882–1973), C. S. Lewis (1898–1963), and W. H. Auden (1907–73) saw in religion and God's grace the answers to a world of terror and anxiety.  3
Others seeking security in an insecure world turned to political philosophies. The two most important in interwar Europe were communism and fascism. While communism was not new to the 20th century, the existence of a Communist society did propose changes in the philosophy as well as an example for other nations. Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) produced the most important change with his concept of socialism in one country. Despite the argument that socialism was a stage of development that must occur in all of the industrial world and that Soviet Russia must await the revolution while promoting it through such organizations as Comintern, Stalin argued that socialism could be developed in a single nation, a belief built on a strong base of Russian nationalism. That philosophy was a prime component in the great pace of Russian industrialization in the thirties.  4
Fascism can be difficult to define because its proponents often tried to make it everything to everybody. As presented by Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), Benito Mussolini (1883–1945), and Italo Balbo (1896–1940), it embodied a rejection of socialism and class warfare, presenting the nation as the most important unifying element that transcended all differences. At the same time, it promoted a corporatist notion of capitalism and a planned economy. It drew on the threat of world communism, on the economic problems recurring throughout the period, and on the war experiences of its adherents, expounding a brotherhood akin to that found in the trenches. It fed on fear and resentment to promote a picture of social order and national grandeur.  5
In the realm of economics, John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946) published his General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money in 1936. This work explained how and why an economy might fail to maintain a level activity required for full employment. Though dealing primarily with short-run phenomena, “Keynesian economics” became crucial in the development of theories of economic growth.  6
Other important events in the development of interwar thought included:  7
Vilfredo Pareto (1848–1923), in his Trattato di Soziologia Generale, provided a comprehensive mathematical analysis of economic and sociological problems, based on the distinction between the fundamental motivations of human natures (residues) and their outward appearance or rationalization (derivations).  8
Oswald Spengler (1880–1936), in Der Untergang des Abendlandes, produced a cyclical interpretation of history and forecast the eclipse of Western civilization as inevitable.  9
Marc Bloch (1886–1944) and Lucien Febvre (1878–1956) founded the journal Annales d'histoire économique et sociale, which became an influential international forum for the new social history, a new form of history turning away from political narrative to focus upon economic structures, social institutions, and mentalities in a historical context.  10
A Study of History (ten volumes), by Arnold J. Toynbee (1889–1975), constituted an exhaustive reexamination of human development in the light of an idealist philosophy of history. (See Religious and Philosophical Thought)  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.