Chapter 23 Revolution, Depression, and the Rise of Totalitarianism

Section 2 Post-War Democracies

The turmoil and bloodshed of the Russian Revolution contributed to the disillusionment with Western Civilization that many people around the world felt after World War I. For others, however, both the Allied victory and the initial overthrow of autocracy in Russia still seemed to promise a new era full of hope for the ideals of liberal democracy. Among the new countries of Eastern Europe, including the Central Powers themselves, new democratic constitutions replaced the defeated autocracies. In Japan, too, the triumph of the Allies led many to believe that democracy was the wave of the future and the most efficient form of government for the modern world. As new democratic forms began to spread in the early 20s, however, challenging older aristocratic traditions and cultural values, a period of reaction set in. Moreover, it soon became clear that even the old democracies in Europe and America had not been completely unscathed by the war. 

The Western Democracies: Britain, France, and the United States

Although the triumphant western democracies hailed the end of the war with relief, their joy soon turned sour. The full price of the war became clear as their economies began to suffer under the pressures of returning to peacetime production. During the early 1920s all the major powers except Russia, which was still engaged in civil war, experienced economic hardship and rising unemployment. The United States was the least affected, but even there postwar industrial production began to slow down as wartime contracts were cancelled. By 1920, American exports had begun to decline. With declining exports came lower wages and even lay-offs of workers. American labor unions, once again free to strike after the war, called major strikes in heavy industries. Railway strikes also plagued the country between 1919 and 1921. Similar problems faced France and Britain.

            Of all the victorious allies, France had suffered the most damage from the war. The battlefields of World War I lay like open sores upon the French landscape, still littered with all the debris of war—burned out villages and towns, scattered twisted metal. Landmines and unexploded shells continued to take occasional lives and limbs for many years. In some regions, prime farmland had to be devoted to an even sadder purpose. Instead of seed, as far as the eye could see, neat lined furrows were sown with small white crosses that marked the graves of the fallen. Vineyards and wheat fields, once the agricultural base of French prosperity, had become virtual deserts. Although less physically damaged than France, Britain too had a hard time recovering after the war. Once the world's leading industrial manufacturer, after the war Britain could no longer compete effectively with her wartime allies. As exports declined, unemployment rose. By 1920 some two million people were out of work.

            As they confronted the problems of recovery, all three allies experienced considerable internal political and social upheaval. In 1920 American voters rejected the Democratic Party and elected the Republican candidate, Warren G. Harding, who promised a "return to normalcy," by which he meant the prosperity of the pre-war era. In France, the ugly divisions that had so threatened the republic during the Dreyfuss affair at the turn of the century re-emerged, as numerous political parties struggled for power. In Britain, too, post-war hardship blew apart the wartime coalition forged by Lloyd George. In 1922 the Conservatives came to power on the same platform of "normalcy" popularized by President Harding in the United States. Britain should "get on with its work," they declared, "with the minimum of interference at home and of disturbance abroad."[1][1] The Liberal Party, which had split during the war, was in disarray. For the first time, in 1922 the socialist Labour Party became the official Opposition Party.

            In the United States many Americans blamed their hard times on "foreign" influences. The Russian revolution raised fears of a worldwide communist movement. In the early 1920s a "Red Scare" led to the arrest of thousands of suspected subversives. Organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan attracted new members by calling for "100 per cent Americanism," and persecuting non-white and non-Protestant minorities such as African Americans, Native Americans, Asians, Catholics, and Jews. Congress passed new restrictions on immigration. Asians were excluded altogether, and the new rules favored "Anglo-Saxons" and other northern, western Europeans over southern and eastern Europeans.

            In Britain, hard times led to growing class tensions. In 1924, continuing unemployment led briefly to the first Labour Government under Ramsay MacDonald. Although the Conservatives returned to power in less than a year under their new leader, Stanley Baldwin, the economic situation did not improve. Both Conservative and Labour governments refused to devalue Britain's currency, which would have stimulated industry by making British exports less expensive. In 1925 Baldwin baldly stated his own solution to the problem: "All the workers in this country have got to take reductions in wages to help put industry on its feet."[2][2] Instead, led by Britain's coalminers, in May 1926 as many as 4 million union members called the first national strike. Refusing to give in, the Government called for help from middle class citizens. As they pitched in, driving milk wagons, running trains, and doing other essential work, eventually the strike collapsed. The Conservatives once again expressed relief at the return to normalcy, but the action left a sense of bitterness in British society.

            Despite these years of hardship, however, by the end of the 1920s all three western democracies had experienced some degree of recovery. Under President Harding's pro-business policy, the American industrial economy rebounded and began a decade-long boom. Harding died in 1923 but his successor, vice-president Calvin Coolidge, continued the pro-business policy. "The business of America is business," Coolidge declared, and was resoundingly re-elected in 1924. In 1928, a new Republican president, Herbert Hoover, expressed the views of many in his inaugural address: 

"Ours is a country with rich resources, stimulating in its glorious beauty, filled with millions of happy homes, blessed with comfort and opportunity.... I have no fears for the future of our country. It is bright with hope."           

            Prosperity in the United States flowed over to former wartime allies. In 1926, a "national union" government came to power in France under the Social Democrat, Raymond Poincaré. With the help of the Dawes Plan, after 1926 the French prospered once more. France's farming economy recovered and remained strong by producing primarily for the domestic market. French industry also revived, although more slowly. Even Britain recovered quickly from the National Strike and by the decade's end was once again feeling moderately prosperous – though unemployment remained extremely high and many working people resigned themselves to living on "the dole," or unemployment insurance.

The Weimar Republic

Of all the new democracies to emerge after the war in the major European nations, that in Germany seemed the weakest. Born out of the collapse of Germany's home front in October 1918, the new German Republic had been proclaimed November 9, 1918, just after the Kaiser's abdication. Even its birth pangs were violent. Almost immediately Marxist revolutionaries led by Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht besieged the Provisional Government in an effort to establish a Leninist style regime. One participant later recalled the scene: 

"The People's Representatives practically did their work as prisoners. Machine-guns rattled day and night in the Wilhelmstrasse, and noisy processions of many thousands, mostly armed to the teeth, were continuously organized by Liebknecht in front of the Chancellery." 

            Most of the supporters of the new republic, including its first President, Friedrich Ebert, were Social Democrats who had forsaken revolution in favor of working for socialism within the existing system of government. Confronted by such revolutionary violence, Ebert desperately appealed to former generals of the German army, most of whom were still loyal to the deposed German emperor, to save the republic. Secretly, Ebert authorized them to raise volunteer armed bands to crush the Communist uprising. The generals accepted the challenge and quickly suppressed the revolt. Instead of disbanding, however, they marched on Berlin and proclaimed their own government. A sympathetic German Army stood by, but eventually the new rebellion collapsed in the face of a general strike called by labor leaders.

            Against this background of chaos, German voters elected a Constituent Assembly to draw up a new constitution in the German city of Weimar. On August 11, 1919, the new Weimar Constitution went into effect. Plagued by devastating inflation, at first the future of the new republic looked bleak. After the Dawes Plan went into effect in 1924, however, the German economy gradually recovered. The Social Democrats pushed through social reforms such as unemployment insurance and women's suffrage. With growing foreign investment, especially from the United States, by 1929 Germany was producing more steel, iron, chemicals, and other industrial goods than before the war.

            Yet despite this return to prosperity, at best the Weimar republic was an artificial creation with little deep-seated support among the German people. In 1923, for example, another rebellion broke out in Munich, known as the Beer Hall Uprising, led by the former German general Erich von Ludendorf and the leader of a small right wing party, Adolph Hitler. Although the revolt was easily put down, and its leaders jailed, the publicity attending their trials only underscored the weakness of the government. One Weimar statesman complained in 1926 that "The weakest spot--and it still exists--is that the people have not yet made it [the Weimar Constitution] a thing of life." They never did. 

Challenges to Democracy

While the course of democracy was shaky at best even in the major countries of Western Europe after the war, elsewhere it broke down altogether. In the new countries that emerged out of the ashes of the old empires in Eastern Europe, the end of the war had not displaced local aristocrats or lessened their traditional authority in society. Although efforts were made to pursue liberal democracy while at the same time modernizing and industrializing the eastern economies, these efforts only increased the level of social tensions and general insecurity among the people. Similar problems confronted Japan, the only non-western nation to industrialize and develop democratic institutions before World War I.

Eastern Europe. In Czechoslovakia, Rumania, Bulgaria, and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, the new democratic governments alienated landowners by breaking up old aristocratic estates, giving the land to peasants. In the Baltic States and Czechoslovakia, where landowners were mostly German, such policies also led to ethnic tensions between German minorities and Czech and Slavic majorities. The new governments also tried to encourage industrialization by raising tariff barriers to protect their industries from foreign competition. Tariffs, however, disrupted the trade patterns that had prevailed under the old empires. As trade between the new countries began to dry up, so did their prosperity. Growing social tensions led to bloodshed in many countries. Landowners and others increasingly feared that communism would spread from Russia to their own countries. Liberal democratic governments began to crumble.

            In Austria, for example, socialists and conservatives began to create private armies that fought for control of the government in the streets of Vienna. Anxious to restore order, the government became less and less democratic. Similar problems undermined democracy in Hungary. A brief soviet-style revolution led to a reaction from the traditional aristocracy, the middle class, and the Church. Banding together, they established a conservative authoritarian regime under Admiral Nicholas Horthy, formerly of the Imperial Austrian Navy. Landlocked Hungary became known as the "kingdom without a king, ruled by an admiral without a fleet." By 1926, Poland, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Rumania had followed the Hungarian example, with either conservative authoritarian regimes, military dictatorships or monarchies. By 1930, only Czechoslovakia and the Baltic republics remained truly democratic.