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Europe After World War I: November 1918-August 1931

On May 7, 1919, in a room in the grand Versailles Palace outside Paris, German foreign minister Count
Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau arrived at the head of a delegation of diplomats. They came to negotiate
with representatives of the major Allied powers -- Britain, France, Italy, Japan, and the United States --
following the armistice that had ended World War I in Europe. Instead of finding seats laid out for his
delegation, Brockdorff-Rantzau and his colleagues, dressed stiffly in frock coats and wing collars, were
made to stand like so many errant schoolboys. This was the first of many humiliations imposed on the
Germans after World War I.
The Allied powers thought they had won the war and that Germany had been the architect of its outbreak.
The German view that an armistice was really a truce, rather than surrender, was ignored.
The origins of this humiliation lay five years before, in the crisis that led to the outbreak of what became
known as the Great War. The victorious Allies blamed Germany and Austria-Hungary for causing that war,
but the explanation is more complex. Before 1914 Europe had entered a new phase in its history with the
emergence of a group of powerful, industrialized, and heavily armed states, each of which had imperial
interests to defend. National competition became the key characteristic of the age.
Earlier, in the 19th century, these states had collaborated to keep the peace, because the kings and
aristocrats who dominated the political scene had a strong interest in avoiding conflict. But by the turn of
the 20th century, the old regimes were in retreat and modern political movements -- many of them strongly
nationalist in outlook -- had begun to emerge. The new working classes, thrown up by rapid
industrialization, offered a different kind of threat, though many of them could be won over to a patriotic
cause. Throughout Eastern and Southern Europe, where there existed a mixture of nationalities under
imperial Prussian or Austrian or Russian rule, mass politics led to agitation for national self-determination.
This issue was at its most acute in the Habsburg Empire, whose capital was in Vienna. Its rulers
maintained a precarious hold on a territory that comprised a dozen nationalities, many of them eager for
It is no accident that it was there, in the national patchwork of the Habsburg Empire, that the immediate
origins of the war of 1914-18 are found. The empire seethed with conflicts -- between rival nationalities,
between different classes, and between the new democratic parties and the authoritarian monarchy that
ran the system. Most acute of all was the crisis with the southern Slav populations of the monarchy.
Backed by the independent state of Serbia, Slav nationalists in the empire looked for a southern Slav
state (Yugoslavia). In Vienna, fears arose that the Serbs would provoke the breakup of the old order.
On June 28, 1914, on an official visit to Sarajevo (capital of the recently annexed province of Bosnia), the
heir to the Habsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, together with his wife Sophie, were assassinated
by a young Bosnian terrorist named Gavrilo Princip. The Austrian authorities demanded action. They
blamed Serbia for encouraging the Black Hand society to which Princip belonged, and demanded that
Serbia accept Austrian interference in their internal investigation of the murder. The Serbs accepted parts
of Austria's ultimatum but balked at other portions. This was the trigger for Austria's declaration of war.
None of the other European powers had expected or planned for war in 1914, but it was a fear that each
of them had harbored. In the 10 years before 1914, many such crises had arisen. Each power's fear of the
other powers fueled an arms race that produced large armies and navies with little to do but plan ways of
outmaneuvering perceived enemies. Armaments did not cause war, as many believed at the time, but
they contributed to a growing sense of instability and antagonism, and lessened the capacity of states to
restrain the military when crisis beckoned.
This is what happened in 1914. Austria was prepared to go to war with Serbia without the other powers
intervening, but it needed the support of Germany, its ally, and the neutralization of any threat from
Russia. Austria got full support from Berlin, but Russia -- fearful that Austria would use the crisis to
dominate the Slavic Balkans and stall Russian imperial ambitions in the region -- backed up Serbia and
began to mobilize.
This decision produced a domino effect. In Berlin, it was assumed that Russian mobilization was the result
of French and British encouragement. The German military persuaded the German emperor to let them
carry out the so-called Schlieffen Plan, to attack France first and then to turn and defeat Russia. When
Austria finally invaded Serbia, Germany prepared to attack France. Britain sided with France when the
Germans invaded Belgium, which was in violation of the agreement to respect its neutrality. By August 4,
1914, all the major powers of Europe were at war.
The remarkable fact is that few of the powers that entered the war really understood what form it would
take. The prevailing thought was that the conflict might be resolved by a few large set-piece battles and be
"over by Christmas." The war that developed could not have been more different. A stalemate developed
on the Western Front, while there was much movement back and forth on the Eastern Front. Combat was
dominated by artillery and the newly developed machine gun. Warfare stagnated into a terrible contest of
attrition in which both sides sustained losses on scales unimaginable before 1914.
The conflict was presented as a life-and-death struggle for national survival. The Turkish Empire joined
the conflict in 1914, siding with Germany and Austria. Italy entered in 1915, siding with the Western Allies.
In 1917 the United States, entirely distant from the conflict when it broke out, moved to belligerency in
response to Germany's unrestricted use of submarines against American shipping. In three years, the war
between Austria and Serbia had become global.
To win the war, the major combatants found themselves facing an unprecedented task. It became
necessary for the states to control their economies, to regiment agriculture, to direct trade, and to
conscript labor (and to draw in an army of female workers). Production was directed more and more to
armaments. The inflated demands of this new form of national conflict came to be known as "total war," a
term coined by German general Erich von Ludendorff in 1919 to describe the mobilization of the entire
economic, social, and moral energies of the nation. In the end, the economic resources of the Allied
powers proved greater than those of Germany and its allies. Tanks and aircraft began to change the
nature of war, and the Allies had more of both. With its allies having already been defeated and its own
army beaten, Germany sought an armistice, which was signed on November 11, 1918.
In the next section, learn how Europe was reshaped after the events of World War I.

The Reshaping of Europe After World War I
The cost of the World War I conflict in terms of human losses was colossal. More than nine million soldiers
were killed, millions were permanently maimed, and an unknown number of civilians died
from malnutrition,disease, and combat. In 1918 and 1919, an influenza epidemic wiped out millions more
from a population debilitated by four years of growing privation.
It is against this background that the decision to blame the Central Powers for the war must be
understood. When the Treaty of Peace was drawn up in the spring of 1919, a clause was inserted that
made clear the responsibility of the Central Powers for reparation. Clause 231, the "War Guilt" clause,
was signed by the German delegation, under protest, on June 28, 1919.
The Germans believed that the conditions imposed on them were exceptionally harsh. The German
armed forces and fortifications were to be disbanded, and Germany was allowed to retain only a rump
100,000-man army to keep domestic peace. Germany was denied the right to
possess aircraft, submarines, and most forms of heavy army weapons. All German colonies were taken
and distributed as mandates to the victorious powers. Territory taken by Prussia or Germany in the past
was returned to Germany's neighbors. France took back Alsace-Lorraine, seized by Germany in 1870,
while the restored Polish state was awarded the rich coal and steel region of Silesia. To compensate for
damages caused by the war, Germany was eventually required to pay 132 billion gold marks, in
installments, up to the year 1988.
No other issue so united Germans in their resentment of the victors than the question of reparations.
Though Germany managed to avoid paying much of what it was supposed to pay, and borrowed and then
repudiated vast sums, the important point is that ordinary Germans perceived reparations to be a punitive
sanction. They were determined to overturn the Diktat (dictated peace).
The final year of war had ushered in a period of momentous transformation worldwide. In 1917 the
Russian war effort collapsed and the emperor, Nicholas II, was forced to abdicate. The revolutionary
regime tried to continue the fight, but economic conditions and military capability deteriorated sharply. In
October 1917, Lenin's Bolshevik Party -- the most radical wing of the Russian revolutionary movement --
seized power in Petrograd (St. Petersburg), and declared a Communist regime.
Bolshevik leaders expected that their revolt would herald the onset of worldwide revolution. After three
years of bitter civil war, Bolshevik rule was secured by 1921 but world revolution did not follow. Short
Communist revolts erupted in Hungary and Germany in 1919, and violent confrontations occurred
between workers and the state in Italy and Spain in the immediate postwar years, but no other European
society saw a Communist takeover. The Communist movement outside Russia was violently suppressed,
and many of its leaders were murdered or imprisoned.
The end of the war transformed the political geography of Europe and the Middle East. After the fall of the
Russian Empire, the German, Austrian, and Ottoman Turkish empires also disappeared. They were
replaced by new, small states from the Baltic Sea to the Suez Canal. The former Turkish provinces in Iraq,
Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine were handed over as mandates to Britain and France.
The former imperial territories in Europe held by Russia, Austria, and Germany all became independent
national states. This was consistent with the demand expressed by U.S. president Woodrow Wilson that
the peoples of Europe should be allowed national "self-determination." From 1919 to 1921, more treaties
were drawn up and signed with Germany's allies -- Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey -- which
confirmed the new shape of the continent. In every case, the national settlements were messy. Small
national fractions were isolated in the territory of other states.
The end of the war produced a paradox of crisis coexisting with a mood of optimism about the future.
Parliamentary democracy was introduced everywhere in the areas dominated by the prewar monarchies
(except for Russia), and in 1920 almost every European state was, in formal terms, democratic, even
though millions of women still lacked the vote. The settlement in 1919 was supposed to pave the way for a
new world order based on collaboration and mutual respect. At Versailles, the foundations were laid for
the League of Nations, which was committed to isolating international aggression and providing a
framework for the peaceful resolution of conflicts.
In 1920 the League of Nations finally met in session in the Swiss city of Geneva, chosen because of
Switzerland's long tradition of neutrality. The League reflected a widespread revulsion against war. The
Covenant of the League of Nations committed all its members to work toward universal disarmament.
The New World Order Disintegrates
As the terrible human costs of World War I were inscribed on thousands of monuments to the war dead
across Europe, the popular mood echoed the slogan that the Great War had really been "The War to End
All Wars." In 1928 German author Erich Maria Remarque published his classic account of the war, All
Quiet on the Western Front. The novel was immediately translated into other languages. The book's vivid
descriptions of death and mutilation reminded Europeans of the futility of war.
From the start, it was difficult to operate the new postwar order on the idealistic terms in which it had been
constructed. The peace settlement sparked a wide range of grievances for those states that regarded
themselves as victims. Even the victors were not entirely happy. Italy got little out of the territorial
readjustments, and Italian nationalists condemned what they called "the mutilated peace." Japan was
resentful at what it regarded as the race prejudice of the other victorious states. In Britain, the peace was
viewed as unnecessarily harsh.
In the United States, whose president had been the main architect of the new order, the peace settlement
was rejected by Congress as the result of a growing backlash against the European Allies, who were seen
as self-interested imperial states exploiting American assistance for their own ambitions. The United
States abandoned the League and the peace settlement altogether. It refused to ratify the treaty with
France intended to ensure that the French would not detach the left bank of the Rhine from battered
The Soviet Union regarded the new order as a mask to cover the interests of imperialist capitalism. It was
excluded from the League because of the prevailing hostility toward communism. As the principal former
enemy, Germany was also excluded from the League until 1926. This placed the three potentially most
powerful economic and military states outside the prevailing order. The situation only enhanced the
opinion that the League really was a Franco-British puppet designed, in the words of American
"radio priest" Father Charles Coughlin, "to make the world safe for hypocrisy."
The system was also weakened by economic crisis. The pre-1914 world trading economy could not be
fully revived, and during the 1920s widespread unemployment and poverty existed across much of
Europe. From 1919 to 1924, currency collapsed completely in Russia, France, Germany, Austria, and
Hungary. Bankaccounts and paper assets became worthless. The result was the dispossession of broad
sections of the European middle class, leaving behind a legacy of bitterness that fueled the growth of
radical right-wing politics.