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The Interwar Years

Adolf Hitler World War 1

What you need to know

Things:

  • World War I
  • Russian Revolution
  • White Counter Revolution
  • Communism
  • League of Nations
  • Treaty of Versailles—failings
  • Reparations
  • War Guilt Clause
  • Stab in the Back
  • Cordon Sanitaire
  • Weimar Republic
  • Mein Kampf
  • Fascism—definition and characteristics
  • National Socialist Workers (Nazi) Party
  • Dawes Plan
  • Treaty of Locarno
  • Young Plan
  • Neutrality Acts
  • Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis
  • Berlin-Moscow Non-Aggression Pact
  • Appeasement—multiple theories of

People:

  • Woodrow Wilson
  • Adolph Hitler
  • Benito Mussolini
  • Hirohito
  • Paul von Hindenburg
  • Stalin
  • Stanley Baldwin
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt
  • Neville Chamberlain
  • Francisco Franco

Events:

  • Ruhr Invasion
  • Great Inflation
  • Beer Hall Putsch
  • Stock Market Crash
  • Great Depression
  • Reichstag Fire
  • Night of the Long Knives
  • Spanish Civil War
  • Manchuria
  • Ethiopia
  • Rearmament
  • Rhineland Invasion
  • Anschluss
  • Munich/Sudetenland
  • Rest of Czechoslovakia
  • Invasion of Poland
  • Pearl Harbor

Works:

Questions to answer
  • How did World War I pre-condition the InterWar Years?
  • Discuss specific failings of the Treaty of Versailles.
  • Was the Weimar Republic doomed at birth?
  • Explain the Great Inflation and its consequences.
  • How did U.S. isolation play into European intrigue?
  • Connect Reparations with the rise of Adolph Hitler.
  • What role did the Great Depression play in the ascension of Adolph Hitler?
  • Define fascism and its characteristics.
  • In what way was the Spanish Civil War a “dress rehearsal” for World War II?
  • Outline the major events in the lead-up to World War II.
  • Why did the German people embrace Hitler?
  • Why were the democratic powers unable to stop Hitler? 
  • Evaluate three alternative theories of appeasement. 
  • Was World War II inevitable? 
Sample questions answered

Explain the Great Inflation and its consequences.

The Great Inflation occurred as a result of the German government printing copious amounts of money in the early 1920s.  It followed the Ruhr Invasion by France, it destroyed the German middle class, and it gave Adolph Hitler his first national platform. 

When the German government fell behind in its payment of reparations to France in 1922, France occupied the coal-producing Ruhr region.  The German workers responded with passive resistance (pretending to work) but the government had to pay their wages.  So it began printing money.  The printing escalated through 1923 until the money supply was inflated by 4 million times.  Money became worthless.  There was no reliable standard of value. 

This inflation had the effect of destroying the German economy and, more specifically, the German middle class.  The reason is that many members of the middle class, including civil servants and pensioners (including veterans of World War I), had incomes that were fixed.  But the inflation made prices rise, while incomes did not.  By the time it was all over, an income that was sufficient in 1920 couldn’t buy a toothpick in 1923. 

Adolph Hitler capitalized on the collapse to blame the Treaty of Versailles, the liberal politicians who had signed it, and the Jews.  He called the Treaty a “slave treaty” and claimed that the politicians who had signed it had “stabbed Germany in the back.”  Jews, who held their wealth in gold, emerged from the Great Inflation with their wealth intact.  This allowed Hitler to scapegoat them as well.

The Great Inflation occurred as a result of printing of money in response to the Ruhr invasion.  It destroyed the German economy and its middle class and gave Adolph Hitler a platform from which to scapegoat the liberal Weimar Republic and German Jews.  As such, it is one of the critical events of the InterWar years.

 

Define fascism and its characteristics.

Fascism is the form of government created by Benito Mussolini in Italy in the early 1920s.  It was adopted in modified form by Hitler in Germany and by Hirohito in Japan.  It has four essential characteristics.

The first essential characteristic of fascism is the fusing of the state with big business.  Mussolini called this “corporatism.”  It was big business interests who backed Hindenburg’s appointment of Hitler to Chancellor in 1933.  And the Japanese state acted in concert with the Zaibatsus—the big business conglomerates that dominated the Japanese economy. 

The second essential characteristic of fascism is nationalist aggression.  Each of Germany, Italy, and Japan carried out aggression on its neighbors and justified it in nationalist terms.  Germany invaded the Rhineland, absorbed Austria in the Anschluss, took over the Sudetenland, and ultimately invaded Poland.  Italy carried out similar nationalist aggression against Ethiopia and Albania in pursuit of reviving Roman dominance of the Mediterranean Sea.  Japan’s aggressions in Asia included invasions of Korea, Manchuria, and China.

A third characteristic of fascism is single party rule.  Mussolini employed “black shirts” to intimidate and murder political opponents.  Hitler copied Mussolini, employing “brown shirts” do carry out the same acts.  He also outlawed political opposition after taking office in 1933.  The Japanese government tolerated no political expression except that which glorified the Emperor. 

Finally, all three fascist countries suppressed civil liberties among their people.  Germany, under Hitler, was especially heavy handed in this pursuit.  Freedom of press and speech were systematically denied.  Hitler also forbade unions, attacking the civil liberty of freedom of assembly and association. 

Fascism can be understood as the practice of four essential acts:  fusing of the state with big business; nationalist aggression; single party rule; and the suppression of civil liberties.  Each of Germany, Italy, and Japan practiced fascism during the InterWar years.

 

Discuss alternate theories of appeasement.

There are three distinct theories of appeasement.  One is that it was solely Chamberlain’s doing.  A second theory holds that it was a policy of the larger British state apparatus.   A final theory holds that the British were not, in fact, “appeasing” Hitler, but helping him build up, abetting his preparations, for a war with the Soviet Union. 

The first theory of appeasement is that it was entirely Chamberlain’s doing.  This theory was articulated even before World War II was over.  It holds Chamberlain to have been naïve and arrogant, but sincere in believing that if he acceded to Hitler’s repeated demands he could avert war.  The handover of the Sudetenland at Munich is the exemplary instance of conventional appeasement.  It lays the blame on a single headstrong but well-intentioned individual.

A later theory, developed in the 1970s is known as “revisionism.”  Where the original theory blamed appeasement only on Chamberlain, the revisionist theory blamed the larger British state and policy apparatus.  In the revisionist theory, appeasement was not cowardly and shameful (as it is the original theory), but a realistic accommodation to the fact of British imperial decline, ceding Central Europe to Hitler in exchange for his leaving the British Empire alone. 

A final theory, developed since the 1990s, holds that the British weren’t even appeasing Hitler, but helping him build up his army in anticipation of a war against the Soviet Union.  This theory cites British acquiescence to Rearmament, the invasion of the Rhineland, the Anschluss, and Munich as cynical moves to heighten German power.  Of course, they never imagined Hitler would turn his power on them rather than the Russians. 

In conclusion, there are three different theories of appeasement:  that it was the work of a single man; that it was the work of the British government; and that it wasn’t appeasement at all, but rather abetment.  The theories are mutually exclusive and provide distinct explanations for what went in the 1930s that led Europe to war. 

Original documents
Supplementary notes

Download the pdf of the notes or click here for the webpage version

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Causes of the Great Depression

Intro to the book

At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, all was quiet on the Western Front.  The most bloody war in the history of the world was over.  But within only another twenty years, Europe would be back at war, with a new generation of fresh young men ready to be thrown to the slaughter.  And this next World War, the Second, would prove even more devastating than the First.  More than 50 million people would die, versus only 10 million in the First.  Economic damage would be ten times what it was in the earlier war.  Genocide would become a formal act of national policy.

What happened in these twenty brief years that led from one World War to the next?  Why did the calamity of the First World War not provide reasonable men the means to avoid the Second?  In fact, why did the events and settlement of the First World War seem to make the Second World War all but inevitable?  And was it, in fact, inevitable, or, was it a matter of choice?

This book addresses the years 1919 to 1939:  The World Between the Wars.  It explores the poisoned legacy of World War I and how that legacy laid a path directly to World War II.  It explains the major events that happened in this period and how each added fuel to what would become the fire of war.  It details the sequence of events that led to the lighting of the fire and the start of World War II. Finally, it briefly examines why Hitler was so successful in seducing Germany to its doom and why the Western democracies were so unsuccessful in resisting Hitler’s aggression.

If ever there was a society that had lost its moorings, even its sanity, it was Europe in these InterWar years.  The “Great War,” as the First had been called, had destroyed not only vast empires and centuries of accumulated wealth, it destroyed Europeans’ own belief in their judgment, their values, their institutions, and their competence to produce a shared, durable peace.  They tried to navigate these years with a kind of ad hoc-ery, imagining that the world that had been, still was.  But it wasn’t.  Because of their inability to recognize this, Europeans surrendered control of their civilization to a mad man who plunged it into the greatest horror the world has ever known.  This is that story.

Table of Contents to the book
  1. Introduction
  2. Overview
  3. The Poisoned Legacy of World War I
    1. The Specter of Communism
    2. A Fatally Flawed Treaty
    3. U.S. Isolation
  4. The Slowly Unfolding Crisis
    1. The Weimar Republic
    2. German Inflation
    3. The Rise of Fascism
    4. Japanese Aggression in Asia
    5. The Great Depression
    6. The Spanish Civil War
    7. The Rise of Adolph Hitler
  5. The Path to War
    1. Rearmament
    2. Invasion of the Rhineland
    3. Anschluss
    4. Sudetenland/Munich
    5. The Rest of Czechoslovakia
    6. Berlin-Moscow Non-Aggression Pact
  6. Reflections
    1. Why the Germans Embraced Hitler
    2. Why the Western Democracies Couldn’t Stop Hitler
      1. Traditional theory of appeasement
      2. Revisionist theory of appeasement
      3. Appeasement as abettment
  7. Final Word
  8. Timeline
Comments and Questions

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