108: Interwar Reflections


It has been 107 episodes, so for one episode I will take a step back and try and summarize some of the themes and events of all of the Interwar episodes before we jump into the fighting in Europe in September 1939.


Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 108 - Interwar Reflections. As this is something of a transitional episode I would like to take the opportunity to thank everybody who has supported the podcast over the years, even if that support is just by listening every week. You, listening right now, thank you. Next episode begins our series on the German invasion of Poland, which will be titled the September Campaign which is how it is referred to in Poland. It has been 107 episodes, over the course of over two years, and I thought it would be a good moment to take a step back and look at some of the important themes and events from those episodes before we jump into the traditional start of the Second World War story with the Panzers rolling into Poland on September 1, 1939.

Fear of Communism

First up on the list of themes is the fear of communism. In 1917 the first and then the second Russian Revolution would occur, and that would be followed by the Russian Civil War which saw the Communist government in Russia solidify itself into power. If you want to learn more about those events I did cover them in History of the Great War, or you can just go listen to Revolutions by Mike Duncan who covered them better than I can ever hope to. The creation of the Soviet Union is obviously important for the overall events of the Second World War, but it was also crucial to the events of the interwar period around Europe and the world. The goal of communism is to meaningfully reshape society away from how it existed at the time. This meant that the rise of communism as a popular political ideology was a threat to existing power structures all over the world. During the first years of the 1920s the Communists would decisively win the Russian Civil War, and this would just make them a greater threat to the rest of Europe. Their first steps to extending their control into Western Europe was Poland, and the defeat of the Red Army at the gates of Warsaw in the Polish-Soviet War would turn into a generational setback. The goal of the Russian Communists, dating back to the very beginning of the Revolution had been to cause a revolution in Germany. With their defeat in Poland, and the failures experienced by German Communists in their efforts in 1919 and 1920, the idea of a Communist Germany, and then a Communist world, were destroyed. But this failure did not mean that Communism and the Soviet Union was not still seen as a threat. During the 1920s mostly normal economic and diplomatic relations would be put in place between Moscow and the rest of the world, but distrust remained. This distrust remained even during the late 1930s, and as the threat of German aggression seemed to be catapulting Europe into war, Britain and France still could not quite shake the idea that the Soviet Union was not really a nation that should be brought into their councils. There was even a fear that the Soviets were really just hoping to capitalize on a lengthy and drawn out war between the Western democracies. This feeling was stoked by how the Communist parties in European nations interacted with the governments of those nations and other political parties. For the 1920s and then into the 1930s the direction given to Communist parties all over Europe were that they should not work with other left wing parties, those that did not push for a true Communist revolution. They were treated just as much as an enemy as any other political group. This non-cooperation pushed Communist parties away from the political establishments in their nations and as far into the radical left as possible. In the mid-1930s this policy would shift to one of cooperation with the Socialist parties of Europe, which resulted in some real victories for the new political alliance, like in France with the Popular Front. But there was always the suspicion, partially valid but also overblown, that the Communist groups were always taking their marching orders from Moscow and were being used as a way for the Soviet Union to gain influence in other nations. The anti-communist views of many Western European political leaders resulted in two key decisions: the omission of a representative of the Soviet Union during the discussions that led to the Munich Agreement and the decision of Britain and France to not aggressively pursue the possibilities of an alliance. For their part the Soviet leaders, including Stalin, were also suspicious of the western capitalist powers for some of the same reasons. There was concern that they just wanted to use the Soviet Union in a war, so that they could then come in and replace the government. Soviet actions also created an entire cordon of nations that were deeply distrustful of anything coming from Moscow. From northern Finland in the Arctic Circle all the way down to Black Sea there were a line of nations that considered the Soviet Union to be a direct threat to their survival. This made any wider Eastern European agreement impossible. As future events would show, these threats were entirely and completely justified.

Rise of Fascism/Nazism

Communism was not the only revolutionary political movement that would influence events in Europe during the interwar years and no conversation about interwar themes and topics would be complete without a discussion of Fascism and Nazism. Both of these movements would have their roots in the immediate post war years as the general dissatisfaction among some groups in society would grow during the economic uncertainty and societal upheavals in the wake of the war. Both movements would speak to a radical nationalism that believed that violence was not just an inevitability, but a desirable outcome and that it was through that violence that the strong nations and groups would be able to assert their dominance over others. There were key differences between Italian Fascism and German Nazism, particularly the place of anti-semitism in the early days of the movements, but at their core they both sought to appeal to the same audience in both societies. Those that were dissatisfied with the status quo, and believed that they could make their nations and themselves more powerful through the proper application of violence. What transitioned both groups from small radical parties that had little influence, to groups that were leading their respective nations, was the support that they received from the wider political establishment. Both groups would be seen as perhaps a bit more passionate in their rhetoric and actions, but not outside of the realm of reasonableness, and they were seen as a great counterweight to the rising influence of Communist parties in both Italy and Germany. They were seen as a possible problem, but a problem with an upside, pushing back against the grassroots support for Communist parties that were equally unafraid to use violence when they felt it was justified. In 1933 Germany this support from the political status quo was essential to allowing the Nazi party, after a string of electoral successes, to be brought into the government with Hitler in the position of Chancellor. He was surrounded by almost an entire cabinet of what were seen as traditional and stable conservative political leaders. Leaders that would prove to be completely unequipped to actually stop the sequence of events that would leave Hitler and the Nazi Party in complete control of Germany. In the beginning the Nazi government would look a lot like the German governments that had come before it, but changes would become more rapid as time went by. The key turning point would be the Enablement Act, put in place just weeks after the creation of the Nazi government, which used the pretext of an attack on the government to suspend most of the personal freedoms that German citizens enjoyed, a suspension that would prove to be permanent.

Lack of Faith in Governments

For both the Communists on the left and the Facists and Nazis on the right one of the key ingredients in their success was just a general lack of the ability of the governments in many nations to gain and retain the faith of large groups of their citizens. The First World War had put unbelievable stress on the societal fabric in many nations, and in its aftermath there were many problems that were not easy to solve. Borders had been changed, nations had been created, and the cost of the war had to be paid in more ways than just in currency. There were millions of war veterans who had spent their first years as adults fighting a war that was now over, millions spent the war years in war industries that no longer existed, and there were families that had experienced loss not just among those who had went to the front but also those who had been left behind that had to live a life of privation due to the economic crisis of central and eastern Europe. There was real improvement for many people during the 1920s, which came to a crashing halt at the end of the decade with the Great Depression. Suddenly those that had built a life after the war had lost their job, or had their ability to export their agricultural products removed, or simply suffered under rising costs. National governments all over the world tried to make changes, and tried to find ways to solve some of the problems, but there were limits on what they could and would do. Public works programs, increased public welfare, and other actions were taken, but for years none of them seemed to be enough. All of these hardships gave space for more radical political ideologies to gain a larger foothold in many nations. In some this would lead to the downfall of the democracies that had been setup after the war, with Poland being an example of a democratic government that failed in favor of a military dictatorship. In other nations, like in Germany, the democratic government was able to hang on, but barely, as radical groups on both sides of the political spectrum gathered up greater and greater numbers of supporters, and the center would be unable to hold. In Spain these same changes were being felt, and it would erupt in a Civil War. Spain is a vision of what might have happened in nations like Germany and Italy if events had gone slightly differently and fighting would have erupted during their governmental transitions. In Spain the most popular political ideologies of the day would all come into conflict with one another. Socialism, Communism, Anarchism, Fascism, Nationalism, Authoritarianism, were all represented. But all of these changes, regardless of how violent they were, all point back to one feeling among millions of people: the established governments of the day were simply incapable of meeting their needs. From Democratic Socialist governments on the left to Conservative governments on the right, many came to believe that there could not be the changes they believed necessary within the confines and restrictions of the existing political, economic, and societal structures. This pushed them to find groups that were not just saying that changes were needed, but also groups that were pushing for radical change, revolutionary change.

Willingness to Use Force

One of the similarities between all of these radical groups was their willingness to use force, which began as a willingness to meet street violence with street violence, and then when they came to power the constant push for greater military strength in preparation for what they saw as the impending conflict which they were willing to instigate. The Soviets felt they had to rebuild their military strength in the 1920s out of concern that the capitalist west was going to try and overthrow their Communist government, in Japan a larger military was needed to push Japanese control onto the Asian continent and to protect from possible retaliation, Mussolini and the Italian Fascists expanded Italian military spending due to their dreams of expansion in Africa and the Balkans, and in Germany after 1933 Hitler and the Nazis pushed the German economy almost to the breaking point preparing for a war of conquest in Eastern Europe. Around these nations other nations had to then pour their own money into rearmament efforts out of fear that they had to protect themselves. None of these nations were spending the money on military hardware because they liked shiny things that go boom, all of them had a purpose either defensive, offensive, or in many cases both. Britain and France were two major nations in Europe that were generally quite late to the rearmament game, not beginning serious efforts until the last years of the 1930s, leaving them playing catchup even after the start of the war. Many words have been written about this delay, particularly the British efforts at Appeasement during the 1930s, and I think that is pretty well trod ground even on this very podcast. But what I will say is that what is evident in how each nation treated rearmament, and particular when the real commitment of national resources to those rearmament efforts was made, was dictated by how willing they were to use the military forces that they were creating. Some nations like Germany, Italy, and Japan, believed that to achieve their national goals they had to have a strong military and that military would be used. When Germany was building Panzer IIIs, they were not doing so to look good on the parade ground or as a deterrent, they were doing so because they believed that they were going to be used to invade another nation, probably more than one. This different outlook between nations, between those that were building a military to defend national interests and those that were building a military as a weapon to wield against others, shifted how rearmament was viewed and how rearmament could be justified. These viewpoints were not just in the heads of political leaders, but also were born out by public sentiment, with groups in nations like Britain pushing their government to support peace initiatives at every opportunity. The differences in the general willingness to use force, and the belief that every weapon at hand should be use to its maximum impact at every opportunity, would not end with the start of the war. It would also impact the strategies of nations during the early part of the war, there was after all a reason that while German bombers were dropping bombs on Warsaw the British and French bombers were loading up with leaflets to drop on German cities.

Fighting was Already escalating

By the last half of the 1930s these rearmament efforts were creating military units that were being used, in ever escalating ways. Japan would push into Manchuria, and then into Northern China, and then they would capture Shanghai and begin to push deeper and deeper into China to try and destroy the Nationalist and Communist forces that opposed them. In Africa the Italian military would invade Ethiopia and after a somewhat tumultuous campaign would turn it into an Italian colony, in Spain Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union would all send military equipment and manpower to help the groups that they supported in the civil war. Even where fighting did not happen, just the fact that there were so many nations putting so much money into rearmament shifted and changed events. During the remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1935 one of the key points of conversation in the French government was the strength of the German military even at that early date. Similar conversations would then occur in London and Paris before and during the Munich Crisis as the German military had grown even greater during the intervening years. The size of the German military, and the belief that Hitler might just use it unless his demands were met, was an important ingredient to the absorption of Austria, then the Sudetenland, then the rest of Czechoslovakia. One way to look at the events of the 1930s is a period of escalating war. It began far away from what were considered the “Great Powers” in eastern Asia with Japanese expansion, then in the mid 1930s it grew closer with the Italian actions in Africa, it then transitioned to Spain in the form of a Civil War that would have been markedly different without the military hardware poured into the conflict by other nations, it then shifted to Eastern Europe with German expansion into Austria. Now of course there was not fighting in the Rhineland, or in Austria, or in Czechoslovakia, but they were still military occupations, they just happened to be unopposed. German military divisions would move on Vienna, and then into the Sudetenland, and then on Prague. Is it a military campaign if nobody is there to fight? Maybe the best argument for an earlier start date of the Second World War is not about how you view the relationship between the Sino-Japanese War and Europe but instead how you view the German 8th Army crossing the border with Austria in March 1938.

Some personal closing thoughts

Those are some of the themes of the events of the interwar period that I feel left Europe on the brink of a World War in August 1939. I wanted to close with some of my personal thoughts and observations from the last 107 episodes. I think I have mentioned this a few times over the years, but just to reiterate: many times when I am researching for the podcast I am not an expert on a topic when that research begins. After I started History of the Great War in 2014 essentially all of my reading time has been focused on podcast related topics, which means there had been quite a gap where I did very little Second World War related reading. Even before 2014 most of my reading had been on topics outside of the interwar years: with most of my focus being on the Pacific War. I knew the basic outline of the events leading up to the war, as I’m guessing pretty much everybody listening to episode 108 of a Second World War podcast, also knew. Mussolini comes to power, Hitler comes to power, Appeasement, Rearmament, War was the basic outline. I have certainly learned a lot over the course of the last 107 episodes, but I just wanted to pull out 3 things to discuss: the scale of the fighting in China during the 1930s, the political dimensions of appeasement, and the general mechanics of how the Italian Fascists and German Nazis came to power. I knew about the Second Sino-Japanese War, but it is one of those conflicts that is easy to miss if you are not actively trying to find more information about it. The events in Nanking and the brutality of the Japanese conquest of the city is unfortunately an event that gets mentioned in many sources, but the lengthy fighting in and around Shanghai which lasted from August until November 1937 and involved hundreds of thousands of troops on both sides was an event I had read almost nothing about. This is probably the point in time to mention the heavy Eurocentric view of most interwar history, only bumping up against Japan when absolutely necessary to setup events after 1941. The fighting in China during the 1930s, first between the Nationalists and Communists, and then with the Japanese is probably one of the areas I would love to see more readily accessible histories written that focus on the confusing mix of events. The second item on my list was the public politics of appeasement. The story of appeasement is again something that you cannot miss if you read anything about the start of the war. Chamberlain! Munich! Cowardice! Are words that all go together, what I did not understand was the massive support for the peace movement that was present in British politics in the mid-1930s. It would later erode due to the actions of Hitler and others, but the desire for peace and the belief in collective security was still very much a live and well when Chamberlain flew to meet Hitler. The final item that really stuck out at me is how in many ways unexceptional the Nazi rise to power was when looked at from both the perspective of German politics and from an international angle. From within Germany the creation of the Nazi government was after two short lived governments under Papen and Schleicher which both had ruled by Presidential decree with only minority support in the Reichstag since May 1932. When a deal was made with Hitler and the National Socialist party the new government was closer to being a majority government. It was also a government supported by traditionally conservative leaders like Papen and Hugenberg. The feeling was that with the Nazi party tied to the government, something they had resisted up to that point, their policies would be moderated and the violence that they had used to garner support over the previous years would end. All of this meant that when the Nazi party came to power in January 1933 it was not through some final act of violence or through a revolution, it was through a boring political alliance with other political leaders. Similar events had occurred in Italy when Mussolini and his Fascists had come to power. The threat of violence with the March on Rome, which did not actually involve any kind of attack on Rome, which would have almost certainly have failed, was enough to allow the Fascists to intimidate their way into power. But when they came to power it took the form of a normal Italian government, and would not really shift and make meaningful changes for years. During these early years of Fascist government in Italy, and in the early months of the Nazi government in Germany, they were able to unify many political factions under the idea that they all really hated the Communists while also refusing to work with the more moderate Socialists. In Germany this period where the support from other right wing groups was required for the government would be relatively short, with the passage of the Enabling Act in March 1933, which was still based on the perceived and amplified threat of a Communist revolution, solidifying the Nazi position of power. What I found interesting about all of this is that while the Fascists and Nazis used violence as a political tactic to grow and shape their support within society, they came to power and then initially formed governments that looked very….normal. They were not revolutionary, they did not exist to tear down existing power structures and change society, but instead to use the existing power structures to their own advantage. Mussolini was appointed Prime Minister of Italy just as previous Prime Ministers had been, the Nazi party gained the most votes in multiple consecutive German elections, and even relatively fair ones before they came to power, and then Hitler was named Chancellor in the same way that had been done since the creation of the Weimar republic. They did not come to power through revolution, but through politics. The closest you can come to an answer for a singular cause of the Second World War were the actions of the German government after 1933. And that government, which would lead to the war, millions of deaths, and unfathomable amounts of human suffering was formed completely legally and with the support of over a third of German voters, German industrial leaders, influential German political leaders, and the vestigial remains of what had once been Germany’s largest conservative party. A rather boring beginning for a government that could cause so much suffering and destruction.

I started this podcast, way back in Episode 1, with the question of whether or not the Second World War was inevitable. I stand by my initial statement that the war was not inevitable after the First World War, but I do think if you look at a short enough timespan then it can appear to be so. The challenge is that after Hitler and his government are firmly ensconced in power after 1933 there are very few courses of action by other nations that do not result in war. Now the war could have happened earlier, and maybe its opening stages go very differently if the French assert the Rhineland demilitarized zone or if the German rejection of the Versailles treaty limits of rearmament are responded to with force, but that still results in war. Any true off ramp from a military conflict in Europe can probably only exist before 1933, and would require a whole list of different decisions to be made. Changes to the Versailles Treaty might have helped, although the most problematic pieces around reparations were largely reformed through the Dawes and Young plans. Changes to how the German Communists interacted with other left wing political groups might have made a difference and just given a stronger united front to counteract the unifying nature of the Nazi party on the German right. Changes to the international reaction to the Great Depression, which may have reduced the economic effects in Germany and other nations might have been reduced. There is probably an endless list of different decisions that German leaders, politicians, and citizens could have made over the course of the 1920s. But unfortunately for many people over the next 20 years, it was impossible to know that any of these decisions would lead to a future war.