The Interbellum

When: 1918 – 1939

Out of WWI came the Interbellum (or Interwar) period, beginning in 1918. Characterized by rising tensions between internationalist forces like the League of Nations (intent on making sure that a World War never happened again) and ultranationalists like the Axis powers (intent on growing their new empires through military means), the era was a time of intense unease. Although many tend to view the interbellum period through rose-coloured glasses – imagining some sort of perpetual Gatsby-esque jazz party – the years between the wars were incredibly difficult for most humans. Hyperinflation in the 1920s, followed by the Great Depression of the 1930s, resulted in massive rates of unemployment in a system more bound together than ever before. The era came to an abrupt end in 1939 as German tanks rolled into Poland, kicking off WWII.

While tensions rose unbearably in Europe, quiet revolutions took place in other parts of the world. In Latin America, a growing divide emerged between those who sought further alignment with Europe (hispanismos) and those who wished to develop a more distinct indigenous identity (indigenismos). In Africa and the Middle East, the colonial European powers made increased efforts to “divide and rule” their subjects, bringing about a rise in sectarian division; at the same time, local nationalist movements emerged to counter these European efforts. And around the world, suffragette movements made great strides towards securing the vote for women.

Some historians view the interbellum as a 20-year pause within one world conflict, rather than a distinct period separating two World Wars. This viewpoint is understandable, given that the frustrating conclusion of the First led directly to the explosive beginning of the Second. As you dive deeper into the interbellum, try looking for clues about the years to follow – was war really inevitable? Could it have been prevented? And can you draw any similarities between the interbellum and the world of today?

Themes

  • The Rise of Fascism
  • The Roaring Twenties
  • The Great Depression
  • Anti-colonialism
  • Prelude to War
  • Nationalism
  • Disaffected youths
  • Civil War

The Interbellum World

A political map of the interbellum world. Note the British-oriented flags of the Commonwealth nations, including India, and the pre-communist flag of China. Pay close attention to Africa and the Middle East, too – many of those countries were European mandates, a fact that changed abruptly after WWII in most cases. (Wikimedia Commons)
Post-Versailles Europe. Germany in particular lost great swaths of territory, and its Western regions were occupied by French colonial troops (a source of great racial frustration). (Pinterest)
After WWI, the Middle East – formerly under the domain of the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire – was partitioned into European spheres of influence. The new colonial administrators made great efforts to play up differences between ethnic groups and sow the seeds of sectarian violence – a legacy that was a) relatively new and b) incredibly destructive to this day. (Wikipedia)

Important Names

  • Neville Chamberlain (UK PM)
  • Mahatma Gandhi (Indian nationalist)
  • Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (Turkish nationalist/president)
  • John Maynard Keynes (UK economist)
  • Adolf Hitler (German Führer)
  • Albert Einstein (German scientist)
  • V.I. Lenin (Soviet Premier)
  • Eleanor Roosevelt (US First Lady)
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt (US president)
  • Benito Mussolini (Italian “Duce”)

Terminology

  • Appeasement
  • The League of Nations
  • The Middle Eastern Mandates
  • Inflation
  • Indigenismo and Hispanismo
  • Self-Determination and Wilsonian Principles
  • The Russian Civil War
  • “Scientific racism”
  • The New Deal
  • Armistice
  • Black Thursday

The above themes, name and terms are intended as a guide to kickstart your research. Because ASAP History is generalists’ site – that is, we cover all eras and events (within reason) – it is impossible for us to provide detailed insight on every historically important event or person. With that in mind, below is a collection of articles on significant events. Longer, more in-depth articles are bolded.

Culture & Society

Amidst a tumultuous backdrop of hyperinflation, economic depression and increasing racial tensions, the interbellum period saw a global flourishing of the arts and entertainment. Many cultural works, like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, reflected societal problems that were bubbling beneath the surface.

Revolution & Unrest

Around the world, people were frustrated. In Europe in particular – site of the most dangerous brand of nationalism – many were unsatisfied with the results of the Treaty of Versailles, and a series of violent upheavals (some successful, others not so much) took place, resulting in a swing towards fascist authoritarianism. Throughout the rest of the world, the Great Depression and anti-communist struggles in the far East killed millions.

Violence & Conflict

For a period of peace, the interbellum era was incredibly dangerous. Gangster violence swept North America while civil conflicts erupted in Europe, claiming countless lives and foreshadowing a much large clash between fascism and the free world. Quiet campaigns of racial violence in Germany and the USSR, including a man-made famine in the Ukraine, erased millions of lives.

Politics & Diplomacy

Much of the discontent of the interbellum period was caused by dissatisfaction with the Treaty of Versailles, the unanimously unsatisfying document that altered the map of Europe and demanded massive financial reparations from the losers of WWI. Although hopes were high for an interconnected global system of alliances that would prevent future wars, the leftover resentments – unresolved on the battlefields of Europe – proved too strong to contain.

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