Chapter 15: Years of Crisis, 1919-1931 By: Grayson Roberts

Section 1: Postwar Uncertainty

A New Revolution in Science

In the 20th century Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud had a major impact. They are were apart of the scientific revolution.

Impact of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity:

Albert Einstein offered startling new ideas on energy, time, space, and matter. Space and time can change when measured relative to an object moving near the speed of light—about 186,000 miles per second. Since relative motion is the key to Einstein’s idea, it is called the theory of relativity. Einstein's ideas impacted life in many different ways.

Influence of Freudian Psychology:

The ideas of Austrian physician Sigmund Freud were as revolutionary as Einstein’s. Freud treated patients with psychological problems. He thought that most of human behavior is irrational. By the 1920s, Freud’s theories had developed widespread influence.

Literature in the 1920s:

World War I caused philosophers and writers to question accepted ideas about reason and progress. Disillusioned by the war, many people also feared the future and expressed doubts about traditional religious beliefs. T. S. Eliot, an American poet living in England, wrote that Western society had lost its spiritual values in 1922. Eliot described the postwar world as a barren “wasteland,” drained of hope and faith.


The horror of war made a deep impression on many writers. Franz Kafka wrote eerie novels such as The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926). His books were always very suspenseful and had a dangerous situation. Many novels showed the influence of Freud’s theories on the unconscious. The Irish-born author James Joyce gained widespread attention with his stream-of consciousness novel Ulysses (1922). This book focuses on a single day in the lives of three people in Dublin, Ireland.

Thinkers React to Uncertainties:

In their search for meaning in an uncertain world, some thinkers turned to the philosophy known as existentialism. An existentialism is a philosophical theory or approach that emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will. Existentialists believed that there is no universal meaning to life. Each person creates his or her own meaning in life through choices made and actions taken. They were influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche. His ideas attracted growing attention in the 20th century and had a great impact on politics in Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s.

Revolution in the Arts:

Painting and music developed after this war.

Artists Rebel Against Tradition:

Artists rebelled against earlier realistic styles of painting. They wanted to depict the inner world of emotion and imagination rather than show realistic representations of objects. Inspired by traditional African art, Georges Braque of France and Pablo Picasso of Spain founded Cubism in 1907. Cubism transformed natural shapes into geometric forms. Surrealism, an art movement that sought to link the world of dreams with Surrealists tried to call on the unconscious part of their minds. Many of their paintings have an eerie, dreamlike quality and depict objects in unrealistic ways.

Composers Try New Styles:

In both classical and popular music, composers moved away from traditional styles. A new popular musical style called jazz emerged in the United States. It was developed by musicians, mainly African Americans, in New Orleans, Memphis, and Chicago. It swept the United States and Europe. The lively, loose beat of jazz seemed to capture the new freedom of the age. Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg rejected traditional harmonies and musical scales.

The Persistence of Memory (1931)

Society Challenges Convention:

World War I had disrupted traditional social patterns. New ideas and ways of life led to a new kind of individual freedom during the 1920s. Young people especially were willing to break with the past and experiment with modern values.

Women’s Roles Change:

The war had allowed women to take on new roles. Their work in the war effort was decisive in helping them win the right to vote. After the war, women’s suffrage became law in many countries, including the United States, Britain, Germany, Sweden, and Austria. Women abandoned restrictive clothing and hairstyles. They wore shorter, looser garments and had their hair “bobbed,” or cut short. They also wore makeup, drove cars, and drank and smoked in public. As women sought new careers, the numbers of women in medicine, education, journalism, and other professions increased.

Technological Advances Improve Life:

Scientists developed new drugs and medical treatments that helped millions of people in the postwar years during World War 1. The war’s technological advances were put to use to improve transportation and communication after the war.

The Automobile Alters Society:

The automobile benefited from a host of wartime innovations and improvements—electric starters, air-filled tires, and more powerful engines. Cars were now sleek and brightly polished, complete with headlights and chrome-plated bumpers. Increased auto use by the average family led to lifestyle changes. More people traveled for pleasure. In Europe and the United States, new businesses opened to serve the mobile tourist. The auto also affected where people lived and worked. People moved to suburbs and commuted to work in the cities

Airplanes Transform Travel:

During 1919, two British pilots made the first successful flight across the Atlantic, from Newfoundland to Ireland. In 1927, an American pilot named Charles Lindbergh captured world attention with a 33-hour solo flight from New York to Paris. Most of the world’s major passenger airlines were established during the 1920s. Rich people were the only ones that were able to travel at first. Everyone enjoyed the exploits of the aviation pioneers, including those of Amelia Earhart. She was an American who, in 1932, became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.

Radio and Movies Dominate Popular Entertainment:

During 1920, the world’s first commercial radio station—KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—began broadcasting. Almost overnight, radio mania swept the United States. Every major city had stations broadcasting news, plays, and even live sporting events. Soon most families owned a radio. Also in the 1920s, motion pictures became really popular. Many countries, from Cuba to Japan, started to produced movies. The king of Hollywood’s silent screen was the English-born Charlie Chaplin, a comic genius best known for his portrayal of the lonely little tramp bewildered by life. In the late 1920s, the addition of sound transformed movies.

Section 2: A Worldwide Depression

Postwar Europe:

World War I was immense in both human suffering and economic terms. The Great War left every major European country nearly bankrupt. In addition, Europe’s domination in world affairs declined after the war.

Unstable New Democracies:

From 1914 to 1918, Europe’s last absolute rulers had been overthrown. The first of the new governments was formed in Russia in 1917. The Provisional Government, as it was called, hoped to establish constitutional and democratic rule. However, within months it had fallen to a Communist dictatorship. Many citizens of the new democracies had little experience with representative government. For generations, kings and emperors had ruled Germany and the new nations formed from Austria-Hungary. Even in France and Italy, whose parliaments had existed before World War I, the large number of political parties made effective government difficult. Frequent changes in government made it hard for democratic countries to develop strong leadership and move toward long-term goals. The weaknesses of a coalition government became a major problem in times of crisis. Voters in several countries were then willing to sacrifice democratic government for strong, authoritarian leadership.

The Weimar Republic:

The Weimar Republic was named after the city where the national assembly met. The Weimar Republic had serious weaknesses from the start. First, Germany lacked a strong democratic tradition. Germany’s new democratic government was set up in 1919. Millions of Germans blamed the Weimar government, not their wartime leaders, for the country’s defeat and postwar humiliation caused by the Versailles Treaty.

Inflation Causes Crisis in Germany:

Germany faced enormous economic problems that had begun during the war. Unlike Britain and France, Germany had not greatly increased its wartime taxes. To pay the expenses of the war, the Germans had simply printed money. After Germany’s defeat, this paper money steadily lost its value. Burdened with heavy reparations payments to the Allies and with other economic problems, Germany printed even more money. As a result, the value of the mark, as Germany’s currency was called, fell sharply.

Attempts at Economic Stability:

The work of an international committee helped Germany recover from the 1923 inflation. The committee was headed by Charles Dawes, an American banker. Put into effect in 1924, the Dawes Plan helped slow inflation. As the German economy began to recover, it attracted more loans and investments from the United States. By 1929, German factories were producing as much as they had before the war.

Efforts at a Lasting Peace:

In 1925, the two ministers met in Locarno, Switzerland, with officials from Belgium, Italy, and Britain. They signed a treaty promising that France and Germany would never again make war against each other. Germany also agreed to respect the existing borders of France and Belgium. It then was admitted to the League of Nations. The League of Nations, the obvious choice as enforcer, had no armed forces. The refusal of the United States to join the League also weakened it. Nonetheless, the peace agreements seemed a good start.

Financial Collapse:

In the late 1920s, American economic prosperity largely sustained the world economy. If the U.S. economy weakened, the whole world’s economic system might collapse. In 1929, it did.

A Flawed U.S. Economy:

Despite prosperity, several weaknesses in the U.S. economy caused serious problems. These included uneven distribution of wealth, overproduction by business and agriculture, and the fact that many Americans were buying less. The rising productivity led to enormous profits. However, this new wealth was not evenly distributed. The richest 5 percent of the population received 33 percent of all personal income in 1929. Yet 60 percent of all American families earned less than $2,000 a year. Thus, most families were too poor to buy the goods being produced. Unable to sell all their goods, store owners eventually cut back their orders from factories. During the 1920s, overproduction affected American farmers as well. Scientific farming methods and new farm machinery had dramatically increased crop yields. Unable to sell their crops at a profit, many farmers could not pay off the bank loans that kept them in business. Their unpaid debts weakened banks and forced some to close. The danger signs of overproduction by factories and farms should have warned people against gambling on the stock market. Yet no one heeded the warning.

The Stock Market Crashes:

New York City’s Wall Street was the financial capital of the world in 1929. In September 1929, some investors began to think that stock prices were unnaturally high. They started selling their stocks, believing the prices would soon go down. By Thursday, October 24, the gradual lowering of stock prices had become an all-out slide downward.

The Great Depression:

People couldn't pay the money they owed on margin purchases. Stocks they had bought at high prices were now worthless. Within months of the crash, unemployment rates began to rise as industrial production, prices, and wages declined. A long business slump, which would come to be called the Great Depression, followed. The stock market crash alone did not cause the Great Depression, but it quickened the collapse of the economy and made the Depression more difficult. By 1932, factory production had been cut in half. Thousands of businesses failed, and banks closed.

A Global Depression:

Worried American bankers demanded repayment of their overseas loans, and American investors withdrew their money from Europe. The American market for European goods dropped sharply as the U.S. Congress placed high tariffs on imported goods so that American dollars would stay in the United States and pay for American goods. Many countries that depended on exporting goods to the United States also suffered. Moreover, when the United States raised tariffs, it set off a chain reaction. Other nations imposed their own higher tariffs. World trade dropped by 65 percent. This contributed further to the economic downturn. Unemployment rates soared.

Effects Throughout the World:

Because of war debts and dependence on American loans and investments, Germany and Austria were particularly hard hit. In 1931, Austria’s largest bank failed. In Asia, both farmers and urban workers suffered as the value of exports fell by half between 1929 and 1931. The crash was felt heavily in Latin America as well. As European and U.S. demand for such Latin American products as sugar, beef, and copper dropped, prices collapsed.

The World Confronts the Crisis:

The Depression confronted democracies with a serious challenge to their economic and political systems. Each country met the crisis in its own way.

Britain Takes Steps to Improve Its Economy:

To meet the emergency, British voters elected a multiparty coalition known as the National Government. It passed high protective tariffs, increased taxes, and regulated the currency. It also lowered interest rates to encourage industrial growth. These measures brought about a slow but steady recovery.

France Responds to Economic Crisis:

The economic crisis contributed to political instability. In 1933, five coalition governments formed and fell. Many political leaders were frightened by the growth of antidemocratic forces both in France and in other parts of Europe. So in 1936, moderates, Socialists, and Communists formed a coalition. The Popular Front, as it was called, passed a series of reforms to help the workers. Unfortunately, price increases quickly offset wage gains. Unemployment remained high. Yet France also preserved democratic government.

Socialist Governments Find Solutions:

. In Sweden, the government sponsored massive public works projects that kept people employed and producing. All the Scandinavian countries raised pensions for the elderly and increased unemployment insurance, subsidies for housing, and other welfare benefits. To pay for these benefits, the governments taxed all citizens. Democracy remained intact.

Recovery in the United States:

In 1932, in the first presidential election after the Depression had begun, U.S. voters elected Franklin D. Roosevelt. His confident manner appealed to millions of Americans who felt bewildered by the Depression. On March 4, 1933, the new president sought to restore Americans’ faith in their nation. Roosevelt immediately began a program of government reform that he called the New Deal. Large amounts of public money were spent on welfare and relief programs. Roosevelt and his advisers believed that government spending would create jobs and start a recovery. Regulations were imposed to reform the stock market and the banking system.

Section 3: Fascism Rises in Europe

Fascism’s Rise in Italy:

Most Fascists shared several ideas. They preached an extreme form of nationalism, or loyalty to one’s country. Fascism was a new, militant political movement that emphasized loyalty to the state and obedience to its leader. Unlike communism, fascism had no clearly defined theory or program. In each nation, Fascists wore uniforms of a certain color, used special salutes, and held mass rallies. Unlike Communists, Fascists did not seek a classless society. Rather, they believed that each class had its place and function. In most cases, Fascist parties were made up of aristocrats and industrialists, war veterans, and the lower middle class.

Mussolini Takes Control:

Fascism’s rise in Italy was fueled by bitter disappointment over the failure to win large territorial gains at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Rising inflation and unemployment also contributed to widespread social unrest. They wanted a leader who would take action. A newspaper editor and politician named Benito Mussolini boldly promised to rescue Italy by reviving its economy and rebuilding its armed forces. He vowed to give Italy strong leadership. Groups of Fascists wearing black shirts attacked Communists and Socialists on the streets. In October 1922, about 30,000 Fascists marched on Rome.

Il Duce’s Leadership:

Mussolini was now Il Duce, or the leader. He abolished democracy and outlawed all political parties except the Fascists. Secret police jailed his opponents. Government censors forced radio stations and publications to broadcast or publish only Fascist doctrines. Mussolini outlawed strikes. He sought to control the economy by allying the Fascists with the industrialists and large landowners.

Hitler Rises to Power in Germany:

Adolf Hitler was a little-known political leader whose early life had been marked by disappointment. When World War I broke out, Hitler found a new beginning. He volunteered for the German army and was twice awarded the Iron Cross, a medal for bravery.

The Rise of the Nazis:

At the end of the war, Hitler settled in Munich. In 1919, he joined a tiny right-wing political group. This group shared his belief that Germany had to overturn the Treaty of Versailles and combat communism. The group later named itself the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, called Nazi for short. Its policies formed the German brand of fascism known as Nazism. The party adopted the swastika, or hooked cross, as its symbol. Inspired by Mussolini’s march on Rome, Hitler and the Nazis plotted to seize power in Munich in 1923. The attempt failed, and Hitler was arrested. He was tried for treason but was sentenced to only five years in prison. He served less than nine months.

Hitler Becomes Chancellor:

Conservative leaders mistakenly believed they could control Hitler and use him for their purposes. In January 1933, they advised President Paul von Hindenburg to name Hitler chancellor. Thus Hitler came to power legally. Once in office, Hitler called for new elections, hoping to win a parliamentary majority. Six days before the election, a fire destroyed the Reichstag building, where the parliament met. The Nazis blamed the Communists. By stirring up fear of the Communists, the Nazis and their allies won a slim majority.

The Führer Is Supreme:

Hitler wanted more than just economic and political power—he wanted control over every aspect of German life. To shape public opinion and to win praise for his leadership, Hitler turned the press, radio, literature, painting, and film into propaganda tools. Books that did not conform to Nazi beliefs were burned in huge bonfires. Churches were forbidden to criticize the Nazis or the government. Schoolchildren had to join the Hitler Youth (for boys) or the League of German Girls. Hitler believed that continuous struggle brought victory to the strong.

Hitler Makes War on the Jews:

Although Jews were less than one percent of the population, the Nazis used them as scapegoats for all Germany’s troubles since the war. This led to a wave of anti-Semitism across Germany. Beginning in 1933, the Nazis passed laws depriving Jews of most of their rights. Violence against Jews mounted.

Other Countries Fall to Dictators:

In Hungary in 1919, after a brief Communist regime, military forces and wealthy landowners joined to make Admiral Miklós Horthy the first European postwar dictator. In Poland, Marshal Jozef Pilsudski seized power in 1926. In Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania, kings turned to strong-man rule. With no democratic experience and severe economic problems, many Europeans saw dictatorship as the only way to prevent instability. By the mid-1930s, the powerful nations of the world were split into two antagonistic camps—democratic and totalitarian.

Section 4: Aggressors Invade Nations

Japan Seeks an Empire:

The Japanese government became more democratic in the 1920s. In 1922, Japan signed an international treaty agreeing to respect China’s borders. In 1928, it signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact renouncing war. Japan’s parliamentary system had several weaknesses, however. Its constitution put strict limits on the powers of the prime minister and the cabinet.

Militarists Take Control of Japan:

The Great Depression struck in 1929. Many Japanese blamed the government. Military leaders gained support and soon won control of the country. Unlike the Fascists in Europe, the militarists did not try to establish a new system of government. They wanted to restore traditional control of the government to the military. Like Hitler and Mussolini, Japan’s militarists were extreme nationalists. They wanted to solve the country’s economic problems through foreign expansion. They planned a Pacific empire that included a conquered China.

Japan Invades Manchuria:

In 1931, the Japanese army seized Manchuria, despite objections from the Japanese parliament. The army then set up a puppet government. Japanese engineers and technicians began arriving in large numbers to build mines and factories. The Japanese attack on Manchuria was the first direct challenge to the League of Nations. In the early 1930s, the League’s members included all major democracies except the United States.

Japan Invades China:

Japanese forces swept into northern China. Despite having a million soldiers, China’s army led by Jiang Jieshi was no match for the better equipped and trained Japanese. Beijing and other northern cities as well as the capital, Nanjing, fell to the Japanese in 1937. Japanese troops killed tens of thousands of captured soldiers and civilians in Nanjing.

European Aggressors on the March:

The Italian leader Mussolini dreamed of building a colonial empire in Africa like those of Britain and France. The League’s failure to stop the Japanese encouraged European Fascists to plan aggression of their own.

Mussolini Attacks Ethiopia:

The Ethiopians had successfully resisted an Italian attempt at conquest during the 1890s. The spears and swords of the Ethiopians were no match for Italian airplanes, tanks, guns, and poison gas. The Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, urgently appealed to the League for help. Although the League condemned the attack, its members did nothing. Britain continued to let Italian troops and supplies pass through the British-controlled Suez Canal on their way to Ethiopia.

Hitler Defies Versailles Treaty:

Hitler had long pledged to undo the Versailles Treaty. Among its provisions, the treaty limited the size of Germany’s army. In March 1935, the Führer announced that Germany would not obey these restrictions. The League issued only a mild condemnation. The League’s failure to stop Germany from rearming convinced Hitler to take even greater risks. On March 7, 1936, German troops moved into the Rhineland. Stunned, the French were unwilling to risk war. Hitler later admitted that he would have backed down if the French and British had challenged him. His growing strength convinced Mussolini that he should seek an alliance with Germany.

Civil War Erupts in Spain:

Hitler and Mussolini again tested the will of the democracies of Europe in the Spanish Civil War. Spain had been a monarchy until 1931, when a republic was declared. Hitler and Mussolini sent troops, tanks, and airplanes to help Franco’s forces, which were called the Nationalists. The armed forces of the Republicans, as supporters of Spain’s elected government were known, received little help from abroad. The Western democracies remained neutral. Only the Soviet Union sent equipment and advisers.

Democratic Nations Try to Preserve Peace:

Both nations were dealing with serious economic problems as a result of the Great Depression. In addition, the horrors of World War I had created a deep desire to avoid war. Instead of taking a stand against Fascist aggression in the 1930s, Britain and France repeatedly made concessions, hoping to keep peace.

United States Follows an Isolationist Policy:

Many Americans supported isolationism, the belief that political ties to other countries should be avoided. Isolationists argued that entry into World War I had been a costly error. Beginning in 1935, Congress passed three Neutrality Acts. These laws banned loans and the sale of arms to nations at war.

The German Reich Expands:

Hitler announced to his advisers his plans to absorb Austria and Czechoslovakia into the Third Reich (ryk), or German Empire on November 5, 1937. . However, many Austrians supported unity with Germany. In March 1938, Hitler sent his army into Austria and annexed it. France and Britain ignored their pledge to protect Austrian independence. Hitler next turned to Czechoslovakia. About three million German-speaking people lived in the western border regions of Czechoslovakia called the Sudetenland.

Britain and France Again Choose Appeasement:

France and Britain were preparing for war when Mussolini proposed a meeting of Germany, France, Britain, and Italy in Munich, Germany. Britain and France agreed that Hitler could take the Sudetenland. In exchange, Hitler pledged to respect Czechoslovakia’s new borders. Less than six months after the Munich meeting, Hitler took Czechoslovakia. Soon after, Mussolini seized Albania. Then Hitler demanded that Poland return the former German port of Danzig.

Nazis and Soviets Sign Nonaggression Pact:

As Stalin talked with Britain and France, he also bargained with Hitler. The two dictators reached an agreement. Once bitter enemies, Fascist Germany and Communist Russia now publicly pledged never to attack one another. Britain and France asked the Soviet Union to join them in stopping Hitler’s aggression. On August 23, 1939, their leaders signed a nonaggression pact.


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