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11-08-2015, 17:21

CHANGING EUROPEAN DOMESTIC POLITICS

In the world of domestic politics, the war produced long-range changes that embittered the century. Prewar Europe, for all the differences among its various countries, followed basic political norms: constitutions, growing electorates, formally established civil rights, limits on monarchical absolutism. Military dictatorship was not impossible—Italy had one in the late 1 890s—but it hardly seemed likely among the Great Powers. Dictators with radical ideologies for reshaping their country's government and even society were scarcely imaginable. Napoleon III had been a crowned dictator in the mid-nineteenth century, and General Georges Boulanger had been a threat in the late 1880s, but France, like the rest of Europe in 1914, seemed no candidate for such a sharp departure from the norms of the continent. The failure of existing forms of government to fight the war successfully or to create a prosperous postwar order opened the road to radical change in several countries. In the decades following the war, embittered populations, first in Italy, then in Germany, turned to demagogues. Adolf Hitler could never have been a serious candidate for national power in the stable and hierarchical political system of imperial Germany. Even in the most unstable circumstances of Italian politics, Benito Mussolini had no discernible route to power. The burdens and shame Germans felt the settlement of the war had placed on their nation were the principal fuel for Hitler's engine. The disappointment and frustration of many Italians—over the cost of the war and the small rewards Italy got, as well as over the surge of political and social unrest after the Armistice—opened the way for Mussolini. Beyond the emergence of dictators one can see the war as a force coarsening and brutalizing political and social life. Ernst Jiinger, a combat veteran of the war, wrote with ominous eloquence in the 1920s about the gap between the "front fighters" and those who had remained at home. Every European society now contained large numbers of men who had killed or tried to kill the enemy, and many of them, as Mussolini and Hitler knew, were willing to bring violence into domestic politics. On a larger scale, individual leaders had sent tens and even hundreds of thousands of men to their deaths in military operations during the course of the war. Mass slaughter was now a recent memory for many Europeans. The ethnic massacres of World War II such as the Jewish Holocaust—which had their model in the Turkish slaughter of Armenians in the earlier war—seem inconceivable without this preliminary massacre of Europe's young men in uniform. The circumstances of economic life resulting from the war heightened the opportunities for radical political leaders. In contrast to the increasingly prosperous Europe of pre- 1 9 1 4, the postwar world was a place of stagnating living standards and diminished hopes in most countries. The international trading system never recovered from the disaster of the war. Currencies were inflated to the point of becoming worthless—quickly in Germany after the war, more slowly but just as effectively in France. A potent image of Europe's postwar economic distress was the German worker bringing a wheelbarrow to work in order to carry away his daily pay. In the fall of 1923, at the peak of the inflation in Germany, a university student who left home with funds to cover a year's living expenses might well find, the next day, that all he could buy with this money was a beer or a postage stamp.

 

 

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