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10-08-2015, 16:37

No Return to Normalcy

According to Woodrow Wilson, World War I had been fought “to make the world safe for democracy.” In 1919, there seemed to be some justification for his claim. Four major European states and a host of minor ones had functioning political democracies. In a number of states, universal male suffrage had even been replaced by universal suffrage as male politicians rewarded women for their contributions to World War I by granting them the right to vote (except in Italy, Switzerland, France, and Spain, where women had to wait until the end of World War II). In the 1920s, Europe seemed to be returning to the political trends of the prewar era—the broadening of parliamentary regimes and the fostering of individual liberties. But it was not an easy process; four years of total war and four years of postwar turmoil made the desire for a “return to normalcy,” in Wilson’s words, both difficult and troublesome. After World War I, Great Britain went through a period of painful readjustment and serious economic difficulties. During the war, Britain had lost many of the markets for its industrial products, especially to the United States and Japan. The postwar decline of such staple industries as coal, steel, and textiles led to a rise in unemployment, which reached the two million mark in 1921. Britain experienced renewed prosperity between 1925 and 1929, but it proved relatively superficial. British exports in the 1920s never compensated for the overseas investments lost during the war, and even in these purportedly prosperous years, unemployment remained at a startling 10 percent. Coal miners were especially affected by the decline of the antiquated and inefficient British coal mines, which also suffered from a world glut of coal. After the defeat of Germany and the demobilization of the German army, France became the strongest power on the European continent. Its biggest problem involved the reconstruction of the devastated areas of northern and eastern France. But neither the conservative National Bloc government nor a government coalition of leftist parties (the Cartel of the Left) seemed capable of solving France’s financial problems between 1921 and 1926. The failure of the Cartel of the Left led to the return of the conservative Raymond Poincaré (1860 –1934), whose government from 1926 to 1929 stabilized the French economy by means of a substantial increase in taxes during a period of relative prosperity. When the imperial Germany of William II came to an end with Germany’s defeat in World War I, a German democratic state known as the Weimar Republic was established. From its beginnings, the Weimar Republic was plagued by a series of problems. It had no truly outstanding political leaders, and those who were relatively able—including Friedrich Ebert, who served as president, and Gustav Stresemann, the foreign minister and chancellor—died in the 1920s. When Ebert died in 1925, Paul von Hindenburg (1847–1934), a World War I military hero, was elected president. Hindenburg was a traditional military man, monarchist in sentiment, who at heart was not in favor of the republic. The young re- public also suffered politically from attempted uprisings and attacks from both the left and right. The Weimar Republic also faced serious economic difficulties. Germany experienced runaway inflation in 1922 and 1923, with grave social effects. Widows, orphans, the retired elderly, army officers, teachers, civil servants, and others who lived on fixed incomes all watched their monthly stipends become worthless or their lifetime savings disappear. Their economic losses increasingly pushed the middle class to the young German Communist Party or to rightist parties that were equally hostile to the republic.