This series explores the period through rare archival images and the insights of historians. It describes an impossible peace that went on to produce world war.
After four years of fighting, The First World War ends. The victorious nations assemble at Versailles to design the peace that they will impose on the defeated – Germany and Austria-Hungary. Russia’s Bolshevik revolution has become a murderous civil war. The map of Europe is remade, with the dismantling and collapse of old empires. The states of Europe face immense indebtedness and the need to repay the vast sums that they borrowed in order to pay for the war. Everything throws dark and troubling shadows across the years ahead.
The peace makers have gone home. America has rejected its president’s peace settlement and withdrawn into its previous isolationist position. Europe wrestles with its debt, inflation destabilises Germany where extreme forces of both left and right create violence in the streets and in the body politic. The first of the dictators – Benito Mussolini in Italy – rises to power and, in Soviet Russia, Lenin dies to be succeeded by Josef Stalin.
These are the best of times for the United States. Prohibition doesn’t stop anyone from having a good time, the country is on wheels or listening to the radio, welcoming the talkies or investing in the stock market with reckless optimism. It’s that brief spell they call the Jazz Age, the age of Charles Lindbergh and Babe Ruth. And in 1929, on Black Tuesday, it comes crashing down to the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
What had seemed to be an economic recovery is revealed to have been at best fragile and the world enters a global depression of unprecedented and unmeasurable savagery. Unemployment, hyperinflation, despair are everywhere and dictators arise. Old empires – Britain and France – come under pressure throughout the extended territories that they can barely afford to police.
In different ways, in different places, new leaders take centre stage – Hitler in Germany, Roosevelt in the United States. Militarism triumphs in Japan which consolidates its invasion of China’s north east. By the time the offices of president and chancellor have been combined into a single Führer, Hitler has achieved absolute power in a one party state without acting unconstitutionally. By the time he has been in office for 100 Days, FDR has launched an unprecedented flurry of legislation – The New Deal.
In The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics repression, gulag, collectivisation and Five Year Plans are beginning to tally the terrible human toll that will always be associated with Stalin’s rule. Liberal democracy seems imperilled by shaky coalitions and debt. Accelerating armaments programs both in Europe and in Asia increasingly persuade people that they are no longer living in a post-war world. They are living in a pre-war world. Mussolini marches into Ethiopia – then called Abyssinia – and, as it had been by Japan’s invasion of China,the fatal weakness of the League of Nations is exposed.
The power in Europe has finally and fatally shifted – the resurgent Germany of the Third Reich is the dominant force. War rips Spain apart as a three year civil war of terrible brutality starts. But Britain seems too preoccupied with an abdication crisis which sees its lovesick king surrender his crown. Japan steps up its aggression with a full-scale invasion of China. The British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, with his French counterpart, tried to satisfy Hitler at Munich by throwing him the Czech Sudetenland. The best that can be said is that they have bought time.
Little more than twenty years after the guns fell silent they roar back into life. Hitler annexes all of Czechoslovakia, Britain and France respond with promises to Poland and Stalin and Hitler, with unexpected and pragmatic hypocrisy, signs a Pact. Then Hitler moves on Poland and the fighting starts in Europe. China and Japan are already fighting. The curtain goes up on what will become the world’s first truly global and total war.