I am watching a series on the History Channel entitled “Impossible Peace,” which poses the question, why was the period of peace between WWI and WWII so brief, only 27 years? One would have thought given the terrible toll on life and destruction in WWI that humankind would have learned a lesson and done anything possible to avoid another such world war. But, on the contrary, the masses of people and the various nations seemed primed to continue the even more terrible bloodshed and destruction.
What were the reasons for the brief interlude of peace:
- The destruction of several major Empires, the Austro-Hungarian, German, Russian and Turkish Empires, resulted in the break-up into many new nations, such as Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Iraq and others, that were unable to maintain stable governments and economies.
- While The USA owed ca. 6 billion dollars to the European countries (UK, France and Germany) before WWI, at the end of the War they owed the US 10 billion dollars.
- After WWI the Allies in the Treaty of Versailles imposed an indemnity on Germany to pay reparations of 33 billion dollars. Although there was a conference held in 1920 to reduce this financial burden, it never happened. This was because the French and British owed so much to the Americans they needed the money from Germany, and the US got into the 1929 market crash and the great depression and also demanded payment.
- All the countries involved made fiscal mistakes that exacerbated the financial crisis. The American Congress passed the Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930, signed by Pres. Herbert Hoover, that imposed tariffs and restricted foreign imports, that only made the European crisis worse. The British suddenly abandoned the gold standard in 1931, that restricted the availability of credit. The Germans made things worse for themselves by simply printing money to pay for the reparations, that caused the hyper-inflation that ruined their economy.
- During all these economic and governmental crises, the tendency was for peoples to go to the extreme and to seek leaders who confidently offered them simplistic solutions. Thus the rise of Communism in Russia (Stalin), Fascism in Italy (Mussolini) and Spain (Franco) and Nazism in Germany (Hitler), all authoritarian regimes.
- Britain had its worst general strike in 1926, including the miner’s march on London. But, they were too civilized to actually mount an anti-monarchical revolution. In the USA, the appearance of jazz, women’s liberation and prohibition, led to the rise of gangsters controlling several cities (such as Capone in Chicago), but they never needed to take over the government. In France, people simply drank more wine, and American tourists and artists flocked there because of the devaluation of the Franc and the easy-going way of life.
- There was a strong feeling among many Germans that they should have won WWI, and they only lost because they were stabbed in the back by the Jews who controlled international finance. The turn to hyper-nationalism was an attempt by an arrogant society to makeup for the loss by ridding themselves of all Jews and stealing their capital. However, it did not work, because even though they murdered nearly all the Jews of Europe and stole most of the capital of the conquered peoples and countries, they still lost WWII.
- One should not discount the role of tribal hatred and the desire for territorial aggrandisement in the 1920’s-30’s. The French and the Germans hated each other, the Germans hated everyone else, especially the Jews, the Hungarians and the Romanians hated each other, and the Poles and the Russians and so on. The Japanese considered the Chinese as inferior and invaded in 1932 and set up a puppet colony in Manchuria called Manchuoko. From there they invaded China proper and inflicted terrible civilian casualties, especially massacring at least 100,000 in Nanking in 1938.
- One could regard WWII as a continuation of WWI, that essentially destroyed the remaining Empires, those of Britain and France. Although they ended up controlling more territory after WWI than before, they did not have the finances or the manpower to retain these territories, so the process of losing their empires was one of the outcomes of WWI that continued in WWII.
- Britain and France intended to carve up the Turkish Empire according to the secret Sykes-Picot Treaty, and keep the areas in their own Empires, France was given a Mandate over Syria and Britain over Palestine and Mesopotamia (Iraq) to establish self-determination. But, France put down an uprising in Syria in 1925 by bombing Damascus, and Britain used extreme measures in Palestine, as well as Ireland, China and elsewhere. Only 3 years after the end of WWII, Britain lost India and Palestine, and then Iraq. France eventually lost control of North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia) and the Levant (Lebanon and Syria).
- Although Pres. Wilson was instrumental in the establishment of the League of Nations in 1920, the US Congress in a fit of isolationism refused to join it. Consequently the absence of the US from the League of Nations robbed it of US influence at a vital time.
These are some of the reasons the peace interlude was so brief. After WWII the Allies had learnt the fiscal lessons of WWI by not demanding impossible reparations from Germany and not imposing tariffs and economic repayments from allies. On the contrary, the US Marshall Plan sought to rebuild West Germany, in a democratic image. So far WWII has not been followed by WWIII, even though the Cold War came close (Korea, Vietnam, etc). Now we just have local wars, such as Congo, Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Muslim terrorism. Maybe we have finally learnt our lesson. But, there are people out there with guns and armies, such as Iran, that still want to destroy us.