Between the Wars: 1919 to 1941

At the end of the World War I, the statesmen of the world were determined that such a conflict should never happen again. Scarcely twenty years later, however, the world found itself in another second world-wide conflict, more deadly than the first. What had gone wrong?

In these decades, for the first time in world history, the whole world moved in concert, at least at the level of international politics and economics. The troubled years immediately after the end of the war; the economic boom of the “roaring twenties”; the Great Depression of the 1930s; the slide into war as the 30s wore on – all these were world-wide phenomena, experienced as far apart as Japan and Spain.  This gives a complexity to events and developments which shrouds the simple truth of these years – that the First World War was unfinished business. It had left many old tensions unresolved, and piled many new ones on top.  Another war was all but inevitable.

Section 1: After World War I

The end of World War I did not bring an end to tragedy. By a dreadful irony, just as the carnage of World War I was coming to an end, a world-wide pandemic called the Spanish Flu broke out. This killed between 50 and 100 million people, far more than the war had done. More ironic still, it disproportionately targeted young adults – the very age group which had borne the brunt of the killing fields on the last few years.

For the longer term, the war left in its wake a much altered situation, most dramatically in Europe. The costs of the war had left the European powers economically weakened, and this had a profound affect on the history of these years.

Communist Russia

One of them, the Russian Empire, had fallen to communism during the war itself (1917); and it was then engulfed in vicious civil war (1919-21) as anti-communist factions, supported by outside countries such as Poland, the United States and Britain, fought for control of the giant nation. The Communist regime, with the advantage of internal lines of communication and unified command under the charismatic leadership of Vladimir Lenin and the brilliant strategy of Leon Trotsky, eventually succeeding in beating back these challenges.


Lenin in 1916, (Feb 1916, Wilhelm Plier)

The Soviet Union, as Communist Russia and its subject states was called from 1922, would thereafter loom over the rest of Europe as a threatening colossus, encouraging the rise of anti-communist, authoritarian regimes throughout the continent.

The defeated powers

The defeated European powers, the German and Austro-Hungarian empires, ended the war in a state of collapse. The Austro-Hungarian empire was literally falling apart as the different national groups which made up the empire asserted their independence. In the German empire the Kaiser went into exile and uprisings had broken out in the major cities.

The German army, which until now had been fighting at the front, now found itself restoring order within Germany itself. A republic was declared, and a constitution drawn up in the town of Weimar (hence this period of Germany history is labelled the Weimar Republic, even though its capital was Berlin).

The Treaties of Versailles and St Germain

A couple of months after the Armistice ending World War I had been signed (November 11th, 1918), delegates from the victorious Allied nations met in Paris to discuss the peace treaty which would officially end the war. Twenty-seven nations in all were represented, but the ones which carried the most weight were undoubtedly France, Britain and the United States.

The Paris Peace Conference produced the following treaties: Versailles (June 1919), which dealt with Germany; Saint-Germain (September – Austria); Neuilly (November 1919 – Bulgaria); Trianon (June 1920 – Hungary), and Sèvres (August 1920), which dealt with the Ottoman Empire.

Of these, by far the most important was the Treaty of Versailles. The treaties of Saint-Germain and Sèvres legalized dramatic changes on the maps of Europe and the Middle East, but were essentially confirming and regularizing what was already the situation on the ground.

The most important provisions of the Treaty of Versailles were as follows:

League of Nations

An international organization, whose primary purpose should be to arbitrate between nations in disputes, and thus help keep peace in the world, should be set up. This organization was the League of Nations. This call was set out in Part I of the treaty, and the same provisions were included in all the peace treaties which came from the Paris Peace Conference.

German responsibility

Most of the remaining clauses dealt with Germany. The treaty held Germany alone responsible for starting World War I.

Military restrictions

The German army, previously the largest and most effective in the Europe, was to be limited to only 100,000 men, the navy to only 15,000 sailors and six battleships (no submarines were to be allowed), and the air force was to be disbanded altogether.

The Rhineland

The Rhineland, an area of western Germany, was to be demilitarized. No German forces were to come within 30 miles (50 kilometers) of the River Rhine. French and Belgian troops would occupy the area for 15 years.


Germany was to compensate the Allies for the damage caused by the war (these payments were called “Reparations”). The figure had not been agreed at Versailles, but in 1921 an Allied Commission fixed the amount at £6.6 billion, a colossal sum for those days. With other clauses of the treaty stripping Germany of 10% of its industry and 15% of its agricultural land (see below), and with the rest of the economy more ravaged by war than any other major country, it would take Germany the rest of the 20th century to pay this off.

Territorial losses

Germany was also to suffer major territorial losses, with Alsace-Lorraine going to France, and other areas going to a newly-independent Poland, and, after plebiscites in 1920 and 1921, yet more small areas potentially going to Belgium and Denmark.

Danzig, a large city on the Baltic coast, would be entirely surrounded by Polish territory and itself designated as a “free city” under League of Nations authority; and an area of western Germany called the Saarland was taken over by the League of Nations for 15 years. France was to administer it and mine its coal during this time. A Plebiscite would then decide its future. These territorial changes left some 6 million Germans living outside the German state.

Germany also lost her overseas colonies in Africa, China and the Pacific, to be administered as League of Nation ‘mandates’ until given independence.

The German government’s response

The German leaders had not been invited to take part in the discussions at the peace conference, but they believed that the terms would not be too harsh. When they saw them they were horrified, and promptly resigned en mass from office.

The Allies said that if the German government did not sign the treaty, the war would begin again. The new German government had no choice but to sign.

Why were the terms so harsh?

The French leaders were the ones who pushed hardest for such a settlement. Their nation had suffered the most during the war – it had had many more of its young people killed than Britain and the USA. Also, it had now been invaded by Germany twice within living memory, both times with catastrophic results. It therefore wanted its neighbor to be weak for a long time, and this was their chance to try and ensure that this was the case.

Events were to show, of course, that the treaty spectacularly failed in ensuring either German weakness and France’s security. This was because the humiliation it inflicted on the German people powerfully helped fuel the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany (see below).

The Treaty of St Germain

The Treaty of St Germain confirmed the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and thereby brought into a group of newly-independent nations: Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Austria also had to hand small areas on its southern border over to Italy.

The end of the Ottoman empire

The third major defeated power, the Ottoman empire, had its fate meted out to it by the Treaty of Sèvres (1920). This broadly reduced the empire to the borders of modern-day Turkey, leaving the bulk of the Middle East to be shared out between Britain and France (as League of Nation Mandate Territories).

As for Turkey itself, the immediate post-war years found it in conflict with Greece, caused by Greek ambitions to take Ottoman territory. The Turks, under their nationalist leader Mustafa Kemal Pasha, eventually drove the Greeks out, abolished the sultanate, and established a republic, with a new capital in Ankara, in the center of the country (Istanbul lay on its European periphery).

In 1923, the Allies signed the Treaty of Lausanne with Turkey. This was a great deal more lenient than Versailles or Sèvres had been. Though the territory lost during World War I was not restored, it confirmed the Turks in the possession of their remaining European territory and required no reparation payments.

Under Kemal Atatürk (“Father of the Turks”, as Mustafa Kemal now called himself), a period of vigorous reform turned Turkey into a Westernized, secular state with a parliamentary constitution.

Section 2: A changed world

The United States in the 1920s

The United States had played a decisive role in the Allied victory in World War I, and, with the largest economy in the world, replaced Britain as the leading nation in the world – despite the fact that it declined to exercise its power on the international stage. In contrast to almost all other nations which had been involved in the war, the USA experienced a high degree of prosperity in the early 1920s, and Canada soon caught up.

The Roaring Twenties

The 1920s saw the United States become the leading cultural power for the first time – a position which it has never relinquished. During the “Roaring Twenties”, crazes originating in America – jazz music and the “flappers”(young women who rejected traditional norms of feminine behavior by wearing short skirts and bobbed hair and dancing to modern music) soon swept Europe, where they formed a center-piece of the rejection of the kind of stuffy attitudes which had characterized the pre-war era.


The most memorable fashion trend of the Roaring Twenties was undoubtedly “the flapper” look. (Bain News Service, publisher. ggbain 32453)

These more liberated times, especially for women, were mirrored in the political sphere by the continuing spread of women’s suffrage around the world – in 1918 Britain gave women the vote, and in 1920 the United States did so. Women also began entering the workplace in larger numbers – a trend which had started in World War I and continued in peacetime.

The 1920s were the years when Hollywood began to conquer the world: its films attracted crowds of cinema-goers in other western nations, and became the major source of public entertainment. The whole experience was greatly enhanced when silent movies gave way to talkies in the 20s, and color films arrived in the 30s.

The USA also saw a darker side of life in the 1920s when the prohibition of alcohol led to a dramatic rise in organized crime.The

Europe in the 1920s

Britain and France

Meanwhile, back in Europe, Britain and France faced crippling war debts, deep economic recession and high unemployment. In Britain, poor labour relations even led to a short General Strike in 1926.

France had the added challenge of rebuilding its economy in areas which had been badly damaged in war. Its politics was to know bitter divisions and frequent changes of government.

Mussolini comes to power

Italy, which had also been on the Allied side, experienced all these problems, and more. It had been particularly hard hit by the war, suffering very high casualties in the Alpine battles it had fought, and had experiencing a string of defeats. The Italian people ended the war deeply demoralized, and feeling let down by their government after the war when it failed to secure major gains from the peace treaties.

Benito Mussolini-and-Fascist Blackshirts-during-the-march

Benito Mussolini and Fascist Blackshirts during the March on Rome in 1922. (Illustrazione Italiana, 1922)

Unrest became widespread in the industrial towns, and a real fear of communist revolution spread through the country. Popular disillusionment with democratic politicians and a strong desire for stability led the king of Italy to turn to the one man who seemed to promise strong government. This was Benito Mussolini, the leader of the Fascist party. He formed a government in 1922, and soon established a one-party police state.


The harsh conditions of the Treaty of Versailles (see above) and the fact that the blame for the war was laid exclusively at the door of Germany, deeply embittered the German people. They faced more difficulties when hyper-inflation in 1923 destroyed the wealth of much of the middle classes.

The currency was stabilized the following year, and the Dawes Plan of 1924, followed a few years later by the Young Plan (1929), rescheduled the reparation payments to make them more bearable. The later 1920s saw a measure of economic growth return to Germany.

Eastern Europe

Apart from the new countries that emerged from the wreck of the Austro-Hungarian empire (see above, Treaty of St Germain), there were other newly-independent nations in Europe. The Russian Revolution and the subsequent civil war had liberated Poland and the Baltic states of Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from Russian domination.

Most of these newly-independent countries in eastern and central Europe initially adopted democratic forms of government, but the severe economic problems they experienced, plus fear of Communism, led many to soon turn to more right-wing, authoritarian regimes. In fact, by the mid-1930s Czechoslovakia was the only country in central and eastern Europe to retain its democracy.

The Soviet Union

The people of this, the largest country on earth, almost certainly suffered more misery than any other nation during the 1920s and 30s, excepting possible the people of China (see below).

After Lenin’s death in 1924, Joseph Stalin had risen to supreme power – which he had achieved by 1927. He set about the forced collectivization and industrialization of his massive country, which caused hardship and loss of life on an immense scale. Most notably, millions died in famines in 1932-33 which were entirely avoidable.

Stalin (right)-confers-with-an ailing-lenin-at gorky-in september

Stalin (right) confers with an ailing Lenin at Gorky in September 1922 (WWII database, Maria Ilyinichna Ulyanova, Sept1922)

Stalin also inaugurated comprehensive purges (1936-8) of all opposition – real or imagined – to himself within the ruling Communist party. Almost all upper ranks of the party were executed, and many middle and lower ranks as well. This ended when the members of the secret police themselves, the instrument of the purges, were decimated.

The League of Nations

The Paris peace conference (see above) brought into being a new international organization, the League of Nations. This had as its aim the safeguarding of international peace by creating a forum in which issues between nations could be settled without recourse to war.

The statesman who had worked most tirelessly for the creation of such a body was the president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. However, the American people reverted to their traditional isolationism after the war, and that nation refused to join the league. Most independent countries did join, but although the League was able to do some good in the two decades that followed, without the support of the wealthiest nation in the world it had no chance of real success.

League of Nations Mandate Territories

One of the League’s first acts was to deal with the colonies of the defeated powers, Germany and Turkey. All these had been occupied by Allied troops during or in the immediate aftermath of World War I. They were now deemed to be League of Nations Mandate Territories, but, given that the League had no administrative apparatus of its own, the African and Middle Eastern territories were shared out between Britain and France, and the Far East and the Pacific ones to Japan. These nations were specifically tasked with preparing the mandated territories for independence.

Weakened empires

This development effectively brought the overseas possessions of Britain and France to their maximum extent. However, these two countries had been exhausted by the war, and the next two decades were to see their grip on their empires beginning to slip. The years immediately following World War I saw Britain lose Ireland after an armed struggle (1919-1921) ended in that country’s independence.

Those parts of the British empire which had been colonized from the home countries, and which had provided generous service to the British in World War I – Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – were offered complete independence, whist retaining the British monarch as head of state (Statute of Westminster, 1931).


Britain’s largest possession – its “jewel in the crown” – was India. Its people too had provided loyal support to the British during the war, and the British consequently introduced a broader-based government than before, in which British and Indians shared both administrative and legislative functions. This did not put an end to agitation for complete independence, and India’s Congress Party, under the inspirational leadership of Mohandas Gandhi, caught the imagination of the entire world with its policy of passive resistance to British rule. This would lead (in 1937) to the introduction of a new federal system of government, giving Indians much greater control than before.

These years also saw the groundwork being laid for the post-World War II division between India and Pakistan with the increasing prominence of Muhammed Jinnah’s Muslim League, which was increasing at variance with the Hindu-dominated Congress Party.

The Middle East

As noted above, the end of the war found much of the Middle East occupied by British forces and then assigned to the rule of Britain and France as League of Nation Mandate territories. Britain took Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine, while France took Syria and Lebanon.

Arab unrest

Both occupying powers were immediately faced with nationalist uprisings. The French would eventually be able to impose a constitution on the Syrians which, along with a promise of independence within three years, established some measure of order in 1935.

In Iraq, the British took nearly six months to put down an Arab revolt, but by installing a popular Arab leader, Faisal, as king, they bought themselves some stability. In 1927 they recognized Iraq as an independent state, and in 1932 the country became a member of the League of Nations.

The British also made Transjordan a self-ruling state, in 1923, under king Abdulla, the brother of king Faisal of Iraq. It became independent in 1928.

The origins of Israel

It was in Palestine that the British had most trouble. During the war, when the British had driven the Turks out of Palestine and occupied the country in 1917, the British government had issued the Balfour Declaration, stating that Palestine should be made a national home for the Jews. Although the declaration had added the proviso that the “civil and religious rights of non-Jews” should be respected, it of course seriously interfered with the Arab population’s yearning for self-government. The local Arabs were soon rioting against the immigration of Jews into Palestine, and right up to the outbreak of World War II the British were caught in the cross-fire between Jews and Arabs, able to maintain order only with the greatest difficulty.


To the south, the Allies had installed Sharif Hussein as king of Arabia in 1916. Just after the war, however, Hussein was driven out by Abdal-Aziz ibn Saud, the military leader of an Islamic sect called the Wahabi. Between 1920 to 1925 Ibn Saud brought much of the Arabian peninsula under his rule, thus founding the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The small emirates on the Persian Gulf coast all remained under British protection.

Iran and Afghanistan

The eastern part of the Middle East, covered by Iran and Afghanistan, had never belonged to the Ottoman empire. Both countries played Britain and Russia – the two pre-war colonial powers – off against one another. In 1921 an army officer, Reza Khan, seized power in Iran (or Persia, as it was then called), and moved his country firmly into the Russian sphere. In the same year Afghanistan did likewise.

The two decades between the wars saw the oil industry become firmly established in the Middle East. Oil had been discovered in Iran before the war (1908), but was now also found in the small Gulf emirates (from 1931) and in Saudi Arabia (1933). The substance was drilled for by British and American companies, with royalties being paid to local rulers.

The other major country in the Middle East, Egypt, had been a kingdom in its own right since the 19th century, but under the effective control of the British. In 1922 it was granted independence, albeit remaining very much within the British sphere of influence.

The Far East


China had become a republic in 1912, ending more than two thousand years of rule by emperors. By the end of World War I, however, the republican government only controlled a comparatively small region around its capital; the rest of the country was under numerous local war lords. In the succeeding years, although the Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek was able to bring some kind of formal unity to the huge country, it remained divided and weak. Not only were the war lords not fully put down, but bitter divisions between the Nationalists (Koumintang) and Communists flared up after 1927.


Mao in 1927 (http://news.xinhuanet.com/politics/2013-12/14/c_125858487_11.htm)

In 1934 the communist leader Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) led the “Long March”, by which his followers escaped from the Nationalist-controlled south of the country to the north, beyond their reach. there they built up their strength, continuing to launch attacks on Nationalist territory.


The Japanese, meanwhile, had benefitted from the war by occupying all German colonies in the Far East and the Pacific; and she was confirmed in possession of these by the peace treaties after the war.

In the late 1920s, senior military officers began to play a bigger role in Japanese politics. This reflected a revival in older Japanese practices such as emperor-worship and bushido, which amounted to a glorification of the military tradition within Japanese culture. In the face of this development, the more civilian and commercial interests lost political influence.

Section 3: The Great Depression

The Wall Street Crash and its Aftermath

In October 1929, the booming American stock market crashed (an event known as the Wall Street Crash, as Wall Street, in New York, is the epicenter of the US finance industry). Stocks plummeted, there was a run on the banks, businesses went bankrupt, and millions of American workers soon found themselves unemployed.


Crowd gathering after the Wall Street Crash of 1929 (SSA poster: http://www.ssa.gov/history/wallst.html, US-gov, Oct 1929)

The ripples were very soon traveling around the world, and the same story repeated itself in country after country: business collapsed, economies shrank and masses of workers were thrown out of factories. To try and protect their industries as best they could, country after country raised tariffs on imports, and devalued their currencies to make their exports more competitive. These measures simply made matters worse: international trading conditions deteriorated drastically and all economies suffered.

Worldwide impact

These events ushered in the world-wide economic downturn of the 1930s – the Great Depression, as it came to be called. The political ramifications were dire. Elected politicians seemed quite unable – unwilling, even – to find solutions, and in country after country populist strong men took power. In Europe, Hungary in 1932, Austria and Germany in 1933, Latvia and Estonia in 1934, Bulgaria in 1935, all came under right wing, authoritarian regimes. In South America, Argentina and Brazil in 1930, and Uruguay in 1933, went the same way. In Japan the onset of the Depression undermined popular trust in constitutional government and confirmed the military men in their takeover of power.

Authoritarian rulers are, almost by definition, bullies, and are often eager to settle issues by force. Quick and dramatic solutions to problems impress their citizens and the world at large with their decisiveness and effectiveness; but they frequently produce international crises, and sometimes war. The drift towards authoritarianism in the early 1930s created the conditions for the outbreak of the most devastating war the world had ever known.

War in the Far East

The first major war broke out in East Asia, and resulted from the attempts of Japan’s military leaders to lead their nation out of the severe economic threats it faced. With other nations erecting high barriers against Japanese products, they sent their army in to conquer the region of northern China known as Manchuria (1931-32). They renamed the region Manchukuo, and installed a Japanese puppet ruler as “emperor”.


Japanese troops marching into Mukden, Manchuria, Republic of China, on 18 September 1931 (World War II database, Osaka mainichi war cameramen)

The Chinese retaliated with a boycott of Japanese goods, to which the Japanese replied by occupying the leading Chinese port, Shanghai (1932).

Meanwhile, the League of Nation responded to the Chinese appeal for international assistance by launching – an investigation. This named Japan as an aggressor, but led to no practical action being taken.

In response, Japan withdrew from the League of Nations in 1935.

In 1937 the Japanese army began a full-scale invasion of China, without declaring war. It seized certain areas including Peking (Beijing), and enforced a naval blockade along most of China’s coast. The Chinese moved their capital to the interior, and the civil war between Nationalists and Communists now became a three-way struggle, with the Japanese as the third participant.

No side was able to gain decisive superiority, and this situation lasted up to the conclusion of the Pacific War (which formed a major part of World War II) in 1945.

The misery of the Chinese people was compounded by the Yellow River floods of 1938, which killed half a million people.

The League of Nations condemned Japan’s invasion of 1937, but otherwise did nothing.

The Chaco War

The economic conditions of the 1930s had meanwhile produced other wars. The first of these was in South America. Here, the two landlocked countries of Bolivia and Paraguay, their exports choked off by the protectionist policies of their neighbors, went to war with one another over disputed – and possibly oil-rich – territory (the Chaco War, 1932 to 1935). After a bloody conflict, Paraguay emerged the victor, gaining two thirds of the territory – from which it profited hardly at all.

The Italian conquest of Ethiopia

The next major war came when Italy invaded and occupied Ethiopia in 1935. There was no strategic rationale to this conflict except as a revenge for an Italian humiliation at Ethiopian hands in the 19th century and a lust for glory on the part of Italy’s dictator, Mussolini.

Again, the League of Nations declared Italy an aggressor, but did little else. When Ethiopia fell, most of the League’s prestige fell with it. Likewise, the British and French governments, mindful of the desperate wish amongst their people to avoid war, sat on their hands.

The Spanish Civil War

The war in Ethiopia was followed very shortly by the outbreak of the bloody Spanish Civll War.

In Spain, the 1930s had actually begun with a dictatorship being replaced by democracy. However, in these unstable, the new republic was constantly challenged by violence from both right and left. Finally, in July 1936, the Spanish army in Morocco, under its commander General Francisco Franco, revolted against the republic. It crossed over into Spain and quickly gained the support of the conservative elements in society – army officers, business leaders, the church, and much of the rural peasantry.

Italian-troops-manning-a 10cm-howitzer

Italian troops manning a 10 cm howitzer at Guadalajara, 1937 (Studnitz, von H.G. , German Federal Archives, Bild 183-2006-1204-510)

The civil war endured for some two and a half years, wrecking the country. Franco’s forces were aided by German and Italian troops and aircraft, who used the war to test new weapons; in the process they formed an alliance, which Japan joined in 1940 – the “Axis”. On the other side, the Soviet Union supported the republicans.

The civil war ended in March 1939 with a victory for Franco. He established a fascist dictatorship which would endure into the 1970s.

The USA and the New Deal

The USA suffered very badly in the economic downturn after the Wall Street Crash, but the solution here was found within a democratic context.

As in other countries, the politicians in power at the time, especially the president, Herbert Hoover, failed to find a real solution. It was the Democratic challenger in the elections of 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who offered the promise of jobs for millions of workers. On becoming president, he immediately set about creating a program of public works and other measures, called the New Deal. This brought many people back into jobs and provided a basic income for those still unemployed.

The Road to War in Europe

By this time, the whole of Europe was rushing towards war.

Nazi Germany

Germany had turned from democracy to dictatorship in 1933, when Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Nazi party, became chancellor. Although he came to office by constitutional means, he had soon established a dictatorship in a text-book case of how to seize complete power in a democracy.

He had swiftly brought all branches of government under the control of the Nazis. He had all opponents arrested and imprisoned in concentration camps. He instituted a vast program of public works, which put millions of workers back into employment; and at the heart of this national program was the rearming of Germany.

Hitler also inaugurated a policy of discrimination against the Jews, which would, step by step, lead to the “Final Solution” in the death camps of World War II.

War coming

In March 1936 Hitler ordered German troops to occupy the Rhineland, in violation of the Treaty of Versailles. The lack of firm response from the British and French governments emboldened him to march into Austria in March 1938. This brought about the Anschluss, the union of Germany and Austria. Britain and France did nothing.

In March 1938 Hitler backed the demands of the German minority living in Czechoslovakia for autonomy. This led to a diplomatic crisis in which the British and French governments became involved. After negotiations in Munich, these governments completely gave way to Hitler’s demands, and the western, German-majority areas of Czechoslovakia were annexed by Germany (September 1938). The British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, won great popularity in Britain for, as it was thought, securing “peace in our time”.

Chamberlain-and-Hitler-leave-the bad-gedesberg-meeting

Chamberlain (left) and Hitler leave the Bad Godesberg meeting, 23 September 1938. (German Federal Archives. Bild 183-H12751)

In the following weeks Poland and Hungary each occupied parts of Czechoslovakia, and in March 1939 Germany took the rest. In the same month, Mussolini’s Italy, now completely contemptuous of international opinion, occupied Albania.

These events were the signal for both Britain and France to begin rearming as fast as they could.

The outbreak of war

In August 1939, the world was shocked when those mortal enemies. Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, concluded a non-aggression pact with one another. Hitler, now free to concentrate on his next victim, Poland, without fear of Russian opposition, demanded that the Poles hand over the northern port of Danzig, and the corridor of territory which separated that city from Germany.

The British and French governments, their eyes now fully opened to the nature of the German threat, warned Hitler that they would come to Poland’s aid if he invaded. To no avail. On September 1st the German army began its occupation of Poland without officially declaring war. On the 3rd September, Britain and France declared war on Germany. World War II had begun.

The Road to War in the Pacific

With the outbreak of World War II in Europe, in September 1939, Roosevelt turned the United States into the “arsenal of democracy”, providing financial aid and much-needed equipment for Britain, and later (after Hitler had reneged on his pact with Stalin in July 1941), Russia.

War coming

On the other side of the Pacific, meanwhile, Japan had been casting around for a solution to its weak economic position. Its leaders had come up with the idea of a “Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere”. This was originally an idealistic concept for a co-ordinated effort to establish the economic independence for East Asian countries, but it was soon subverted by the military leaders into a plan to create a Japanese-dominated bloc in which other East Asian countries would provide natural resources for Japan’s war effort. It was, in effect, a synonym for Japanese expansion.

The Japanese soon realized that the United States stood in the way of its expansion, and thus, in December 1941, it launched a surprise attack on the US Pacific fleet at its Pearl Harbor base in Hawaii. This event brought the USA into the war on the side of the Allies.

Section 4: Technological advances


Automobiles became much more common during the 1920s, as mass production put them within the reach of millions of families for the first time.

This boosted the rise of the suburbs and, in particular, ribbon development of houses along roads to and from towns.


The first oil well in Bahrain was discovered in 1932 (Flickr:first-oil-well-in-bahrain, Ryan Lackey)

It also stimulated the rise of the oil industry, which now consolidated its position as a global force within the world economy. Oil companies extended their operations in the Middle East, and began them in South America. Venezuela was soon the world’s second largest oil producer, after the Soviet Union.

Civil aviation

The demand for oil was boosted by the rise of civil aviation in these decades. The western European countries pioneered this development, with the spread of air services, first within Europe and later (from the late 20s) along transcontinental routes as the imperial powers developed their lines of communication with their colonies. Such airlines as the Dutch KLM and Britain’s Imperial Airways (ancestor of today’s British Airways) had their origin. At first the airliners were simply converted World War I bombers, but later elegant, specially designed aircraft took to the skies. As compared with that other form of long-distance travel, the ocean-going liner, the airlines cut times from weeks to days.


The Douglas DC-3 appeared in 1935 (Perry Hoppe, www.airliners.net)

The United States was a little later in developing its own air services, but it soon more than caught up. It was here that the most advanced airliner of these decades, the Douglas DC 3, was developed; and airlines such as United, American and Delta grew to maturity. For overseas travel, Pan Am was a pioneering airline, especially in the field of flying boats, the most luxurious form of heavier-than-air travel at that time.

The promise of aviation was made clear to all by spectacular flights made by such pilots as Charles Lindberg, who flew non-stop across the Atlantic from New York to Paris in 1927, and Amelia Earhart, who was the first woman to conduct long-distance flights, in the 1930s.


The decades between the wars also saw the brief heyday of the airship, with the German Zeppelin company leading the way. This mammoths of the sky promised to rival the ocean-going liner for luxury and elegance, but the tragic end of the Hindenburg, near New York in 1937, when 36 people lost their lives, put an end to these developments.

People-watching-the-landing-of-Graf-Zeppelin-LZ 127

People watching the landing of Graf Zeppelin LZ 127 (Alexander Cohrs, Grombo, GFDL, cc-by-sa-2.5,2.0,1.0, 1930)

Ocean liners

In terms of passenger transport, the 20s and 30s were the peak age of the ocean liner. This was the safest and most comfortable way top travel at the time, and indeed the only way (apart from airships, and towards the end of the period, large Pan Am flying boats) in which wide expanses of ocean could be crossed.

Military technology

Weapons of war also experienced major advances between the wars. In aviation, the slow biplane fighters of World War I gave way to their sleek successors of World War 2, and much larger bombers were developed – in the mid-30s the B-17 was coming into service with the US Air Force.

In naval technology, the aircraft carrier, whose development began in World War I, was refined and improved to become the capital ships of World War 2. In land warfare, the tank was developed to such an extent that the armies of the Second World War were able to have far more mobility than those of the First, and so able to avoid the awful stalemate of trench warfare.

The 20s and 30s saw some major technological breakthroughs which would have a huge impact during and after World War 2 – the development of the first television (1925), the invention of the rocket (1926), the jet engine (1930) and radar (1938) being major examples.


The 1920s and 30s saw numerous medical advances. The most famous was undoubtedly the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928, which would revolutionize medicine during and after World War 2; but other discoveries included vitamin D and insulin.


Professor Alexander Fleming (between 1939&1945, Imperial War Museums, TR 1468)

The period also saw the development of vaccines for diphtheria, tuberculosis, tetanus and yellow fever; of chemotherapy and shock therapy, and new techniques in anesthetics and in the treatment of mental diseases, such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). 


In communications, the radio found a home in millions of households – ready to be the major source of information and propaganda in the coming war. Cinema established itself as the main source of entertainment in these years, especially after silent films were replaced by sound films in the 1920s, and color films began to come in the 1930s. This decade saw some of the most famous films of all time being made, including Gone with the Wind and the Wizard of Oz. This was also the decade in which Walt Disney began making full-length feature films, the first being Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.


Film poster for Gone with the Wind (1939, www.doctormacro.com, Employee(s) of MGM)

Newsreels were a major source of information, and captured some of the great events of the day, for example the Hindenburg disaster of 1937, and the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, arriving home and waving his piece of paper with the Munich Agreement written on it, and declaring “Peace in our Time”. In Nazi Germany, the spectacular Nuremberg rallies were recored for posterity on film.

Section 5: Culture


In the 1920s and 30s a long list of well-known writers produced major works of literature. In the English language, the novelists F. Scott Fitzgerald, (The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night), Ernest Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms, To have and Have Not), John Steinbeck (Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men), William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury), D.H. Lawrence (Women in Love, Lady Chatterley’s Lover), Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse, A Room of One’s Own, Orlando), James Joyce (Ulysses), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) were active, as were the poets T.S Eliot (The Waste Land), W.H Auden (Poems), and the dramatists George Bernard Shaw (Back to Methuselah) and Thornton Wilder (Our Town).

At a more popular level, Raymond Chandler began writing his crime fiction and James M. Cain wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice. It was also in the 1930s that comics began to feature superheroes such a Superman and Batman, who have been popular cultural icons every since.

There was also plenty of great literature produced by writers in non-English languages. Many critics regard Franz Kafka’s The Trial as the best novel to be published between the wars (although it was actually written in 1913).


In music, the 20s in particular are known as the “Jazz Age”, when this form became mainstream. Accompanying this was the emergence into wide popularity of dances such as the Charleston.

In the 30s, a form of jazz called “Swing” became popular. This was played to a rhythm emphasizing the off-beat, and is associated with Big Bands making a vibrant wall of sound. This was the era of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Lenny Goodman and Glenn Miller – and their bands.

Benny goodman-and-Peggy lee

Benny Goodman and Peggy Lee (1943, Film Screenshot, Stage door canteen film)

In classical music, there were any composers of the first rank at work: Sergei Rachmaninoff, Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg and Dmitri Shostakovich were pushing out the boundaries of music, while George Gershwin produced for a wider audience.


The years between the First and Second World Wars saw modern art continue to develop.  At the beginning of the period, immediately after World War I, the Dada movement was prominent, with its rejection of form, rationality, even beauty; it expressed a kind of madness which reflected despair in a society which could bring about such terrible war: the typical image is a collage of bits and pieces of unrelated elements jarring with one another and making little overall sense.

Cubism was also flourishing in the early years of the 1920s. This style exhibited much more form than Dada – indeed, as the name suggests, images were composed of almost mathematical shapes. In creating them, Cubist artists sought to get at the essential meaning of their subjects.

Pablo Picasso’s Three Musicians (1921) is a notable example of Cubism, but even though he was already a well-established artists of world renown, he restlessly continued to experiment with different styles. In the 20s and 30s his work showed the contrasting influences of surrealism (see below) and neo-classical realism; but his most famous work, Guernica (1937), embodies strong Cubist elements.


Guernica in ruins, 1937 (German Federal Archives, Bild 183-H25224)

This period sees the beginnings of Surrealism, of which Salvador Dali was by far the best-known practitioner. His exquisitely painted images depicted scenes with superb realism – except that they were anti-realist: melting watches, elephants with stilt-like legs, and so on.

In Britain, the striking art of Rex Whistler also exhibited realism, in a more true-to-life way, and in North America, Social Realism flourished at this time. Probably the best known of this style is Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930), a beautifully painted work showing a poor farming couple with the effects of their weary lives etched on their faces and in their postures. This was a great style to document rural America during the Depression. It was influenced by, and itself influenced, photography. Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936) is a superb example.

The Harlem Renaissance

One cultural movement of the 1920s was that known as the Harlem Renaissance, centered on (but spreading far beyond) the African-American district of New York. It was the work of African-American writers, musicians and artists who sought to create a distinctive style which would differentiate them from the dominant “White” cultural expression. They were influenced by trends in wider modern art and literature, but also drew on the art and music of sub-Saharan Africa and other “primitive” societies.

Architecture and Design

The application of ideas found in modern art were applied to the production of everyday objects and the construction of buildings with striking success. The inter-war years were the high point of Art Deco, which had had its origins in pre-war France. It was influenced by Cubism and other genres of modern art, and embodied a self-consciously modernist approach, with designs that were elegant, sleek and progressive. It was applied to the design of furniture and other household objects such as radios, jewelry, fashion, and engineered products such as cars and trains. On a larger scale, It was also applied to buildings: the skyscrapers off 1920s and 30s New York, including the Chrysler Building and the Empire State building, were prime examples.


Empire State New York City (https://www.flickr.com/photos/132084522@N05/17178926219/in/photostream/, Sam valadi,2017)

Another very influential movement in architecture and design was the Bauhaus movement. This was pioneered by Walter Gropius and others in Germany. It was more experimental and avant-garde than Art Deco, but like it became very influential around the world. Its ideas can be seen reflected in the beautifully designed houses of Frank Lloyd Wright and the architecture of Le Corbusier, who was particularly interested in designs for better living in cities, as revealed in his manifesto Towards a New Architecture (1927).

Scholarly-cultural events

One of the most famous events of the 1920s was the discovery of the intact tomb of Tutankhamen, the boy-pharaoh of the New Kingdom of Ancient Egypt. The discovery was made by Howard Carter (1922), and its dazzling luxury and beauty staggered the world, setting in motion a keen interest in all things ancient Egyptian.


Tutankhamen’s mask (The Griffith Institute, Harry Burton, Oct 1925

Another scholarly event which caught the imagination of the educated world was the publication of Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa (1928). This was an anthropological study of the life of a community of the Pacific island of Samoa, but its frank discussion of such issues as sex and morality in a non-literate and non-western society caught the zeitgeist of a world trying to rethink its values and beliefs from the ground up after the terrible World War I.