History 104: Western Civilization since 1648

Interwar Culture and World War II

 Mondrian's painting, with large red square, small blue square lower left, smaller yellow rectangle lower right, white background, black lines separating seven areas

Interwar Culture

Post-war Anxiety
Culture and Sexuality in the Jazz Age
The Science of Uncertainty
Weimar Berlin
Albert Speer
Women and Fascism
Modern Art and Music

World War II

Treaty of Versailles
1920s False Prosperity
Stock Market Crash
Fascist Italy
Hitler's Germany
Fascist Expansion
War: Pacific Theatre
War: European Theatre
The Holocaust

Interwar Culture

To many, the Great War seemed an indication that the beneficial progress of mankind was over. Millions of young men, an entire generation, had died in the horrible slaughter. War was conducted with machines and gas, sending survivors back with shell-shock that turned them into automatons and prosthetic body parts to cover gas damage. Clearly, the image of rational humanity, reaching forward into a peaceful world, was a sham. The most popular book after the war was Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West. A quotation:

A boundless mass of human Being, flowing in a stream without banks; upstream, a dark past wherein our time-sense loses all powers of definition and restless or uneasy fancy conjures up geological periods to hide away an eternally unsolvable riddle, downstream, a future even so dark and timeless - such is the groundwork of the Faustian picture of human history.

Faust was a popular theme, since mankind seemed to have sold its soul to the devil for the ultimate in technological power. The anxiety of the post-war era was reflected in every possible cultural expression. Some chose an "eat, drink and be merry" approach; others, like Spengler, were more introspective.



Two different philosophies from this era should serve as illustrations.

Logical empiricism was based on the belief that the previous subjects of philosophy were crap: whether there was a God, what was the meaning of human existence, etc. In the spirit of super-positivism, logical empiricists focused only on that which could be proven. Empiricism, you may recall, says that knowledge comes from experience. Logic was claimed to make mathematics (rationalism) also proveable. A proposition is meaningless unless it can be analyzed through experience or logic. Thus questions about God and such are not valid philosophical questions, because few elements of them can be proven. Philosophy could, Sartre with his pipeinstead, focus on significant issues. This trend reflects the problems with the meaning of events like the Great War.

Existentialism does too, because it emphasizes the individual will. The individual creates such meaning that does exist, through his/her own actions. There is no meaning except that which is given through action. For example, a soldier is ordered to fire a machine gun at the men coming at him. He can choose to do it or not. If he does it and kills someone, he is a killer. If he doesn't, he will likely be killed. But the choice is his, and the meaning is given by his action, not his intention. Jean-Paul Sartre, pictured here, popularized existentialism. It gained even more popularity after World War II revealed the things Nazi soldiers did, claiming they were only following orders.


The 1920s

There were several new elements in literature during the 1920s. One was the development of a technique called stream-of-consciousness. The idea evolved from studies of psychology.

Web document: William James (pychologist, 1892): Talks with Teachers

The technique was intended to express the narrative as the conscious thoughts of the narrator. Instead of a typical narrative story, told in the third or even the first person, stream-of-consciousnesss attempted to replicate how the mind actually works, in disjointed segments of impressions, desires, and observations.
bookWorkbook document: James Joyce's Ulysses (1922)

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While Joyce was certainly a master of the style, other authors, like Virginia Woolf, also used the technique. Woolf was particularly important in advancing the concept of women as literary figures. She insisted, for example, that women must have a separate place to write, a "room of ones own".

Another trend was in gay culture as expressed through literature. The first openly lesbian novel Lesbian dress: two women at the raceswas Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness. In the novel, a girl is named Stephen because her father wanted a boy, and she grows up an invert (inversion being the clinical name for homosexuality). The book shows Stephen's life and loves, and most of all her sorrow and struggle.
bookWorkbook document: The Well of Loneliness (1928)

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The novel is still a cult gay book, but that fact de-emphasizes that it actually reflected the popular interest in gay themes during the 1920s. In elite circles, it was cool to be gay. The androgynous female fashion of the time reflected this. So although Hall's book reflected the misery of being gay in a society that expected heterosexuality, the gay underground was simply not as submerged as it had been during Victorian times.

The 1930s

Introducing you to my three favorite books of the 1930s should help shed light on trends during that era.

bookWorkbook document: Tropic of Cancer (1931)

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Henry Miller

Henry Miller was an American author who spent much of his life sponging off his friends in France and writing books that were banned in many countries. His vivid approach to sex, which some considered pornographic, was new in that it treated sex like any other activity (eating, sleeping etc.). There are many human relationships in his work, but no romanticism.

In real life, one of his many affairs was with the erotic author Ana´s Nin, who also developed a passion for Henry's wife, June Mansfield. For the voyeuristic, here's an excerpt from a 1932 letter she sent to Henry:

Anais NinI love when you say all that happens is good, it is good. I say all that happens is wonderful. For me it is all symphonic, and I am so aroused by living - god, Henry, in you alone I have found the same swelling of enthusiasm, the same quick rising of the blood, the fullness, the fullness ...
Before, I almost used to think there was something wrong. Everybody else seemed to have the brakes on. . . . I never feel the brakes. I overflow. And when I feel your excitement about life flaring, next to mine, then it makes me dizzy.

The capture of life, the living of the moment, was a trend during this time in literature just as it was in music and other arts.

Scientific advances, also, affected literature, and created Aldous Huxley's vision of the future.

bookWorkbook document: Brave New World (1936)

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The ideas of social engineering, and of creating new human strains through selective breeding, were becoming popular among people interested in eugenics. Eugenics was the idea of scientifically breeding better humans through genetic engineering, for example by sterilizing people with inherited mental defects. Huxley's books reflects the possibilities of science in radically changing humanity, and a disturbing image of that new reality. In today's U.S, where stem-cell research exists alongside genetically-engineered food, it's a good book to read.

But my favorite Huxley quotation is this:

"That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history."

KafkabookWorkbook document: The Trial (1925;1937)

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Franz Kafka gives us the labyrinthine, terrifying world of the depersonalized, autocratic state. Kafka himself was a Czech Jew who at an early age showed a dislike for rote learning. He was sympathetic to socialist causes. He studied law, and became a hard-working official in an insurance company, writing his books at night. His work influenced many authors with his vision of pointless, masochistic bureaucracies controlling a confusing maze of red tape. Even today, mindless bureaucratic situations are referred to as "Kafkaesque".

Josephine Baker, known in Paris as

Paris was the cultural center of Europe in the 1920s. The disillusioned came there, as did the unemployed, the artistic, the unusual. Expatriate writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway ate in the cafes. It was the headquarters of the Lost Generation and the avant-garde.

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Although clearly an expression of communist utopian relationships, Kollontai's philosophy also reflects the society of Europe, which was freely experimenting with new sexual relations.

The Flapper

Life cover with flapperThe female image was also undergoing revision, in a reaction against Victorian norms. Young rich women cut ("bobbed") their hair short, defying the rules about letting hair grow and leaving it long for your husband. Corsets were abandoned. Skirts stopped at the knee, and a boyish figure was preferred. The new style was led by the aristocrats, who clearly had no purpose in the modern world and whose younger members felt adrift and willing to do something different. The "flapper" did not represent as radical a departure as she seemed, however. The average flapper had sex with a few different men, one of which she would choose as a husband. But I'm sure she had more fun selecting the lucky guy than her mother had during the Victorian era!

Harlem Renaissance

The only place rivalling Paris for cultural diversity and expression was Harlem, the black community in New York. The 1920s saw the Harlem Renaissance, an outpouring of cultural expression with an ebony accent.

After the Great War, large numbers of AfricanAmericans migrated north to the cities. This, coupled with the environment of experimentation and the political leadership of figures like W.E.B. DuBois, created the energy that celebrated and revealed the black experience. There's a great website on the Harlem Renaissance, so take a look.

Material Culture

Material culture also changed drastically during the 1920s and 30s.

The biggest change was the automobile, which allowed the middle and upper classes unprecedented mobility. As a result, suburbs were created surrounding the larger cities. That made it possible for people to live outside the city, but go to work in the city. Model A
Charlie Chaplin as the Little Tramp Movies became a mass medium as they went from silent pictures to full-sound movies. They helped spread cultural values and styles, especially between Europe and the U.S. Charlie Chaplin and Clara Bow were hits on both sides of the Atlantic. Chaplin blended comedy with pathos. Clara Bow, the "It" girl, ws the ultimate in flapper seductiveness. Young people began imitating their movie star heroes, in fashion, manners, and behaviour. Clara Bow


two men in suits Fashion changed too, of course. Men's fashions became more relaxed between the 1920s (left) and the 1930s (right). The cut of the jacket and trousers got looser. Gentlemen still had their clothes made by tailors. man in brown suit
three women in long straight dresses Women's fashions went the other way, from the loose freedom of flapper clothing (left) to the tighter, more conservative clothing of the 1930s (right). What was new in the 20s was easy sewing; by 1926 a "one hour" dress (that could be cut and sewn in that time) was being marketed. By the 1930s, catalogs like Sears offered ready-made clothing at reasonable prices. catalog page of women's dresses from 1930s

Fashion for both sexes reflected a greater need for convenience. Only the very wealthy had servants to help them dress, thus clothes got simpler.


To many people, science had provided a sense of certainty. Logical empiricists would be happy to tell you that only those things that could be proven scientifically were valuable. The idea that natural laws were knowable and unchanging had been dogma since before Newton's time, and the fact that science could prove things as true was reassuring.

Marie and Pierre Curie in the labBut as with the other elements of radical change in the 1920s and 30s, science changed too. It was disovered that Newtonian physics did not apply in all cases, and that there were elements that were unknown or whose characteristics were unpredictable. As this knowledge seeped into the popular culture, there was a growing awareness that even science could not provide certainty.

The atom had been explored before the Great War, and it became known that it was not the hard core of matter. Marie Curie, with her husband Pierre, did experimentation into radioactivity (a term coined by Marie). They discovered the element radium, and found that it randomly emitted sub-atomic particles, thus defying the belief in the stability of the atom.

Albert Einstein destroyed Newtonian certainty forever by showing that even time and space are not certain. His theory of relativity denied the absolutes of time and space by showing that velocity was always relative to whatever else in the universe was moving around it. For example, a train on a track is not simply going 40 miles per hour. You should also factor in the movement of the Earth itself underneath it, and perhaps even the movement of the Earth through the solar system and galaxy. The idea that there are no fixed or stationary points anywhere changed the basis of science.

There were also advances in medicine.Freud with cigar The theories of Sigmund Freud became known to all during the 1920s. Freud had treated Victorian women suffering from hysteria (which only women can have, since its base is hyster, the womb). Using hypnosis, he helped women overcome sexual repression that had been instilled in them since childhood. Bringing these feelings to consciousness cured many of his middle-class patients. His work seemed even more pertinent in the age of anxiety following the war. Freudian psychology says that much behavior is irrational, and is based on an internal conflict among the id (agressive/sexual/subconscious side), the ego (the rational/possible side) and the superego (the moral/societal side). The sexual experimentation of the 1920s and 30s

Other medical work included the discovery of radiation-induced cancer, discovered in factory workers painting watch dials with radium, and licking the tips of the brushes to make them pointy. Marie Curie died of leukemia, undoubtably from radiation exposure. In 1928 George Papanicolaou discovered it was possible to identify malignant cells among normal cells, leading to the first Pap test for cervical cancer. In blood transfusions, it was discovered that bad reactions to transfused blood could be the result of undetected bacteria, which could be helped by another new creation: antibiotics. Between 1917 and 1929 various substances were created to inhibit bacterial growth, including sulfa drugs (still used for urinary tract infections) and isoniazid (a treatment for tuberculosis that led to its end as a major killer). RabbitIn 1929 Alexander Fleming published a study in Britian on penicillium, made from a mold culture, that inhibited bacteria. Penicillium was hard to produce in quantity; it was based in only one mold type that grew unpredictably on some substances but not others. Thus penicillin was not in commmon use until World War II. Other work included studies in tissue rejection for organ transplants, the isolation of insulin, and the connection between the pituitary gland and sex. This last led, in 1928, to the first reliable pregnancy test. It was discovered that the presence of human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) in a pregnant woman, which could not be detected directly in the urine, could be found if injected into a rabbit. HCG could only be seen as a change to the rabbit's ovaries, so many rabbits were killed during the first decades of pregnancy tests.

If the cultural center of the west in the 1920s was Paris, Women burning money, since it was cheaper to burn marks than spend them on firewood

Oddly enough, this was because of economic crisis. As you may recall, Germany was not only militarily reduced by the Treaty of Versailles, she was also told to pay reparations. In 1921, the amount was set at 132 billion gold marks ($31.4 billion). Since the Allies had taken away many territories that provided Germany with economic profit, Germany was early on unable to pay.

In 1923, the French, having been denied their reparations payment, decided to occupy the Ruhr valley. This was one of the last industrial heartlands of Germany, and was a great coal-mining region. France's occupation led to a phenomenon called "hyperinflation". The German mark went from 4 marks to the dollar, within a year, to 4.3 trillion marks to the dollar. A lifetime's savings could be wiped out overnight.

This meant that only goods (butter, shoes, bacon, metal) had value; money was spent quickly, before it became worthless. Beggars tossed 100,000 mark notes in the gutter, but $50 American could buy a row of houses. Because rents and rail fares were fixed by law, people could pay their rent and travel around, but not eat. It was cheaper to house the unemployed than to give them money for food.

Foreigners knew the good deal that Germany was for travel. They came from the U.S., Britain and France, and bought everything cheaply. Some stores raised prices when they saw foreigners coming; others refused to sell to them.

Middle class money and savings had been wiped out; and with it went middle-class values. Belief in hard work and decency were destroyed, and marriages based on economic security went out of style.

Gina Gershon in Cabaret
Gina Gershon in a contemporary revival of the musical "Caberet", set in Weimar Germany

Customers for any decadent attractions were plentiful, so cabarets, strip-tease joints, and brothels thrived. Hotels hired gigilos to dance with and "entertain" lady clients, and prostitutes openly accosted potential customers in the streets. Anything could be had, especially if you paid in dollars or pounds. Commercial sex exploded, since for some people the only thing they had left to sell was their bodies. You would have found transvestite parties, school-age children selling their bodies, and brothels just for voyeurs. You would pay your coat, shoes, fabric, eggs, or dollars. Cocaine was, like in the 1920s, readily available: just leave your coat with the hat-check girl at the club and she'd hand you a bindle instead of a ticket (4 grams per overcoat).

So Hitler was right about one thing: the decadence that marked the Weimar years in Germany were extreme.


Albert Speer was Hitler's architect. Speer and Hitler working on papersThis sentence gives only a glimpse of what a controversial figure he is in history. He not only engineered some of the Third Reich's finest buildings but also engineered Hitler's war production. He has been blamed for prolonging World War II by a year. He preferred paid labor to concentration camp labor because of efficiency. As the war was ending, he disobeyed Hitler's orders to destroy buildings and infrastructure. He was the only official to plead guilty of war crimes at the Nuremberg Trials after the war.

Hitler was able to trust him because they were friends, in the sense that Speer's total lack of interest in political power made him non-threatening. From Speer Hitler demanded buildings that would last for a thousand-year Reich and be timeless in their design. Hitler violently opposed the decadent, everyman, modernist production styles of the Bauhaus, a school he shut down. Instead, he wanted reference to classical themes of glorious empire. Speer gave him that, and proved himself an outstanding organizer as well as architect.

Model of Reich Chancellory
photograph of Hitler's office
Model of the Reich Chancellory
Hitler's office

drawing of large building
Speer designed and built this building in Berlin within a year

column at entrance to pavilion, eagle on top Speer's entry to the German Pavilion at the 1937 Paris Exhibition. It was at this international exhibition that Picasso's Guernica was shown (in the Spanish Pavilion), and architects and artists competed in a way that foreshadowed World War II.

Speer's style is an effort to combine classical architecture with new fascist ideas. His designs are intriguing because, although Hitler abhorred modernism, Speer's work utilizes some of the minimalism and efficiency promoted by modernists, albeit on a larger scale and for a different purpose.


For twoman in uniform smoking cigarettehe first few years of the communist Soviet Union, women may have managed to get limited equality. But in fascist states, like Italy (from 1922) and Germany (from 1933), opportunities were like men's opportunities: subverted to the "needs" of the states. Ultimately, this was also the case in Stalin's Soviet Union, which had communist principles but operated like a fascist state.

I will be discussing fascism in the next lecture, and you'll be reading about it. But for now, it should suffice to present fascism as an extreme form of nationalism. In Italy, fascist government was a response to poor international treatment at the Versailles Peace Conference, post-war depression, and the desire for an Italian empire. In Germany, it was held off for awhile by the false prosperity of the 1920s, but emerged with the Nazi (National Socialist) party. In both cases, fascist government was a nationalistic alternative to socialism or communism, the fear of which emerged in response to the establishment of the Communist International in Moscow in 1919.

Soviet medal
Soviet Motherhood Medal, given to women having six children (1944)

Fascist states glorified motherhood, but not in just the sense of domesticity. Motherhood was elevated to a state responsibility. One reason was to increase the population. In his speech in 1927, Mussolini said:

It is therefore necessary to take great care of the future of the race, starting with measures to look after the health of mothers and infants. This is the purpose of the National Organization for the Protection of Mothers and Children.
Throughout the country there exist 5,700 branches for which there still is not enough money. Hence the tax on bachelors and perhaps in the future there will be a tax on childless marriages. . . .
I tell you that the most fundamental, essential element in the political, and therefore economic, and moral, influence of a nation lies in its demographic strength.
Let us be quite clear: what are 40 million Italians compared to 90 million Germans and 200 million Slavs? What are 40 million Italians compared to 40 million Frenchmen, plus 90 million inhabitants of their colonies, or 46 million Englishmen plus 450 million people who live in their colonies?
Italy, if she is to count for anything in the world, must have a population of not less than 60 million inhabitants by the middle of this century.
Mothers' Cross
Cross of Honour of the German Mother (for 8 children)

This is a tricky area for feminist history. Does it mean that women were confined to domestic tasks? Or does it mean that motherhood finally got the public respect and support it has always deserved, but which it is denied in most systems?

Fascist organizations could provide opportunities for women; many young Nazis were women. Motherhood, like in the ancient days of Sparta, was seen as a job requiring great strength and endurance. In Nazi youth camps, women's bodies were strengthened (like men's) in vigorous exercise. But fascist governments were clearly patriarchal in nature, despite the fact that Italy allowed women to vote.

Some women resisted fascist domination of their lives. One pamphlet, circulated by a women's committee associated with the German socialist party in 1932, said:

The Nazis demand the death sentence for abortion.
They want to turn you into compliant birth-machines.
You are to be servants and maids for men.
Your human dignity is to be trampled underfoot.
Your families will be driven to
desperation from ever greater hunger
The Nazis are the deadly enemies of liberation
and equal rights of women.
You must refuse to deal with them!
Whatever party or world-view you favor -
come and join together in anti-fascist action...
Form united committees for the joint battle against
hunger, fascism, and war!


Modernist art was naturally both an expression of the anxiety that marks this era, and a harbinger of things to come. There are several movements worth tracking.

Immediately after the Great War, art began to change. Art as social criticism continued, as you can see with George Grosz in Germany. But another reaction was an international movement called Dada, which strove to end the academic arguments about art by presenting common objects as art. It was both a form of ridicule and a form of art itself.

Art of the Western World:
Grosz and Dada

Another is minimalism, here demonstrated by the abstractions of Constantin Brancusi. Notice that Michael Wood puts this art in a social context, in that it calls for a utopian community.

Art of the Western World:

The last crucial movement was that of the Bauhaus, in Germany.

Art of the Western World:
The Bauhaus

click here for audio part 2 Much Bauhaus work is representative of the major movement in art at this time: constructivism. With constructivism, we get minimalist work that is completely abstract, detached from any representational portrayals of nature. Constructivists sought a new art that would deal realistically with social and economic problems, creating a utopian goal that could be achieved by all people.

Some samples:

Mondrian's painting, with large red square, small blue square lower left, smaller yellow rectangle lower right, white background, black lines separating seven areas
Composition with Red, Blue, Yellow
You may recall that Mondrian's work began before the Great War, as he abstracted images with a concrete object at their core. Mondrian's work continued after the war, and became more abstract. He came to represent the De Stijl movement 1917- 1931. This is my favorite. This type of art is also called Neo-Plasticism.
This is Wassily Kandinky's On White II (1923). Kandinsky was a particular admirer of Schoenberg's music, which you heard on the entry page. In his book On the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky paralleled art to music, which he felt was a superior art form. He sought rhythm in his work, and a feeling of peace and tranquillity in the viewer. This was achieved through "melody" in composition, by removing the object itself from the image. A spiritual feeling of balance should be felt in the viewer. I respond to this kind of work now, though I didn't when I was younger. (But I don't think I'll get used to Schoenberg.) Kandinsky's painting, with white background andmulticolored shapes springing out from the center
Miro's painting, with dark brown background at the bottom and light brown at the top, on which sit blobs or amorphous shapes in dull red, blue, yellow, browns To the left is surrealist Jean Mirˇ's Dutch Interior II (IntÚrieur hollandais II) of 1928.
Calder's mobile: several branches of metal wire, each ending with shape in earth colors: ovals, half circle, leaf
Steel Fish (1934)

Alexander Calder was an American artist who created mobiles and stabiles in addition to drawings. He had been trained as an engineer. The term "mobile" was coined by Duchamp's Nudehis friend Marcel Duchamp, whose work Nude Descending a Staircase (right) had caused a sensation back in 1912. The term "stabile" was coined by surrealist Jean Mirˇ. Working in Paris in the early 1930s, Calder was inspired by Mondrian's work, which started him on the style that would become his own. What he did came to be called kinetic art, because its movement was part of the experience.

You can take an entire QuickTime virtual tour of Calder's work at the National Gallery of Art website.

In music, modernism led to the atonal movement like we heard with Schoenberg, at the opening page of this lecture. But of far more importance for popular music was jazz, after which the 1920s were named the Jazz Age.

One of the finest practitioners of this art was Louis Armstrong, of New Orleans. Listen to this while looking at the above pictures and you will be feeling very modern, in an early 20th century kind of way!

Now maybe I'll never get used to Arnold Schoenberg, but I could listen to Louis Armstrong all day long.


World War II

Grosz's painting

George Grosz
I Am Glad I Came Back (1943)

Based on a German poem from World War I, the song "Lili Marlene" was loved by both German and American soldiers in World War II. Here it's sung by Marlene Dietrich, an anti-Nazi German-born movie star who became an American citizen:

Lyrics in German
Lyrics in English



We enter parliament in order to supply ourselves, in the arsenal of democracy, with its own weapons.... If democracy is so stupid as to give us free tickets and salaries for this bear’s work, that is its affair.... We do not come as friends, nor even as neutrals. We come as enemies. As the wolf bursts into the flock, so we come.

--Joseph Goebbels, Nazi leader, 1928


The Treaty of Versailles was extremely harsh on Germany, preventing all but defensive military bodies and forcing Germany to accept responsibility for the Great War. It also included reparations, money Germany would have to pay to the Allies to make up for all their losses during the war. Many Germans found the Treaty humiliating. You've read excerpts that show you why, but take a peek at the whole thing.

Hitler speaking
Hitler in 1935, emphasizing that he has destroyed the Treaty of Versailles, "which in its 448 articles contains the vilest oppression which peoples and human beings have ever been expected to endure".

Web document: The entire Treaty of Versailles (1919)

Most historians agree that the Treaty was an indirect cause of World War II, but they differ as to why. Some say that the Treaty was too harsh, and forced Germany into a psychologically defensive position that would encourage the rise of Hitler. Others disagree, saying that if the Treaty had been enforced in its entirety by the League of Nations, Germany would not have had the means to rise again.

What both sides often ignore is that some members of the German General Staff (a body made illegal under the Treaty) secretly got around the Treaty's military provisions. General Hans von Seekt made arrangements with high-ranking members of the Soviet military to experiment with and build weapons inside the territory of the Soviet Union, where the League could not inspect. This made it possible for Hitler to later turn a modernized army and air force onto Europe. Von Seekt himself had a fan in Oswald Spengler (Decline of the West), who wanted him to lead Germany in the early 1920s. [I find it interesting that even the nationalistic Spengler, who despised the decadence of the 1920s and wanted a return to authority, didn't end up joining the Nazis.]


During the 1920s, Europe was already in a deep post-war depression. Germany's government had been recreated as a republic (the Weimar Republic) by the League of Nations, although she had always been a monarchy. The result was a proliferation of political parties, each with a different agenda. You can view the elections results to see the rise of the Nazis (NSDAP) within this republican system.

The U.S. and other prosperous countries invested heavily in Germany during the 1920s, because its severe depression made it a good deal for businesses wanting cheap land for factories and cheap labor. This foreign investment created a false prosperity. The corruption of the middle classes at the expense of working people disgusted artist George Grosz, whose work you can see here:

In 1923, Germany was years behind on reparations payments, and France decided to take its share instead. France invaded the Ruhr, the last area of Germany where there was a product (coal) to prop up the monetary system. Germany spiralled into hyperinflationHyperinflation occurs when a country experiences very high and accelerating rates of inflation, rapidly eroding the real value of the local currency and causing the population to minimize their holdings of the local money. This cartoon is titled "Although the Ruhr sickens [double meaning: disease/an industrialized river region in Germany] it doesn't taste bad". The Frenchman eats it with a typical bottle of French wine. "The Pillars of Society" (1926) openly criticizes the middle-class who supported the increasing number of fascists. The priest is a Nazi, as is the man in uniform. The businessman has a head full of steaming shit.


Depression men standing in line for coffeeDuring the 1920s, the United States also experienced a period of false prosperity, propped up by the stock market. As post-war business increased, companies began selling more stock and investing the capital in questionable schemes (including buying the stock of other companies) instead of using it to modernize their production. Ordinary citizens bought into the market surge by purchasing stocks "on margin", paying only 10% of the price and borrowing the rest from their stock broker. Stock brokers making such loans at first borrowed the money from banks. Economic indicators like banking and business kept going up, but others like agriculture and housing were going down. Banks stopped making loans for stock speculation, so brokers began borrowing

The companies were using the broker loans to get more capital, which they then invested back into the stock market. This house of cards fell apart in 1929, with the Great Crash.

As the Great Depression worsened in the U.S., companies were forced to cancel foreign investments. American-owned factories closed all over the world. Germany, with so many American investments, and Japan, which relied on the U.S. for steel, oil and food, were hardest hit.


During the 1920s, Italy was a nation disappointed. Italy had hoped to gain substantial colonies and international respect from her participation in the Great War. But at the Treaty of Versailles conference, her representative was ignored as Britain, France and the U.S. designed the peace.

MussoliniBenito Mussolini created the ultranationalist concept known as fascism. The image was of the fascisti, a bundle of sticks that had represented the Roman Empire: individually a stick could be broken, but together the bundle was unbreakable.

bookWorkbook document: What is Fascism?

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Mussolini created a massive propaganda machine to sell his new ideas after he took power in 1922. Although clearly a dictator, Mussolini worked with the middle-class and the Catholic Church to assure his long reign. His charismatic personality held the nation together under his ruthlessly efficient system. Italians still say that despite undeniable political oppression, he "made the trains run on time".


A corporal in the Great War, Hitler was a man who embodied the frustrations of post-war Germany. His concepts regarding future glory for Germany, to be achieved through military expansion and racial cleansing, were rooted in his earlier years.

The swastika was an image associated with Indian/Aryan myths, and thus with Aryan ethnic superiority.

Like other Europeans, Hitler was influenced by diverse trends of anti-Jewish, anti-foreign, and anti-communist ideas popular through much of Europe. One influence was Lanz von Liebenfels, a mystic who believed in the purity of the Aryan race.

The Nazi (National Socialist) party was ultranationalist, and its precepts were based on Mussolini's fascism. Applying these ideas to the German situation (humiliation at Versailles, hyperinflation during the 1920s, total depression from 1929) was easy: fascism promised Germany glory, military expansion, and a leadership role in the world. Relying on history, the Nazis declared that a Third Reich, or empire, was coming (the First had been the uniting of the Germanic tribes under Charlemagne in AD 800, the Second the unification of Germany under Otto von Bismarck). After an unsuccessful attempt to take over the government, Hitler wrote about his struggle in jail.

bookWorkbook document: Mein Kampf (1925)
After the Stock Market crash disposed of the false prosperity of the 1920s, the Nazis used the republican system to their advantage. Hitler became Chancellor legally in 1933, and immediately pulled Germany out of the League of Nations and began building up the military. More information is at Germany in the 20s: Rise of Hitler (BBC). For information about life in Nazi Germany, see Life in Germany (BBC) [sorry, site removed].

Culturally, Hitler subjected the goals of modernists to ridicule. One way was to invoke the twin spectres of fascism in western Europe: Jewishness and communism. Anything that wasn't in line with nationalism according to fascist definition was unacceptable. Because Jews had international connections to other Jews, Hitler considered them traitors to Aryan culture who possessed no culture of their own. Because communists wanted a communal utopia that would cross national boundaries, they were traitors to the state.

Art of the Western World:
Nazism and Art

Hitler and Mussolini in a car

Realizing their common goals for expansion, Hitler and Mussolini allied as the Axis powers in 1936. The concept was one of an "axis" or line running from Berlin to Rome, around which the world would turn. Though the two men were extremely different personalities, and both considered the other ultimately expendable, the alliance meant military goals would be met quickly.

Fascist Expansion click here for audio

1935 was an important year for the expansion of fascism.

Republican poster showing fascism as meaning exploitation and death for the worker
In Germany, the Nuremberg Laws were passed, which deprived Jews in Germany of citizenship. It was also the year in which Germany announced she was re-arming, and signed the Anglo-German Naval Agreement, which permitted Germany to build a Navy 35% the tonnage of the British navy. In this time of depression and a desire to avert war, other powers permitted Germany to restore her sovereignty. Also in that year, Italy invaded Ethiopia (called Abyssinia) to start the Italian empire. Britain and France did little to stop this; indeed, they may have hoped that Italy could someday serve to counter Nazi expansion. The League of Nations protested but was powerless to act.

The next year, in Spain, the new Axis of Germany and Italy had an opportunity to test their weapons systems. Fascists led by General Francisco Franco were rebelling against the Republican Spanish government in the Spanish Civil War (1936). Supporting the fascists gave the Axis a chance to test blitzkrieg, the lightning war technique: leading with planes to bomb communications and transportation networks, followed by tanks, then light armored vehicles and infantry to "mop up". Artist Pablo Picasso recorded the horror of the bombing of a civilian village called Guernica:

Picasso's Guernica
Drawing by 11-year-old Magalena Ruiz, made of the attack on her town, Oliva
Art of the Western World:

This same year, Germany moved into the demilitarized Rhineland, then proceeded to annex Austria and the southern portion (Sudetenland) of Czechoslovakia. At the Munich Conference in 1938, Britain and France agreed to permit this expansion, which Hitler claimed was to reunite the old German empire. This policy of appeasement was designed to prevent an all-out war. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced the accord on the radio:

This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor Herr Hitler, and here is the paper which bears his name upon it as well as mine.

Some of you perhaps have already heard what it contains, but I would just like to read it to you.

"We, the German Fuhrer and Chancellor and the British Prime Minister have had a further meeting today and are agreed in recognizing that the question of Anglo-German relations is of the first importance for the two countries and for Europe. We regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo-German naval agreement as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again."


Japan, though not a fascist country, also used military expansion and imperialistic goals to save herself from global depression. Dependent on outside sources for food and materials, and limited by treaty to a small fleet of ships, modern Japan became increasingly militarized. It was time for a Japanese empire, designed to make Japan self-sufficient and no longer dependent on other nations.

Map of Japanese empireIn 1931, as other nations entered the depth of their economic crises, Japan invaded Manchuria on the Chinese mainland. By 1937, Japan was invading China itself, and heading toward Southeast

Vast resources were the goal, especially oil and iron in Indonesia. British, French and Dutch colonies were easy targets as these countries were dealing with Hitler and Mussolini in Europe. But the United States also had bases in the Pacific which could threaten the Japanese empire.

By this time, Japan was aware of the Axis activities in Europe, and Britain's frantic pleas to the U.S. to enter the war in Europe. The Tripartite Pact was signed in 1940, permitting Japan to join the Axis. The reason was twofold. First, all parties concerned were against the expansion of the Soviet Union. And because the United States was bound to enter the war, it was to the advantage of both Japan and fascist Europe to have the U.S. fighting on two global fronts simultaneously. It was agreed that whoever went to war with the U.S. first, the other party would declare war also.

YamamotoKnowing the might of the American navy, Admiral Yamamoto developed a plan to eliminate the U.S. Pacific Fleet with a single attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. If every ship were sunk, it would give the Japanese at least two years to solidify their empire before having to worry about the U.S. The attack did not go as planned, however, and the remaining two aircraft carriers provided the foundation for rebuilding the fleet.

By 1942, Japan controlled a vast area in the Pacific and threatened India and Australia. Six months after Pearl, the U.S. was counterattacking in the Pacific. The Japanese fought fiercely, often down to the last man with a gun on tiny South Pacific islands. Because of a secret pact between Japan and the Soviets, the Soviet Union did little to help in the Pacific. British troops (including colonials) and the Americans carried the brunt of the work.Hiroshima

The end came as, upon approaching the Japanese mainland, the U.S. government decided to use a new superweapon: the atomic bomb. One was dropped on August 6, 1945 and exploded a mile above target, causing extensive devastation in and around the city of Hiroshima. The other was dropped three days later on Nagasaki, ushering in the nuclear age.


On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. This began the European war, and was a carefully planned action. The Non-Aggression Pact had been signed with the Soviet Union, ensuring that the USSR would do nothing to stop the action. A secret portion of the agreement ensured that the Soviet Union would benefit by acquiring the Baltic Republics (Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania), the Ukraine, and the eastern half of Poland as a result. Britain, France and her allies declared war.

The blitzkrieg machine moved quickly into Scandinavia and France, collaborating with the fascist French Vichy, who were allowed to control southern France. Spain was already fascist, though independent under General Franco. Italy controlled the south, so the next step was Britain. Failing to bomb the British into submission after switching from military to civilian targets (like London), the Nazis turned their sites on the Soviet Union and attacked in May 1941. Stalin, the Soviet Premier, joined the Allies. By 1942 (the same year Japan was controlling the Pacific), the Axis controlled Europe:

Nazi Europe

The Big Three (Churchill of Great Britain, Roosevelt of the U.S., and Stalin of the Soviet Union) planned the Allied strategy for the war. Stalin's biggest concern was to get his allies to open the "second front" -- invade Big Threenorthern France and force Germany to fight on two fronts. But Churchill of Britain had two reasons to oppose this: the British military's desire to attack the weaker points first, and Churchill's own concern about Stalin's future ambitions in Eastern Europe. The U.S. generals wanted to open the second front and head straight for Berlin. But President Roosevelt had to keep Stalin and Churchill talking, since the two men did not trust each other. He agreed to Churchill's strategy for 1942 and 1943: attacking North Africa, then Italy. But in 1944 he sided with Stalin, hoping that the Soviet Union would be a full participant in the United Nations after the war. This disappointed Churchill, who had hoped for an invasion of the Balkans in the south, which would secure eastern Europe for democratic governments. But Operation Overlord took place in June 1944, and combined British and American troops began pushing toward

Soviet troops simultaneously began a major offensive from the east, and liberated Eastern Europe as they headed toward Berlin to meet up with the British and Americans. V-E Day (Victory in Europe) was May 8, 1945. The war against Japan still raged, but would end in August with the dropping of the atomic bomb. The founding of the U.N. had occurred in April 1945.

book Workbook document: The U.N. Charter

Click here to open document in new window

The Holocaust is the term used to describe the systematic extermination of people considered undesirable

Nazi cartoon "The Spider. Many victims are trapped in the web, caught by flattering words. Rip the web of deceit and free German youth." (1934)

to Hitler's idea of a third German Reich. The Jews in particular were subjected to genocide, the deliberate effort to extinguish an entire segment of the population. The Jews had been persecuted in Germany since Hitler's rise to power in 1933, and gradually their civil and legal rights had been taken away. By 1936, over 75,000 Jews had left Germany and 8,000 had committed suicide. Nazi racial theory saw Jews as an inferior race to be overrun in social Darwinistic fashion, and Nazi political theory saw them as an international force which (like Bolshevism) undermined German nationalism.

Beginning with the invasion of Poland in 1939, Jews were rounded up in ghettos. In their invasion of Russia in 1941, Germany discovered there were millions of Jews in Russia. Although the original idea had been to relocate all the Jews east of the new Reich, it became obvious that there was nowhere to put so many people. By 1942, extermination camps were in operation. Unlike labor camps (used by both sides during the war), prisoners in extermination camps were there to die. The only work was in the killing and processing of bodies. Anyone not suited for work was killed. Gradually the killing process was refined, from shooting to gassing with Zyklon-B and incinerating the remains. The largest camp, Auschwitz (in Poland) had an organized system consisting of arrival by cattle car, separation into workers (about 30% of all new prisoners) and the condemned (about 70%), gassing of the condemned, removal of useful by-products (glasses, hair, gold teeth, artifical limbs), and burning in crematoriums. All work was done by prisoners.

Nazi badges for prisoners
Yellow - Jew
Brown - Gypsy
Violet - Jehovah's Witness
Pink - Homosexual
Green - Habitual criminal
Red - Political prisoner
Black - Asocial
Blue - Emigrant

Jews were not the only victims. Political prisoners, Slavs, gypsies, Catholics, prisoners of war, homosexuals, mental patients, transvestites, all were to be exterminated. Prisoners at the larger camps wore color-coded with tags on their clothes: a star of David for Jews, a violet badge for Jehovah's Witnesses, a brown badge for gypsies, a pink triangle for gays. And a red and white target for anyone who had attempted to escape.

As it became obvious that the Germans were losing the war, there were efforts to destroy evidence of some of the camps. Many camps were simply abandoned, their prisoners left to starve, as Germany retreated westward. The worst camps, because they were in the east, were liberated by Soviet troops. This may have had something to do with the loyalty some eastern European nations felt toward the Soviet Union after the war.

The death toll of the Holocaust is hard to determine; records were destroyed in many cases. The nearest estimate is:

  • 6 million Jews (including 90% of the Jewish population of Poland, the Baltic Republics, and Germany; a total of 66% of all European Jews)
  • 4 million Soviet prisoners of war
  • 4 million Poles, Ukranians, Belorussians and other Slavs
  • 400,000 Gypsies (40% of all European gypsies)
  • 10,000 homosexuals

There is much information available about the Holocaust: see
the Holocaust Timeline for the major events and issues. So-called "revisionist" historians have tried to argue with the genocidal aspects of the Holocaust, claiming that Jews were not exterminated because they were Jewish, etc. Although the revisionist analyses are unconvincing, their presence has led to the release of a great deal of evidence showing what really happened, such as the pictorial archives and Stephen Spielberg's Shoah project.


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