How the Years Between the World Wars Created the Modern World
Editor’s Note: Hunt Tooley, Professor of History at Austin College, will be teaching “The Interwar Years” beginning on January 22 at 5:30 p.m. This six-lecture course will examine the years between the two World Wars and cover the “rebuilding” of the war-torn world, inflation and depression, financial manipulation, neo-mercantilism, and the vast plans for securing resources for emerging “military-industrial complexes.”
From a historical standpoint, the period between the two world wars resonates powerfully in many directions. “See you in 20 years,” the diplomats said to each other as they left the Paris Peace Conference, and war did indeed break out 20 years and a few weeks after the Versailles Treaty was signed in 1919. The interwar period would be highly interesting if for no other reason.
But other significant historical trends — many of them only indirectly related to the war itself — were in process as well. European imperialism, admittedly influenced by the strains of global war, was developing its first real fissures. The intellectual movement associated with Modernism accelerated. The electronic media emerged rapidly — the BBC started radio broadcasts in 1921! Einstein got the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921. The great Max Weber died in 1920. Freudian terminology — think “Oedipus Complex” or “displacement activity” — were becoming household terms, at least in educated circles. Dress hemlines shot upward. Jazz altered popular music radically. Movies got sound and color!
After a short burst of showcase “democracy” in postwar Europe, totalitarian regimes and functional dictatorships seemed to be the wave of the future. As George Gershwin wrote into the lyrics of “Slap that Bass” in 1937,
If they’d zoom zoom now and then.
Today, you can see that the happiest men
All got rhythm
In which case
If you want to bubble,
Slap that bass
Slap away your trouble.
Learn to zoom zoom zoom
Slap that bass
Zoom zoom, zoom zoom
The World is in a mess
With politics and taxes
And people grinding axes
There's no happiness.
Unfortunately, though many basses were slapped during the interwar period, from Los Angeles to St. Louis to Paris to Vienna, the world was still in a mess!
All of these trends make the Entre-deux-guerres, as French historians call the period, an unusually eventful and even fateful 20 years in the history of the world.
But for students of the idea and practice of liberty, the period is absolutely crucial in understanding and interpreting the twentieth century and hence our own world.
For one thing, the Entre-deux-guerres practically created totalitarianism. The Bolsheviks captured the Russian government in 1917/18. Shortly thereafter, Mussolini’s Fascism took control in Italy, and later Hitler’s Nazism in Germany. All three cases featured movements that gave life to the words “terrible simplifiers,” a phrase coined by historian Jacob Burckhardt during the late nineteenth century. Burckhardt meant the kind of mass movements guided by violent demagogues to which European civilization had become susceptible. The interwar years gave us such demagogues in spades. And lesser simplifiers too. The first socialist governments ruled for various lengths of time in Western and Central Europe. And East-Central Europe was likewise guided by socialist policies, for most of the time after the mid-twenties by nationalist dictators. And where nominal socialists were not in power, the welfare/warfare state came to be the norm. The forces of collectivism found fulfillment in many, many ways throughout the world.
It was also during the interwar period that the heroes of the modern philosophy of liberty and the Austrian School in particular framed their profound critique of collectivism. This critique stands as the basis of modern Austrian economics and indeed for a great deal of modern thought about liberty.
Take the story of Ludwig on Mises alone. As postwar Austria veered between socialism and nationalist dictatorship, Mises worked tirelessly to influence policy while writing the following classics: Nation, State, and Economy; Socialism; Liberalism; The Free and Prosperous Commonwealth; Monetary Stabilization and Cyclical Policy; Critique of Interventionism; Epistemological Problems of Economics; and Nationalökonomie (the 1940 German-language predecessor to Human Action).
The list of articles he wrote during the period even more clearly illustrates the loneliness and persistence of his struggle for liberty and against collectivism in all its manifestations — his fight for civilization, as he called it.
We could likewise follow the careers of others who went against the tide of collectivism in asserting individualism and liberty: Hayek, of course; Hazlitt, Mencken, Robbins, Roepke, and others. The period was after all the backdrop to the Mises Circle and the socialist calculation debate as well as totalitarianism, the Great Depression, and the New Deal.
From a number of perspectives, the First World War was the death knell of the century of bourgeois liberalism. It certainly paved the way for totalitarianism, statism, and the mass violence that distorts modern life. Some few understood all this early on. Still fewer — Mises and others — recognized the wave of the future for what it was, and fought back. But to understand this crucial period both on the general level and as a piece of the history of individualism, we must investigate ideas, culture, politics, economics, and more.
Some periods of history seem to produce a more intense human experience, to impact the future more than other epochs. I would nominate the 20 years between the wars as one of those intensive periods, both for good and ill. The period certainly produced a design for the world to come.