Around the 20th century, the end of the First World War cleared the way for the formation of democratic regimes. Why they had not been successful, why the people didn’t use the opportunity to establish a democratic political system and why did the dictatorships appear, is still unclear, but it is a very discussible subject. The decisive role in these processes was the human being. It was the object of the cause, but on the other hand, he was also the subject – executor of all the problems as well.
The First World War was expected to be short, with a quick triumph on either side. On the contrary, the war caused a giant massacre to all the countries involved and lasted for four years. Also against the expectations of political leaders and military commanders new techniques of fighting were used, as well as new weapons (for example the chloric gas, tanks and aircraft).
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Due to all this, 13 million people were killed, of which 2 million were Germans, 1.75 million Russians, 1.5 million Frenchmen, 1 million British and 0.5 million Italians. But death was just one of the worst consequences of the First World War. Just military failures on the fronts, along with other problems directly affected internal politics in a great way. This horrible catastrophe also left most of the countries in huge debt, especially Germany, Austria, Hungary, Russia, and many others. This led to poverty and chaos, and the people were suffering. That is why they started to revolt, but the political system was so exhausted after the war that it didn’t do anything to solve this.
The effects of the war sped up the changes. It is an arguable fact, whether the war also had a liberating effect. If it did, it was greatly affected by the downfall of three empires, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Tsarist Russia and Keiser’s Germany. In Russia, the tsar abdicated and was replaced by the Provisional Government, but it only took 8 months and Russia moved from autocracy to communism.
It is true that this downfall separated and freed different ethnic groups like Czechs and Slovaks, Serbs, etc. who had been a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire because these ethnic groups did get their independent states with democratic constitutions. The land was taken from the aristocrats and distributed to the peasants. The workmen got better conditions to work in, for example, bigger salaries, less working time, social security and so on. Women received the same rights as men, like freedom of speech and the right to vote.
One of the reasons why the democratic development was not very stable was the disagreement of the countries that lost the war, like Germany, Hungary and Austria, because the conditions they were given by the triumphant states were very harsh.
A problem that emerged after the First World War was, that the victorious countries took advantage of the peace treaties. The Treaty of Versailles, which was signed on the 28th of June 1919, confirmed that Germany was responsible for the World War. By signing this Germany had to give up a lot of territories won during the war, had to demilitarise and pay for all the damage caused by the war. Altogether Germany lost 13% of her area, 12% of her population, 16% of her coal, 48% of her iron, 15% of her agricultural land and 10% of her manufactures. The coal and iron loss were because the treaty also gave France the right to coal-mine in the Saar region.
The Secret Treaty of London, signed in 1915, in which Italy was promised land for joining the Entente Powers, though Italy never received it. The Treaty of St.Germain and Trianon dealt with Austria-Hungary, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between Russia and Germany, which promised Russia back the land lost during the war. This treaty was cancelled though, and no other effort was put into making up for that treaty somehow. The whole settling of these treaties involved the greatest territorial transformation in the whole European history.
All these treaties led to problems, but the main one was, that no one was satisfied with the compromises that had been made. The Versailles Treaty was impossible to fulfil, Italy never got the land it was promised, and neither did Russia. Therefore the Peace Treaties didn’t solve anything, just increased the resentment toward democracy in some countries, which was also one of the reasons why democracy failed.
Democracy is a system of government, thought of as allowing freedom of speech, religion and political opinion. It is also a fair and equal treatment of each other by citizens, without social class divisions. That is what was meant by a democratic state, and many countries used this system until it was affected by the economic crisis, but also by racial and social crises.
The economic crisis involved inflation in 1920 in Germany, which developed into a universal depression within 9 years. Ethnic groups were in conflict, different social groups argued within themselves and all this greatly affected the political parties. The democracies didn’t know how to cope with all this, but neither would have any other regime, except no one realized this and the democracy was blamed.
Another inconvenience at the time was the proportional system that was used. Even though more parties had a say, and if this system was used properly it would have been easier to come up with compromises to solve problems, it confused the people even more. They didn’t know whom to support and the chaos grew. Because of this, the democratic system stopped paying attention to real problems and instead tried to put together a perfect government.
One thing that could have helped democracy was an alluring leader, who would at least give the people hope, and solutions for all the problems, which sometimes couldn’t be solved as simply as was said. But that is precisely what was missing, until Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pilsudsky etc. took advantage of this and told the people exactly what they wanted to hear. This led to the support of anti-democratic parties.
Since people didn’t trust the democratic system anymore, they started looking for other alternatives. The ones that seemed most convenient, especially for the workers was either communism or fascism. These seemed more hopeful because they were alternatives to capitalism and had charismatic leaders.
The main idea of communism was to build an equal and classless society. It was based on the ideas of Marx and Engels. Their theory was, that every society has a base-the economy and a superstructure- the political and social relations. They said that the development of mankind involves the change of the base, which leads to the change of the superstructure. Class conflicts arise, and people want change. This develops into a revolution, which goes through a stage of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and during this period superstructures are destroyed, everything is nationalized and a classless society comes into being.
Lenin applied this theory to real life. He established a revolutionary party, the Bolsheviks and in 1917 overthrew the Provisional Government and seized power in Russia. Similar revolutions happened in Bavaria, Hungary, Austria, Slovakia etc. but all collapsed till the 1920s.
The other alternative was fascism, based on religion, also known for strong hatred toward British and French democracy traditions. The first fascist regime appeared in Italy and was followed by Germany. Fascism applied the theory of “Ubermensch”(Social Darwinism), the perfect human being; it was strongly racist and anti-Semitic.
Fascism was mostly supported by the lumpenproletariat and the rural population. There were two types of fascism, and almost all of central Europe was using either type. Czechoslovakia was the only country in central Europe that was democratic, from the 1920s to 1938s. It was immune to this system because it had very strong democratic traditions, it was economically strong, had strong institutions and the people had higher educations. Also, the workmen didn’t have to look for different alternatives from democracy because they worked in good conditions. Fascism collapsed when Nazi Germany lost the Second World War.
Another aspect, which should be considered in the profound changes, which led to the emergence of dictatorships, was the economic crisis. Some of the many reasons it happened were the effects of the First World War as well as the compromises and peace treaties made after it ended. Also, the downfall of the three empires was an important cause, because I think that the countries that became independent started to pursue a very independent and nationalistic policy, which caused a lot of problems in international politics and trade.
It would be expected, that the economy would develop and flourish after the war. But the flourish only affected a few countries, and not for a very long period. It is true that some countries experienced booms, but other countries like the successor states suffered severely. Germany was most affected, because of the contributions it had to pay, according to the treaty of Versailles.
All in all, Europe made more products but didn’t sell as many, and because of that, her share in world trade decreased. More modern and sufficient methods of production were used, which on one hand caused the fall in agricultural prices, but on the other, it contributed to the increase of unemployment and economically affected other countries as well. Europe was also falling into a desperate situation and had to borrow money from the United States. That meant, that the European economic development was fully dependant on American loans.
The situation in America started to deteriorate. Investors were experiencing a boom therefore they invested their money at home and caused the economy to overheat. The result of this was the Wall Street crash. No more investments were made in Europe, and America started to experience a crisis of her own. Since the USA discontinued the loans, Europe’s chance to recovery was also cut off. The production started to decrease again, and banks began to collapse. Industrial countries were affected, as well as agricultural countries, because of the drop in agricultural prices and the failure of trade with agricultural products.
This partially damaged the Soviet Union as well, even though not as badly as the other countries, because Russia isolated itself from the rest of the world, economically and politically.
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