Now that US Isolationism is once again on the cards it is perhaps pertinent to review that last time America retreated into its shell. After 1919, Germans over the age of 20 were given the vote. The German Bank was reformed and the period between 1923 and 1929 saw the German economy and its cultural life boom. Countries that signed the peace treaties at Versailles agreed to set up the League of Nations to settle any future disputes by arbitration. The League had no armed forces to compel compliance, but it could enforce economic sanctions. The League was weakened when the USA and Russia refused to join; later Japan, Italy and Germany all pulled out. The Italian invasion of Ethiopia, both then members of the League, in 1935 showed the League to be powerless to intervene in armed conflicts.
America turned its back on the world. During the 1920s the American economy boomed until the Great Depression of 1928. Prices of grain and other agricultural produce fell globally, followed by financial collapse as Wall Street speculators sold their stocks in panic. Money dried up, exports declined sharply, people stopped spending, and the world’s economy ground to a halt. In Germany, which relied on American financial loans, companies went bankrupt and millions of workers were laid off. In desperation, voters turned to the extreme Nazi and Communist Parties.
In 1917, the Tsar was overthrown. The Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, seized all private property and created the world’s first Communist state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In 1924, after Lenin’s death, Stalin took over. He was ruthless, torturing, killing and sending many to work in the slave camps of the Gulag. In 1922, Mussolini, the dictatorial leader of the Italian National Fascist party, crushed all opposition. Unlike Britain or France, Italy had a small empire: Somalia, Eritrea, and Libya. Italy formed alliances with Nazi Germany and Japan. Its forces overran Ethiopia (Abyssinia) and seized Albania. Japan too had emerged on the winning side of WWI but it also wanted more territory. The military gradually took control of the government. Japan already controlled Korea and Taiwan. In 1937 she attacked the rest of China. The Civil War in Spain became a battleground of ideas for the whole of Europe. Soviet Russia supported the republic; Germany and Italy supported the nationalist rebels led by General Franco. Spain remained neutral throughout World War II, but remained under Franco’s dictatorial control until his death in 1975.
In Germany, the Nazi leader, Hitler, whose party won the elections to the Reichstag without its own majority, was appointed Chancellor. The Communists were blamed for burning the Reichstag and thousands were arrested. Hitler passed laws without the approval of Parliament, banning all other political parties. All peoples the Nazis considered to be inferior to the Aryan race were to be exterminated or expelled.
Re-armed German troops occupied the Rhineland. Hitler demanded that the border region of Czechoslovakia become part of Germany. The British, French and Italian governments agreed to this against the wishes of Czechoslovakia. The British prime minister, declared “peace in our time.” In 1939 German troops occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia. Britain and France pledged to defend Poland. On 1st September Germany invaded western Poland. Two days later, Britain and France declared war.
There is every reason to fear the tsunami of right-wing extremism that is swamping the world. History does repeat itself.