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Europe In Retrospect

by Raymond F. Betts

Reconstruction and New Order: 1918-1945

In his most significant novel, "The Trial", published posthumously in 1925, the Czech novelist Franz Kafka has a descriptive scene in which the victim of a meaningless judicial system peeks into the law books at court and finds that they contain pornographic pictures. In the bizarre realm of his imagination, Kafka was suggesting that European values and institutions were turned upside down and distorted beyond recognition. This was a world gone mad.

That move was imagined to be toward international conciliation and harmony. A number of organizations appeared, all dedicated to the common goal. The League of Nations, designed to resolve international disputes by parliamentary procedures, was at the head of the list, and further down was the P.E.N. Club, made up--as its initials suggested--of poets, essayists, and novelists, who assumed that international understanding could be achieved by those writers who were "men of goodwill."

For a moment their aspirations seemed to be approaching reality; democracy was on the rise. The new nation of Czechoslovakia was provided with a constitution modeled on that of the United States; Austria and Poland became democratic republics with elected chiefs of state; Germany under the Weimar Republic (named after the city in which it was established) was given the most politically sensitive constitution yet devised by Europe, and this instrument was seen as a triumph of democracy. Even Turkey was made over into a constitutional republic.

However, the most telling activity of the time was that seen on the big boards of the international stock exchanges. After an immediate postwar inflation and slump, the world market righted itself and stock sales and values began to climb, until 1929 when "The Crash" occurred. The Depression was a belated result of the First World War, its most significant and far-reaching delayed-fuse bomb. From Vienna to New York, it brought the capitalist edifice down. And with the crash went the remaining hope in the idea of nineteenth- century progress; there was now grave unemployment, not great expectations. "Little Man, What Now?" was the title of a popular German novel published in 1932. It was also a question asked by many individuals who found themselves without work and money as did the main character of the novel, a department store clerk. The Nazis promised guns and butter; the Russian Communists promised electricity and workers' councils. Many individuals turned ideologically and personally to these movements that pretended to provide a new order.

Socially, the 1930s introduced the age of totalitarianism, the attempt by the state to regulate the lives of its citizens, to subsume all politics under the will of a self-appointed leader and a single party. This also was the decade of despair in Europe, and many who turned to communism or fascism did so out of resignation, not new hope. "Two cheers for democracy," exclaimed the English author E. M. Forster at the outbreak of World War II. Three cheers he would reserve for the kingdom of the blessed, and Europe was far from that realm.

And then there was another world war, this one "worthy" of its name. Europe once again was the central theater of operations, although well rivaled by the Pacific as the war progressed. After nearly six years of collective destruction, Europe emerged from this war in 1945 as a fire-gutted continent, a shell of its former self, its population without home and immediate hope.

Thus, the social history of the interwar period ended in despair as it had begun with disorder. Yet at the outset there was some hope that "normalcy"--to use President Harding's term for stability--could again be attained, this through sustained industrial production and economic well-being. This hope was not realized in Europe. Promises were turned into problems--and worse.

One bit of detail from that age now has the quality of a parable. It was Adolf Hitler who gave his support to Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, an engineer who in the early 1930s designed a small automobile that he hoped could be cheaply produced so that the German population might enjoy the freedom of the open road. Hitler liked the car and endorsed its development. Only the prototype of the Volkswagen, the "people's car," was completed before the war approached. The Volkswagen plant thereupon turned its efforts to production of a military scout car, a variant of the original model. As for Porsche, he turned his attention to the design of heavy tanks. And as for the new highways along which the Volkswagens were to roll, they carried motorized troop convoys and, in the last days of the war, they were made to serve as runways for jet fighter aircraft.

Kafka's view of his world ultimately proved not to be badly distorted. Out of the new order, all that was left in 1945 was rubble- -and a major question: How could Europe rebuild?

NEXT:  Disorder: Europe in the 1920s

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