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
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
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