The Interwar Years (1919-1938)
Eastern Europe During the Inter-War Years (1919-1938)
The nations of Eastern Europe, which were dominated to a large extent by the major powers before World War I, found themselves in a period of unprecedented self-determination between the wars. Notable among this group were the Baltic States--Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. All of these states had formerly been dominated by Germany to the west and Russia to the east. Once freed from this domination, Finland went on to bind its fate with that of the other Scandinavian countries, and was able to maintain economic and political stability to a significant extent. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania all struggled with democracy, and became ruled by dictatorships. In September 1934, the three states signed a ten-year pact to cooperate in foreign affairs.
Poland, similarly freed from domination, established a democratic government in 1922, but due to social and economic distress, Joseph Pilsudski took power as virtual dictator in 1926. In 1934, a new, conservative constitution was drawn up, granting extraordinary authority to the president. However, uncertainty about this constitution grew, culminating in May 1935, when Pilsudski died. The elite politicians in Poland consolidated power, and instituted a 'non-party' system, put in place after the 1935 elections. The Camp of National Unity (OZN) took control in 1937, a mass organization based on the principles of nationalism, social justice, and organization. All the while, Poland waged a difficult battle to balance the desires of Germany and the Soviet Union. Eventually however, the balance collapsed, and Poland fell prey to both nations in World War II.
Hungary experienced a great deal of instability during the inter-war years. Hungary had been tied to Austria since before World War One, due to the fact that the Hapsburg Emperor of Austria had also ruled as the King of Hungary. After the disintegration of the Hapsburg Empire, Hungary declared itself independent, and the government came under the control of the liberal National Council, which was overthrown by communist forces in 1919, quickly followed by their ousting and the onset of chaos. In January 1920, a National Constituent Assembly was elected to determine the future of Hungarian government. It decided on monarchy, and Hungary became, in effect, a dictatorship run by the landed aristocracy. In 1932, General Gyula Gombos came to power as prime minister, an office he used as a dictatorship. He was not a strong enough ruler to initiate a truly fascist state, but he was quite powerful, and quite conservative, as well as being openly anti-Semitic. Gombos set the tone for a string of conservative prime ministers who practiced open anti-Semitism, and eventually cooperated with Germany in its efforts at European domination. Due to general economic hardship and a large cession of land mandated by a peace treaty, Hungary floundered economically, and was unstable politically for most of the inter-war period. The chief beneficiaries of the land cession were Rumania, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia.
Czechoslovakia proved the only nation in Eastern Europe able to function reasonably well as a democracy during the inter-war period. On October 18, 1918, Czechoslovakia declared its independence from Hungary and established the National Assembly in Prague. The government attacked economic problems ferociously, undertaking reforms and land redistribution. Despite a number of rough patches, the parties within the Czechoslovakian government demonstrated marked unity, and between 1922 and 1929 proceeded in relative stability, ruled by Antonin Svehla, whose rule was broken up into several long stints. The depression hit Czechoslovakia hard, exacerbating ethnic tensions, and most notably convincing the nation's 3 million ethnic Germans, most of who lived near the German border, that they would be best off following the German Nazi Party. Despite efforts to enlist the support of France and the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia was not able to fend off German expansionism, and on September 18, 1938, under the Munich Pact, Britain and France officially recognized German Control of the Czechoslovakian Sudetenland.
The reorganization of Europe after the Great War reached its greatest extent and had its greatest impact in Eastern and Central-Eastern Europe. The primary reason for turmoil was the organization of newly defined geographic regions under newly formed governments that were unaccustomed to deciding their own fate. The lands of Eastern Europe had been under the Domination of the German, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian governments until after World War One, at which point they became independent. These independent nations all tried democracy, hailed as the best system by which to introduce the principle of national self- determination to a fledgling nation. However, in a region where democracy was unfamiliar, the system had many problems.
The general public had no experience with democracy, and thus was ignorant of the structures and philosophy that supported a democratic government. Accustomed to following orders and living a life without political impact, the masses proved to be a non-entity in politics in many places, or a disorganized entity, or an easily misguided entity. Additionally, the politicians of Eastern Europe had been handed their orders from the governments that had dominated them. They were not used to democratic deliberation and government within a democratic framework. Some proceeded tentatively, afraid that a wrong move would put them out of favor with the population or lead the government down a dangerous path. Indecision on many issues led to chaos and inaction on the part of many Eastern governments. This allowed others to usurp and abuse power, forming oppressive, fascistic dictatorships. Surprisingly few in the region objected to this development. To many it seemed that fascism was the only solution to the problem of an aimlessly drifting government.
A major source of distress and chaos in Eastern Europe was the interaction of different ethnic groups. Over the centuries, Eastern Europe had become a region populated by various and sundry ethnicities, some concentrated in small areas, others spread throughout large tracts. According to the principle of national self-determination, the redrawn borders of Eastern Europe attempted to grant as many ethnic groups as possible self-government. However, the interaction of politics and longstanding beliefs and resentments with the reorganizing process meant that these borders were often drawn without regard for the consequences. For instance, although Czechoslovakia was the most stable of the Eastern European states, in its government, its society was wracked by ethnic conflict. In the newly drawn state, only 65 percent of the inhabitants were Czechs or Slovaks, two groups that had bonded together more out of necessity than mutual affection. The major minorities in Czechoslovakia consisted of 3 million Germans, almost 20 percent of the population, and 700,000 Hungarians. Both of these groups resented being lumped together with the majority groups, and maintained close ties to their original nations. The Hungarians actively sought independence, and the Germans, most of which lived near the German border, formed their own political parties and imported much German ideology. There was no spirit of cooperation, making effective democracy nearly difficult, and eventually, resistance to German aggression impossible.