Weakness of Democracies

Posted: December 28, 2010 in World War 2
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The Western democracies had, apart from the US, been exhausted by World War I. They were convinced that Europe could never afford another such conflict & pinned their hopes on the League of Nations & disarmament. They also had to weather severe economic depression.

Following the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the principal aim of the Western democracies was to switch from a wartime to a peacetime economy. This meant demobilizing most of their snow swollen armed forces & converting their munitions industries to the production of non-military goods.

For the US this was easier than for Britain & France, since its late entry into the conflict meant that its munitions industry had hardly been established on a wartime footing. At the same time, especially, through loans to its European allies, its economy had been made stronger by the war. The United States also had few overseas possessions, so it could reduce its armed forces to the bare minimum. While it encouraged international disarmament, it otherwise adopted an isolationist foreign policy, refusing to join the League of Nations & turning in on itself. The US became gripped by a “get rich quick” mentality. Set against the freneticism of the Jazz Age, Americans in increasing numbers began to gamble on the stock market, whose rapid growth reflected an ever expanding economy.

Political Instability

For Britain & France, the transition from war to peace proved to be much more difficult. Both economies had been drained by over four years of war. France’s manpower, in particular, had been gradually diminished, & a significant portion of the country, especially the industrial north, had been devastated. But like other European countries, France was bedeviled by a series of weak governments, usually coalitions of Left or Right. Some trade unions were vehemently Communist & took their line from Moscow. Strikes were a frequent occurence & the economy remained fragile. When the Popular Front, a left-wing coalition led by the socialist Leon Blum, was elected in 1936, the immediate response of the more combative industrial workers was to occupy their own factories. The coalition government had to award them all pay raises in order to persuade them to go back to work.

Foreign Policy & the Maginot Line

In terms of foreign & defense policy, French governments of all shades were determined that never again should Germany be allowed to invade, as it had done twice within the past century. One strategy was to encircle Germany with alliances. Thus the French supported Poland from the outset, but left-wing governments also reestablished a rapport with Russia. Alliances were also made with states in southeast Europe. As for Germany itself, successive French governments alternated between insisting on the terms of the Versailles Treaty being followed to the letter to a more conciliatory attitude over reparations.

As a physical deterrent to any future German invasion, the French came up with a plan to construct a line of modern fortifications along their eastern frontier. This was to be called the Maginot Line, after defense minister, André Maginot, who had been badly wounded during World War I. By 1930 work had started on it. It was to consume a massive portion of the French defense budget & would become not just a physical barrier, but a psychological shield behind which the French people felt safe & secure.

The false & demoralizing notion… that once we have fortifications the inviolability of our country is assured.

French General, Adolphe Guillaumat, 1922

Disillusion In Britian

Britain had not suffered France’s physical devastation but was equally exhausted by the end of the war. The government’s dream was to create a “land fit for heroes” & for a short time there was an economic boom, but it did not last. Traditional British industries fell into decline, with overseas customers having developed their own during the war. Coal had been a major export, but with oil now taking over from it there was no longer the markets for coal that there had been before 1914. High interest rates deterred new business start-ups & the result was a massive increase in unemployment. Spending on postwar reconstruction also had to be drastically cut &, as in France, industrial relations worsened, with strike action becoming commonplace as workers struggled to protect their jobs & wages.

The British defense budget suffered along with all other areas of public spending. The government introduced a rule that defense planning was to be done on the premise that there would be no war in Europe for ten years at least. The Ten Year Rule, as it was called, was renewed annually throughout the 1920s, after which it was reduced to five years. Priority was given to the defense of the empire, in particular India, & policing the former Turkish possessions of Iraq, Transjordan, & Palestine. Consequently there was little left to spend on the armed forces for British home defense.

The Great Depression

In October 1929 came the Wall Street Crash, when the US stock market bubble finally burst. Tens of thousands of Americans were made bankrupt overnight, banks collapsed, & the country went into deep recession. The shock waves of this quickly spread around the world & the struggling European economies were badly affected. It was little wonder that the Western democracies were in no position to counter German, Italian & Japanese aggression.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected to his first term as US president in 1933, introduced his New Deal, based on public work & relief for the poor, in the following year. But the US economy did not recover fully until, like the economies of Western Europe, it was once more on a war footing.

From World War II: The Definitive Visual History, by Richard Holmes


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