The Interwar period

11 November 1918 to 1 September 1939 

The Interbellum or Interwar covered the period from 1918 to 1939. It was a time of great change and upheaval as the world, and Europe in particular, struggled to recover from devastating effects of the First World War, in which millions had died and enormous destruction had occurred. Some countries found much of their infrastructure wrecked and their economy in tatters - war is expensive after all.

A map of Europe in 1923.

United States Library of Congress

European turmoil

The years 1918–1924 were turbulent after the Armistice of Compiègne on November 11, 1918, which brought an end to World War I. Europe particularly. was in turmoil. The Russian Civil War raged on and Eastern Europe struggled to recover from the devastation of the First World War and the destabilising effects of not only the collapse of the Russian Empire but also the destruction of the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire.

The now-defunct German Empire redistributed its colonies to the Allies, with Britain as the largest beneficiary. In addition, the western parts of the Russian Empire became independent nations. As a result, Poland and Estonia became independent. Bessarabia, another country that gained independence, chose to reunite with Romania.

German prisoners of war during the First World War.

Imperial War Museum

In Southern, Central, and Eastern Europe, there were several new or restored nations, some minor like Lithuania or Latvia, others larger like Poland and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. American financial domination expanded globally.

Therefore, the Americans devised the Dawes Plan and Wall Street heavily invested in Germany when Germany could no longer afford war reparations to Britain, France, and other former members of the Entente. Germany then repaid its reparations to nations, which in turn used the dollars to pay off their war debts to Washington. The second half of the decade, known as the Roaring Twenties, began when affluence had spread by the second half of the decade. 

International relations

International Relations took centre stage:

  • The resolution of post-First World War issues, such as reparations owed by Germany and border disputes. 
  • American involvement in European financial and disarmament initiatives.
  • The expectations and shortcomings of the League of Nations.
  • The often tense and changeable relationships between new and old countries.
  • The Soviet Union's scepticism of the capitalist world, peace and disarmament efforts.
  • International responses to the Great Depression
  • Border disputes between the Soviet Union and Japan and Japanese aggression toward China, which resulted in the occupation of a significant portion of Chinese territory, as well as several confrontations along the Soviet and Japanese-occupied Manchurian border.
  • Fascist diplomacy, which included the aggressive actions of Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany.
  • The Spanish Civil War.
  • Italy's invasion and occupation of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in the Horn of Africa.
  • the appeasement of Germany's expansionist actions against the German-speaking nation of Austria; the disputed region of Sudetenland, which is home to ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia.
  • the remilitarization of the League of Nations demilitarised zone of the German Rhineland region.
  • The last, desperate stages of rearmament as the Second World War increasingly loomed.

These were all significant phases of interwar diplomacy and international relation which would -either by design or accident - ultimately lead to the outbreak of the Second World War.


Disarmament was an extremely popular public policy. The United States and Britain took the initiative in this effort, with minimal assistance from the League of Nations.

The Washington Naval Conference of 1921 was organised by U.S. Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes to decide how many capital ships each major nation might have.

There were actually no naval races in the 1920s since the new allocations were respected.

In the 1930 London Conference that resulted in the London Naval Treaty, which expanded the list of ship allocations to include cruisers and submarines, Britain played a key role.

U.S. Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes.

Library of Congress

However, the Second London Naval Treaty of 1936 was essentially toothless because Japan, Germany, Italy, and the USSR refused to sign it. So, rearmament for a seemingly inevitable war with Germany and Japan became an issue when naval disarmament failed.

Roaring Twenties

There were many novel and highly visible social and cultural trends and innovations during the Roaring Twenties. These trends, made possible by sustained economic prosperity, were most visible in major cities like New York City, Chicago, Paris, Berlin, and London. Art Deco peaked during the Jazz Age. For women, knee-length skirts and dresses became socially acceptable, as did bobbed hair with a Marcel wave. The "Flappers" were the young women who pioneered these trends.

After the war, despite hyper-emotional wartime passions in the United States, France, and Germany, "normalcy" returned to politics. Leftist revolutions failed in Finland, Poland, Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Spain, but succeeded in Russia, where Marxism and Marxism-Leninism developed. After threatening a march on Rome, Mussolini led the National Fascist Party to power in Italy in 1922.

'Flapper' girls in the 1920's.

My Fair Lady - 1920s Art Deco poster.

Nearly all of the European nations had some economic development in the 1920s, and by the end of the decade, the majority had recovered or even surpassed their pre-war levels of production and revenue. Western Europe did severely as a result of the First World War and the Russian Civil War, while the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and Greece did exceptionally well.

Nearly all of the European nations had some economic growth in the 1920s, and by the decade's close, the majority had managed to reach or even surpass their pre-war levels of production and revenue. Due to the First World War and the Russian Civil War, Western Europe performed poorly, whereas the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and Greece performed particularly well.

With the advent of radio, vehicles, telephones, electric lighting, and appliances, affluence in advanced countries reached middle-class households as well as a large portion of the working class. Unprecedented industrial expansion, faster consumer demand and expectations, and substantial changes in way of life and culture were all observed. Celebrities, particularly athletes and movie stars, came under public scrutiny.

Along with opulent movie theatres, major cities constructed sizable sports stadiums for the fans. Agriculture's continuous mechanisation led to an increase in output, which decreased prices and eliminated many farm jobs. They frequently relocated to surrounding industrial centres and towns.

The right to vote

The issue of the Women’s right to vote had steadily gained momentum since the previous century. By the Interwar period, women were increasingly granted the right to vote, and they sought to make use of this right by mobilising votes for issues that affected women, such as the right to work.

However, Women's rights were not fully respected, and they were often relegated to second-class status. It took another global conflict – the Second World War – for more significant strides to be made regarding equality for women.

Bettmann Archive, via Getty Images

The Great Depression

After 1929, there was a devastating global economic crisis known as the Great Depression. Different countries experienced it at different times; in the majority, it began in 1929 and continued until the late 1930s. The depression of the 20th century was the longest, deepest, and most pervasive one ever.

The stock market fall on October 29, 1929, which started the depression, made it into the global news (known as Black Tuesday). The GDP of the entire world decreased by about 15% from 1929 and 1932. In contrast, during the Great Recession from 2008 to 2009, the global GDP decreased by less than 1%. 

A family of migrant workers fleeing from the drought in Oklahoma camp by the roadside in Blythe, California, USA. 1936.

Dorothea Lange/Getty Images; Ryan Stennes

By the middle of the 1930s, some economies had begun to recover. However, the consequences of the Great Depression persisted in many nations until the start of the Second World War.

Germany's Weimar Republic saw two periods of political and economic unrest, the first of which culminated in the attempted Beer Hall Putsch and German Hyperinflation in 1923.

The second convulsion culminated in the further growth of Nazism and was caused by the global depression and Germany's terrible monetary policy. Japan increased its assertiveness throughout Asia, particularly against China.

Defendants in the Beer Hall Putsch trial, 1923.

The rise of Fascism

In the 1920s, democracy and wealth coexisted successfully in large measures.

However, the economic disaster of the Great Depression led to a lack of belief in democracy's effectiveness and contributed to its demise across most of Europe and Latin America, including the Baltic and Balkan states, Poland, Spain, and Portugal, as well as the Baltic and Balkan countries.

In Germany, Italy, and Japan, strong anti-democratic regimes came to power.

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini walk by a row of saluting Italian soldiers during a visit from Germany's new chancellor. Venice, Italy. June 1934.

Fascist Italy: 44 Harrowing Photos Of Life Under Mussolini (

In 1922, fascism overthrew the Kingdom of Italy while communism remained firmly entrenched in the isolated Soviet Union. As the Great Depression grew worse,

Nazism triumphed in Germany, fascism spread to many other European nations, and it also played a significant role in a number of Latin American nations.

Fascist parties emerged, sensitive to regional right-wing traditions but also sharing traits that were typically extreme militaristic nationalism, a desire for economic self-containment, threats and aggression toward neighbouring countries, oppression of minorities, mockery of democracy while using its techniques to mobilise an enraged middle-class base, and disdain for cultural liberalism.


Italian Fascist Magazine Poster.

Fascists, who were frequently led by autocrats like Benito Mussolini or Adolf Hitler, valued violence, dominance by men, and a "natural" hierarchy.

When fascism was in control, liberalism and human rights were abandoned, and personal goals and beliefs were put second to what the party deemed to be best.

The failure of the League

The League of Nations, established in 1920 as a response to the devastation of World War I, aimed to maintain international peace and prevent future conflicts.

It was envisioned as an organization where nations could come together, discuss disputes, and resolve conflicts through diplomacy rather than resorting to war.

However, despite its noble goals, the League of Nations ultimately failed to fulfill its intended purpose.


One of the key reasons for its failure was the absence of major world powers, such as the United States and the Soviet Union.

The United States, despite being one of the major proponents of the League's formation, never joined the organization due to domestic political opposition. The absence of these powerful nations weakened the League's authority and limited its ability to enforce its decisions.

Furthermore, the League's structure and decision-making process proved to be cumbersome and ineffective. The principle of unanimity among member states made it difficult to take decisive action, as any dissenting member could effectively veto any proposed course of action. For example, when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, the League condemned the aggression but failed to take significant action due to the lack of consensus among its members. This undermined the League's credibility and exposed its inability to respond to blatant acts of aggression.

Additionally, the League's limited military capabilities and lack of an effective means of enforcing its decisions weakened its ability to deter potential aggressors. It relied primarily on economic sanctions, which often proved ineffective in deterring aggressive states. For instance, when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, the League imposed economic sanctions but failed to prevent further Japanese expansion.

The League's failure to address underlying issues, such as economic inequality and unresolved territorial disputes, also contributed to its downfall. Economic crises, such as the Great Depression, further strained international relations and led to increased nationalism and protectionism, undermining the League's cooperative spirit.

Ultimately, the League of Nations was a victim of its own limitations and the geopolitical complexities of the interwar period. Its failure to prevent aggression and maintain peace highlighted the need for a more robust international organization, which would eventually be realized with the establishment of the United Nations after the Second World War.

Iberian conflict

The Spanish Civil War, which raged from 1936-1939, began as a civil war triggered by outside countries. This conflict began with conservative and Catholic elements revolting against the newly elected government. Eventually, the army joined in the fight and a full-blown civil war was unleashed. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany provided weapons to the Nationalists, while Mexico and the Soviet Union helped the Republican government fight back.

Spanish Militia Volunteer standing on a 1917 Schneider 155mm Howitzer, August 1936. 

Joel Bellviure /

Before the Nationalists defeated the Republican troops in 1939 and won the Spanish Civil War, the conflict was characterised by several minor engagements, sieges, and atrocities. Although the Soviet Union contributed some weapons, there was never enough to arm both the "International Brigades" of outside far-left volunteers and the diverse government militias.

Instead of expanding into a larger conflict, the civil war turned into a global ideological arena that fought Catholics, conservatives, and fascists against Communists, many socialists, and liberals. There was a global fall in pacifism and a rising belief that another world war was inevitable and would be worthwhile to fight in.

The British Empire

A significant revaluation of British imperial policy resulted from the war's altered world order, particularly the rising of naval powers like the United States and Japan as well as the independence movements in India and Ireland. Britain was forced to decide between supporting the United States or Japan, therefore it chose to join the Washington Naval Treaty in 1922, accepting naval parity with the United States instead of renewing the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. In Britain, the security of the empire was a major worry because it was essential to national pride, finances, and a trade-based economy.

The British Raj: A Englishman enjoying the benefits of British rule.

India gave the Empire in the First World War great support. It hoped for a reward but was unable to obtain statehood because the British Raj maintained power and feared a repeat of the uprising of 1857. The Amritsar Massacre helped spur the Congress Party, led by Mohandas Gandhi, which became the focal point of an upsurge in Indian nationalism. 

Egypt was nominally owned by the Ottoman Empire, although de facto British rule had existed since the 1880s. The Kingdom of Egypt received legal independence in 1922, but it remained a client state under British supervision.

In 1932, Mandatory Iraq, a British mandate since 1920, became the Kingdom of Iraq after King Faisal acceded to British demands for a military alliance and a guaranteed supply of oil.

British soldiers in Palestine circa 1930's.

DesertBlooms | Flickr

In Palestine, Britain tried to resolve increasing disputes between the Palestinian Arab population and a growing number of Jewish settlers. A national home for the Jewish people was being established in Palestine, and Jewish immigration would be permitted up to a certain number, according to the Balfour Declaration, which had been integrated into the mandate's provisions. Conflict with the Arab population grew as a result, and in 1936 they overthrew the government.

While Britain still maintained control over foreign and defence policy, the Dominions (Canada, Newfoundland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the Irish Free State) obtained self-government and a measure of independence during the First World War.

The 1931 Statute of Westminster formalised the 1923 recognition of the Dominions' sovereignty over their foreign policy. In 1937, (Southern) Ireland essentially severed its ties with Britain, separating from the Commonwealth to create an independent republic.

The French Empire

The French maintained a sizeable empire during the Interbellum period. According to census data from 1938, France had an imperial population of nearly 150 million people residing on 13.5 million square kilometres outside of France.

Of the entire population, 64.7 million people lived in Africa, 31.2 million in Asia, and 900,000 were residents of the French West Indies or South Pacific islands. French Indochina had 26.8 million people (in five different colonies),

French Algeria had 6.6 million, the French protectorate in Morocco had 5.4 million, and French West Africa had 35.2 million people (in nine colonies) as its greatest colonies. 1.9 million Europeans and 350,000 "assimilated" locals are included in the total.

French Colonial Service recruitment poster.

Weimar Republic

Germany, 1923: banknotes had lost so much value that they were used as wallpaper.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00104 / Pahl, Georg / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The heavily industrialised Ruhr district was captured by French and Belgian forces when Germany stopped making its reparations payments.

The German government encouraged the Ruhr region's residents to engage in passive resistance in response.
Hyperinflation was brought on by the German government's massive paper money printing, which also hurt the French economy. Although the passive resistance was successful, many people lost all of their savings due to hyperinflation.
Due to internal unrest, anti-democratic Nazis, Nationalists, and Communists engaged in street combat.

The heavily industrialised Ruhr district was occupied by French and Belgian forces when Germany stopped making its reparations payments. The German government encouraged the Ruhr region's residents to engage in passive resistance in response.

Hyperinflation was brought on by the German government's massive paper money printing, which also hurt the French economy. Although the passive resistance was successful, many people lost all of their savings due to hyperinflation. Furthermore, due to the constant upheaval and unrest, anti-democratic Nazis, Nationalists, and Communists increasingly engaged in street combat.

Rise of the Nazi's

In January 1933, Hitler took office and launched an aggressive regime intended to give Germany political and economic dominance throughout central Europe. He didn't make an effort to find the lost colonies. The Nazis declared the Soviet Union and Communists to be their deadliest enemies, along with Jews, up until August 1939.
Hitler's 1930s diplomatic approach consisted of making what appeared to be reasonable requests and threatening war if they were not met. When opponents made an effort to placate him, he took the gains that were presented before moving on to the next one. Germany rejected the Versailles Treaty, withdrew from the League of Nations, and started to rearm as a result of its aggressive approach.

Rise of the Nazi's: Adolf Hitler addressing his supporters.

Hitler's Germany gave huge amounts of military help to Franco in the Spanish Civil War, remilitarized the Rhineland, and established the Pact of Steel alliance with Mussolini's Italy. After the Munich Agreement with Britain and France,

Germany occupied Czechoslovakia in 1938 and grabbed Austria, which was thought to be a German state.

After signing a non-aggression agreement with the Soviet Union in August 1939, Germany attacked Poland in September 1939 as retaliation for Poland's unwillingness to cede the Free City of Danzig.

A little earlier than the Nazis anticipated or were prepared for, Britain and France declared war, and World War II started.

Fascist Italy

After the March on Rome in 1922, Benito Mussolini, the leader of the Italian fascist movement, became leader of the country. Imperial expansion started to appear more frequently in Mussolini's speeches in the late 1920s. One of Mussolini's objectives was for Italy to rise to the position of the dominating force in the Mediterranean, capable of challenging either France or Britain or gaining access to the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

Supporters of the Fascist Party march in a parade. Milan, Italy. November 1928.

The Second Italo-Ethiopian War in 1936, which saw Italy annex Ethiopia and show the League of Nations' growing impotence, was precipitated by the Abyssinia Crisis and its unsuccessful resolution.

In 1939, Italy invaded and annexed Albania as a separate kingdom in personal union with the Italian crown.

Further reading


Dorothea Lange/Getty Images; Ryan Stennes

Joel Bellviure /

Imperial War Museum

Bettmann Archive, via Getty Images

Library of Congress

Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00104 / Pahl, Georg / CC-BY-SA 3.0