USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Conclusion to Three Varieties of Radicalism

The breakdown of democracy in Germany and Japan and the rise of repressive authoritarianism in Germany, Japan and Soviet Russia in the 1930s led directly to the Second World War. What can we say about these parallel developments? While each story has its own history and unique set of circumstances, it is also worthwhile to think about what these stories have in common and what they tell us, individually and collectively, about the world in the 1930s.

On a basic level, the demise of popularly supported representational governments, like in Weimar Germany of Taisho Japan, shows the utter fragility of democratic structures at this time, a trend we already encountered in Europe in the 1920s. Democracy was fragile for a number of key reasons. First, it had no deep roots or emotional appeal in itself, as we see in countries like England or the United States with deeply rooted democratic values. Second, democratic governments faced a set of challenges they could not possible handle. The impact of industrialization, globalization, and urbanization placed huge strain on societies around the world in the first half of the 20th century. Third, and related to the last point, the global economy had become so global by the end of the 19th century that economic crises required globally coordinated economic solutions, and yet there were no institutions or precedents in place to organize such responses. As a result, states and governments found themselves responding ad hoc to these massive economic challenges, often responding in ways that that further damaged national interests. The inability to respond to crisis undermined the legitimacy of representational democracies.

The global economic depression was seen in the 1930s as a clarifying moment, a moment that showed the emptiness of the Anglo-American concept of free, open trade as a cornerstone of the global economy. Global trade had produced, some thought, massive economic distortions (like in the case of Brazilian coffee, Cuban sugar, Japanese silk) and these distortions were vulnerable to unprecedented collapse. Most nations, and especially the authoritarian states, sought to counter the vagaries of the global market by seeking control over the prevailing economic conditions of the state and a corresponding sphere of influence. Instead of free trade and globalization, authoritarian states in the 1930s sought total economic independence. It was the push for autarky. A truly autarkic state was, of course, impossible to have in 1930. It required a large population, the agricultural capacity to nourish it, industrial capacity to supply it, raw materials to support industrialization, markets to consume its goods, and the military power to defend and expand its zone.

If energy is guided in the end by the force of entropy, economies are similarly ruled by diffusion and expansion. The notion that a structure of power can keep the economic life of its people contained within a particular geographic zone is utopian. This is why tremendous institutional and military capacity was expended in the domain of state economic planning among the aspiring autarkic regimes. Hitler’s Four Year Plans, Stalin’s Five Year Plans, Japan’s Fundamental Principles all called for the alignment of economic interests with the interests and goals of the state. In the case of Soviet Russia, industry was nationalized (as was all private property). In Germany and Japan, government and industry remained separate but worked closely to pursue the goals of the state, first and foremost the massive expansion of the state’s military capacity.

On the level of society, Japan, Germany and Russia in the 1930s had some key similarities. Society was seen not as an agglomeration of individuals pursuing their self-interests but as a unified entity that should be working for the collective good. In the Soviet case, the good was that of the working class, defined in Marxist-Leninist terms. In Germany, the good was that of the racially defined German nation (the Volksgemeinshaft). In Japan, the good was that of glory of the imperial nation (also racially understood) under the leadership of the deified emperor. These notions of the good were always explicitly contrasted with the bad. These bad elements could be found within the nation and beyond it. They were acute threats that created an atmosphere of instability or even of crisis. For Stalin, the internal threats were many—kulaks, counterrevolutionaries, Trotskyites, etc. The external threats were those of emanating from the world capitalist order. For Hitler, the internal threats were political dissenters, liberal intellectuals and Jews. External threats came from international communism and Anglo-American global capitalism. For the Japanese military leadership, the internal threats were the Westernized classes and the civilian democratic order. Japan’s external threats were primarily the Western powers, including Russia, which sought to keep the Asian nation from achieving an equal status as a global power. The notion of internal and external threats provoked two related responses in each state: internal domestic terrorism and aggressive foreign policy.

Culture in Germany, Japan and Russia shared a similar path. Arts, literature and the exchange of ideas flourished in the 1920s. In the 1930s, these three states undertook to suppress free expression and channel creative work to serve the agenda of the state. Russian modernism gave way to the insipid realm of Stalin’s socialist realism. The dynamic German avant-garde nearly completely purged by the Nazis eradication of “degenerate” art and the burning of “un-German” literature. Many German artists, writers and intellectuals fled abroad. In Japan, writers and artists bowed under police terror and popular pressure to renounce any oppositional, leftist stances. Unlike in Germany or Italy, few Japanese writers or intellectuals emigrated. In all three states, some intellectuals and artists gravitated to the power of the state and contributed their talents to pursue its goals. The intellectual class in Japan in particularly notorious in this regard.

Finally, Japan and Germany (and Russia in the late 1930s) moved to actualize their autarkic missions by testing the resolve of the other world powers. WWI had destroyed the balance of power system without replacing it with a viable international arena for conflict resolution. The most powerful international states, the United States, England and France, had retreated back to deal with domestic concerns. The two principle European powers were still reeling from the losses of men and means during WWI. The United States saw a dramatic reaction to Wilsonian foreign policy in the form of powerful isolationism in the 1920s. The Great Depression furthered this inward-looking trend, allowing breathing space for Germany and Japan to advance their imperial agendas throughout the 1930s. While everyone in 1914 expected war to come sooner or later, in the 1930s only Germany and Japan (and to some extent Russia) were convinced that war was inevitable. War planning and production in Germany and Japan lifted those states out of the economic doldrums and reinforced in their societies a belief in the correctness and efficacy of the state. Both Germany and Japan were built in the 1930s specifically to make war—neither was constructed to withstand what would come.

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