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

Europe's Political Culture in the 1920s: A General View

By now, we have a basic sense of the political culture in Europe in the 1920s, with the notable exceptions of England and France, both of which remained relatively stable during these years. I would like to sum up some of the main points. 1) New state boundaries fueled old tensions and created new ones. The lack of a definite balance of power meant that small nations could launch localized aggression against neighbors; as a result dozens of localized conflicts broke out after WWI, increasing feelings of nationalism and militancy; 2) Nations were becoming radicalized based on notions of a heightened nationalism centered on a mix of ethnic, racial, religious, linguistic, and cultural identifications. Minorities within countries, greatly increased by the political divisions of the Paris agreements, became more marginalized than they had been under the older imperial powers; 3) The politics of “national renewal” in Italy, Germany, Poland, Yugoslavia, and elsewhere heightened internal and international divisions. National renewal, according to those on the right wing, presented the only way to confront the two perceived central dangers: a) general cultural decline and b) the rise of Bolshevism (revolutionary and militant communism). Such was the fear that Bolshevism created in the hearts of even the most democratic actors (in England, for example) that western powers were more than willing to deal with Central Europe authoritarians in order to block the (perceived) Russian menace. Thus, no action was taken on the part of the international community to stem the rise of authoritarianism on the continent. The United States, after Congress failed to ratify the Paris peace treaty, retreated into political isolation, only to emerge to fight the next world war.

On a more general level, the tumultuous nature of societies from the turn of the century until the late 1920s inspired deeper reflections about the "laws" of social organization and its underlying psycho-social dynamics. What accounted for social conflict, for individual unhappiness, for feelings of guilt and a desire for violence? These were among the questions that the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud turned to as he attempted to make sense out of the events of WWI and its aftermath. Freud began his application of psychoanalytic concepts to political events in the early months of war in 1915, writing two essays that are collectively referred to as Reflections on War and Death. A decade and a half later, in 1930, Freud published one of his most famous tracts, Civilization and its Discontents, which, building from works like Totem and Taboo, presents a deep tension between individual instincts and desires, including what Freud calls Thanatos or the death instinct, and the rules governing the social or communal order.        

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