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

Introduction to Decline of the West

In this chapter, we turn our focus to Europe between the end of the First World War and the onset of the global depression in 1929. We will explore three main topics. First, we will look at the issue of nationalism as it emerged from the peace negotiations in Paris in 1919. Almost every country in Europe either gained or lost territory in the aftermath of WWI. This struggle over territory fueled a rising sense of nationalism throughout Europe and created longstanding tensions and bitter divisions between neighbors. We will investigate these tensions and how they worked to create national identities and differentiation between ethnic majorities and minorities. Second, we will explore how the turmoil of the postwar years bred a sense of desperation throughout the continent, and we will discuss the strategies people adopted to overcome a sense that civilization was under threat. Modern forces seemed to have so easily trampled people underfoot; war, global capitalism and economic collapse, and disease threatened what was increasingly seen as a "decadent" and weak society. Increasingly, to overcome fear of a “decline” people turned for answers to the right and left political fringes. The growth of fascist, hyper-nationalist, and communist parties throughout Europe in the 1920s brought radical politics into the mainstream. We will try to understand the culture out of which this radicalization and polarization of politics emerged. Third, the decade after World War One was an unparalleled era of artistic and literary creativity. From Berlin to Paris, from Prague and Vienna to London, from Rome to Amsterdam, European art and literature flourished. This great artistic flowering was in many ways driven by an attempt to understand the collective and individual psychological dilemmas posed by the First World War (we glimpses this already in the great battlefield painting by Otto Dix that leads the chapter on WWI). Throughout Europe, artists and writers asked difficult questions: why did people inflict such massive damage on each other? What does the war say about modern industrial culture? What does war tell us about the role of technology in modern life? What does the war say about people’s ability to act morally? What does it say about the benefits of progress, in both technological and political terms? What does the war mean for the idea of “nations” and the ability of nations to coexist in peace? What is a human being’s capacity for violence, and where does it come from? Throughout Europe, writers and artists posed answers to these vexing questions. Looming in the background was the question on everyone’s mind: would the “West” continue to progress (if it had really, in fact, progressed), or did World War One symbolize the beginning of its decay and decline? Would barbarity, in the end, triumph over the trappings of civilized life?

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