The democracies of interwar Europe: Britain, France and Germany

The twenty years separating the two world wars (1918-1939) marked one of the most politically and economically unstable times for the European continent.
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The twenty years that separate the two world wars (1918 – 1939) were one of the most politically and economically unstable times for the European continent. The interwar period was marked by three decisive events: the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the repercussions of the crash of the New York Stock Exchange in 1929, and the rise of totalitarian regimes (Fascism in Italy in 1922, Nazism in Germany in 1933, and Stalinism in Russia after Lenin’s death in 1924). Liberal democracies went into crisis in most European countries during this period.

This article analyses the evolution of the liberal democracies of interwar Europe: Germany, Great Britain, and France.

Germany: the Weimar Republic

After the advent of the November Revolution in 1918 and the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany proclaimed the Republic (formally the country continued to be called the German Empire). The 1919 Weimar Constitution established a democratic system that introduced important advances in social, labour and democratic rights. The new Republic was to replace the political system created by the Second Empire and to conciliate the political interests of the most representative parties of the time: Social Democrats (SPD), Catholics (Zentrum) and Democrats (DPP).

The first government of the Republic was formed by a very broad coalition formed by: Catholic Party (Zentrum), Social Democrats (SPD) and the German Democratic Party (DDP or Democrats). Germany, proclaimed the new Constitution, was a democratic state according to its history, but that should have continuity with the old Reich (Empire).

The political system

The Weimar Constitution had some continuities with the past: the state continued to be called Reich and the Chamber of Deputies continued to be the Reichstag. In the Second Empire was the emperor, the Kaiser, and in government there was a Chancellor under the Kaiser. In the Weimar Republic the duality between a President of the Republic and the Chancellor was maintained. Executive power was shared between the President and the Chancellor. The Chancellor was the Prime Minister of the government of the Republic and was controlled by the Reichstag. The President of the Republic could take the initiative in appointing the Chancellor and could dissolve the Reichstag, but only once for the same reason.

Scheme of power during the Weimar Republic
System of powers during the period of application of the Weimar Constitution

The President of the Republic is elected by popular vote for a 7-year term. The Chancellor had the mandate according to the time that the Reichstag maintained the confidence to him. In a normal situation, the Chancellor is in charge of the country’s governance, but under article 48 of the Constitution, the President has the right to govern in emergency, assuming government functions and through the Decree-Law. In the early 1930s, presidential governments were used.

Members of Parliament, the members of the Reichstag, are elected every 4 years with full power to legislate and control the executive. Men and women over the age of 20 can participate in elections.

The Republic was organized territorially in the Länder. It was an element of continuity with the old Empire. The territorial map of the Länder was the same as that of the former kingdoms and principalities from the period before the reunification of the homeland. This territorial system inspired the regions of the Second Spanish Republic. The Reichsrat was added to represent this territorial division. The Upper Chamber did not intervene in the legislation of the Republic, but in matters affecting the territorial issues of the Länder. It was composed of one member from each federal state, plus a number of deputies proportional to the percentage of inhabitants of each federal state.

Political parties during the Weimar Republic

Left-wing Parties:

Centrist Parties:

Right and Far-right Parties:

Electoral results (in deputies) of the elections held during the Weimar Republic

1920 elections:

April 1924 elections:

July 1924 elections:

1928 elections:

1930 elections:

July 1932 elections:

November 1932 elections:

March 1933 Elections (Hitler is already Chancellor and the climate of repression against the Social Democratic Party means that they cannot be considered as free elections):

November 1933 elections (held without the participation of opposition parties as they were banned):

Electoral results Republic of Weimar.  Font: Wikipedia.org
Election results of political parties during the Weimar Republic. Source: Wikipedia.org

Political developments in the Weimar Republic

During the first years of the Republic’s life (1919 to 1923) the new political regime was considered to be under construction. There was a climate of political rather than social upheaval. This stage was affected by the economic crisis that Germany experienced between 1921 and 1923 that caused the loss of productive capacity, monetary imbalances and difficulties in relaunching the economy.

A process of capital investment was needed to relaunch the economy, but Germany, which had been defeated in the World War I, had few resources. It was a vicious circle. War reparations blocked the flow of foreign investment because foreign governments hindered these investments. This situation culminated in 1923 when the French government, to pressure Germany to pay for repairs, occupied the Ruhr basin. This had serious effects on the country’s industrial production and eventually triggered inflation, which from then on there was no way to stop. The hyperinflation stage began.

1923: political crisis that kept the Weimar Republic on the verge of collapse

From 1923 onward, political tensions increased. In October, the Communist Party attempted to overthrow the Weimar Republic through an uprising in the city of Hamburg. And on November 8 and 9 of the same year, the National Socialist Party staged its first coup attempt known as Munich Putsch, Hitler Putsch or Beer Hall Putsch. Hitler and some other conspirators were arrested on charges of treason. The prison where Hitler was held allowed the prisoner to receive visitors almost daily for many hours. He never completed the year of imprisonment and during this time he wrote his famous work “Mein Kampf.”

The Marienplatz of Munich during Hitler's Putsch of 1923
The Marienplatz in Munich during the Putsch of Hitler’s party of 1923

Between 1919 and 1923, a coalition government of the SPD and the Centre (Zentrum) was in power. But this changed after 1923, as the Government included representatives of the popular right and the socialists remained outside. During 1923 the Government was presided over by Gustav Stresemann. From that moment on, the SPD party took the decision to remain outside the Government, opposing but not against the action of the Government. The Government had the support of the financial world and the U.S. Government. Faced with the current crisis, an American banker, Charles Gates Dawes, organized an international commission to study how the war reparations imposed on Germany could be softened. His work ended up being accepted and known as the “Dawes Plan:”

The debt issue was resolved. The Dawes Plan opened the door to American investment, accompanied by a policy of monetary reform with the substitution of one currency for a new one. But it meant the absolute collapse of the small private saver. With these measures the public debt could be contained.

The German economy recovered between 1924 and 1928. They were the golden years of the Republic. But the economic recovery had two shadows:

Thus, from 1929 onward, the economic crisis returned to Germany with greater intensity than that experienced previously in 1923. In 1928, it had returned from the SPD to the centre-left government, but this government did not resist the economic crisis.

During the last years of the Weimar Republic it politically turned to the right. From 1930 the government was in the hands of the centre (Zentrum). One branch of the party argued that the time had come to apply Article 48 of the Constitution to give broad powers to the President of the Republic, governing through decree-laws.

Finally, in 1933 the democratic Republic was replaced by an authoritarian Republic with a presidential government, with Adolf Hitler as Chancellor. The Weimar Republic died, although Nazism never abrogated its constitution.

Great Britain

British political system has a particularity respect to other countries: it does not have a written constitution. And its political system dates back to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when the last king of the House of Stuart fell. From the Glorious Revolution “the King reign, but does not rule.” From 1688 a parliamentary monarchy was established, unique in Europe at that time. And the government was a reflection of the correlation of forces of the House of Commons. The function of the king since then is honorary, liturgical: the Crown performs the most solemn acts of Parliament, such as its opening and reads a speech written by the Government.

Executive power emanates from Parliament, which makes and breaks governments. It is a bicameral legislative system:

The British political system in the 19th and 20th centuries

The right to vote in the nineteenth century was very restricted: it was not a universal vote, but a male vote and census, restricted to the high aristocracy. In the 20th century, a non-aristocratic elite appeared, asking for access to the vote. Thanks to popular mobilizations, especially from the impulse of Chartism, the right to vote was extended throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century.

Great Chartist Meeting in Kennington Common, London in 1848.
Great Chartist Meeting at Kennington Common, London in 1848

The first electoral reform law of 1832 increased the number of men entitled to vote from 500,000 to 813,000. However, voting remained restricted and available only to men.

Secret ballots in electoral districts were completely irregular in the historic counties. A rural county weighed as much as a city. The rural vote prevailed over the urban one. Each county had its election calendar. It favoured inertia.

British is a system of unilateral majority voting by district. Each district elected an MP. This MP comes out of the list that gets the simple majority (First-past-the-post voting system).

In 1906 a third political force appeared, the Labour Party (which was born in 1900 under the name “Labour Representation Committee”). In 1918, after the end of World War I, the English political system was reformed.

The new electoral law of 1918 reorganized the electoral districts and reduced the weight of rural districts. The geography of the constituency was democratized, the custom of holding elections on different days was ended, and modern election campaigns were opened.

Most important was the introduction of unrestricted male voting for those over the age of 21 who could prove residency in the half year old constituency. And women’s voting was introduced for women over 30 years of age, married and owning property.

The British Party System

Until the mid-19th century, British politics was divided between the two traditional factions that had existed since the 17th century:

When the electoral base was enlarged in the mid-19th century, a minority of the working class, which was more specialized and better paid, was incorporated into the political system. This sector of the proletariat was captured by the Liberal Party created in 1859 (as a continuation of the Whig party). But as political reform progressed and the vote was extended to the entire working class, the Labour Party (created in 1906) was the great beneficiary.

The Liberal Party was attached to the middle class. The electoral reform of 1918 favoured the Labour Party.

Politics between the wars was marked by the electoral reform of 1918. The Labour Party gained momentum, bringing together Unions, corporatist movements, discussion clubs (the most famous being the Fabian Society of George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and Sidney Webb).

Political evolution of the Labour Party

In 1900 the four main sectors representing the workers’ movement, the unions, corporatist movements, discussion clubs and workers’ parties, decided to present a political candidacy in the elections under the name of Labour Representation Committee. At the 1900 elections they obtained 41,900 votes and 2 deputies. In 1906 the results improved, obtaining 254,202 votes and 29 deputies.

The Labour Representation Committee, which in 1906 already presented itself under the name of “Labour Party” decided to behave in Parliament as its own parliamentary group. Little by little, the electoral platform became a single party. In 1918 the party wanted to take a leap forward. It had to reform internally to become a territorial party. There was no individual affiliation but collective affiliation.

These affiliates constituted the territorial organizations of the Labour Party. Until the 1960s and 70s, the unions remained the main part of the party. From the 1980s the unions began to lose weight territorially and with the New Labour the party became independent of the unions.

Political evolution of Great Britain in three periods

First period: 1918 – 1922

With the end of the World War I, the British government still has war alliances with liberal hegemony. Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George headed the national unity governments from 1916 to 1922.

Lloyd George proposed at the end of the war to maintain the government of national unity to deal with post-war problems. The proposal was accepted by the Conservatives, but not by Labour. The most important issue facing his Government was the conflict in Ireland.

Conflict in Ireland

The “Home Rule”, the statute that gave Ireland some autonomy, was put on hold by the outbreak of the First World War and the Easter Rising of 1916. From 1914 onward, the Irish movement was radicalized and ended up forming an armed group that in 1916 tried to achieve independence for Ireland with a revolt in Dublin: the Easter Rising of 1916.

Easter Rising Proclamation
Proclamation of the Provisional Government on the Irish people during the Easter Rising of 1916
The center of Dublin during the revolutionary days of 1916
The centre of Dublin during the revolutionary days of 1916

The Republican party Sinn Féin (founded in 1905) organized an armed force, the Republican Army of Ireland (IRA) in 1917. Sinn Féin stood for election in 1918, obtaining virtually all deputies. Because of this success, they decided to set up their Irish Parliament in 1919, Dáil Éireann, as a revolutionary parliament, which elected the first President of the Republic of Ireland in 1922. The President of the Government of the Irish Free State (1922-1937) was William Thomas Cosgrave, and the head of the army was Michael Collins.

In response, Great Britain sent the Army to the island of Ireland. The First War of Independence began between 1919-1921. Repression failed to subdue the independence movement.

English Prime Minister Lloyd George opted for a change of strategy with a very controversial decision, which cost him the breakdown of the government of national unity and the return of the Conservatives to government in 1922. Lloyd George proposed pact with the Irish pro-independence Collins and Cosgrave, to reach a compromise agreement, the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.

This agreement was signed on 6 December 1921, and it was agreed that the 26 southern counties would become the Free State of Ireland as a Dominion within the British Commonwealth of Nations. On 15 January the Irish parliament, the Dáil, ratified the treaty by 64 votes in favour and 57 against. Éamon de Valera, who opposed the agreement, resigned as president of the Dáil and was replaced by the founder of Sinn Fein, Arthur Griffith. Michael Collins, one of the leaders of the nationalist movement, was appointed president of the interim government.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement gave Ireland autonomy in the formation of an internal government, an army of its own, but Ireland continued to form part of the British Empire, assuming British foreign policy as its own and pledging to pay taxes to the British government. The agreement also segregated Ireland, leaving out of the new Free State of Ireland the six counties of the north-east, with a Protestant-Unionist majority (Northern Ireland).

The agreement with England was approved by all but one group of Sinn Fein dissidents, known as the Republicans, led by Éamon de Valera. This created division within the pro-independence bloc. De Valera continued the armed struggle under the IRA against those who did accept the agreement, Cosgrave and Collins, who formed the army of the Free State of Ireland. This was the beginning of the Irish Civil War from 1922 to 1923.

The fundamental issue that caused division was the segregation of the Ulster territory from the Free State of Ireland. Between 1922 and 1933 the Free State of Ireland was governed by William Thomas Cosgrave, who in 1933 founded the Fine Gael party.

From 1922 the Irish question ceased to be important to British politics. The IRA was in hiding. The Irish conflict did not return to prominence until after World War II.

The confrontation between supporters of the Anglo-Irish agreement and detractors led to the Civil War, which ended with the defeat of opponents of this agreement. Sinn Féin and the IRA went underground, concentrating on the territory of Ulster, linked to the Christian minority, which defended the incorporation of Northern Ireland into Ireland.

In 1927 De Valera returned to Ireland and founded the Fianna Fáil party. The characteristic that differentiated it from Sinn Fein was the abandonment of armed struggle, and the approach of a strict political struggle that had to lead the Free State of Ireland towards the progressive distancing of the British Empire, interpreting the Anglo-Irish agreements as the granting of a statute of association external to the Empire. What was missing from that agreement was the right of the Irish to decide their link with the Empire.

In 1932 De Valera won the elections and replaced Cosgrave. Little by little Ireland moved away from England, paying less and less taxes, distancing itself from British foreign policy…

In 1937 De Valera proclaimed the Republic of Ireland (Eire). He considered the state of dominion to have been overcome. Ireland became a republic, but did not demand the annexation of Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland was indeed independent when it proclaimed its neutrality in the Second World War.

Second stage: 1922 – 1931

In 1922 a change took place in the political panorama: the Conservative party re-formed the government alone. Andrew Bonar Law (conservative leader) was appointed as the new Prime Minister between 23 October 1922 and 22 May 1923.

The 1923 elections produced a complicated result. The Conservative Party won but without a majority. Labour Party ranked second, closely following the Conservative Party. The Liberals suffered a setback, as they had split among the followers of Llyod George and Asquith (defender of traditional liberalism). The Conservative Party did not win the support of the Liberals and chose not to take over the Government.

The task of forming the Government passed to the Labour Party led by Ramsay MacDonald, who were in a minority situation. He was the first Prime Minister of the Labour Party. The government was short-lived. He had to deal with a number of issues:

In 1924 the “Zinoviev letter” caused an incident between Liberals and Labour which brought down the MacDonald government. Elections would be held again, this time with absolute majority of the Conservatives.

Between 1922 and 1931 Conservatives and Labour alternated in power. Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin suspended the recognition of the USSR and the Indian Statute.

Coal Mining Conflict

In 1920 there was a strike in the mining sector. Triple alliance among trade unions in an attempt to paralyse the country. The strike was resolved with a pact with the mining unions in which they were forced to accept the closure of much of the coal mines in exchange for subsidies.

In 1926 the conflict came back. Baldwin called for an end to subsidies, which triggered a general strike, the only one of this kind in Britain’s history. It managed to paralyse all economic activity in the country for 9 days. It ended with the drastic reorganization of the sector and with two consequences:

Prime Minister Baldwin decided, as a response to a socio-political opinion, to introduce women’s suffrage. In 1929 there were new elections, with the victory of Labour, who benefited from the political mobilization of the unions.

Labour did not obtain an absolute majority, but they governed. Shortly afterwards, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 broke out, fully affecting Labour in Government. In Great Britain the crisis arrived but it was not so strong as it was not so dependent on the United States. Scenario of social conflicts.

MacDonald, who became Prime Minister again between June 1929 and June 1935, proposed an exceptional policy to face the crisis. The Labour Party was divided:

The Government opted for the deflationary solution, which advocated two things:

MacDonald asked for the dissolution of the House and to call elections, proposing a national candidacy. Most of the Labour rejected the idea. MacDonald formed the National Labour Organisation. Elections were held in October 1931: the Conservative Party was the first political force.

Third stage: 1931 – 1939 [1940]

National Governments stage, with parliamentary support of the Conservatives and alternation in government between former Labour and Conservatives. These national Governments put into practice the policy of control of subsidies.

Governments of:

In 1933 Hitler came to power, which will be fundamental to British foreign policy. The whole question of rearmament and collective security was brought to a sudden halt. MacDonald was concerned that the conflict with Hitler would lead Britain into a new war. The attitude he took was to prioritize non-confrontation and distrust of the relationship with France, accepting that Hitler’s demands were understandable. This relationship with Hitler’s Germany is known as the appeasement policy, which involved confronting the continental crisis by appeasing Hitler accepting his demands.

In 1938 the Munich Agreement was reached. Western governments accepted the annexation of the Sudetenland in exchange for halting the annexation of Czechoslovakia.

The Government of the United Kingdom, just in case, was beginning to prepare for a war that was already seen as inevitable in 1938. Slow start of Britain’s rearmament: more troops for the Navy and military aviation with the adoption of a technical novelty, the radar.

In 1940, with the Second World War underway, there was a major change of government, with the formation of a Government of national unity with Winston Churchill at the head (May 1940-July 1945). Churchill was the most critical person with policies of appeasement toward Hitler. From the two-party system at the beginning of World War I to the three-party system of the 1920s. In the 1930s, there was a shift to the two-party system between Conservatives and Labour.

The France of the Third Republic

Political system of France during the Third Republic

The French Constitution in force during the interwar period was that of 1875, which shaped the regime of the Third Republic (1870-1940). This constitution had been approved a few years after the defeat of the Paris Commune (1871), which meant the fall of the Second French Empire (1852-1870). The Constitution of 1875 was an agreement between moderate Republicans and Orleanists. Constitution of a Republic, with some Monarchy elements. It established a presidential system, where the President of the Republic had precedence over the executive power. The president was elected in a joint session of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies.

Powers of the President of the Republic:

The government was headed by a Prime Minister. The formation of the government corresponded to the Chamber of Deputies and was accountable to it.

Legislative power lay in the hands of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. In 1889 the electoral law determined that the President was elected by direct male suffrage. Elections were held by dividing the territory into single-member, two-round majority districts. If in the first round no one obtained an absolute majority, the second round, the “ballottage”, had to be carried out. A very fragmented party system was established.

The introduction of women’s suffrage was ruled out in 1885, as well as in 1889. In 1919 the National Assembly did not approve the extension of women’s suffrage either.

The Third Republic had a bicameral system formed by the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. The monarchists managed to make the Senate a kind of French-style chamber of lords, with life members, components of the pact between Orleanists and Republicans.

Two important modifications of the system took place: in 1877 there was a conflict between the President and the Government that ended with the dissolution of the Chamber of Deputies, but the elections were repeated and the same parliamentary distribution was given.

President Jules Grévy agreed to an unwritten dealt that worked. Although the President had the powers granted to him by the Constitution, he resigned. From then on, the President had an honorary role and a parliamentary system was established.

Party System of the Third Republic

Parties on the right:

The centre-left:

Non-republican right:

Political evolution of France

Political evolution between the years 1919 – 1924

They were years with succeeding governments of national concentration of the right until 1932. The concentration of the right meant: the return of Alsace and Lorraine to France after the World War I. These were very religious territories and for this reason the issue of dissolving religious schools or agreeing and accepting Catholic education was raised. This will be the cornerstone of the union of the right. The problem of this period was the financial crisis. Between the years 1923-24 there was a debate around the question of reparations. If Germany paid, the Republic could repay its debt.

President Poincaré launched a political offensive against Germany in 1922, culminating in the occupation of the Ruhr in January 1923. There was fear of a new war. Public opinion rejected a new war. The Ruhr’s occupation turned into a political failure, so that the United States created the Dawes Plan.

Political evolution between the years 1924 – 1932

Elections. The Ruhr issue passed bill to the right. Socialists and radicals had the option of forming a government, headed by Herriot.

Left government between 1924–1926: left-wing coalition. Socialists and radicals supported each other. The Ruhr problem was not solved by the financial problem. The Socialist Party proposed a formula for resolving the financial crisis: what the state should fix with today’s interests (revision of interests) to stop a snowball.

The other proposal was to liquidate the debts by creating a strong tax on capital. These measures were rejected by the radicals.

New crisis. Return of Poincaré. The Radical Party broke with the Socialists and allied itself with the Entente. It was Poincaré who resolved the financial situation, replacing short-term debt with long-term debt, thus adapting the payment of debts to the payment of reparations.

A new financial entity of the State was created: a Debt Fund. To pay this Debt Fund, certain indirect taxes were increased: tobacco, alcohol, lottery… Hidden devaluation of the historical franc for a new franc, the germinal franc that had 300 mg of gold and manufactured a cheaper franc. Poincaré died in 1930.

The years 1926–1927 were ones of economic recovery. In 1929 the worldwide impact of the U.S. crisis occurred. France was one of the last countries to experience the crisis, but its effects were finally felt between 1931 and 1932. The successors of Poincaré, Tardieu and Laval, backed down. National governments at low hours.

As a response to a government weakened and harassed by vindictive movements, it hardened the political regime, reforming the Republic with an authoritarian proposal that had a great electoral cost.

Political evolution between the years 1932 – 1936

Elections. The Entente sank. The Radical Party obtained its best result accompanied by the increase of the vote of the centre. New political change, Government headed by Herriot’s Radicals. Rejection of the parliamentary reform. The new government defended the policy of collective security against the National Socialist threat. The radical Government was undermined by the agitation of the extreme right. Financial scandal in 1934, involving the Jew financier Alexandre Stavisky (Stravinsky Affair).

The Government managed to neutralize the confrontations between the extreme right against the socialists and communists. Herriot makes a turn to the right incorporating Laval, but at the cost of dividing the Radical party. This was the origin of the Popular Front.

The complete collection of this online course: Late modern History in Europe (19th and 20th Centuries)

Europe and the colonial world at the end of the 18th centuryThe Napoleonic era (1799-1815)The Congress of Vienna and the Restoration of the European orderSocial and economic changes on the 19th centuryLiberalism and nationalism in the 19th centuryThe Revolutions of 1820, 1830 and 1848The expansion of the great industrial capitalismBismarck’s Europe and the liberal nation-stateImperialism and colonial expansion in the 19th centuryWorld War I (1914-1918)Consequences of the First World WarThe new territorial map of interwar EuropeThe Revolutions of Russia (1917) and Germany (1918)The democracies of interwar Europe: Britain, France and GermanyFascism's rise to power in Italy[Book] Capitalism and democracy 1756-1848

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