International relations between the two world wars: 1919-1933 (Part-2)


One important result of the First World War in eastern Europe was the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian or Habsburg Empire, and the loss of extensive territory by Germany and Russia. A number of new national states were formed, of which the most important were Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary and Poland. They are sometimes known as the ‘successor’ states because they ‘succeeded’ or ‘took the place of’ the previous empires. Two of the guiding principles behind their formation were self-determination and democracy; it was hoped that they would act as a stabilizing influence in central and eastern Europe and as a buffer against potential attacks from communist Russia. However, they all developed serious problems and weaknesses:

  • There were so many different nationalities in the region that it was impossible for them all to have their own state. Consequently it was only the larger national groups which were lucky enough to have their own homeland. Smaller nationalities found themselves once again under what they considered to be ‘foreign’ governments, which, so they claimed, did not look after their interests – for example, Croats in Yugoslavia, Slovaks and Germans in Czechoslovakia, and Germans, White Russians and Ukrainians in Poland.
  • Although each state began with a democratic constitution, Czechoslovakia was the only one in which democracy survived for a significant length of time – until the Germans moved in (March 1939).
  • They all suffered economic difficulties, especially after the onset of the Great Depression in the early 1930s.
  • The states were divided by rivalries and disputes over territory. Austria and Hungary had been on the losing side in the war and greatly resented the way the peace settlement had been forced on them. They wanted a complete revision of the terms. On the other hand, Czechoslovakia and Poland had declared themselves independent shortly before the war ended, while Serbia (which became Yugoslavia) had been an independent state before 1914. These three states were represented at the peace conference and were, on the whole, satisfied with the outcome.

(a) Yugoslavia

With a population of around 14 million, the new state consisted of the original kingdom of Serbia, plus Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia and Dalmatia; it was known as the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes until 1929, when it took the name Yugoslavia (Southern Slavs). The new constitution provided for an elected parliament, which was dominated by the Serbs, the largest national group. The Croats and the other national groups formed a permanent opposition, constantly protesting that they were being discriminated against by the Serbs. In 1928 the Croats announced their withdrawal from parliament and set up their own government in Zagreb; there was talk of proclaiming a separate Republic of Croatia. The king, Alexander (a Serb), responded by proclaiming himself a dictator and banning political parties; it was at this time that the country was renamed Yugoslavia (June 1929).

Soon afterwards, Yugoslavia was badly hit by the depression. Largely agricultural, the economy had been reasonably prosperous during the 1920s; but in the early 1930s world agricultural prices collapsed, causing widespread hardship among farmers and workers. In 1934, King Alexander was assassinated in Marseilles as he was arriving for a state visit to France. The murderer was a Macedonian who was connected with a group of Croat revolutionaries living in Hungary. For a time, tensions were high, and there seemed to be danger of war with Hungary. However, the new king, Peter II, was only 11 years old, and Alexander’s cousin Paul, who was acting as regent, believed it was time to compromise. In 1935 he allowed political parties again, and in August 1939 he introduced a semi-federal system which enabled six Croats to join the government.

In foreign affairs the government tried to stay on good terms with other states, signing treaties of friendship with Czechoslovakia (1920) and Romania (1921) – a grouping known as the ‘Little Entente’. Further treaties of friendship were signed with Italy ( l 924 – to last for five years), Poland (1926), France (1927) and Greece ( 1929). In spite of the treaty with Italy, the Yugoslavs were deeply suspicious of Mussolini. He was encouraging the Croat rebels and was tightening his grip on Albania to the south, threatening to encircle Yugoslavia.

Disappointed with the economic help they had received from France, and nervous of Mussolini’s intentions, Prince Paul, the regent, began to look towards Nazi Germany for trade and protection. In 1936 a trade treaty was signed with Germany; this led to a significant increase in trade, so that by 1938, Germany was taking over 40 per cent of Yugoslavia’s exports. Friendship with Germany reduced the threat from Mussolini, who had signed the Rome-Berlin Axis agreement with Hitler in 1936. In 1937 therefore, Italy signed a treaty with Yugoslavia. As the international situation deteriorated during 1939, Yugoslavia found itself uncomfortably aligned with the Axis powers.

(b) Czechoslovakia

Like Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia was a multinational state, consisting of some 6.5 million Czechs, 2.5 million Slovaks, 3 million Germans, 700 000 Hungarians, 500 000 Ruthenians, 100 000 Poles and smaller numbers of Romanians and Jews. Although this might look like a recipe for instability, the new state worked well, being based on a solid partnership between Czechs and Slovaks. There was an elected parliament of two houses, and an elected president who had the power to choose and dismiss government ministers. Tomas Masaryk, president from 1918 until his retirement in 1935, was half Czech and half Slovak. It was the only example in eastern Europe of a successful western-style liberal democracy. On the whole, relations between the different nationalities were good, although there was some resentment among the German-speaking population who lived in Bohemia and Moravia and along the frontiers with Germany and Austria (an area known as the Sudetenland). They had previously been citizens of the Habsburg Empire and complained at being forced to live in a ‘Slav’ state where they were discriminated against, or so they claimed.

Czechoslovakia was fortunate that it contained about three-quarters of the industries of the old Habsburg Empire. There were successful textile and glass factories, valuable mineral resources and rich agricultural lands. The 1920s was a period of great prosperity as production expanded and Czechoslovakia became a major exporting country. Unfortunately the depression of the early 1930s brought with it an economic crisis. The surrounding states of central and eastern Europe reacted to the depression by increasing import duties and reducing imports, demand for Czech manufactures fell, and there was severe unemployment, especially in the industrial areas where the Sudeten Germans lived. Now they really had something to complain about, and both they and the Slovaks blamed the Czechs for their problems.

This coincided with the rise of Hitler, who inspired imitation movements in many countries; in Czechoslovakia the Sudeten Germans formed their own party. After Hitler came to power in Germany, the party, under the leadership of Konrad Henlein, became bolder, organizing rallies and protest demonstrations. In the 1935 elections they won 44 seats, making them the second largest party in the lower house of parliament. The following year, Henlein began to demand self-government for the German-speaking areas. But Hitler was determined on more: by 1938 he had decided that the Sudetenland must become part of Germany, and that the state of Czechoslovakia itself must be destroyed.

Meanwhile the Czech Foreign Minister, Edvard Benes, had taken great trouble to build up a system of protective alliances for his new state. He was the instigator of the ‘Little Entente’ with Yugoslavia and Romania (1920-1) and he signed treaties with Italy and France in 1924. Benes was involved in the Locarno agreements of 1925, in which France promised to guarantee Czechoslovakia’s frontiers and Germany promised that any frontier disputes would be settled by arbitration. The growing success of Henlein and his party rang alarm bells; Benes looked desperately around for further protection and an agreement was signed with the USSR (1935). The two states promised to help each other if attacked. But there was one vital provison: help would be given only if France assisted the country under attack. Tragically, neither France nor Britain was prepared to give military support when the crisis came in 1938.

(c) Poland

Poland had previously existed as an independent state until the late eighteenth century, when it was taken over and divided up between Russia, Austria and Prussia. By 1795 it had lost its independent status. The Poles spent the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries struggling for liberation and independence; the Versailles settlement gave them almost everything they wanted. The acquisition of West Prussia from Germany gave them access to the sea, and although they were disappointed that Danzig, the area’s main port, was to be a ‘free city’ under League of Nations control, they soon built another modern port nearby at Gdynia. However, there was the usual nationalities problem: out of a population of 27 million, only 18 million were Poles. The rest included 4 million Ukrainians, a million White Russians, a million Germans and almost 3 million Jews.

A democratic constitution was introduced in March 1921, which provided for a president and an elected parliament of two houses. Since there were no fewer than 14 political parties, the only way to form a government was by a coalition of several groups. Between 1919 and 1926 there were 13 different cabinets, which lasted on average just a few months. It was impossible to get a strong, decisive government. By 1926 many people felt that the democratic experiment had been a failure; Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, founder of the Polish Socialist Party and the man who had declared Polish independence at the end of the war, led a military coup. In May 1926 he overthrew the government and became prime minister and minister for war. He acted as a virtual dictator in a right-wing, authoritarian and nationalist regime until his death in 1935. The same system then continued with Ignatz Moscicky as president and Jozef Beck as foreign minister. However, no effective measures had been taken to deal with the economic crisis and high unemployment, and the government became increasingly unpopular:

The Poles were involved in several frontier disputes with neighbouring states:

  • Both Poland and Germany claimed Upper Silesia, an important industrial area.
  • Poland and Czechoslovakia both wanted Teschen.
  • The Poles demanded that their frontier with Russia should be much further eastwards instead of along the Curzon Line.
  • The Poles wanted the city of Vilna and its surrounding area, which was also claimed by Lithuania.

The government wasted no time: taking advantage of the civil war in Russia, they sent Polish troops into Russia and quickly occupied Ukraine, capturing Kiev, the capital. Their aims were to liberate Ukraine from Russian control and to take over White Russia. The invasion caused outrage among the Russians and rallied support for the Communist government. The Red Army counter-attacked, drove the Poles out of Kiev and chased them back into Poland all the way to Warsaw, which they prepared to attack. At this point France sent military help, and together with the Poles, they drove the Russians out of Poland again. In October 1920 an armistice was agreed, and in March 1921 the Treaty of Riga was signed; this gave Poland a bloc of territory all the way along her eastern frontier roughly a hundred miles wide. During the fighting, Polish troops also occupied Vilna; they refused to withdraw and in 1923 the League of Nations recognized it as belonging to Poland. However, these activities soured Poland’s relations with Russia and Lithuania, leaving her with two bitterly hostile neighbours.

The other two frontier disputes were settled less controversially. In July 1920 the Conference of Ambassadors divided Teschen between Poland and Czechoslovakia. In March 1921 a plebiscite was held to decide the future of Upper Silesia, in which 60 per cent of the population voted to be part of Germany. However, there was no clear dividing line between the Germans and the Poles. Eventually it was decided to divide it between the two states: Germany received about three-quarters of the territory, but Poland’s share contained the vast majority of the province’s coal mines.

France was Poland’s main ally – the Poles were grateful to the French for their help in the war with Russia – and the two signed a treaty of friendship in February 1921. Hardly had one threat been neutralized when an even more frightening one appeared – Hitler came to power in Germany in January 1933. But to the surprise of the Poles, Hitler was in a friendly mood – in January 1934 Germany signed a trade agreement and a ten-year nonaggression pact with Poland. Hitler’s idea was apparently to bind Poland to Germany against the USSR. Foreign Minister Beck took advantage of the new ‘friendship’ with Hitler at the time of the 1938 Munich Conference to demand and receive a share of the spoils – the rest of Teschen (which had been divided between Poland and Czechoslovakia in July 1920) – from the doomed Czechoslovakia. Within four months he was to find that Hitler’s attitude had changed dramatically.

(d) Austria

Set up by the Treaty of St Germain in 1919, the republic of Austria soon found itself faced by almost every conceivable problem except that of nationalities – the vast majority of people were German-speaking:

  • It was a small country with a small population of only 6.5 million, of which about a third lived in the capital – the huge city of Vienna, which, it was said, was now ‘like a head without a body’.
  • Almost all its industrial wealth had been lost to Czechoslovakia and Poland; although there were some industries in Vienna, the rest of the country was mainly agricultural. There were immediate economic problems of inflation and financial crises and Austria had to be helped out by foreign loans arranged by the League of Nations.
  • Most Austrians felt that the natural solution to the problems was union (Anschluss) with Germany; the Constituent Assembly, which first met in February 1919, actually voted to join Germany, but the Treaty of St Germain, signed in September, vetoed the union. The price exacted by the League in return for the foreign loans was that the Austrians had to promise not to unite with Germany for at least 20 years. Austria was forced to struggle on alone.

Under the new democratic constitution there was to be a parliament elected by proportional representation, a president, and a federal system which allowed the separate provinces control over their internal affairs. There were two main parties: the left-wing Social Democrats and the right-wing Christian Socials. For much of the time between 1922 and 1929 Ignaz Seipel, a Christian Social, was Chancellor, though Vienna itself was controlled by the Social Democrats. There was a striking contrast between the work of the Social Democrats in Vienna, who set up welfare and housing projects for the workers, and the Christian Socials in the rest of the country, who tried to bring economic stability by reducing expenditure and sacking thousands of government officials.

When the economic situation did not improve, the conflict between right and left became violent. Both sides formed private armies: the right had the ‘Heimwehr’, the left the ‘Schutzband’. There were frequent demonstrations and clashes, and the right accused the left of plotting to set up a communist dictatorship. Encouraged and supported by Mussolini, the Heimwehr announced an anti-democratic fascist programme (1930).

The world depression affected Austria badly: unemployment rose alarmingly and the standard of living fell. In March 1931 the government announced that it was preparing to enter a customs union with Germany in the hope of easing the flow of trade and therefore the economic crisis. However, France and the other western states took fright at this, suspecting that it would lead to a full political union. In retaliation, France withdrew all its funds from the leading Austrian bank, the Kreditanstalt, which teetered on the verge of collapse; in May 1931 it declared itself insolvent and was taken over by the government. Only when Austria agreed to drop its plans for a customs union did the French relent and make more cash available (July 1932). Clearly Austria was scarcely a viable state economically or politically, and it seemed as though the country was descending into anarchy as ineffective governments came and went. A further complication was that there was now an Austrian Nazi party, which was campaigning for union with Germany.

In May 1932 Engelbert Dollfuss, a Christian Social, became chancellor; he made a determined effort to bring the country to order: he dissolved parliament and announced that he would run the country by decree until a new constitution had been prepared. The Schutzband was declared illegal and the Heimwehr was to be replaced by a new paramilitary organization – the Fatherland Front. The Austrian Nazi party was banned and dissolved. Unfortunately these policies had catastrophic results.

  • The ban on the Austrian Nazi party caused outrage in Germany, where Hitler was now in power. The Germans launched a vicious propaganda campaign against Dollfuss and in October 1933, Austrian Nazis tried to assassinate him. He survived, but tensions remained high between Germany and Austria. The problem for many Austrians was that although they wanted union with Germany, they were appalled at the idea of becoming part of a Germany run by Hitler and the Nazis.
  • His attacks on the socialists backfired on Dollfuss. The Schutzband defied the ban: in February 1934 there were anti-government demonstrations in Vienna and Linz and three days of running battles between demonstrators and police. Order was restored, but only after some 300 people had been killed. Many socialists were arrested and the Social Democrat party was declared illegal. This was a serious mistake by Dollfuss – with careful handling, the socialists might well have been strong allies in his attempt to defend the republic against the Nazis. In the event, many of them now joined the Austrian Nazis as the best way of opposing the government.
  • Dollfuss relied for support on Italy, where Mussolini was still nervous about Hitler’s intentions. Mussolini had made it clear that he backed Dollfuss and an independent Austria. In March 1934 they signed the ‘Rome protocols‘ – these included agreements on economic co-operation and a declaration of respect for each other’s independence. Even Hitler at this point had promised to respect Austrian independence – he was afraid of alienating Italy and was prepared to wait.
  • Impatient at the delay, the Austrian Nazis launched an attempted coup (25 July 1934). Dollfuss was shot and killed, but the affair was badly organized and was soon suppressed by government forces. Hitler’s role in all this is still not clear; what is certain is that the local Nazis took the initiative, and although Hitler probably knew something about their plans, he was not himself prepared to help them in any way. When Mussolini moved Italian troops up to the frontier with Austria, that was the end of the matter. Clearly the Austrian Nazis were not strong enough to bring about a union with Germany without some outside support; so long as Italy supported the Austrians, their independence was assured.

Kurt Schuschnigg, the next Chancellor, worked hard to preserve the alliance with Italy, and even signed an agreement with Germany in which Hitler recognized Austrian independence and Schuschnigg promised that Austria would follow policies in line with her nature as a German state (July 1936). One such policy allowed the Austrian Nazi party to operate again, and two Nazis were taken into the cabinet. But time was running out for Austria, as Mussolini began to draw closer to Hitler. After his signing of the Rome-Berlin Axis (1936) and the Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany and Japan (1937), Mussolini was less interested in backing Austrian independence. Once again it was the Austrian Nazis who took the initiative, early in March 1938.

(e) Hungary

When the war ended in November 1918, the republic of Hungary was declared, with Michael Karolyi as the first president. Neighbouring states took advantage of the general chaos to seize territory which the Hungarians thought should rightly belong to them – Czech, Romanian and Yugoslav troops occupied large swathes of territory. In March 1919, Karolyi was replaced by a left-wing government of communists and socialists led by Bela Kun, who had recently founded the Hungarian Communist Party. Kun looked for help to Vladimir Lenin, the new Russian communist leader; but the Russians, having themselves suffered defeat at the hands of the Germans, were in no state to provide military support. The government’s attempts to introduce nationalization and other socialist measures were bitterly opposed by the wealthy Magyar landowners. When Romanian troops captured Budapest (August 1919), Kun and his government were forced to flee for their lives.

After a confused period, the initiative was seized by Admiral Horthy, commander of the Austro-Hungarian fleet in 1918; he organized troops, order was restored and elections held in January 1920 were won by the right. The situation improved when the Romanians, under pressure from the Allies, agreed to withdraw. A stable government was formed in March 1920. It was decided that Hungary should be a monarchy with Admiral Horthy acting as Regent until it was decided who should be king. However, the country was deeply divided over the issue; when the most likely candidate, the last Habsburg emperor Karl, died in 1922, no further attempts at restoration were made. However, Horthy continued to be Regent, a title he held until Hungary was occupied by the Germans in 1944.

The new government soon suffered a stunning blow when it was forced to sign the Treaty of Trianon (June 1920), agreeing to massive losses of territory containing about three-quarters of Hungary’s population – to Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia. From then on, Hungarian foreign policy centred on one major aim: to get a revision of the treaty. The ‘Little Entente’ members (Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia), which had taken advantage of her weakness, were seen as the major enemy; Hungary was prepared to co-operate with any state that would back them. Treaties of friendship were signed with Italy (1927) and Austria (1933), and after Hitler came to power, a trade treaty was signed with Germany (1934).

During the 1920s and 1930s all the governments were right-wing, either conservative or nationalist. Admiral Horthy presided over an authoritarian regime in which the secret police were always active and critics and opponents were liable to be arrested. In 1935, Prime Minister Gombos announced that he wanted to co-operate more closely with Germany. Restrictions on the activities of Jews were introduced. At the time of the Munich crisis (September 1938) Hungary took advantage of the destruction of Czechoslovakia to demand and receive a sizeable strip of South Slovakia from Czechoslovakia, to be followed in March 1939 by Ruthenia. The following month Hungary signed the antiComintem Pact and withdrew from the League of Nations. She was now well and truly tied up with Hitler and Mussolini.


The USA had been deeply involved in the First World War, and when hostilities ceased, she seemed likely to play an important role in world affairs. President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, was a crucial figure at the peace conference; his great dream was the League of Nations, through which the USA would maintain world peace. He embarked on a gruelling speaking tour to rally support for his ideas. However, the American people were tired of war and suspicious of Europe: after all, the American population was made up of people who had moved there to get away from Europe. The Republican Party in particular was strongly against any further involvement in European affairs. To Wilson’s bitter disappointment the US Senate voted to reject both the Versailles peace settlement and the League of Nations.

From 1921 until early 1933 the USA was ruled by Republican governments which believed in a policy of isolation: she never joined the League and she tried to avoid political disputes with other states and the signing of treaties – for example, no American representative attended the Locarno Conference. Some historians still blame the failure of the League on the absence of the USA. And yet in spite of their desire for isolation, the Americans found it impossible to avoid some involvement in world affairs, because of overseas trade, investment and the thorny problem of European war debts and reparations. American isolationism was probably more concerned with keeping clear of political problems in Europe than with simply cutting themselves off from the world in general.

  1. During the prosperous years of the 1920’s, Americans tried to increase trade and profits by investment abroad, in Europe, Canada, and in Central and South America. It was inevitable therefore, that the USA should take an interest in what was happening in these areas. There was, for example, a serious dispute with Mexico, which was threatening to seize American-owned oil wells; a compromise solution was eventually reached.
  2. The Washington Conferences ( 1921-2) were called by President Harding because of concern at Japanese power in the Far East.
  3. Allied war debts to the USA caused much ill-feeling. During the war the American government had organized loans to Britain and her allies amounting to almost 12 billion dollars at 5 per cent interest. The Europeans hoped that the Americans would cancel the debts, since the USA had done well out of the war (by taking over former European markets), but both Harding and Coolidge insisted that repayments be made in full. The Allies claimed that their ability to pay depended on whether Germany paid her reparations to them, but the Americans would not admit that there was any connection between the two. Eventually Britain was the first to agree to pay the full amount, over 62 years at the reduced interest rate of 3.3 per cent. Other states followed, the USA allowing much lower interest rates depending on the poverty of the country concerned; Italy got away with 0.4 per cent, but this predictably caused strong objections from Britain.
  4. Faced with the German financial crisis of 1923, the Americans had to change their attitude and admit the connection between reparations and war debts. They agreed to take part in the Dawes and Young Plans (1924 and 1929), which enabled the Germans to pay reparations. However, this caused the ludicrous situation in which America lent money to Germany so that she could pay reparations to France, Britain and Belgium, and they in turn could pay their war debts to the USA. The whole setup, together with American insistence on keeping high tariffs, was a contributory cause of the world economic crisis, with all its far-reaching consequences.
  5. The Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) was another notable, though useless, American foray into world affairs.
  6. Relations with Britain were uneasy, not only because of war debts, but because the Conservatives resented the limitations on British naval expansion imposed by the earlier Washington agreement. MacDonald, anxious to improve relations, organized a conference in London in 1930. It was attended also by the Japanese, and the three states reaffirmed the 5:5:3 ratio in cruisers, destroyers and submarines agreed at Washington. This was successful in re-establishing friendship between Britain and the USA, but the Japanese soon exceeded their limits.
  7. The USA returned to a policy of strict isolation when the Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931. Although President Hoover condemned the Japanese action, he refused to join in economic sanctions or to make any move which might lead to war with Japan. Consequently Britain and France felt unable to act and the League was shown to be helpless. Throughout the 1930’s, though acts of aggression increased, the Americans remained determined not to be drawn into a conflict.

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