Back To CourseAP European History: Exam Prep
27 chapters | 244 lessons
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Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.
Some things, like glaciers, can take years or centuries to show significant change. Other events, like forest fires, can change in an instant. In between the 20th century's two world wars, society experienced both types of change. Some, like changes in women's fashion and public life, were the results of decades of slowly changing social customs. Others, like the Great Depression, changed the world virtually overnight. In the rest of this lesson, we will explore the major trends and events of the interwar years, which lasted from 1918-1939, the period of time between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II.
In the United States, Canada, and Europe, the 1920s are often nicknamed the Roaring Twenties. The decade saw a period of economic progress and industrial production the likes of which had never been seen before. Western factories and industrialists stopped making instruments for war and began instead to manufacture products for the public that could be sold in peacetime. The boom in industrial production fueled urbanization as people left their countryside farms to live and work in factories in major metropolitan centers.
The goods they produced for the public fueled a consumer culture that has sustained through the present day. Leisure and pleasure became attainable goals for industrial workers after their day or week on the factory line. Furthermore, new products that made everyday life easier continued to roll out of factories and were marketed as essential products. For example, the mass production of automobiles from assembly lines in Detroit suddenly made a family car an attainable goal.
The 1920s also saw a significant shift in the public lives of women. For centuries prior to WWI, women in Western society were largely expected to remain inside the home, raising children and caring for the house and their husbands. During WWI, many women worked outside the home, providing equipment and goods for the war effort. Although women were expected to relinquish their positions as men returned home from war, many women sought to maintain their presence in the public sphere.
Many young, unmarried women began to participate in flapper culture, a style of dress and behavior that was very modern in the 1920s. Why exactly they were called flappers is still a point of debate. One theory claims flappers were named after the fashionable, unbuckled boots they wore, which flapped as they walked. Others say that it began in England as a slang term for young prostitutes.
Flappers were proud of their public presence and often drank and smoked in public alongside their male counterparts, drove cars, and engaged in casual sex. In addition, they dressed counter to conventional norms, wearing shorter hair, ankle or even knee-high skirts, and hats. Flappers were abhorred by conservative women of the period and even disliked by suffragettes and feminists who viewed flapper culture as superficial. Nonetheless, flapper culture helped women gain greater acceptance in the public sphere and radically redefined women's role in society.
After the appearance of new amenities, like cars and refrigerators, and greater cultural vibrancy, for men and women alike, the excitement and economic successes of the 1920s gave way to the greatest economic catastrophe of the century. Stores, which were offering their own forms of credit at high interest to consumers, were forced to take a loss when consumers began failing to make payments.
Banks lent without safeguards against financial crises. They handed out huge sums of money and used customer deposits to fund the loans. They also accepted those same customer deposits without any guarantee that customer money would be immediately available to them in the future.
Stock market speculation, the practice of engaging in risky investments to profit from short-term fluctuations, played a huge role in precipitating the economic collapse. Speculation on the market by savvy financiers artificially inflated the prices of large portions of the stock market. Moreover, much of the money being tossed around on the market was increasingly made up of the savings of the growing American middle class. The truth was that the prosperity of the 1920s had been built upon the shaky legs of risky financial practices, and these practices led to a worldwide economic downturn, now known as the Great Depression.
The economic house of cards came tumbling down on October 28, 1929, a day which was infamously nicknamed 'Black Monday.' So many stocks were sold so quickly that day that many traders were forced to work through the night to simply record all the stocks that had been traded, and by the end of the day, the Dow Jones had dropped 13%. By November, the market hit rock bottom, wiping out the life savings of many middle-class investors. The ensuing panic caused even more economic ruin, as those still with deposits in savings accounts and other bank products rushed to the bank to withdraw their money. Most banks ran out of cash on hand in hours and were forced to turn away customers, telling them their life savings had vanished in a matter of hours.
Internationally, the collapse spread outward from the United States with alarming speed. The U.S. government and U.S. banks were owed huge sums of money by European countries, who had received large loans during WWI and afterward to aid the reconstruction of the war-torn continent. When the government and banks called in many of these loans soon after the collapse, the European banking system fell with the same rapidity that the U.S. system had collapsed. The scenes that had occurred in front of bank doors in the United States were soon played out in Madrid, London, and Paris.
This economic tumult coincided with the rise of fascism in several European states. Fascism is a radical political ideology characterized by an authoritarian and often xenophobic government. It was an outgrowth of the European nationalism of the 19th century. In fact, in the 19th century, nationalism led to the creation of states that had previously only been regions with ethnically and linguistically similar populations, such as Germany and Italy.
In the 20th century, however, this nationalism grew increasingly aggressive, especially in central Europe. In the first half of the 20th century, Italy, Spain, Germany, Japan, and other states around the world instituted fascist regimes, which often persecuted ethnic and religious minorities within the state. Being a foreigner in any of these countries became increasingly dangerous.
Characterized by strict authoritarian regimes and often aggressively nationalist, xenophobic, and racist attitudes, these fascist governments instituted policies meant to glorify the nation and the ethnicity, while eliminating all others. This aggressive fascism eventually led to WWII and the Holocaust, which was the systematic murder of approximately six million Jews by Adolf Hitler's fascist German government.
In the interwar years, the period between WWI and WWII, the United States and Western Europe experienced both unseen prosperity and economic ruin. The Roaring Twenties exhibited profound economic prosperity, leading to a new consumer culture. This coincided with relaxed moral codes and a greater role for women in public life, exemplified by flappers and flapper culture.
However, much of this prosperity was built upon unsound financial practices, like stock market speculation, which led to economic ruin during the Great Depression after the 1929 stock market collapse. In some Western states, racist and xenophobic political parties took advantage of the downturn to institute fascism in countries like Germany and Italy. Idealizing the nation and its ethnicity, the racism and xenophobia often practiced by these fascist regimes helped cause WWII.
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Back To CourseAP European History: Exam Prep
27 chapters | 244 lessons