Independence and Destruction, 1918–1941

  • Thomas W. SimonsJr.


World War I shattered the historic integument within which the peoples of Eastern Europe could develop national identities and states by fighting the multinational empires. Though the peoples of the area had a role, Germany, Austria, and Russia were removed from the area primarily by World War I. The Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917 forced Russia, which had been allied with Britain and France, out of the war. As its army dissolved, Russia conceded much of its western territory to Germany in March 1918 at Brest-Litovsk. Even then, the Germans continued to advance until June, controlling the Ukraine and moving the Russian frontier about six hundred miles to the east. After the victory of its erstwhile allies, Soviet Russia’s borders again moved westward, but the full extent of Romanov dominion was not restored. Soviet Russia lost the Baltic regions and parts of its former Ukrainian, White Russian, Polish, and Romanian territories. After its defeat in 1918, Germany was reduced in size, forced to pay reparations, and substantially disarmed, the Rhineland became a demilitarized zone. Austria-Hungary disintegrated. Today there is a good deal of creative nostalgia for the old empire in the area itself; it is worth reading the informed account of a contemporary like Sir Lewis Namier on how the dissolution took place in order to be reminded of how final was the verdict on Austria-Hungary reached in 1918.1


Economic Recovery Land Reform National Minority Interwar Period German Minority 
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  1. 1.
    L.B. Namier, “The Downfall of the Habsburg Monarchy,” in Harold Temperley, ed., A History of the Peace Conference of Paris, vol. 4 (London: Henry Frowde and Hodder & Stoughton, 1921), 58–119.Google Scholar
  2. On Brest-Litovsk, see James Edmonds, A Short History of World War I (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951), 262.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    For useful surveys on the “New Eastern Europe,” see E.A. Radice, “General Characteristics of the Region Between the Wars,” in Michael Kaser, ed., The Economic History of Eastern Europe, 1919–1975, vol. 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 22–65,Google Scholar
  4. and C.A. Macartney and A.W. Palmer, Independent Eastern Europe. A History (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1966), 147–243.Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    See recent works by Radice, “General Characteristics of the Region between the Wars”; John R. Lampe and Marvin R. Jackson, Balkan Economic History, 1550–1950. From Imperial Borderlands to Developing Nations (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1982);Google Scholar
  6. and Andrew Janos, The Politics of Backwardness in Hungary, 1825–1945 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982).Google Scholar
  7. Some older general treatments are still useful: Hugh Seton-Watson, Eastern Europe between the Wars, 1918–1941, 3rd ed. (Hamden, Conn.: Anchor, 1951), 75–122;Google Scholar
  8. David T. Mitrany, Marx against the Peasant (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1951), 105–190;Google Scholar
  9. George D. Jackson, Jr., Comintern and Peasant in East Europe, 1919–1930 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966), 153–311;Google Scholar
  10. and Ghita Ionescu, “Eastern Europe,” in Ernst Gellner, ed., Populism (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1969).Google Scholar
  11. And two older studies still make the problems vivid in specific contexts: David T. Mitrany, The Land and the Peasant in Rumania. The War and Agrarian Reform (London: Humphrey Milford, 1930),Google Scholar
  12. and Jozo Tomasevich, Peasants, Politics, and Economic Change in Yugoslavia (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1955), 233ff.Google Scholar
  13. 5.
    On interwar parties and parliamentarism, Hugh Seton-Watson’s The East European Revolution, 3rd ed. (New York: Praeger, 1956), 23–48, is still valuable.Google Scholar
  14. 6.
    One contemporary view (and fear) was that the peasant majorities would sweep the political boards. In the early 1920s Sir Lewis Namier, whose dislike of peasants was perhaps the obverse of his personal combination of Jewishness and fondness for aristocracy, was writing that “Perfect theocracies may yet arise in Eastern Europe in the dark shadow of the ‘conquering Cham’” (a Polish pejorative for the most benighted peasant): “Agrarian Revolution (1922),” in Namier’s Skyscrapers and Other Essays (Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1968), 155. Namier was perhaps prescient, but not quite in the way he meant: As we shall see, to the extent that peasants conquered in Eastern Europe, they did so indirectly, and the theocracies they generated were not those Namier anticipated. For the actual record of direct peasant politics in one country, see Olga A. Narkiewicz, The Green Flag. Polish Populist Politics 1867–1970 (London: Croom Helm, 1976)Google Scholar
  15. 9.
    For a bemused and intelligent meditation on what it means to be small with reference to this period, Henry L. Roberts, “Politics in a Small State: The Balkan Example,” in his Eastern Europe: Politics, Revolution, & Diplomacy (New York: Knopf, 1970), 178–203.Google Scholar
  16. 11.
    For a summary, see Ezra Mendelsohn, “Relations Between Jews and Non-Jews in Eastern Europe between the Two World Wars,” in François Furet, Unanswered Questions. Nazi Germany and the Genocide of the Jews (New York: Schocken, 1989);Google Scholar
  17. for more extended treatment, see Mendelsohn’s A The Jews of East Central Europe between the Two World Wars (New York: Mouton, 1983).Google Scholar
  18. Of the individual country situations, Poland’s has been best treated: for two recent histories, with extensive bibliographies, see Joseph Marcus, Social and Political History of the Jews in Poland, 1919–1939 (Berlin: Mouton, 1983),CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. and Celia S. Heller, On the Edge of Destruction. Jews of Poland between the Two World Wars (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977).Google Scholar
  20. The classic work on the appeal of communism to national minorities throughout the area is still R.V. Burks, The Dynamics of Communism in Eastern Europe (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961).Google Scholar
  21. 13.
    The best treatment in English is still in the chapters by István Déak on Hungary and Eugen Weber on Romania in Hans Rogger and Eugen Weber, ed., The European Right. A Historical Profile (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965), 364–407 and 501–574.Google Scholar
  22. 14.
    On the French role and then the German ascendancy, see György Ránki, Economy and Foreign Policy. The Struggle of the Great Powers for Hegemony in the Danube Valley, 1919–1939 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983),Google Scholar
  23. and Piotr S. Wandycz, The Twilight of French Eastern Alliances, 1926–1936. French-Czechoslovak-Polish Relations from Locarno to the Remilitarization of the Rhineland (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988).Google Scholar
  24. 15.
    For a convenient survey on the Italian role in the 1930s, see Luigi Villari, Italian Foreign Policy under Mussolim (New York: Devon-Adair, 1956), 75–122.Google Scholar
  25. 16.
    Nazi use of area Germans is now thoroughly documented in Antony Komjathy and Rebecca Stockwell, German Minorities and the Third Reich. Ethnic Germans of East Central Europe between the Wars (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1980).Google Scholar
  26. 17.
    The locus classicus on German economic expansionism in the area, since qualified and disputed, is Antonín Basch, The Danube Basin and the German Economic Sphere (New York: Columbia University Press, 1943).Google Scholar
  27. The best recent work is David E. Kaiser, Economic Diplomacy and the Origins of the Second World War. Germany, Britain, France, and Eastern Europe, 1930–1939 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980).Google Scholar
  28. 19.
    On this whole process, see Esmonde M. Robertson, Mussolini as Empire-Builder. Europe and Africa, 1932–1936 (New York: St. Martin’s, 1972).Google Scholar
  29. 20.
    On Soviet-German relations and diplomacy under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, see Anthony Read and David Fisher, The Deadly Embrace. Hitler, Stalin and the Nazi-Soviet Pact 1939–1941 (New York: Norton, 1988).Google Scholar
  30. On the horrible dilemmas that Munich and then Soviet-German rapprochement produced for the Soviet Union’s Western neighbors, see Anna M. Cienciala, Poland and the Western Powers 1938–1939 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968)Google Scholar
  31. and Dov B. Lungu, Romania and the Great Powers, 1933–1940 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1989).Google Scholar
  32. For a lively and immediate account of the period, see John Lukacs, The Last European War. September 1939/December 1941 (New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1976).Google Scholar
  33. And for a fine treatment of Mussolini’s policy in the Balkans from the beginning of the war, see Macgregor Knox, Mussolini Unleashed 1939–41. Politics and Strategy in Fascist Italy’s Last War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 134–290.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Thomas W. Simons, Jr. 1993

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  • Thomas W. SimonsJr.

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