In the second decade of a new century, people were post-war and war-weary. A great war had just been fought which had been more catastrophic than any war that ever went before. Civilians had been targeted in a way which transcended belief and broke all the previous rules of warfare. A war which had to be fought had been waged and won - but at a terrible cost. Thousands of young people lost their lives fighting, but they believed that it was worth it. The war, they believed, was a just war. It had to be fought in order to protect innocent people from death, and to stop a tyrant from overrunning neighbouring countries.
Over the next three decades, the men and women who gave their futures to stop the spread of tyranny found their dreams were shattered. They had fought for the sake of a more just world. They had sacrificed their lovers and their lives in order to bring in a new world order. The dream of a world where people wouldn't live in poverty, where countries would trade with and help one another amicably seemed quiver on the threshold of actualisation. The men in power would be replaced with a fairer society, where the poor were helped to independence and the powerful chose to give of their power to the greater good. Communism and socialism were not yet seen as impossible ideologies used to keep a dictator in power. They were so popular precisely because of their promise of a fairer, more peaceful society.
They were also convinced that there would never be another war of the like of the one they had just endured. An unprecedented level of international cooperation grew up following the war, to replace international fighting with international discussion. They were sure that the immense, superhuman sacrifice of their generation was justified only because of the new world order that was beginning. There was no way, they were sure, that a world which had just been sickened by bloodshed would plunge itself back to torture and the creative discovery of new ways to kill people.
The generation which survived the war was committed to peace and to fairness, at almost any cost, They hated war, but more than they hated war they feared it. Most of all, the world's superpower, the mightiest country of all, feared war. They feared war talk and war tools and war thoughts. They relied on the new levels of international cooperation to keep international peace. They were so tired of intervening in the petty squabbles that sprang up between different countries.
They were betrayed.
Their leaders didn't change. Post-war promises didn't materialise. Nothing in society was altered to make it more fair or more just or to protect the most vulnerable. Gradually, all that endured was a fear of war, one could almost say a self-taught nausea in response to any kind of military action. Like Alex in The Clockwork Orange, the post-war generation felt physically sick at the contemplation of any kind of violence. Even violence in self-defense and for self-survival.
Their very belief in a new world order which would justify the shock and awe of the previous war would lead them directly to the next war. Intervening in a petty squabble between two nations had caused a deep-seated trauma in the collective consciousness which they were determined to avoid ever repeating. Next time, the nation chose a leader who would not repeat their earlier mistakes, and that leader came home from Munich with a triumph.
Less than a year later, the world was at war again.
Yes, I am talking about the second decade of the previous century. What we refer to as the 'interwar' period seems to us like a blip between two huge conflagrations. Often the two wars are run together, using the power of hindsight to categorise them as one conflict that had to be re-fought a second time. In many ways this is true, but to view the second world war as an inevitable coda is to shove the inter-war years under the carpet of history. It's extremely difficult for us in the 21st century to imagine the hope and sense of promise that filled the world after the end of the First World War. The young soldiers who survived carried the burden of their comrades who did not. The young women who died single because the men they would have married died at the Front lived their lives driven by the need to make a better world that justified their loved ones' sacrifice. I've recently been reading fiction that was written about the Great War, shortly after it ended. It is full of hope and belief in a new, just society around the world.
We are so full of the certainty that Chamberlain was wrong and weak when he signed the Munich agreement that we forget that the British public responded to his announcement with cheers and rejoicing at the successful evasion of another devastating war. Schoolchildren in England write history essays that dissect the ways that the Munich agreement paved the way to the Second World War, an approach which only pushes the reality of public opinion furhter into the bushes. We are so used to Winston Churchill as the war hero that we forget that in 1938 he was a crackpot trouble-maker who had been preaching war for decades to a country that was still convalescent from the last one.
In 2017, it is blatantly obvious that Hitler had to be fought and defeated. But in 1938, war-weariness and war-phobia created a fog of opposition to even the most necessary military campaign.
In 2017, we can confidently point out the seeds of the Second World War where they were planted in the aftermath of the Great War. Another popular high-school history essay topic is 'Was The Second World War Inevitable?'. As historians, we know that nothing is inevitable until it happens, but that doesn't change the opinion seared into our minds that the mishandling of the armistice in 1918 led directly to the declaration of war in 1939. It's so difficult, even for historians, to look back at yesterday without the burden of today's knowledge. In 1918 there were lone voices which sounded alarm at the terms of the Armistice. There are recorded opinions that Germany could rise again and that the continent could be plunged into war all over again if changes weren't made. Those voices were silenced, ridiculed, and ignored by a generation which couldn't bear to consider such a possibility.
In 2017, there are many ways that we are back in the inter-war period. Global mood today reflects that global mood then. We are tired of war and want to believe our leaders when they insist that global cooperation has removed all need for armed conflict. I suspect that the world is ripe for the resurrection of Chamberlain's reputation (see this article in Slate, telling you why Chamberlain was right). We are war-weary. America in particular, the world's superpower, is scared of war. We are scared of the cost of war, and still clinging desperately to the belief that we have changed the world and war is no longer necessary. We trumpet 'Never Again' as if it were our security blanket, but don't notice that it has quietly evolved into 'Never Again will we get involved in the petty troubles between two countries far away from us'.
If we learn anything from the inter-war years, it's that when flawed but free, democratic and progressive societies refuse to wield the tools of war, they will be picked up by those who are not restricted by such ethical niceties. Over the years from 1918-1938, the generation that fought and died in Flanders died once more as they lost all hope in their dream of a new world order. Shriveled and despondent, they concluded that war is pointless and changes nothing. The dictators of 1930s Europe came to the opposite conclusion.
It's not a coincidence that the UK's great war leader was of the generation before them, the generation that was accustomed to training for conflict. I doubt that anyone who came of age in the Great War could stomach leading a repeat of it.
Winston Churchill once said 'He who doesn't learn from history is doomed to repeat it'. I wish to see us learn quickly, because we are already living in a era of remakes.
The Hope Of The Inter War Years - And The Consequences Of Losing It