The Civil War Of The Interwar Period And Its Implications

The Civil War Of The Interwar Period And Its Implications

There is a belief, implicit in the hypothesis that during the interwar period, Europe was not in a state of peace, but in a state of unofficial civil war. What this indicates is that negative peace was at play within the continent. In order to examine the full spectrum of the idea of negative peace as latent, actual or as simply an interregnum between wars, I will beak up my thesis into four sections, the causes, societal breakdown and population problems, political radicalism of the times and finally I will be using the Spanish Civil War as a case study, as it is of my opinion that Spain represented a microcosm of what was at play across the continent. This will substantiate that negative peace was the characteristic that best describes the period between the wars.


Before advancing further, I will explain the definition of a ‘latent civil war’ and ‘negative peace’. The definition of ‘civil war’ in this context is that it’s not practiced in the conventional sense, such as the US Civil War, which was practiced under ‘hard power’ of people adopting direct violence towards one another. The type of warfare practiced during this period was under the guise of negative peace. This concept has been brought to attention by sociologist Johan Galtung, who stated that peace may be more than just the simple absence of violence, and conflict can transpire within a range of relationships. The characteristics of negative peace are an absence of violence, pessimism, frustration and desperation. I will illustrate that the interbellum was defined by negative peace and that the indirect violence via structural elements such as economic breakdown, poverty, hunger, discrimination and social injustice created a latent European civil war.

The Causes of the Latent Civil War –


The three main cause of the turmoil of the period were the breakdown of the Age of Empire, Treaty of Versailles and the Communist Revolution. It was these three events which saw the breakdown of the old world and the transitional period which was the interwar period, into the new world which was fought over by the Axis and Allies during the Second World War. Although these three events are not the direct cause of the turmoil, they are still of importance as they set the foundations for the interbellum to be in such disarray and tension.

Breakdown of the Age of Empire –


The aftermath of WWI saw drastic geopolitical, economic and social changes right across Europe.


This saw the collapse of four empires and thus old national principals of international order, new countries formed and old ones had redrawn borders, ethnic/population displacement, and the conception of new ideologies which clashed with the old established credos. Essentially what this period saw was the combination of great change from nearly every facet of society. This industrial revolution, urbanization, rise of the middle-class, implementation of modernism, the implementation of Democracy and the creation of Marxism and Fascism. Although the End of Empire was not solely responsible for the problems faced during this period, it did see the end of established beliefs and implementation of a new world order, which gave an opening for the tensions for be created and spread across the continent[1]. Furthermore, in regards to Germany, the economic powerhouse of Europe, its economy was completely desolated by the Great War, and was further crippled by the burden of being the ‘losers’ and having the Treaty of Versailles placed upon them.

Treaty of Versailles –


The Peace Treaty which brought the end to the First World War, saw the end of fighting and also set the tone of the post-war world. What this established was the concept of Germany being responsible for the cause and damage of the war. Therefore it should assume the financial burden of rebuilding Europe, while being squeezed both geopolitically and economically. This agreement was decided by the ‘Big Four’ of France, Britain, America and to a lesser extent Italy. Each had all had an agenda of their own in regards to Germany[2].


The French were especially vicious in the maintaince of the Treaty, as they gained the majority of the Lion’s Share of the reparations. Also by having the subjected people of Germany economically enslaved, France hoped that their domestic and foreign debts would be replenished[3]. The United Kingdom realized that the conditions created by the Versailles, prevented Britain from flourishing as their trade capacity could no longer operate at an optimal level, which saw unemployment rise at home. Therefore they were open to flexibility and the reduction of repayments from Germany[4]. The US emerged from the war as the strongest economic-political power and a major creditor of the Euro-powers. Therefore, they turned their back on Europe. This saw the economic hardship increased by those who were affected by the Treaty. The Kingdom of Italy entered the War with the intention of strengthening nationalism and territorial gain. They managed to annex Trento, Istria, but by not succeeding to gain Trieste, made Italians denounce their share of demands as a ‘mutilated peace’[5]. This will be further explained later, as the displacement of people was also a major component of the tensions of the time.


Economist John Maynard Keynes stated that the Treaty made no provisions for the economic rehabilitation of Europe, no promotion of economic solidarity among the Allies, no arrangement for restoring the finances of Europe and nor was there any perpetrations for the Old World to transition into the New. He went on to state that Germany was the economic powerhouse of Europe, therefore if they became improvised, the entire continent will feel the ripple-affect. The Treaty resulted in rapid depression of the standard of life, to the point of starvation. This would result in lethargy along with a helpless despair, which would drive nervous instability of hysteria and to a mad despair. This would ultimately submerge the European Civilization itself, overwhelming the minds of the population, family and the individual[6]. He went on to say that it was extraordinary that the fundamental economic problem of a Europe starving and disintegrating before their eyes was the one question in which it was impossible to arouse the interest of the Big Four[7].

Communist Revolution

The creation of Marxism and the subsequent communist revolution can be viewed as a history-altering event. I would argue that the very existence of the Soviet Union influenced the mindset and behaviour of the people of Europe and the rest of the world.


According to Carroll Quigley, the concept of socialism is said to be a product of the 19th Century and a revulsion against it. It was rooted in some of the characteristics of the time period, such as industrialism, humanitarianism, materialism, and democracy. It was also a revolt against capitalism, nationalism, urban slums, and class distinction[8]. The chief theorist was Karl Marx who led the revolution of by declaring ‘Workers of the World Unite[9]. His initial outlook saw this revolution start in the most advanced industrial nations, as the problems which industrialization would become acute and the people would have the means to support the socialist system[10]. To be fair, the initial turn of events seemed to prove Marx correct, but he ultimately miscalculated. Strangely, his workers revolution came in the agrarian nations of East Europe. Russia was seen to be a backward country unfit to sustain socialism, however the belief was that Russia would start the process and later industrialized Germany would adopt the Marxist doctrine and later join with Russia. This nearly occurred with the Bavarian Soviet Republic and communist revolutionary mutterings, but was countered and later crushed with the rise of Fascism/Nazism. When this occurred, the Soviet Union saw a radical overall of priorities with Stalin implementing ‘Socialism in one country.’ Although fears subsided by the Red Army becoming somewhat tranquil after the Stalinist change of foreign policy, the element of a communist internal takeover by domestic communist parties was still present and the perception of a philosophic and political battle was still in the minds of many Western Europeans.


In regards to geo-politics, the very existence of the Soviet Union created a sense of civil war in Europe. The Communist society was distinctive and alien to the rest of Europe, this along with the cries of World Revolution gave the rest of the continent a reason to be apprehensive and an ‘us versus them’ mentality. This was exacerbated by the dreams of imperialism, which was still present in the minds of European powers of the time, as Italy and Germany still wished to create their Empires. In regards to Germany, knowing that overseas colonies were no longer an option, the idea was to conquer eastwards and restore the era of Fredrick I. Even in the early days of Nazi rule at his first address to the military establishment, Hitler suggested the arms-build up to take place without delay and contemplated a pre-emptive strike on France and asked ‘How should political power, once won be used?’ and went on to say ‘Perhaps – and probably better – conquest of new living space in the east and ruthless Germanization’. The officers present could have been left in no doubt what was Hitler’s intention[11]. It is interesting that the geopolitical goals of Nazi Foreign Policy are almost identical to those of the First World War. The French was particularly concerned with the spread of communism, attempted the containment method of Cordon Sanitaire.


The combination of the breakdown of the old world, economic downturn and the alternative solution/threat of Communism which stroked fear into the aristocracy and liberal-democrats, saw the effects play out in European society, which further polarized and fermented the element of civil war across Europe.


Societal Breakdown and Population Problems – 


The breakdown of society was widespread across Europe during this period, brought on by the economic predicament of the Treaty and Depression. Although not exclusive to the UK, an account of what the average citizen was experiencing has been described by British contemporary Max Cohen.


Although British society was not as directly assaulted like Germany, the affects were still felt. The mounting unemployment reinforced a sense of hopelessness in the people and cast pall over Great Britain. The experience that the citizenry went through was not only unemployment, but hunger, privation and loss of self-respect. As Cohen explained, being out of work over an extensive period of time, worry become all consuming as he began to fear not only for himself but his dependents. Bitterness sets in as rejection after rejection amounts into a changed outlook on life. Due to economic circumstances even the youth social and romantic life suffers and therefore further anger builds. In some cases men and women turned into nervous wreaks and psychopaths. Max notes that a change in worldview began, that a sense of inferiority and a lack of self-respect. Depression and pessimism became an actual part of his intellectual makeup. Such widespread anger manifested itself with general people arguing and even prone to violence over things of no real importance[12].


As tragic the events were in the UK, it was intensified in Germany. The economics of the above mentioned Treaty showed its affects down to the ‘man-on-the-street’. It is reported that it resulted the runaway inflation, where stories from citizens such as Emil Klein ‘I once paid 4 billion marks for a sausagemeat roll and this collapse naturally supported the Hitler movement and helped it grow, because people said “It can’t go on like this![13] Social unrest grew along with unemployment, a sense of unrelenting uneasiness. There are accounts that on a daily basis people met when lining up at the Dole Office and the political discussions frequently broke out in fights[14]. This was made worse by the belief of being ‘stabbed-in-the-back’ during the First World War and that the war guilt was unjust. There was also the emotional feeling of revenge in the air. The French ruled with an iron fist, which further increased tensions between the two nations[15].


There was also the issue of population discontent and ethnic nationalism. With the breakdown of Empires, saw the creation of new States which redrawn world maps. For example, the frontiers of the new states of Poland and Czechoslovakia were determined in Paris, as were the enlargement of Romania and Bulgaria[16]. Essentially, nations were created without any account for was the demographics of the populations which lived in those areas. The idea behind the planning was based on Wilsonian principal of self-determination along with spreading democracy. For instance, the majority of Italians which lived in Trieste, but that territory was under Austrian rule. Many small wars broke out during this period of time such as the Polish battling the Soviets, Czechoslovakia and Lithuania. The best-known example of irredentism can be represented by Germany. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, saw many ethnic-German people spread across the continent and under other nation’s control. Being that pan-nationalism was a common political element at the time, the concept found in Germany and Austria where union between the two countries. Time and time again it was overwhelming supported in plebiscites[17]. After Hitler annexed Austria, he sought legitimacy with a referendum and was reward with 99.08 %of the ‘Old Reich’, and 99.75% in Austria voting ‘yes’[18]. Despite the factor of voter fraud, it is undeniable that many Germans were genuine in their support of the idea of Greater Germany.


Political Radicalism of the Times –


There is probably no other avenue for the social-economic tensions to be expressed through near-peaceful means than the realm of politics. It was through this venue did this latent civil war become apparent with not only the fall of democracy, but with the rise of radical ideologies, along with internal factions and splits.

Failure of Democracy


The idea of Democracy was a new concept within Europe. The pre-war years was dominated by the Old Right which simply used authority to stabilize themselves and the nation. They generally consisted of an ‘old boy network’ of religion, monarchy, landowners and business. However an unforeseen consequence of the war was the mixing of classes and the old loyalties started to dissolve and the experience of peasant soldiers felt exploited by the elite generals. Many soldiers retuning from the war now became anti-establishment and very excited to exercise their newfound democratic rights. The fact that now everyone could participate in the general franchise proved destabilizing for the Elite. Political parties of every persuasion was now appearing everywhere and the Old Right, due to undermining the rest of society by keeping them in serfdom, could not convince them to vote for the conservative parties.


The ideology which benefited the most from democracy was Socialism. Its principals of a free, egalitarian society without social classes and government, resonated with the masses. However the fear of socialism gaining power through the Fabian method of parliamentary democracy and the constant change of leadership which could not provided any lasting solution to the problems felt by the majority of the population, which saw massive disillusionment in the very idea of Democracy. This disillusionment was articulated by Hitler when he stated‘Those who hurled us into our current misfortunes, who proclaimed ‘Equality’, do not share the fate and the sufferings of the victims of their policy. This watchword of democracy led only to insecurity, indiscipline and at length to the downfall and destruction of all authority.[19]

Rise of Fascism and Nazism


The ideological reaction to the radical politics of socialism/communism saw the creation of Fascism/Nazism. As discussed by Quigley, fascism represented an attack not only on the whole 19th Century way of life, but the very fundamental attributes of Western Civilization itself, as they assaulted democracy, the parliamentary system, the ‘liberal’ outlook, humanitarianism and science[20]. He continues to state that Fascism is the adoption by the vested interests in a society of an authoritarian form of government in order to maintain their vested interests and prevent reform of the society. These vested interests usually sought to prevent the reform of economic system by adopting an economic program whose chief element was the effort to fill the deflationary gap by rearmament[21].


I would submit that the ‘New Right’ is merely a variation of the old imperialist world of the 19th Century. Fascism was nothing more than a revamped Old Right, as the traditional conservatives had trouble rallying the population towards their side. Unlike the Left, the New Right despite their talk of being ‘Revolutionary’, they were actually respectful towards the Establishment. The Royalty and aristocracy were kept in place, unlike what happened in Russia, where the Tsar was killed. Mussolini, although thought of as ‘Dictator’, in reality was ‘Prime Minister’. The Italian Monarchy and Council of Fascism were always in place, and had the power to dethrone him. The fact that they allowed him to act, shows he was authorized to do so. It was only when the war turned against them, did the King ordered him arrested. It is the same occurrence which happened to Hitler. True, he did attempt a violent overthrow of Government and later campaigned against Hindenburg by promising change to the public, especially the youth, by stating ‘Old man…you must stand aside’. But in reality he was very humble and respectful towards the Field Marshal until his death. It was only after he died, did Hitler start to centralize power towards himself.

Splits within Ideologies


Another element which led to the fall of democracy was that it also stimulated splits in ideologies and created too much political diversity. One of the best examples of this occurring was the communists rift with the socialists. Although they were in agreement in the abolishment in state and capitalism, they disagreed on tactics. During the Russian Revolution the two factions were the moderate Mensheviks which advocated Fabien method of reform and the Bolsheviks which advocated violent overthrow of government. Even in Moscow there was a battle two rivaling outlooks being Stalin with his ‘socialism in one country’ and the other by Trotsky with ‘world revolution’ It was only after Stalin managed to have Trotsky exiled and eventually killed did he rule the Soviet without peer.


However just like the Left, the Far-Right also had rivalling factions to deal with. It is a myth to believe that Hitler was unchallenged as the Left faction of National Socialism led by the Stasser brothers, Ernst Röhm with his paramilitary SA, threatened him. There was a belief that Hitler attaining the Chancellorship was a ‘half revolution’ and a second was needed to bring in socialism into Germany. The quasi-independent line of Stasserism was made up of mystical nationalism, anti-capitalism, social reformism, the rejection of the bourgeois society and criticizing the notion of Führerprinzip[22]. There were also proposals for wealth redistribution and a possible alliance with the Soviet Union.


The fact that Hitler had to compromise his message in order to be supported by the mainstream big financers and industrialists showed a deviation from his message. The showdown between Hitler and Otto Stasser came in a long meeting where the key of leadership was debated. Otto argued that ‘A Leader must serve the Idea’ with being countered by Hitler claiming ‘What you are saying is outrageous nonsense. That’s the most revolting democracy that we want nothing to deal with. The Leader is the Idea.’ Hitler viewed Stasserism to be nothing but Marxism. This meeting led to Otto and his supporters leaving the Nazi party, leaving Hitler almost unchallenged.[23]


However there was still the issue of Rohm and the SA, which grew to such proportions that it almost uncontrollable. Hitler found himself having to choose between the party and the ‘big battalions’. Rohm was openly stating that the Nazi revolution was only starting and demanded an ‘SA State’. Hitler made a speech where he said ‘The revolution is not a permanent condition, it must not turn a lasting situation.’ This was a complete change of mindset from the days of opposition[24]. It was only after the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ where Rohm and all others sympathetic to Stasserism were purged.

The Spanish Civil War Case Study –


As stated previously, the Spanish Civil War was a representation of all of the problems of Europe occurring in one country. The internal situation was not over a specific issue, but everything from radical politics, economics, class and religion. Also the Civil War itself had many ‘wheels within wheels’ as there were factors battling each other as well as the perceived ‘enemy’.


Just as the continent of Europe economically imploded and society became impoverished and radicalized, so did Spain. The anger became so intense; the idea of revolution was in the air and eventually broke out into civil war. But it was not a civil conflict in a conventional sense, such as the US Civil War. There were many factions and sub-factions, which were at play. The main groups of discontent were between the Republicans who were loyal to the Spanish Republic and the Nationalists led by General Francisco Franco. The groups that made up the Republicans were supported by the peasants and middle class[25]. The Nationalists were from a wealthier, more conservative background, which was mainly represented by the Catholic clergy, fascists and monarchists[26].


There were also the internationalist movements also influencing events, from the Marxists and International Brigades. The Brigades consisted of many different factions such as the Basques, capitalist liberal democrats, to revolutionary Anarchists[27]. Even the splitting of factions occurred as the Liberals were split, with one halve supporting the Monarchists, and the other moving to support the Republicans. Also the Communist and Socialists spit as the Socialists supported by peasants and Communists were supported by the Middle-Class[28].


The fact there were some many different elements present during the conflict, it can be seen that the Civil War was really ‘dry run’ for the Second World War as there was an international element present, such as Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany openly helping the Nationalists and ‘volunteer groups’ from around the world which were supporting the Republic[29].




The fact that arguably every single facet, which make a society function, was polarized and overlapped each other in nearly every single country on the continent, shows that a latent civil war was occurring. Granted, it was not always to the same degree and the main problems were relative to each individual State, but such division showed that peace wasn’t present and was only a matter of time until the latent civil war transformed into actual hot regional war, and finally into another world war.




Bosworth, R (2010) Mussolini, Bloomsbury Academic, United States


Fischer, C (2011) Europe between Democracy and Dictatorship 1900-1945,


Fourth Congress of the Communist International (1922) The Versillies Peace Treaty


Hitler, A (1942) My New Order, Angus and Robertson Ltd, United Kingdom


Kershaw, I (2008) Hitler, Penguin Group, United States


Keynes, J (1920) The Economic Consequences of the Peace, Modern History Sourcebook,


Kitchen, M (2006) Europe between the Wars, Pearson Education Ltd, United Kingdom


Kuznick, P (2012) Untold History of the United States, Random House, United States


Merriman, J (2010) A History of Modern Europe, Westchester Book Group, United States


Perry, M (2011) Sources of European History since 1900, Wadsworth Publishing


Quigley, C (1966) Tragedy and Hope, The Macmillan Company, Canada


Rees, L (2005) The Nazis: A warning form history, Random House, United States


[1] John Merriman , A History of Modern Europe, Westchester Book Group, p. 955.

[2] John Merriman , op. cit., p. 960.

[3] Fourth Congress of the Communist International, The Versillies Peace Treaty, p.2.

[4] John Merriman, A History of Modern Europe, Westchester Book Group, p.960.

[5] John Merriman , op. cit., p. 961.

[6] John Keynes, Modern History Sourcebook: John Maynard Keynes: The Economic Consequences of the Peace p. 1.

[7] Europe between Democracy and Dictatorship p.100.

[8] Carroll Quigley, Tragedy and Hope, The Macmillan Company, p.378.

[9] Carroll Quigley, op. cit., p.379.

[10] Carroll Quigley, op. cit., p.380.

[11] Ian Kershaw, Hitler, Penguin Group, p.262.

[12] Marvin Perry, Sources of European History since 1900, Wadsworth Publishing, p. 194.

[13] Laurence Rees, The Nazis: A warning from History, Random House, p. 26.

[14] Laurence Rees, op. cit., p.37.

[15] Laurence Rees, op. cit., p.25.

[16] Martin Kitchen, Europe Between the War, Pearson Education Ltd p.176.

[17] Ian Kershaw, Hitler, Penguin Group, p. 401.

[18] Ian Kershaw, op. cit., p.414.

[19] Adolf Hitler, My New Order, Angus and Roberson Ltd, .p155.

[20] Carroll Quigley, Tragedy and Hope, The Macmillan Company, p.559.

[21] Carroll Quigley, op. cit., p.550.

[22] Ian Kershaw, Hitler, Penguin Group, p.201.

[23].Ian Kershaw, op. cit., p.201.

[24] Ian Kershaw, op. cit., p.303.

[25] Martin Kitchen, Europe Between the Wars, Westchester Book Group, p.344.

[26] Martin Kitchen, op. cit., p345.

[27] Martin Kitchen, op. cit., p351.

[28] Martin Kitchen, op. cit., p.351.

[29] Martin Kitchen, op. cit., p.352.