By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Describe the expansion of liberty and civil rights in Western Europe and the United States during the interwar period
- Analyze the development of democracies in Asia during the interwar period and the challenges they faced
- Explain the rise of militarism in Japan in the 1920s and 1930s
- Describe the growth of popular culture in the 1920s and 1930s
War is often a catalyst for societal change, and this was certainly true of World War I. Women had long fought for increased political rights, and the next decade saw the franchise for women expand in several countries. Women also adopted freer styles of dress and defied traditional gender roles by working outside the home and dancing and drinking in public. Likewise, the status of African Americans in the United States drew more attention as civil rights leaders emphasized the contributions of African American veterans to showcase the need for fair treatment, and writers and musicians used their work to give voice to the Black experience and to honor their heritage. Many countries embarked on efforts to incorporate more democratic principles. It was not an easy process, and many nations continued to face significant challenges in achieving their goals. The 1920s and 1930s also witnessed the growth of new forms of popular culture—the radio and movies—that appealed to the masses.
The Expansion of Democracy
When the war ended, the suffrage movement had been going on for several decades in the United States and Britain. Those who protested in support of women’s right to vote, called a suffragist, had sometimes taken radical action to highlight their cause, such as Emily Davison who threw herself in front of the King of England’s horse at a derby in 1913 and was killed. Suffragist leaders in both countries were often arrested, and many went on hunger strikes while in jail, enduring forced feedings to draw more attention to the cause.
Women’s support of the war and their physical work in war industries and the medical corps led politicians to look more favorably on the idea of women voting. Women won the right to vote in the United States in 1920, though it was couched as a reward for their war service. Britain adopted a phase-in approach. First, women over thirty who met a property qualification were given the right to vote in 1918. Then in 1928, the vote was extended to women twenty-one and older. The property qualifications for men were abolished in 1918, and all men twenty-one and older were allowed to vote. For those in the military, the age limit was lowered to nineteen.
Other countries joined the trend. German women won the right to vote in 1918. The new country of Poland extended the vote to women immediately. Other countries still imposed limitations, such as property qualifications or the need to be a war widow in order to vote. France and Italy lagged behind; women could not vote in either country until 1945. In Japan, female activist groups argued for a role in politics throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Japanese law changed to allow women to attend political rallies, but women did not receive the right to vote until after World War II. Rising feminism in China linked to the May Fourth Movement helped women obtain individual property rights under the law.
Individual female voices were also heard. Huda Sha’arawi founded the Egyptian Feminist Union in 1923 and stopped wearing her veil and headscarf. She had already been engaged in providing education for girls and was active in the Egyptian independence movement. She became vice president of the International Women’s Union in the 1930s. Zaynab al-Ghazali founded the Muslim Women’s Society in Europe in 1936. Al-Ghazali contended that women could play a role in politics outside the home while still being adherents to Islam.
As an activist in her native Egypt, Huda Sha’arawi advocated women’s rights for decades. This link takes you to the text of her brief opening and closing speeches at Egypt’s First Arab Feminist Conference that met in 1944. As you read, look for the many rationales she offers for the legitimacy of women’s rights.
Several minority groups in the United States hoped military service would gain them wider acceptance and rights. More than eleven thousand Native Americans served in the military during the war, and many hoped this volunteer service would provide them U.S. citizenship. Native Americans were in fact granted citizenship in 1924. Another group hoping for change were African Americans. Long subject to discriminatory laws and racial segregation, African Americans felt World War I offered them an opportunity to prove themselves loyal citizens. The United States operated a segregated military, and all-Black service member units serving overseas had a unique chance to see how other places treated them. Those in France, in particular, were struck by the freedom of movement and acceptance they found there. They were allowed in combat, while U.S. units kept them largely in support roles. There was genuine optimism that life in the United States would be different after the war.
However, after 1918, many found that little had changed. Discriminatory laws remained in place, and poor treatment even of veterans was commonplace. What was new was the prospect of mobility. In 1917, the lure of good-paying industrial jobs producing items for the war began drawing African American workers and families north. This movement continued after the war as factories began to pump out consumer products. By 1920, more than a million African Americans had left the south in a Great Migration, which continued through the next decades as well.
Marcus Garvey on Race in the United States
Marcus Garvey was a Jamaican-born activist who spoke and wrote about Pan-Africanism and the need to address racial issues worldwide. This is an excerpt from his 1923 speech, “A Last Word Before Incarceration.” As you read, notice his characterization of African Americans.
Those of you who have been observing events for the last four or five weeks with keen eyes and keen perceptions will come to no other conclusion than this—that through the effort to strangle the Universal Negro Improvement Association—through the effort to silence Marcus Garvey—there is a mad desire, there is a great plan to permanently lay the Negro low in this civilization and in future civilizations. But the world is sadly mistaken. No longer can the Negro be laid low; in laying the Negro low you but bring down the pillars of creation, because 400,000,000 Negroes are determined to [be] a man, to take a place in the world and to hold that place. The world is sadly mistaken and rudely shocked at the same time. They thought that the new Negro would bend; they thought that the new Negro was only bluffing and would exhibit the characteristic of the old Negro when pushed to the corner or pushed to the wall. If you want to see the new Negro fight, force him to the wall, and the nearer he approaches the wall the more he fights, and when he gets to the wall he is even more desperate.
—Marcus Garvey, “A Last Word Before Incarceration”
- According to Garvey, how have African Americans changed?
- In what ways are African Americans not what Whites in the United States expect them to be?
Racism was not absent in the North. The summer of 1919 was marked by race riots in many cities, and in the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan, a White supremacist group formed after the Civil War, spread throughout the nation. Nevertheless, northern racism seemed mild compared to what African Americans’ southern experience had been, and greater opportunities for jobs and education continued to draw people to the cities of the North and Midwest. New livelihoods and membership in civil rights groups such as the NAACP drew many into the New Negro movement in the 1920s. This drive “promoted a renewed sense of racial pride, cultural self-expression, economic independence, and progressive politics.” One of the movement’s first tasks was to agitate for a federal anti-lynching law. Lynching had become a vigilante crime whose targets were overwhelmingly African American. Anti-lynching activists knew that White men who murdered African Americans would not be punished by southern state courts. By making lynching a crime that would be tried in a federal court, however, they hoped to achieve greater justice. An anti-lynching bill came up for a vote in Congress in 1922 but was rejected, and again in 1935. White southern politicians resisted any federal intrusion, even in humanitarian causes.
Racial pride also influenced the artists of the Harlem Renaissance, an outpouring of African American literature, art, and music named for a neighborhood in New York City in which many African American participants in the Great Migration settled. The Harlem Renaissance, which was in full bloom in the 1920s, brought into the mainstream the work of many African American writers, such as poet Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, who wrote about the racial struggles of twentieth-century African Americans in her novels, short stories, and plays. The music of African American communities in Harlem and elsewhere featured the distinctive blues and jazz styles, which both became international genres and provided the soundtrack for the dynamic changes of the decade following World War I.
This short video about the origins of jazz music was made by the Museum of American History and features both words and music.
The Harlem Renaissance, especially the works of Jamaican-born Claude McKay, in turn inspired the Négritude movement, a literary movement that emerged in French-speaking parts of Africa and the Americas. The movement was founded by Léopold Sédar Senghor, a Senegalese poet and university professor. Négritude, a term coined by Aimé Césaire, a poet and playwright from the Caribbean island of Martinique (at that time a French colony), called upon Blacks to reject European culture and values in favor of African ones.
The dismantling of empires at the end of the war was clearly a boon for democracy, but it was not always easy for fledgling countries to adopt new political systems. The tense situation in Ireland of the 1920s was just one example.
In 1922, the Irish Free State was created through the Anglo-Irish Treaty. This 1921 pact ended the Irish War of Independence that had begun in 1918 when the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Irish Nationalist Party fought British rule. Groups such as Sinn Féin (“We Ourselves”), organized in 1905 to fight for an independent Ireland, were often associated with the IRA and sometimes adopted more violent measures than the more moderate Irish Nationalist Party. They had the same goal but very different methods.
The Anglo-Irish Treaty initiated a vote on the future of Ireland. The six northern counties, largely Protestant, voted to remain part of the United Kingdom, but the other twenty-six formed the Irish Free State and received dominion status in the British Empire. As a dominion, the Irish Free State could make and enforce its own laws, make treaties, appoint ambassadors, and send its own representatives to international organizations. A sizable number of Catholics remained in the northern counties, however, which ultimately led to long-term violence. And while the new arrangement was a significant improvement over the past, it did not fully satisfy many Irish republicans, who wanted complete independence for Ireland. Sinn Féin itself was split; some members wanted greater sovereignty for Ireland and for the entire island to be rid of the British presence. A brief civil war broke out between the IRA and the Free State, but the Free State emerged victorious. In 1937, it was reorganized under a new government headed by Éamon de Valera, an anti-treaty leader, and took the name “Ireland.”
Japan also took steps toward becoming more democratic for a brief period after World War I. In 1912, a new emperor, Taisho, had ushered in a period of liberalism with democratic and progressive politics. For example, labor strikes, such as the rice riots in 1918 in which tens of thousands of people protested the government’s failure to pay market prices for rice, became increasingly common as workers fought for better wages and working conditions. Women became active in labor unions and politics for the first time, and the number of unions more than tripled in the 1910s. During this period, Japan was viewed as a triumph of constitutional government.
However, the progressive period did not last long. In 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake, measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, destroyed two major cities, Yokohama and Tokyo. Nearly 150,000 people died in the earthquake and the resulting fires and tsunamis (Figure 12.18). Rumors quickly spread that Koreans in the area were taking advantage of the chaos, were plotting political insurrection, and had already poisoned wells to contaminate the drinking water. Several thousand Koreans were targeted and killed in response. The devastation also provided an opportunity for the conservative and pro-military forces in the Japanese government to exercise increased control over society. Martial law was declared, and the repression of radicals was stepped up. Political activists who questioned government policies disappeared.
When the emperor died in 1926, his son Hirohito ascended to power, and the Shöwa period began. Japan’s political system now became increasingly dominated by the military, and the emperor’s role was shrouded in secrecy and worship. The country’s military leaders believed more aggressive actions were needed for Japan to control the Pacific as they wanted to.
Operating with a heightened sense of duty and honor, Japan’s military establishment and certain factions of its army became increasingly contemptuous of civilian leaders. By the late 1920s, they saw these politicians as incapable of solving domestic issues or addressing challenges from China and the Soviet Union. Some disaffected Japanese field commanders in China and the Japanese colony of Korea began to engage in direct actions, forming criminal conspiracies and cover-ups to secure the future of Japan as they saw it, even as they served the emperor.
Nationalistic secret societies such as the Cherry Blossom Association and the Blood-Pledge Corps blossomed within the Japanese armed forces, particularly in the prestigious Kwantung Army stationed in Korea. The Japanese chafed at perceived unequal treatment in world affairs, such as at the Washington Naval Conference. Anxiety rose about the growth of Chinese nationalism under Chiang Kai-shek and the nationalist Guomindang government, and what it might mean for Japanese interests in China.
Manchuria, which bordered Korea, was a semiautonomous province of China. In 1931, to precipitate a political crisis that would enable Japan to intervene, hyper-patriots in the Japanese army conspired to blow up a portion of the South Manchurian Railway near the Manchurian city of Mukden (Shenyang) and blamed the incident on Chinese nationalists. The local Japanese commander took the opportunity to occupy Mukden, and field commanders in Korea dispatched reinforcements without any orders from Tokyo to do so. Japanese public opinion supported the army’s action.
As the Japanese army fanned out in Manchuria, the Kwantung Army approached the former Chinese Emperor, Pu Yi, who had been living in the Japanese concession (an area of the city granted to Japan) in Tianjin since 1925 (Figure 12.19). The Japanese convinced Pu Yi they had acted in the interests of the Manchurian people to preserve law and order in his homeland. They then smuggled him back to Manchuria, and by March 1932, he had been persuaded to accept the position of “chief executive” of the newly born state of Manchukuo, otherwise known as Manchuria. As the Chinese government called for the League of Nations to intervene and pledged to accept its rulings, a British diplomat in Japan warned of “an atmosphere of gun-grease” in Japan.
In the fall of 1931, the League established the Lytton Commission to look into the situation. In January 1932, U.S. secretary of state Henry Stimson announced the Stimson Doctrine, which refused to recognize Manchukuo as an independent state.
Chinese public opinion was aroused, and in January 1932, clashes erupted between Japanese marines and Chinese troops in the outskirts of Shanghai. In Manchuria, the Lytton Commission found that the Guomindang government of China “was no longer exercising any political or administrative ‘authority in any part of Manchuria.’” Japan formally recognized the establishment of Manchukuo, its client state (a subordinate and dependent area), as a theoretically free, completely sovereign, and independent nation (Figure 12.20). The Lytton Report, published in October 1932, found fault on both sides but did not recommend full autonomy for Manchukuo. Japan responded by withdrawing from the League in March 1933. Japan ran the government in Manchukuo as a puppet state, controlling the native Chinese officials. Pu Yi continued as “head” of the government there until the end of the war, after which China took back control.
The Japanese secret societies within the military were animated by an exaggerated sense of Japan’s destiny. They began a campaign of violence against the Japanese civilian government. Elements of the Imperial Navy launched a coup in March 1932 by executing Japan’s former finance minister, Junnosuke Inoue, and Baron Dan, the head of Mitsui Corporation, as traitors to the Japanese people. On May 15, Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi was shot to death by eleven young naval officers. Between 1930 and 1935, the Japanese witnessed twenty terrorist incidents, the assassination of four political leaders, the attempted murders of five others, and four coup attempts.
In the first half of the twentieth century, the dominant political party in Japan was a fusion of Meiji oligarchs, government bureaucrats, and recruits from other political parties. The Seiyukai, as it was named, consistently supported a march toward authoritarian government. Beginning in 1932, “national unity” governments dominated by high-ranking military officers increasingly assumed power and repressed threats and enemies. Authoritarian government took hold from the top down in the mid-1930s, as the military intimidated and overpowered civilian governance and created a military dictatorship.
The situation in China was quite fluid through the 1920s and 1930s. Revolutionary activity grew but splintered, and the opposing views of Communists and Nationalists led to civil war. The Guomindang was led by Sun Yat-sen from 1912 until his death in 1925. Sun Yat-sen developed a more inclusive party and made an alliance with those who followed the communist path. After his death, Chiang Kai-shek arose as the leader of the Nationalists. Chiang focused on more traditional positions, and in the late 1920s, he chose to formally oust the communist members of the Guomindang.
One of the people who had joined the communist ranks was a young member from Hunan Province, Mao Zedong (Figure 12.21). Mao had had intermittent schooling but was drawn to the revolutionary fervor of the Russian Revolution of 1917. He had supported both the communist cause and the Guomindang, but after Chiang ousted the communists, Mao took up arms against him.
Mao viewed communism and Marxism in a rather unorthodox way. Generally, Marxism relied on the proletariat, the industrial workers in the factories, gaining class consciousness. However, this model did not exist in China, a land of mostly agricultural peasants and little industrialization. So Mao came to believe that a Marxist state could be built on the peasantry rather than on industrial workers. Chinese communists would seek to overthrow not the capitalists but the landlords who controlled the land. This was a powerful tonic for the mass of Chinese peasants, who hungered for land reform. Such reform would oust the landlords and return all the land to the hands of the peasants who worked on it.
The Nationalists themselves had encouraged assistance from the Soviet Union in the early 1920s, and the Soviet Union had responded with aid and training. Once Chiang became head of the Nationalists, however, he decided to break with the Communists and planned an extermination of the Communist forces. This forced many into hiding, but in 1935, Mao was able to lead them on the Long March to a safe retreat in northern China. Many flocked to Mao and his oratory about a new government in China that reflected the will of the people. In 1937, however, the Japanese Empire invaded mainland China. Chiang offered Mao a truce, setting aside the civil war in favor of fighting against the invading forces. Still, the internal battles between these two sides weakened the war effort against the Japanese.
In Southeast Asia, themes of nationalism were also growing in popularity. Following his inability to be heard at negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles, Ho Chi Minh had returned home to the northern part of French Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) and organized guerrilla fighters to begin ousting the French. Championing Vietnamese nationalism, Ho had received training from the Soviet Union and hoped communism would provide a path for his country to achieve independence.
Turkey welcomed the spread of democratic institutions in the 1920s. After the triumph of his nationalist party in the early 1920s, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established a republic with a constitution and regular elections. The Republic of Turkey disassociated itself from the old Ottoman rule by adopting many Westernized elements. Women had the right to vote, the Arabic alphabet was no longer used, and traditional dress (veils for women and the fez for men) was outlawed. European fashion became the norm. Another major shift in Turkey was its adoption of a fully secular society. The legal system was overhauled to focus on a civil code like those of other European countries rather than on Islamic law.
Latin American countries, too, had some success expanding democracy in the 1920s. In 1910, revolution broke out in Mexico. A struggle over leadership followed in which Mexico was governed by a succession of revolutionary generals without any established way for the next president to come to power. The creation of a political party was meant to fix this, and by the 1920s, the PRI (the Institutional Revolutionary Party) had been formed. Though subject to name changes through the decades, this party dominated Mexican politics until the twenty-first century. There were regular elections and an expansion of voting, reflecting at least the outward acceptance of democratic institutions. However, the PRI effectively ran a one-party state, and all presidents and nearly all the members of the legislature were members of the party. In 1938, a new president, Lázaro Cárdenas, focused on the plight of ordinary workers in Mexico. He supported labor unions, nationalized the oil industry, promoted land reform, and attempted to bring more socialist policies to Mexico.
Other countries throughout Latin America extended voting rights in the early 1900s. Chile suffered its share of chaos as reformers tried to seize political power there. Ultimately, Chile was able to build a series of coalition governments in the 1930s that brought stability for many years. By the 1920s, political instability was increasingly common in other places like Argentina. In September 1930, General José Félix Uriburu seized power in the capital, Buenos Aires. Uriburu had been heavily influenced by the Italian version of fascism. He banned political parties and suspended the constitution. His was the first of several military coups that occurred in Argentina in the ensuing decades.
A New Culture for the Masses
Alongside the expansion of democracy, the 1920s also shepherded in a new world of mass culture and mass media. Technological innovations let people connect nearly instantaneously and have shared experiences without being in the same place. Where the infrastructure existed, it was radio and the movies that made this possible.
Radio wave technology had been pioneered in the late 1800s, but its widespread use and cultural influence were still decades off. By the 1920s, radio’s value as a news medium was becoming clear, but its true influence came from commercial radio shows, supported through another new medium called advertising that filled the airwaves in the mid-1920s. From that point through the interwar years, people could gather to hear the latest episodes of entertaining soap operas, mystery shows, and westerns, along with news items and live reporting of sports events.
Silent films had ruled movie theaters in the 1900s and 1910s, but beginning in the late 1920s, “talking pictures” emerged and quickly became the dominant form of motion pictures. Mass media technologies meant people could watch the same movies, follow the same soap operas, and cheer for the same teams despite being hundreds or thousands of miles apart. These experiences created a mass culture for the first time, uniting people whose lives had once been dominated by regional and local concerns.
The film industries in many countries developed somewhat differently in the 1930s. In the United States, the industry was centered in Hollywood, a district in Los Angeles, California. The bosses of movie studios wanted to make films that were popular with audiences and relatively cheap to produce. In other countries, the film industries were similarly popular, but many were also supportive of artistic experimentation in film. The German film industry took a modernist approach, seen in the silent 1920 horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, for example, and many of its films critiqued politics and society in the postwar era. In Japan, the film industry went through a period of reform in the 1920s as producers and directors began adopting different filmmaking techniques instead of simply recording a theatrical production. Some films took leftist positions that reflected the growth of unions in Japanese society, but other genres such as those featuring samurai characters also became popular and well known.
People were also embracing new ways of living in the 1920s. Women, in particular, were ready to fulfill their updated expectations for themselves. The “New Woman” of this era abandoned the traditions of the past to enter an exciting future. Women in many countries were also adopting new plans for their lives, such as pursuing higher education, although a college degree was still quite rare among women. There were also many new jobs in the workplace that women were eager to hold. In Europe and the United States, secretarial work was becoming dominated by women rather than the men who had held such jobs in the 1800s. Nursing also became an important career option for women.
The New Woman was a significant departure from the nineteenth-century Western woman, who wore her long hair piled high on her head and dressed in high-necked blouses and ankle-length skirts. Young women in the 1920s wore knee-length skirts, discarded corsets, and cut their hair short. They went out in the evenings to drink and dance and socialize. A woman who adopted these behaviors became known as a flapper in the United States, due to the way these women danced with arms flapping from their sides (Figure 12.22).
The spread of this modern image of a woman demonstrated the influence the West and especially the United States already had on popular culture. The New Woman appeared around the world on signs, in books, in song lyrics, and throughout the burgeoning movie industry. Advertisers, in particular, were quick to adopt her image, making it one to which female consumers could aspire. Each country had its own version—the moga (modern girl) in Japan, the garçonne (tomboy or flapper) in France.
The New Woman in China
Flip through the pages of the Chinese women’s magazine Ling long, a weekly publication that was highly popular in the 1930s. Look for examples of Western influence on Chinese culture. (Be sure to click the arrows on the left to move forward through the pages, in keeping with the way Chinese books were formatted in this period.) The site includes a feature that will read the content aloud in Mandarin.
- What are some examples from the magazine of Western influence on Chinese culture?
- Does anything strike you as unusual in the collection of images in this magazine? How would you characterize the images as a whole?