A period of significant change followed World War I. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles fully blamed Germany for the war and sought to punish it by assessing reparations of more than $33 billion and physically shrinking the country. New countries emerged through the redrawing of Europe’s maps. Massive physical rebuilding was necessary in former combat areas in Europe, while the United States emerged as a major player in world politics and a creditor nation on the brink of prosperity. The economic repercussions of the treaty proved devastating in Germany, where economic instability and mistrust of the new government opened the door for the rise of the Nazi Party. In Asia, Japan was growing in both political and military power, positioning itself as a force throughout the Pacific. Yet in the 1920s and 1930s, hope still prevailed that no such conflict would ever occur again, underscored by international efforts to both prevent war and intervene in aggression before it rose to the status of war.
The Bolsheviks’ effort to wrest control of Russia did not go unchallenged, as evidenced by the civil war that unfolded after World War I. Though ultimately successful in consolidating power, throughout the 1920s the Bolsheviks continued to disagree among themselves about the proper application of communist principles. The power vacuum left after Vladimir Lenin’s death allowed Joseph Stalin to emerge as the leader of the new Soviet Union. Stalin’s Five-Year Plans brought not only more centralized economic control but a more authoritarian government that compelled obedience, no matter the resistance or the impact, including death and famine. Life in the Soviet Union became more structured and rigid as the government asserted control over all aspects of civilian life. Anyone even remotely suspected of disloyalty faced imprisonment or death.
The Great Depression of the 1930s was an economic downturn unparalleled in modern history. The interconnectedness of the world’s economies became clear as countries around the globe suffered the effects. While no single event caused the Great Depression, few people were left unscathed. Nations tried innovative ways to provide for their people, enacting work-relief programs, food programs, and new economic policies to bring their economies back under control. While many programs helped mitigate the pain of the Depression, none fully solved it, and some people embraced new political parties that offered different solutions. In the case of Italy and Germany, these new parties and politicians exploited the decade’s economic instability for their own ends in a grab for greater power.
The Treaty of Versailles created new countries and new governments and encouraged many groups’ desire for independence. However, independence did not come without struggle. European powers hoped to retain their hold over resource-rich regions around the world through the colonial or mandate system. Still, many Jewish people celebrated the promise of a Jewish homeland, while rising nationalism in Africa began to reshape the politics and geography of that continent. The struggle for independence in India took both violent and nonviolent forms as leaders chafed against British rule.
The years following World War I left many democratic yearnings unfulfilled around the globe. African Americans in the United States were able to seize new job opportunities and greater mobility, but they still faced marked racism and limitations. Efforts toward self-rule in Ireland made substantial progress but were also tainted by violence. The promise of greater democracy in China was subsumed by civil war. In Latin America, the hope of greater equality among social classes was frustrated by political instability and the first appearance of more authoritarian leaders. Many aspects of Western society wound their way around the globe via the new technologies of mass media. Peoples around the world clearly wanted change, but implementing it sometimes proved exceedingly difficult.