Ask a reasonably informed Westerner about WWI, and they’ll know most of the key points: Entente and Central Powers, Sarajevo, Verdun, Somme, Brest-Litovsk and Versailles. The same is true of WWII: Great Depression, Hitler, Munich, Poland, Barbarossa, Tehran and so forth.
But ask them about the decade in between, specifically 1919-1929, and you’ll likely receive a blank stare. This is a serious problem: no less than ten years intervened between the Treaty of Versailles and the Wall Street Crash, yet most treat it as a kind of a “commercial break” between one world war and its sequel.
Those that do know anything on the 1920s usually get it wrong. They’ll likely only know about 1923, the year that included Hitler’s failed putsch, the French invasion of the Ruhr and the subsequent massive hyperinflation of the German Mark, “forerunners of the inevitable depression and war” we know eventually came.
But that falls into the “telescopic fallacy”, looking from one date to a later date while ignoring everything in between. The year after the Ruhr invasion saw the signing of the Locarno Pact, as well as the agreement by France and everyone else to evacuate the Rhineland by 1930 – three years before Hitler came to power.
It also saw the introduction of the Dawes and Young Plans which steadily reduced the reparations German actually had to pay. To paraphrase one historian on another major event: the 1920s was a house of cards being slowly cemented into place by a stronger peace.
WWI scholars have been doing yeoman’s work to get rid of old myths like the idea that “WWI was inevitable”, pointless or what have you. But in its place, we are seeing a new myth arising: the idea that WWI not only made the disasters of the 20th century possible, but that they made them inevitable.
I believe a serious look at the 1920s would change all that. It might show appeasement to be not just as a craven method to appease dictators, but rather using methods which worked so well in the 1920s failing in a different era.
It might also show a more complicated America: “isolationist” in appearance, but still very involved and making good strides towards peace such as the Dawes and Young Plans – but also making serious mistakes, such as refusing to even consider forgiving war debts, even if that would ensure knocking reparations far downward.
We might also see a more complex Germany – one which had revisionist and nationalist powers, but also great statesmen like Gustav Stresseman who helped maintain the peace and show that war grievances could be solved through negotiation rather than violence.
Scholars like Michael Neiberg have done so much to get the generation of 1914 out of the “idiot box”. It’s past time we do the same for the people of the 1920s.