The Great Depression

The label “The Great Depression” applies largely to world-wide economic conditions after the Great War. France and Russia were badly damaged by the war (and both Russia and the Ottoman Empire continued to experience wartime conditions for several years after the Armistice). Germany was economically devastated and was further stifled by required reparation payments to France and Great Britain. Inflation in Germany was so bad after the way that Germany money was—literally—less valuable than the paper on which it was printed. The British Empire also required time to recover from the cost of the war in lives, dire medical conditions, industries that had been converted to wartime production, and disrupted transportation of raw materials and goods around the world.

The United States’ economy was booming from the economic benefits of a world war. Food, cotton, and many other products had been very profitable during the war and immediately after. But in the 1920s, customers did not always exist for American productivity; food and cotton and manufactured supplies began to pile up in warehouses. The problem worsened as European economies recovered from the war. Surpluses grew, prices fell, and jobs began to be cut. Powerful flooding further aggravated agricultural concerns in 1927. The historic Stock Market Crash of October 1929 was merely the final dramatic symptom of a Depression that had already begun. The banks that collapsed due to the stock market crash were already teetering on the edge of failure. In many parts of the country, the stock market crash was not even front-page news.

But economic depression was not the only kind of depression that the world faced in the 1920s. The Great War undercut everything that Europeans and North Americans had been saying about science and technology since the Enlightenment. Victorian optimism about an improving world was crushed by the War. Supposedly the most civilized and educated leaders had caused the war and had failed to stop it once it started. Science and technology had been used to cause and increase suffering. Optimism about solutions to all the world’s problems had been misplaced. Survivors of the Great War lacked the hope and encouragement that their parents and grandparents had invested in the future.

Some elements of this depression began during the Victorian Age. Cameras made naturalistic painting unnecessary, so painters began to experiment in abstract art, such as impressionism.  After the war, further adventures in art were explored, such as expressionism and cubism. All of these reflected, to a degree, rejection of the schools of art that had dominated European culture since the Renaissance. Likewise, in music, the change began during the Victorian Age. Especially in France, which lost a brief war to Germany in 1870, rejection of German music led to a new style of music which was also called impressionism. After the war, more jarring forms of music emerged, discordant and irregular in rhythm. Pessimism and absurdism began to emerge in literature and theater after the war. Writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald described the darker side of life, while other writers went to greater extremes to reflect their depression, turning away from the confident optimism that prevailed from the Enlightenment through the Victorian Age.

Science contributed to the depression. For several generations, it had seemed that science had achieved all its major discoveries; it appeared that science would now simply define its procedures, making knowledge more complete and more reliable with each new generation. Einstein’s theories of relativity changed all that. Suddenly it was seen that Euclid’s geometry and Newton’s physics only apply to the world we move through in our common experience. The rules are not the same at the very large or at the very small. Subatomic particles follow rules that seem to defy everything we thought we know about the real world. In biology, the prevailing theory of evolution presented men and women as nothing more than animals which were a little more successful than other kinds of animals. Now Sigmund Freud added to the recipe for darkness, arguing that strange and mysterious things are happening in our minds beyond the thoughts of which we were already aware.

In all this doubt and uncertainty—but especially in the turmoil of the economic Depression—large numbers of people put their trust in the power and authority of politicians and government to provide answers. Out of this misplaced trust came totalitarian governments—political powers that exercised control over vast portions of citizens’ lives. Modern technology made this kind of control more possible than ever before. Governments began by controlling communication—newspapers, magazines, books, radio broadcasts, and other way people shared thoughts and ideas. The same governments also controlled education. Stalin and the Communist Party gained that kind of power in the Soviet Union, followed by Mussolini and the Fascist Party in Italy, and Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany. In each of these countries, competing political parties were outlawed. Disagreeing with the government was not allowed. A person who spoke a contrary idea might be jailed as a criminal, or might be hospitalized as mentally ill (only released when that person was “cured” and agreed with the government), or might simply disappear. The government announced its economic successes, and no one was in a position to contradict those announcements. Even after the Second World War, an entire generations of historians continued to report that under the Fascists the trains ran on time. Finally, researchers took the trouble to fact-check that claim and to prove it false.

People from the United States visited the Soviet Union. They saw the new factories, they read the government reports, and they met no one who dared to seem unhappy with the new system. Therefore, they returned to the United States saying, “I have seen the future, and it works!” A Communist Party grew in the United States during the Depression, while other citizens advocated other forms of socialism. The Republicans in power seemed unable to help American citizens, especially when a devastating drought struck the central farmlands of the country in 1930 and 1931. Despairing voters turned to Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Party, hoping that the promises of a New Deal could be kept.

Roosevelt and the Democrats believed that some problems are so big that only the government is big enough to solve them. New Deal programs included several government ages that hired workers—building schools and parks and armories, paving roads, digging ditches, and contributing in other ways to the infrastructure. Artists were hired to paint murals in government buildings, especially post offices. Writers were hired to interview the last surviving former slaves, to record the memories of pioneers, and to pen travelogues of the various states. Women were gathered to sew and to learn how to can fruits and vegetables. Meanwhile, Social Security was created—collecting a tax from workers and their employers to pay other people (mainly the disabled and the elderly) not to work. Farmers were paid not to plant crops. Lands seized for tax default were offered to homeless farm families under generous programs that helped them to reestablish themselves on the land.

Historians debate whether the New Deal ended the Depression or prolonged it. Since the Second World War ended the economic struggle of the Depression (as well as some New Deal programs), a clear conclusion about the value of the New Deal cannot be found. But Roosevelt and the New Deal Democrats did not seek or establish a totalitarian state. They did not outlaw the Republican Party, or even the Communist Party. Instead, Roosevelt spoke in favor of four freedoms: “Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.” Even while expanding government’s presence and power in the lives of its people, the New Deal continued to focus on freedom for American citizens. J.

Aftermath of the Great War

The Great War devastated the countries involved, both winners and losers. Nearly ten million soldiers were killed and another twenty million were wounded, not counting civilian deaths due to the war of another 7, 700,000. Battlefields became ugly scars on the land, and the emotional reaction to the war was equally scarred. Nearly the only reason for optimism after the war was the hope that it would be the last war of history, the war that ended all wars.

Because they called for an armistice before enemy soldiers had crossed the borders of their land, Germany and Austria (along with their allies Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire) expected to approach the negotiating tables as equal partners with the Allied nations. Instead, Britain and France were determined to make their wartime enemies suffer, to make them pay the cost of the war. Meetings were scheduled in five suburbs of Paris, France: German representatives were sent to Versailles, Austrian to Saint Germain, Hungarian (being separated from Austria) to Trianon, Bulgarian to Neuilly, and Ottoman to Sevres. All these nations lost territory. All were required to reduce the size of their military strength. Germany and Austria in particular were required to pay penalties—reparations—to Britain and France. These large financial payments not only crushed the economies of Germany and Austria in the short term; they also hindered their ability to rebuild after the war for the long-term benefit of their citizens.

What could the representatives of these governments do? They were unable to return to the battlefield and continue the fight. Given no option, they signed the agreements they were handed and returned home. In the following months, the Ottoman Empire ended in civil war, producing the modern country called Turkey. Many of their west Asian possessions were put under the control of Britain and France. Meanwhile, leaders from the United States were equally disappointed by the injustice of the treaties written by Britain and France. The only American goal that was accepted in Europe was the concept of the League of Nations, an institution where nations could bring international problems for reconciliation without warfare. Britain and France and Italy all joined. Germany and Austria and the Soviet Union eventually joined. Most of the other countries in the world joined the League. But the United States Senate refused to ratify the treaty that would have included the United States in the League of Nations. Partly, the Senators’ refusal stemmed from disapproval of the negotiations. Largely, they resulted from “Isolationism,” determination not to become entangled in the problems of other nations. Ironically, the one American proposal that was accepted in Paris and put into practice by much of the world was refused and renounced by the government of the United States

Another aftermath of the Great War was an influenza pandemic. A new variety of the flu virus arose in the central agricultural section of the United States, probably in Nebraska or Kansas. Conscripted soldiers carried the virus into training camps, from which it spread to American cities. Then the soldiers brought the disease to the European battlefields, from which the new form of flu traveled to all the countries of the world. The disease, which became known as the Spanish Flu, killed more people than the war killed. It remains the most serious and deadly spread of disease in modern times.

The Great War also contributed to the Russian Revolution which produced the Soviet Union. Russian government had reformed after a revolution in 1905, but the war destabilized the Russian economy and politics, enabling a second revolution. Karl Marx had predicted that workers would rise against industrialization and capitalism, beginning where those phenomena had first appeared. Instead, the first Marxist government was formed in Russia. Lenin first called his party the Bolsheviks, which means majority (although they did not include, by far, a majority of the Russian people). They later changed their name to the Communist Party. They offered, not Communism, but Socialism, with a Marxist dream that sometime in the future the government would disappear and true Communism would emerge. The Revolution was not over in Russia when the Great War ended; fighting extended in some parts of Russia into 1923. By that time, even Lenin was willing to reconsider some of the socialist grabs of economic power and to allow some private ownership of property. But after Lenin died, Joseph Stalin emerged as a stronger and bolder leader. He placed the Soviet Union on a track of centralized government control, one of several totalitarian states established in Europe due to the aftermath of the Great War.

In general, the Great War led to an economic decline that was difficult to reverse. The pain was not felt at first in the United States, which benefited greatly from wartime sales of material even before American formally entered the war. A decade later, the United States also fell into Depression, a consequence of overproduction of materials for a world that was unable to buy what America had to sell. But the Great Depression was more than an economic upheaval. Depression of various kinds struck human society through the catastrophic destruction of the Great War. J.

The Great War

The Great War was not great in the sense that it was good. It might better be called the Great Big War. It was a world war, involving not just European governments but people from Africa, Asia, and the Americas as well. Battles were fought in places colonized by the Europeans, and millions of Africans and Asians were brought from the colonies to support troops in Europe. But the Roman numeral was not assigned to the first World War until it had been over for a time—not until the second World War was clearly about to begin.

Everyone knows that the spark that ignited the Great War was the assassination of an Austrian archduke visiting Sarajevo. The fuel for the explosion, though, had been gathering over time. That fuel included the balance of power in Europe, the ideology of Nationalism, and the increase of technology that contributed to the war effort.

A century before the Great War, the wars of Napoleon were concluded and settled by the Congress of Vienna. Diplomats at that Congress recognized that power must be balanced among nations, with no single nation allowed to overwhelm the others. Five great powers were recognized: Great Britain, France, Prussia, Austria, and Russia. Over the next hundred years, these five powers coexisted in creative tension. They dealt with the rest of the world from a position of power—sometimes claiming land for their own colonies, and sometimes working with existing governments in the western hemisphere and in eastern Asia. Prussia consolidated pieces of the defunct Holy Roman Empire because of Nationalism—because they had a common German language, culture, and history. Bavaria wavered between joining Prussia and Austria, finally selecting the former; Bohemia, part of the Austrian Empire, hoped for independence but was denied its dream until after the Great War.

Austria and Russia had both been gaining land and population at the expense of the declining Ottoman Empire. Nationalism inspired eastern Europeans to prefer independence over a transfer from one empire to another, and Russia urged people in Austrian-held lands to keep the flame of nationalism burning, to take pride in their Slavic heritage. Nationalism united the several small portions of Italy under one government, leaving the Pope only a few acres within the city of Rome (Vatican City, still an independent country today). The consolidation of Germany was completed through three swift border wars with Austria, Denmark, and France, all of which Germany won. The German government, led by Otto von Bismarck, declared itself satisfied and rededicated itself to maintaining a balance of power. Representatives of European governments even met in Berlin to divide Africa among themselves, preventing conflict between the European nations, but failing to ask the opinions of any Africans.

European governments used the latest military technology to maintain control in their colonies. Machine guns were particularly effective at ending native uprisings. To maintain the British Empire (upon which the sun never set), Great Britain strengthened its navy, building larger and more powerful battleships. Germany competed with Britain, building its own battleships and also a fleet of submarines. Other inventions that would complicate the Great War included barbed wire, poison gases, armored vehicles, and aircraft. Aircraft would be used more for observation of enemy positions than for offensive capabilities, but the dogfights between pilots of different nations became part of the legend of the Great War.

Germany and Austria signed a pact agreeing that, if any nation attacked one of them, both would respond. France and Russia then adopted a similar agreement, fearing the united power of the two German-speaking nations. Italy, fearful of French power, joined the agreement with Germany and Austria, making a Tripartite Pact. Great Britain long remained aloof from these agreements, having no need to rely on other countries for its defense. Eventually, though, Britain entered an agreement with France and Russia.

Then came the assassination. Germany was eager to go to war. The German government had a plan, the Schlieffen Plan, under which they would sweep through the Netherlands and Belgium, entering France by the back door and quickly knocking it out of the war. The Austrian government was not so eager to start a war, but under German pressure they made demands upon the Serbians that could not be met. To support the Serbians, the Russians mobilized their army at the Austrian border. This allowed Germany to mobilize its forces, which then prompted France to do the same. Throughout July, European forces wavered on the brink of war—a war that both sides believed they would quickly win. Finally, at the beginning of August, the Germans took the first step to commit themselves to war. The Schlieffen Plan brought German troops into France, but the Germans did not advance as far as they hoped before French resistance brought them to a halt. Machine guns and barbed war inhibited the charges across a battlefield that were customary in war. Any such charge was disastrous, even suicidal—which did not prevent such charges from being attempted by both sides. Instead of a war rapidly fought and over by Christmas, as both sides expected, the conflict turned into trench warfare that stretched beyond Christmas 1914… and Christmas 1915… and Christmas 1916… and Christmas 1917….

Because Germany began the war, Italy did not feel compelled to join the fighting on the German side. The Tripartite Pact referred only to an attack upon one of the members; it did not require participation if one of the partners began the war. Italy held out for the best offer, and the side of the French and British and Russians made the better offer. They promised Italy new territory in eastern Europe, to be taken from the Austrian Empire, when the war was won. (That promise was not kept after the war.) Meanwhile, Germany and Austria made better progress in the east against Russia than they made against France and Britain. They found, however, that winning battles against the Russian army is not the same as defeating Russia—a lesson already learned by Charles XII of Sweden and by Napoleon. The best move made against the Russians occurred when the Germans located am exiled Russian revolutionary who called himself Vladimir Lenin in Switzerland. They put him on a train that carried him back into Russia. Organizing the soviets (groups of workers comparable to labor unions in the west), Lenin triggered a revolution that overthrew the Czar’s government. His new government pulled Russia out of the war, although Lenin’s government had to surrender control of much territory that the Czars’ armies had captured for Russia over many years.

When the Great War began in 1914, most citizens of the United States were determined to remain uninvolved. A generation earlier, the United States had tasted all-out warfare, and Americans had no interest in committing to a foreign war. True, the United States had (like Bismarck’s Germany) fought a brief and relatively painless war to gain territory: they had battled Spain in 1898, freeing the island of Cuba and gaining Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Hawaii, and other Pacific islands. But the United States was more concerned about a civil war in Mexico. They sent troops to guard the southern border and had no inclination to go farther from home than Mexico. President Wilson even won reelection in 1916 with the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” Shortly after his inauguration, however, Wilson changed policies, and the United States entered the Great War.

The British navy had tried blockading Germany to keep supplies (even food and clothing) from reaching Germany. The Germans responded with submarine attacks upon the blockade. Some American ships were lost during these campaigns. But freedom on the oceans was only one issue for Wilson and the Americans. Matters had calmed in Mexico, and the Czar had lost power in Russia. The war could now be portrayed as democracy (of the British and the French) against monarchy (of the German and Austrian). America’s soldiers could “make the world safe for democracy” while tilting the scales to conclude “the war to end all wars.” This hope of reshaping history and civilization brought the United States into the conflict. The difference was not felt immediately, but by the middle of 1918 the Germans and Austrians knew they could not win. Fighting continued while negotiating began. By November, the Germans had overthrown their government, and the new leaders called for an armistice. This armistice—which went into effect at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month (11 a.m. November 11) of 1918 was only an agreement to stop shooting, and to sit down and talk. The actual agreements and their enforcement could not take place until 1919. No enemy troops had yet crossed into Germany or Austria when the armistice was declared. The actual agreements established in 1919 would differ greatly from what Germany, Austria, or even the United States expected. J.

Memorial Day

The history and significance of Memorial Day (or Decoration Day) is complex. For centuries, people have decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers, flags, and other tributes. Naturally, following the carnage of the Civil War, commemorations were made at the graves of soldiers, whether Federal or Confederate. At least twenty-five cities claim the honor of creating Memorial Day to remember all Civil War soldiers. By 1868, the custom across the nation had developed that May 30 was the day to remember soldiers who lost their lives on Civil War battlefields. Gradually, the custom expanded to include all soldiers who died while in battle, including all the wars and military actions in which the United States has been involved.

Beginning in 1971, Memorial Day has been observed on the last Monday in May. The three-day weekend has become, in the United States, the unofficial beginning of summer, which then ends at the beginning of September with the three-day weekend of Labor Day. Many communities still have parades on Memorial Day, and generally ceremonies are held at cemeteries to mark this holiday. (I remember marching in the high school band to two cemeteries each Memorial Day.) But for many families, the weekend is marked with outdoor gatherings and meals, generally with little thought of military matters. I grilled hamburgers and bratwursts for the family last Sunday as part of our Memorial Day observances.

Often people confuse Memorial Day with Veterans Day (November 11) and with Armed Forces Day (the third Saturday in May). Memorial Day specifically remembers soldiers who died while serving the United States. Armed Forces Day salutes those who currently are serving in the armed forces. Veterans Day thanks those who served in the armed forces and survived their military career.

In my family research, I have discovered numerous veterans but no one who died while serving in a military force. Last weekend I used my Facebook page to honor three veterans—my grandfather, my uncle, and my father—and no one corrected me with the blurring of holidays. Here are two photographs I shared last weekend: the first was taken by my grandfather at Camp Hancock in Georgia. It shows Lieutenant G. M. Kuntz and Lieutenant Nygeberger with a World War I rifle and was taken in 1918. The second picture, taken by my uncle in Banneaux, Belgium, shows a World War II tank and an unnamed soldier. My uncle landed in France on D-Day plus 2 (June 8, 1944) and saw action in France, Belgium, and Germany.

We remember and honor those who died while defending our freedom and battling against the enemies of our country. We promise that their sacrifice will never be forgotten. J.