Home / Totalitarianism and the Great Depression 1861 – 1938

Totalitarianism and the Great Depression 1861 – 1938


1861 Tsar Alexander II signs a decree abolishing serfdom in Russia.

1881 Terrorists assassinate Alexander; his successor, Alexander III, is more autocratic.

1903 Russian Marxists split into two groups, the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks led by Lenin and his totalitarianism.

1904 Russia and Japan go to war.

1905 Russia is defeated by Japan; widespread discontent flares into open revolt against the tsar after petitioners are cut down on “Bloody Sunday”; the revolt is suppressed with difficulty.

1914 World War I begins.

1917 Heavy war losses and famine lead to a new revolt in Russia; the tsar abdicates and a provisional government takes over which is later led by Kerensky; Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks gain the support of the soviets and lead them to take over from the provisional government; Soviet Russia begins peace talks with Germany.

1918-1920 Civil war rages in Soviet Russia; the anti-Bolshevik forces are finally defeated by the Red Army under Trotsky.

1918 Russia signs the treaty of Brest-Litovsk making peace with Germany; the western powers sign an armistice; end of World War I.

1919 The Communist International, or Comintern, is founded at Moscow; the Versailles treaty heavily penalizes Germany and causes great bitterness among Germans; formation of the League of Nations, which excludes Soviet Russia.

1920 Italian socialist workers occupy many factories, leading industrialists to fear an immediate revolution and look for ways to prevent it.

1922 Mussolini’s fascists, financed by the industrialists, march on Rome, take over the government and begin a reign of terror against rebellious workers.

1923 Wild inflation ruins the German economy; Hitler and the Nazi party attempt to seize power in the Munich “Beer Hall Putsch” but are easily put down.

1924 Lenin dies; Stalin uses his position as general secretary of the Communist Party to become dictator of Russia; the first Labour government is formed in England.


1926  English trade unions call a general strike but are forced to return to work after nine days.

1928 Stalin exiles Trotsky and consolidates his power, beginning the first Five Year Plan to industrialize Russia; Mussolini’s new constitution makes Italy a fascist dictatorship.

1929 The stock market crash marks beginning of the Great Depression in U. S.

1931 Spain becomes a republic when King Alfonso flees; Japanese troops invade Manchuria, causing war with China.

1932 The “Bonus Army” marches on Washington and is dispersed by troops under General MacArthur.

1933 Roosevelt becomes president and takes steps to solve the financial crisis of the great depression in America; Hitler is made chancellor of Germany and uses the Reichstag fire as an excuse to suppress communists and others; the Reichstag grants him dictatorial powers.

1934 Fascist riots in Paris follow the Stavisky scandal; Hitler wipes out opponents in the Nazi party in the “Blood Purge.”

1935 The U. S. Supreme Court declares the NRA unconstitutional; Italy invades Ethiopia.

1936 Spanish fascists led by General Franco revolt against the republic, starting the Civil War; Stalin wipes out the Old Bolsheviks in the Moscow purge trials; Roosevelt is reelected by a huge margin ; a Popular Front government is elected in France and begins sweeping reforms ; fascist Italy completes its conquest of Ethiopia and joins Germany in supporting Franco in Spain.

1937 Roosevelt’s attempt to enlarge the Supreme Court fails; Nazi Germany tests new methods of warfare in Spain, bombing the town of Guernica from the air; the French government frustrates plans for a fascist coup.

1938 Jews are arrested and murdered and their homes burned during the “Week of Broken Glass” in Germany; the French Popular Front collapses and the new government reverses many of the reforms it had enacted; the world moves rapidly toward a new world war.

The United Nations and the Nations Disunited 1943 -1949

united nations

So at last, in the Pacific as in Europe, the guns were silent; the nations that had brought so much death and destruction to the world had been defeated, but victory alone was not enough. Governments had to be set up for the defeated nations, the destruction of war had to be repaired, hungry people had to be fed, industry and commerce had to be set in motion. Even more important, a way had to be found to keep war out of the world, to settle disputes between nations by peaceful means rather than by violence. The League of Nations, which had been set up for such a purpose after World War I, had failed, but the attempt had to be made again, for a third world war might well destroy all of civilization. Even before World War II ended, President Roosevelt had been looking ahead to the future and the United States proposed the establishment of a new international organization. Her wartime allies were quick to agree. Meeting in Moscow in October of 1943, the foreign ministers of the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, and China declared: “The four powers recognize the necessity of establishing at the earliest practicable date a general international organization, based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all peace-loving states, large and small, for the maintenance of international peace and security.” Representatives of the same four nations met at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington from August 21 to October 7, 1944, to discuss plans for the new organization. When Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin met at Yalta in February of 1945, they agreed that the United Nations Conference on International Organization be held at San Francisco in April. The conference was held as scheduled and it was attended by representatives of fifty nations at …

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Totalitarianism Versus Democracy


AS THE 1930’s drew to a close, only eight countries in Europe, besides Great Britain and France, were still democracies. They were Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland. Three of Europe’s most important nations were dictatorships. The Soviet Union was communist; Germany and Italy were fascist. There had been dictatorships before, but these went further; they were totalitarian. The word “totalitarian” comes from the word “total,” and total control is what these dictatorships were after — total control of their people, total control of their actions and thought. There were differences between the totalitarian countries. While Stalin exterminated his opponents as ruthlessly as the fascists, he sought to spread his power less by war than by internal revolt. Nor did the Soviets openly preach racial war and genocide. In Germany, however, the Nazis loudly boasted that the Germans were the master race, destined to conquer all other, inferior, peoples. “Today Germany,” they said, “tomorrow the world.” Furthermore, the fascists claimed to be the only ones who could stop Communism and the communists considered the fascists their worst enemies. As a result, the communists in some countries found themselves lined up with the defenders of democracy against fascism. In France they were part of the Popular Front. In the United States they supported Roosevelt and the New Deal. In Spain they fought against Franco side by side with men who believed in democracy, although the communists later betrayed the Spanish democrats. Three ideologies competed for control of the world and as events turned out, one totalitarian nation — the Soviet Union — would finally be forced to stand with the democracies against the totalitarians of Germany, Italy and Japan in the most terrible war in the history of the world.

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Democratic but Divided 1926-1939


UNLIKE Britain, France was not a highly industrialized country; its economy was fairly evenly divided between industry and farming. For this reason, the depression came to France later than it did to any of the democracies and its effect was less severe, but in no other democracy did communists and fascists play so large a part. For a time there was real danger that the French republic would be overthrown by the fascists and there were riots in the streets. One reason the fascists were so dangerous was that the French people were sharply divided in their political opinions. There were many parties of many political shades. The largest and most important was the Radical Socialist party, which was neither radical nor socialist. The name was something that had been left over from the past. It was a middle-of-the-road party, supported by the middle class and the farmers. To the left of the Radical Socialists were the Socialists, who had considerable strength and the Communists. On the extreme right were the anti-republic parties and the fascists. The most powerful of these was the Croix de Feu, the Cross of Fire. Made up mainly of war veterans, it was led by Colonel Francois de la Rocque and it won the support of a number of industrialists and financiers. Less strong, though still troublesome, were Action Francaise, Camelots du Roi, Solidarité Francaise‚ Jeunesse Patriote and the Cagoulards. Because of the number of parties, it was almost impossible for any one party to win a majority and control the government. France was governed by coalitions, or combinations, of two or more parties, which supported the premier, the head of the government. But disagreements often arose, and the parties were quick to withdraw their support of the premier. Whenever that happened, a new coalition …

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“On the Dole” 1918 – 1936


IN Europe as in America, the leading democratic nations — Great Britain and France — faced the problems of the great depression. In those nations, too, the question arose: Could democracy survive, or would it give way to totalitarianism? Would the people turn instead to fascism or communism? Although Britain had a brief period of prosperity immediately after World War I, of all the world’s democracies, it was struck hardest and soonest by the depression. For Britain had a special problem. A highly industrialized country, it lived by its exports. It sold manufactured goods and coal to other countries and imported its food. Even before the war, Britain had begun to lose its markets. Other countries were making wool and cotton cloth, which was one of Britain’s most important exports. New fuels were developed that were replacing coal. More and more countries were using high tariffs to keep out foreign goods. After 1918, the situation became even worse. The fact that Britain had long been an industrial country was now working against it. Its machinery and manufacturing methods were old-fashioned and could not compete with the modern machinery and methods of other lands. Exports fell, factories shut down and millions of Britons were out of work. Britain had had unemployment insurance as early as 1911. Now the payments were increased and the unemployed went “on the dole,” as they called it. The government also provided old-age pensions and some medical and housing aid, but the people felt that the unemployment and other benefits were too small and they were dissatisfied. They began to turn to the Labour party. Up to this time, Britain’s strongest political parties had been the Conservative party and the Liberal party, with the Labour party a poor third. In 1922, the Labour party became second only …

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Roosevelt Battles the Court 1937-1939

supreme court

BEGINNING his second term, Roosevelt made it plain that the New Deal would go on. He would continue to work for reforms. He said in his second inaugural address: “In this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens — a substantial part of its whole population — who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life. “I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meagre that the pall of family disaster hangs over them. “I see millions whose daily lives in city and on farm continue under conditions labelled indecent by so-called polite society of half a century ago. “I See millions denied education, recreation and the opportunity to better their lot and that of their children. “I see millions lacking the means to buy the products of farm and factory and by their poverty denying work and productiveness to many other millions. “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished. . . . “It is not in despair that I paint for you that picture. I paint it for you in hope, because the nation, seeing and understanding the injustice in it, proposes to paint it out. We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of this country’s interest and concern and we will never regard any faithful law-abiding group within our borders as superfluous. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little. . . .” DEFEAT IN THE SENATE To put through new reforms, Roosevelt felt that something had to be done about the Supreme Court. It had already blocked the NRA and …

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The Election of 1936


As Roosevelt’s first term in office neared its end, many people in the United States — and in other countries — wondered if the New Deal could really solve America’s problems. More than that, they wondered if Americans would continue to follow the path of democracy. A wave of totalitarianism was sweeping the world; would it reach as far as America? There was no doubt that there were some Americans who supported Hitler and the Nazis. Members of the German-American Bund paraded in brown shirts and held a mass meeting in New York’s Madison Square Garden, but there were comparatively few Bundists. Many people felt that a more serious threat to democracy and to the Roosevelt administration came from three native American political leaders — Huey P. Long, Father Charles E. Coughlin and Dr. Francis Townsend. Most colourful of the three was Huey Long, a senator from Louisiana. Calling himself the Kingfish, he had come to power in his native state and he ran it, his critics said, as a dictatorship. He was a rousing orator and in front of a crowd he would spout folksy humour, crack sharp political jokes and play the simple country boy. His opponents, however, charged that he was a combination of brutal hoodlum and a shrewd political boss who would stop at nothing to get what he wanted. He would promise the people anything — and he did keep some of his promise. He saw that Louisiana got better roads, schools and hospitals. In return, he got power. Huey Long was not satisfied with the power he had won in Louisiana; he had his eye on the White House. At first a supporter of the New Deal, he turned against it and began attacking Roosevelt. He called Roosevelt a “scrootch owl,” explaining that “a …

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A Changing Nation 1934 – 1936

new deal

IN THE spring of 1933, as the New Deal roared into action, business began to get better, but it dropped again and as 1933 ended and a new year began, even the most optimistic New Dealer had to admit that the depression was still on. During 1934, the government took further steps to regulate banking and finance‚ but some Americans were dissatisfied. Businessman complained that the government was making it harder to do business. In spite of all the excitement, the NRA was not working out well. The farmers were complaining that prices of farm products were still too low. Some farmers went on strike, refusing to take their crops to market. In the West, there was even violence as bands of farmers overturned trucks on highways to keep them from carrying farm products to the cities. Other farmers refused to let their neighbours’ farms be sold at auction. Surrounding the auctioneer, they would force him to sell the farm for a few cents and they would then give it back to its owner. Nature itself was working against the farmers. A long drought was creating a great Dust Bowl in the states of the Great Plains — in Oklahoma, the Dakotas, parts of Kansas, Nebraska and Texas. As month after month went by with no rain, the wind stirred up dust storms that darkened the sky. The helpless farmers watched their soil blow away, leaving a wasteland where once there had been fertile acres. Thousands of families were forced to give up their farms. Packing their belongings into rattling, broken-down cars, they set out for California. There they looked for work picking fruit and vegetables in the vast fields. Called “Okies”–because so many of them came from Oklahoma — they became a problem in themselves. The owners of the …

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The New Deal 1933


WHEN Franklin Delano Roosevelt was nominated in 1932, he was fifty years old. A fifth cousin of former President Theodore Roosevelt, he came of a wealthy family. He grew up on a large estate at Hyde Park, New York, overlooking the Hudson River. At the age of twenty-four he married Eleanor Roosevelt, a distant cousin and a niece of Theodore Roosevelt. Several years after graduating from Harvard and studying law at Columbia University, he entered politics and was elected to the state senate. In the presidential campaign of 1912 he supported Woodrow Wilson, who named him assistant secretary of the Navy. In 1920, Roosevelt ran for vice president, but he and his running-mate, James M. Cox, lost the election to Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Even so, Roosevelt had become nationally known and it looked as though he had a bright future in politics. Then, less than a year later while on vacation, he fell ill of poliomyelitis. At first he was paralyzed from the waist down, but slowly, painfully, he fought his way back to health. He would never be able to walk normally and he would be forced to use a wheelchair most of the time. He learned to get about with the aid of braces on his legs, leaning on canes or crutches. In 1924 he made his first Public appearance since his illness. He hobbled on crutches to the speaker’s platform at Madison Square Garden in New York, where he placed Alfred E. Smith’s name in nomination before the Democratic presidential convention. The cheers of the audience were as much for Roosevelt as they were for Smith. HAPPY DAYS ARE HERE AGAIN Roosevelt’s battle against illness had left him a changed man. Francis Perkins, who later became his Secretary of Labour, said that he “emerged …

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Panic in Wall Street 1929-1932


AS MILLIONS of Americans hurried to work on the morning of October 24, 1929, it seemed like the start of an ordinary day. It seemed just as ordinary to the brokers and bankers who were entering their offices on New York’s Wall Street. True, the prices of stocks had been falling for several days, but that was nothing to worry about. There were bound to be ups and downs in the stock market and prices would surely rise again. For never before had the United States known such prosperity as it did in the 1920’s. Herbert Hoover, who had become President seven months before, had said, “We in America are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. . . . We have not reached the goal, but given a chance to go forward with the policies of the last eight years, we shall soon with the help of God be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this nation.” Many Americans agreed with him. They invested their savings in stocks and just as they hoped, the price of stocks rose. To make even more money, they bought stocks on margin — that is, on credit. They knew that they could be wiped out if stocks took a sudden tumble, but why should that happen? The richest men in the country said it wouldn’t and if they didn’t know, who did? The country was booming and anyone who didn’t get rich was a fool. More and more Americans bought stocks and prices went higher and higher — until October of 1929. As the prices of stocks began to fall, people stopped buying and began to sell. The more they sold, the lower prices fell; the lower prices fell, …

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The Meaning of Totalitarianism


So it happened that in many parts of the world people were living under a system of government that came to be called totalitarianism. There were differences in the governments of the totalitarian countries, but they were alike in certain important ways. In each of them, the government was controlled by one political party, usually under a dictator and no other political parties were allowed. The ruling party was not satisfied to control the government; its aim was total control of the life of its people. It controlled the courts and the armed forces, labour and industry, science and the arts. In some countries, it controlled religion completely; in others, religious groups were allowed to exist so long as they did not challenge the power of the government. To keep their strict control of the people, the totalitarian governments set up a secret police and totalitarian countries were often called “police states.” The people had no civil liberties and no part in the governing of the country. They had to obey and do as they were told. If they did not, they risked prison, concentration camp, torture and death. As totalitarianism spread widely over the world, men began to wonder what had made it possible. The reasons were not too difficult to find . The end of World War I had left many countries, especially those that had been defeated, divided and disorganized. Their weak governments could not solve the problems that faced them. This gave “strong men” the chance to take over the government. Another important reason was the great depression that began around 1929. Business seemed to come to a standstill. Unsold goods piled up in warehouses, while factories shut down and millions of people were thrown out of work. Hungry people were willing to listen to anyone …

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