The Global Question: “Return to Normalcy?”

The Global Question: “Return to Normalcy?”

Challenges after the First World War


At the end of the First World War people around the world faced a number of challenges. The Allied Powers had to implement the treaties that ended the war, rebuild the portions of Europe devastated by the war, and establish economic and political stability in the aftermath of this conflict. To complicate matters the United Kingdom and France had been economically exhausted by the war; many in the U.S. were unwilling to participate in the construction of a new world order; Lenin was in the violent process of crafting a centralized and authoritarian government for the new Soviet Union, ; and numerous ethnic and/or national groups across Eurasia yearned for national sovereignty in new national states. On top of these challenges, many Western intellectuals were beginning the process of alienating themselves from Western civilization, believing that it was beyond salvation. The responses to these challenges were only partially successful at best. And the numerous failures in addressing these challenges paved the way for the Second World War. 


Learning Objectives

  • Explain how the social, political, and military costs of World War I fostered geographic and demographic shifts in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.
  • Explain the global challenge to liberalismby totalitarianism through the movements of communism, fascism, and National Socialism.
  • Explain the factors that led to the global depression in the 1930s.
  • Compare and contrast the reactions of nations worldwide to this global depression.


Key Terms / Key Concepts

Paris Peace Conference - 1919-20 meeting of delegates from the Allied nations that crafted the treaties which ended World War I 


In the 1920 U.S. presidential election campaign Warren Harding ran on the slogan of a “return to normalcy,” by which he meant a return to the way life in the U.S. had been before the First World War. His winning sixty percent of the popular vote in that presidential election reflected the reservations that many Americans had about WWI and U.S. participation in it. Globally, it was one of a number of manifestations of the trouble people were having coming to terms with World War I.

Those who thought about WWI wondered what this war said about humanity and its development. The belligerents had mobilized their societies in what was at that time a total war for combatants and civilians alike, which had achieved at best mixed results. A number of writers, historians, and philosophers, wondered pessimistically about the future of humanity. Otto Spengler wrote about this theme in his two-volume The Decline of the West, published in 1918 and 1922. All Quiet on the Western Front (1928) narrated the pointless aspects of the fighting on the Western Front during the First World War. Other writers, such as Ernest Hemmingway commented about the tragedy of this conflict: A Farewell to Arms (1929). The disaffection of these members of the intelligencia reflected a larger response from people in the participating nations. This popular response to WWI would influence the foreign and military policies of nations around the world.

The people in the victorious and defeated nations had questions about this conflict. In the Allied nations people wondered what had been won. Many Americans supported policies during the twenties and thirties that would keep the U.S. out of another world war at any cost. Similarly British and French leaders followed an approach of appeasement in dealing with Hitler’s annexation of Austria, conquest of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, and invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938 – 9, in order to avoid another European conflict marked by trench warfare. People in the Central Powers were left with resentment and anger, most visibly in Germany. These feelings grew out of peace treaties drafted at the 1919 – 20 Paris Peace Conference that were in some ways too harsh and in other ways too lenient.

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