Legacies of WW1 on European dictatorships

What role did the legacy of World War One play in the establishment of the dictatorships?



This essay will consider the impact of various legacies of World War One on the establishment of dictatorships in Italy and Germany. Such legacies include narratives as to how the war ended, the stipulations of the Versailles Treaty, and the political, economic and social situations in each country at the end of the war. The essay concludes that these legacies were significantly important factors in the establishment of dictatorships in Italy and Germany.


A significant legacy of WW1 was the creation of narratives to account or apportion blame for its ending. It is now widely accepted that the war ended not by German military defeat, but because 'her allies were at breaking point' (Henig, 1995, p8). There was a 'collapse in morale inside Germany' (Finney, p354) and a 'strategic overstretch and military exhaustion' (Schwabe, 2014) Realising this, Ludendorff and Hindenburg began laying the blame for the worsening military situation on politicians (von Thaer, 1918) who eventually found themselves used as scapegoats (Kershaw, 2016, p244) and were castigated as 'November criminals' (Whittock, 2011, p7) when they sued for peace.


This scapegoating helped create a range of 'Stab-in-the-Back' myths (Dolchstoßlegenden) asserting that the German army did not lose the war, but were 'betrayed by communists, socialists and Jews on the home front' (Weiner Holocaust Library, no date). Dolchstoßlegenden 'contributed to the growth of post-war political movements' (Barth, 2014) especially Hitler's Nazi party and Schwabe argues that 'Hitler's rise to dictatorship is unthinkable without the humiliation and misery' of defeat (Schwabe, 2014).


Mussolini similarly blamed socialist politicians for defeatism (Mack-Smith,1994, p29. Both Hitler and Mussolini propagandised their personal experiences in the war with Hitler subsequently citing his as laying the foundations for his anti-Semitism (although it is more likely that this amplified existing beliefs (Weber, in Alberge, 2010).


A second significant legacy of WW1 was the Versailles Treaty. Conference attendees held 'absolutely no doubt' that Germany should be 'tried and punished for its crimes' (Bell, 2007, p20). But Germany refused to accept this 'guilt clause' (Kitchen, 2006, p43) and refuted that they should pay reparations or loose territory (Kitchen, 2006, p54). Germany claimed that Versailles would lead to the 'utter destruction of German economic life' (in Henig, 1995, p50).


Hitler articulated these concerns and decried the 'so-called reparations' as making Germany a 'colony of the outside world' (Hitler, 1921). In Mein Kampf (1924), Hitler repeated his earlier position that Versailles must be 'abrogated' (Hitler, 1921), implying that mere revisions would never be enough (Kitchen, 2006, p54). In numerous speeches he castigated the 'disgrace' of the Armistice (Avalon Project, 2008), and employed the 'harsh treatment' narrative (originated by Keynes amongst others (Henig, 1995, p29)) to the extent that 'many commentators after 1933 saw Hitler's rise to power as an inevitable consequence of the wrongs of Versailles' (Henig, 1995, p52). However, recent analysis argues that 'at no time were the reparations the sadistic and intolerable burden which the Germans complained so stridently about' (Kitchen, 2006, p54 and MacMillan, 2002, p192). Nevertheless, Hitler was able to base his support 'upon the hatred that many Germans felt for the Treaty of Versailles'. (Clare, J. no date).


Mussolini was also critical of the Versailles Treaty but in contrast to Hitler, (until 1934) he wanted to re-negotiate rather than reject the treaty (Mussolini, 1919). Italy’s gains in 1919 were ‘far from negligible’ (Henig, 1995, p12), gaining land from Austro-Hungary in the north and at the head of the Adriatic around Trieste. But these 'fell well short of exaggerated public expectations' (Henig, 1995, p53) stoked by Mussolini. This left Italy with 'another grievance and yet another frustrated dream' (MacMillan, 2002, p299). All this contributed to a narrative of 'mutilated victory' which Mussolini was able to utilise (Mussolini, 1919) to create 'widespread social discontent' helping to instil an atmosphere favourable for his rise to power (Clarke et al, 2024).


Implicit in their castigation of Versailles is Hitler and Mussolini's rejection of collective security - epitomised the League of Nations created at Versailles - in favour of fervent nationalism based on race (Hitler) and on culture (Mussolini). And 'nationalism was essential to both obtaining power and staying in power' (Bil, no date). Bothwere prepared to use violence (and war) to achieve that end (Bell, 2007, p11). Both 'sneered at the League and ultimately turned their backs on it' (MacMillan, 2002, p92) breaking stipulations of both Versailles and Locarno treaties as they did.


A third major legacy of the war was Germany's transition to the Weimar Republic which embodied weaknesses from its inception. Firstly, Social Democrats in government had signed the much hated Versailles agreement. Secondly, there was no tradition of parliamentary democracy in Germany and the coalition government was unstable and cumbersome (BBC, no date). Thirdly, Article 48 of the constitution allowed for the president to issue decrees 'in an emergency' and this 'eventually allowed Hitler to ‘legally’ take total control of Germany' (Weiner Holocaust Library, no date). Finally, the old conservative elite (chiefly civil servants and military leaders) still had enormous influence, and 'gave their support to Hitler's efforts to destroy parliamentary democracy .... and establish a permanent authoritarian regime' (Kitchen, 2006, p367). Similarly in Italy, 'rich agrari and capitalist industries used to fascists as useful foot-soldiers to fight their war against socialism (Blinkorn, 1991, p16).


And in Italy a new system of proportional representation introduced for the 1919 elections was supported by Mussolini because it favoured modern parties at the expense of mutually antagonistic traditional ones (Blinkhorn, 1991, p10). As with Germany, Italian democracy was weakened by the war and by the widespread disappointment with the 'mutilated victory', such that it 'gave way with scarcely a murmur' (MacMillan, 2002, p313) to Mussolini and his march on Rome.


As politics polarised ’a tidal wave of disaffection swept voters into the arms of Hitler’s movement’ (Kershaw, 2016, p209). And in Italy, Mussolini argued that 'neither liberalism or democracy was suited to the Italian temperament' (Mack-Smith,1994, p140) and fascism sought to overthrow Italy’s ‘tired ruling caste’ (Blinkhorn, 1991, p16). Both fascist movements 'profited greatly from widespread disillusionment with democracy’ (Kitchen, 2006, p27).



A fourth legacy of the war was that it inflicted grave economic damage including inflation, low wages, increasing cost of living, and the impact of demobilisation (Henig, 1995, p48). There were shortages of coal and food, and overworked and under-maintained industry, agriculture and transport. Workers were underfed and exhausted and afflicted by the influenza epidemic (Bell, 2007, p16)


Added to this, German investments in enemy countries were confiscated (Bell, 2007, p17) and it had reparation payments to make. Italy was heavily in debt, mostly to the USA, because it had 'spent money it did not have' (MacMillan, 2002, p289). Italy’s economy was ‘distorted’ (Blinkhorn, 1991, p10) and made worse by two and a half million demobilised soldiers rising the unemployment level. Socialists were antagonistic towards war veterans whereas fascism offered ‘comradeship and excitement in a dull and ungrateful post-war world’ (Blinkhorn, 1991, p16).


In Germany, inflation was already high in 1923 and its funding of passive resistance to the French-Belgium occupation of the Ruhr contributed to inflation 'increasing at an astounding level' (History.com, 2022) - the effects of which again 'contributed to the appeal of Nazism' (Bell, 2007, p23).


A fifth legacy was that during the last year of the war, strikes and occupations affected factories and agriculture culminating in the bienno rosso of 1918-20 (Blinkhorn, 1991, p11). There was anti-socialist violence, tolerated, if not encouraged by police and army, and 'widespread social discontent, aggravated by middle-class fear of a socialist revolution (which) created an atmosphere favourable for Mussolini’s rise to power' (Clark et al, 2024) and led to increase in his support (Clare, no date).


Similarly, strikes and mutinies in Germany prompted many on the right to hold an 'almost paranoid belief in a vast Communist conspiracy' and became 'trapped in their own propaganda' (Kitchen, 2006, p369). Hitler used this (and the Reichstag fire) to get Hindenburg to issue an emergency declaration which became 'one of the most important steps towards the creation of the Nazi dictatorship' (ibid).



Many factors contributed to the establishment of dictatorships in Italy and Germany following WW1. Both Hitler and Mussolini managed to create the impression that they were men of the people. Both proved willing to adapt tactics and (in Mussolini's case) principles to gain power. Both had the charisma and propagandist skills to create and manipulate the zeitgeist and invent a movement to which loyalty was violently enforced. Both were intent on the making a new order and 'the destruction of a decadent liberalism' (Hunt, 2001). Both were quick to realise 'there was a need for comforting illusion' (Kitchen, 2006, p2). However, this essay has shown the extent to which various legacies of the First World War were fundamental to the establishment of the fascist dictatorships in Italy and Germany. It showed that capturing national feelings of resentment, criticisms of the Versailles Treaty, manipulation of political, economic and social upheaval were all significantly important elements.


1493 words


Overall a very good attempt with some strong points throughout. Your essay is well set out at the start, with a clear and concise introductory section and some useful contextualisation. You also adopt a nicely comparative approach throughout, with a very good balance between your coverage of each state, and some insightful observations, all backed up by some excellent supporting evidence by way of brief quotes. However having said this there are some aspects that should be profitably addressed as noted on the script itself, not least the considerable time gap in Germany between war’s end and Hitler’s rise (unlike Mussolini’s in Italy) which has multiple, significant implications. Nevertheless, as noted, a very good effort overall with much potential.








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