Historical Perspective

A World War I

World War I was also known as the Great War because it was war on a scale previously unimagined in modern history. The war broke out after the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand ignited an already tense territorial feud between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. France, Great Britain, and Russia joined together as the Allied powers against the Central Power alliance of Austria-Hungary and Germany. Eventually, America joined the war on the side of the Allies after Russia had withdrawn and the Lusitania, a British passenger ship carrying 128 American citizens, had been sunk. The conflict lasted four years, cost $350 billion, and claimed the lives of twenty-two million. Technologically, it was the most advanced war ever seen because of the number of new inventions introduced: biological weapons, mortar, improved artillery, machine guns, and barbed wire. Not until World War II, when the airplane played such a devastating role, would the destructive power of these new weapons be surpassed.

In the novel A Farewell to Arms, Frederic Henry is serving in the Italian army. The role of Italy in World War I was as decoy. Traditionally, Italy was an ally of Germany and Austria. However, the allies promised Italy the land it had requested from Austria-the region of South Tyrol, several islands in the Adriatic, and assistance with expansion of its colonies in Africa-if it would switch sides. The only role of Italy’s ill-equipped army was to attempt to divert the force of the Austrians from helping the Germans in France, a role which caused the death of 500,000 Italians in 1916 alone. It is in that year that Frederic Henry is wounded. Surprisingly, Italy was able to turn back the Austrians and rightfully claim their share in the spoils of victory with the Allied cause.

B The Roaring Twenties

The 1920s were marked by what Joseph Wood Krutch labeled as The Modern Temper. This was a “temper”, or zeitgeist (spirit of the age), which viewed traditional beliefs of progress, perfectibility, and the success of democracy as dead on the battlefield. Consequently, other philosophies of life were being looked at, such as the growing popularity of Freudian psychoanalysis. This new method of treating the self reinforced a belief in individualism in the United States. For the same insistence on the self it was banned from Communist Russia. The decade of the twenties is also often seen as a wild decade of jazz, flappers, and the “speak easy,” gathering places which served banned alcohol. Jazz became popular music throughout America. Women finally gained the vote on August 26, 1920 with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, and their new freedoms were epitomized by the more unconventional girls who were known as “flappers,” identified by their short, bobbed hair and daringly short (for the time) dresses. Prohibition and the Eighteenth Amendment made alcohol illegal in 1920, but organized crime invented the “speak easy” (with the many bribes it involved) to provide a place for Americans to find the outlawed drink. The economy, both legal and black-market, was stable, and unemployment low. Things were almost too good: After the Great War, Americans were ready to enjoy themselves. Few could forecast or believe what loomed ahead for the United States.

C The Stock Market Crash

The year 1929 destroyed the momentum of the twenties. The roaring Jazz Age ground to a virtual halt in October when the New York Stock Exchange began to nosedive. After the First World War, America enjoyed a healthy economy in the 1920s, and many investors saw opportunities to make money on the stock exchange. Investors often purchased stock on credit, expecting to pay off any loan with the profits they reaped as stock prices climbed. However, after several days of falling stock prices in late October, panicky investors began to sell whatever stock they held at any price. As the market flooded with stock for sale, prices plummeted and many investors could not sell their stock at high enough prices to pay off their creditors. Investors went bankrupt, businesses lost capital, and banks failed. Unlike in previous years when the stock market fell but quickly recovered, the early 1930s became increasingly worse for Americans, with millions of men and women out of work and struggling to survive.

Europe also suffered a severe economic downturn. Never fully recovered from World War I, European countries struggled with high rates of joblessness and inflation. In Britain unemployment rates exceeded twelve percent; in Germany over six million people were unemployed by 1932. Due to the sudden collapse of the American economy, aid to Germany was halted. Consequently, with no jobs, little food, and no money, the German people lost confidence in their postwar government, the Weimar Republic. Faced with a disintegrating economy, Germans began to take interest in the ideas of a rising young fascist, Adolf Hitler. Promising a return to prosperity, Hitler and the Nazi party were voted into power in 1933.

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