It wasn’t until the modern era that would-be conquerors and do-gooders could think on a global scale. The discovery of the New World and the invention of steamboats, the telegraph, airplanes, television and intercontinental ballistic missiles made the world feel smaller. Egyptian pharaohs and Chinese emperors may have claimed to rule everything under the sun and the heavens; it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that an island nation on the western edge of Eurasia could acquire an empire on which the sun never set.
The potential of world conquest inflated the ambitions of political movements. Marxists called for a world revolution of the proletariat. Fascist Germany and Japan planned to divide the world between them. America sought to make the world safe for democracy.
If world war and world conquest were possible, then surely so were world peace and unity? Pan-Europeanism and internationalism flourished in the twentieth century, giving life to the League of Nations, the United Nations and what would become the European Union.
From the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas to the would-be EUs of the present day, here’s a history at attempts — few of them successful — to remake the world.
Zentrum (the Center Party) was founded in the 1870s to protect the rights of the Catholic minority and was always held together by its commitment to Catholicism.
In the years of the Republic, it shared some views with the left. It supported the welfare state, for example, and worked for an international understanding among nations. Its leader, Matthias Erzberger, helped to uphold the Weimar Constitution and supported parliamentary democracy. Zentrum also worked for the preservation of the federal states, the Länder.
At the same time, Zentrum shared views with the right. It advocated a patriarchal system of cooperation at home and was quite conservative about the nation’s defense.
In 1928, Karl Mannheim devised a completely new concept of generation. Not just the natural regeneration of a population, Mannheim theorized that a generation shares a common dramatic fact that influences and forms every concept, every belief, every behavior of that particular group of people that lives in the same time, place and cultural environment.
There’s no doubt that World War I formed the generation of Weimar. The young people who fought in the trenches thought their elders, their parents, their fathers and mothers, could not understand what that meant. The experience of war was so intense and life-changing that those young men truly believed nobody but others like them could understand. They did know that their fathers’ world was gone forever and its values with it, and so they thought their elders could teach them nothing useful and they had to create their own new world, with their own new values.
Besides, they were not scared of experimenting. Any novelty was worth trying.
Symbols are strange beasts. The swastika, which has been a symbol of good luck and well-being for thousands of years and among many different peoples, in the last century has taken up a completely different meaning. At least for the Western world.
The word swastika derives from the Sanskrit su, which means “well”, and asti, which means “being”, and its form — the hooked cross — probably represents the sun and its movement across the sky.
Its use dates back to Neolithic Europe. One of the firsts swastikas was uncovered in Mezine, Ukraine, and it’s thought to be 12,000 years old. The routine use of the swastika as a symbol of good fortune probably started in Southern Europe. This area is now Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, with people belonging to the Vinča Culture, about 8,000 years ago. But examples of swastikas are found in many different cultures across Asia (where it is still today a symbol of good luck, for example in Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism) and even in America, where it has been used by the Navajo.
In the 1920s, the role of women in society shifted dramatically. Women liberated themselves. They started working outside the house, engaging in activities previously reserved to men, they discovered their sexuality and sensuality and uncovered their body.
This was a common occurrence throughout the Western World — with reaches outside of it — but it had peculiar characteristics in every single nation.
Veterans were a strong public presence in the Weimar Republic. A total of 1.4 million disabled veterans came back from the war, and the republic provided them with occupational training, free medical care and pensions. For the severely disabled, particular jobs were granted special protection.
Still, the republic was ill-rewarded for the care it offered, above all because expectations kept rising as the economic situation kept worsening and there was only a certain amount of money that could be devoted to this cause. Veterans normally didn’t support the republic.
By 1919, veterans were represented by seven different organizations, of which the Reichsbund der Kriegsbeschädigten und ehemaligen Kriegsteilnehmer (National Association of Disabled Soldiers and Veterans) was the most numerous with its 600,000 members and ties with the Social Democrats.
One of the most speculated matters in the history of the Weimar Republic is whether it would have weathered the hard crises of the Great Depression, and so resist the rise of the Nazis, if all forces had been more united. Disunity — both true and perceived — was indeed a characteristic of the Weimar Republic.
The most apparent disunity was the one in the parliament itself. Throughout the republican history, the Reichstag was made up of many small political forces which seem to have a hard time getting along. There were a few bigger parties, of course, most notably the Social Democrats and the Zentrum, but none of these ever won the absolute majority of the parliament. The republic had to rely on coalitions governments which were unstable at best, leading to frequent crises and reorganization of the Reichstag.
This disunity and instability ill-suited German people, whose culture had been prompted to an authoritarian, decisive, military efficiency. The people saw the endless parliamentary discussions as weakness rather than democratic discussion by Germans who, slowly, lost faith in the ability of the republic to solve its citizens’ problems.
It is sometimes said that just like World War I was the war to end all wars, the Treaty of Versailles was the peace to end all peace.
Often described as punitive to Germany, which was cast as the villain and the loser of Europe, the treaty failed to create the basis for solid peace and ended up laying down the groundwork for precisely what all nations didn’t what to ever happen again.
Two rounds of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) between the Soviet Union and the United States had managed to reduce tensions in the Cold War. But the talks did not cover tactical nuclear weapons delivered by midrange ballistic missiles, a loophole the Soviets exploited to deploy SS-20 mobile launch platforms in Central Europe.
When, in December 1979, the Soviet Union also invaded Afghanistan, the West felt it had to respond.
The Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschland (Social Democratic Party of Germany) was founded in 1875 by August Bebel on largely Marxist ideals and for most of the Weimar Republic time was the largest political party in the nation.
Although it was born as a workers’ party, the SPD often embraced a number of causes beyond the conditions of workers, calling for equal rights for women (finally realized by the republic) and a stop to the killing of natives in German colonies in the nineteenth century.