'Age-old customs, I learned, could be broken down by a dramatic appeal, disseminated by the network of media. Of course the taboo was not destroyed completely. But a beginning had been made, one which I regret today.' - Edward Bernays on the promotion of smoking in the 1920s

Society throughout its existence has remained in constant revolution; new ideas, concepts and technologies are all things that continually change the way we live, think and feel. It is no surprise that when the 'war to end all wars came to pass that many different aspects of society were thrown in to the path of change once again. Many people worldwide in the late stages of the First World War and after the armistice of 11th November 1918 had high hopes for democracy, prosperity and international peace. Peace, with an emphasis on enforcing a permanent peace, was the original motivation for those fighting against Germany in the First World War, however peace throughout Europe also gave the illusion of prosperity and freedom for democracy. The technologies adapted from the First World War greatly improved the quality of life in general, and medical treatment and conditions were changed for the better. Many societal roles had changed as women stepped up in the world, and returning soldiers found the new world they were fighting for had escaped.

By the end of the war the people at home had changed just as much as those fighting in it. Female emancipation was beginning to rear its head, as women took the roles previously domineered by men. Previous to the war, 'they have been confined to specifically feminine tasks such as the nursing and feeding of soldiers, and the making of garments and bandages' (National News, 18 March 1917). In The First World War they not only took on nursing roles but also took on roles that were previously male dominated, such as office workers, tram drivers, police officers and agricultural labourers. The attitude at wartime was clear; one poster from the Ministry of Munitions in Britain said (concerning female munitions workers) 'on her their lives depend.' Women had gotten a taste of the freedom and responsibility they had previously never tasted; they used the war to eradicate stereotypical roles and emerged in the 1920s fit for emancipation and expectant, rather than dependant, on their male counterparts. Male soldiers returned to see their images of hope and prosperity crash down, as they discovered the peace they had sought after brought with it many hardships, including (for themselves) high unemployment and inflation. The soldiers were clearly dissatisfied and demonstrations and protests occurred because of this.

Aristocracy in Britain was something forever changed by the "common" soldiers fighting in the First World War. The aristocrats were British society's birth right superiors. The House of Commons was the only place the 'common' people of Britain could voice their opinion politically, and otherwise the aristocrats in higher government had their say. In the First World War they were automatically pushed in to leadership positions, even if they turned out to be horrid leaders. Most British Generals proved weak leaders, and had no real idea of what the frontline was like, and the chain of command furthered the gap. Meritocracy was a concept furthered by the war. The natural leaders rose through the ranks, and showed their skill on the frontline rather than from the comforts of their office (as was the technique of the Generals). Meritocracy was the natural pecking order of leaders rather than the pecking order that society had delivered. Democracy was a dream that had been seen as one of the reasons that the First World War was being fought, however it soon became apparent after the war that this was not entirely true.

The years following the end of the war brought with them a kind of quiet dissatisfaction in many people, as they saw their goals of democracy collapse in many world powers. It was the economic insecurity of post-war Europe that saw dictatorship rather than democracy gain influence in many European countries. Before the war, democracy was deemed one of many answers to the world"s problems. It became clear after the war that democracy was an unlikely occurrence in the countries in which it had been expected to flourish, as at that time these countries were suffering economically as a result of the outcomes of the war itself. The population needed an answer to their money problems and at the same time a form of a guidance that they felt could only be gained through a dictatorship. Germany was a pivotal example of this; as the Weimer Republic took shape the German people were in dire need of a sole person (it came to be the German Chancellor Gustav Stresemann) to lead them away from extreme inflation and starvation.

Previous to the war Germany had been a proud country that vouched for their unmistakably powerful army. After the armistice they were left in a state of unrest, as their army and navy mutinied and their government spent 'three times as much money as they gained in taxes' (Mills. H. 1984). They printed more money to compensate, and people"s savings became as useless as the paper they were printed on. This affected the middle class the most, however inflation was a problem throughout Germany as it made it harder to purchase the daily essentials in life. The economic condition of Germany affected the way people lived. It was the same situation in all other countries also. In the years leading up to First World War the arms race saw all of the world powers spend massive amounts of their income on munitions. The tension of war created an industry; Britain alone spent 3.4% of their national income (£76 million) on defences, and Germany spent a further 4.6% (£110 million) (Shaw A. 1977). It created a need for raw materials and the world"s economy was booming. After the war the industry declined, as the need for immediate weaponry was abandoned. The end of war also brought many hardships concerning the previous level or requirement of service; farm incomes plummeted as the high wartime price levels of agricultural products crashed, and 'much of the rural sector struggled to recover throughout the decade' (Hoepper 1990). The need for weaponry and the efficiency of its manufacture did however improve the quality of product coming from factories, and therefore affected the goods and products coming from factories throughout the 1920s.

It was obvious that society had undergone a gradual change from the time the war had started and then throughout the 1920s. It was almost impossible to avoid change, because the countries involved used so much of the world's resources. The world spent a lot of money and time on the war, and saw the repercussions of it: war debt and reparations were just some of the tragedies to come from it. Several smaller countries went bankrupt and Germany was in a state that is best summed up as lost. The industrial world boomed, as they gained the new technology and put it in to use. Britain's newfound binding of the common man with his societal superiors was evident, as were the achievements towards female emancipation. Woman's newfound independence was reflective of the worlds ever-changing values of the times. It is unfair to say that it was a change for the better or worse, because the negative outcomes such as inflation, however disastrous, gave way for many positive achievements such as new beneficial technologies. It is fair to say however, that many previously mentioned different aspects of society had changed, and became far different to what they were before the First World War.

Other 1920s topics:

  • Prohibition
    18th Amendment

  • 1920
    Female Emancipation

  • Organised Crime
    scar face

  • The Great Depression
    Stock Market Crash

  • Baby Boomers
    First World War
    "Johnny Come Lately"


    Wade, F. (ed) (1996) Problems & Issues in Modern History Oxford University Press, South Melbourne Australia

    Hoepper, B. (1990) Changing the World – Inquiries in Modern History The Jacaranda Press, Milton

    Mills, H. (1984) Twentieth Century World History in Focus Macmillon Education LTD, London

    Shaw, A. (1977) Modern World History Melbourne, Lengman Cheshire

    Mowat, L. (Univ. of North Wales) (ed) (1968) The Shifting Balance of World Forces in 'The New Cambridge Modern History Volume XII: Second edition' University Press, Cambridge
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