The First World War proved to be a watershed in European history. The outbreak of a conflict of such magnitude produced economic dislocation, social distress and ideological militancy which eroded the foundations of European Liberalism. Already before 1914, the supremacy of the Liberal governing elites was under threat: economic modernization, industrialization, secularization and other related contemporary phenomena were breaking down and challenging the existing hierarchical, elitist and clientelist politics. Now the formerly dominant groups were confronted with the uncertainties of popular politics, the often unwelcome prospect of more genuine democracy, and the fast-advancing threat of Socialism. 1 Four years of appalling human and material losses intensified the movements of protest which had existed before 1914. Furthermore, to the existing problems of food and fuel shortages, economic dislocation and social distress were added the pleas of displaced national minorities and the revisionist feelings of the losers of the Great War.
The armistice of 1918 did not put an end to the struggle on the continent, it only changed its appearance. The armed conflict was over but a new kind of ideological warfare had only just begun. After its success in Russia in November 1917, Bolshevism found a ready audience among the war-weary populations and began to spread westwards, initiating the richest period of revolutionary activity in Europe since 1848. Traditional rulers soon discovered that it was impossible to put back the clock. Years of misery had brought about political militancy which in turn led to the breakdown of existing forms of elitist politics. The political and social upheaval would be felt throughout the continent, from London to Moscow, heralding an era of utopian ferment and class struggle. Nevertheless, the main battlefield had two centres. First there were the newly born regimes of Central Europe, created out of the disintegration of the Hohenzollern and Habsburg Empires, which had to cope with the bitter taste of defeat and the political vacuum left by the enforced departure of their rulers. Secondly, southern Europe, where the governing class, whose hegemony had hitherto been based upon electoral falsification and patronage, proved unable to face up to the arrival of mass politics.