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The World Wars and Interwar Period 



The first half of the 20th century saw the world entangled in two global wars, conducted with an unprecedented brutality. The First World War developed from a purely European affair into a conflict involving the colonies and the United States. It altered Europe's political landscape and shifted the power balance worldwide. In World War II, the nations of Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Africa were drawn into the conflict through the aggressive policies of an ambitious Nazi Germany. The war was conducted with the most up-to-date weapons technology and cost the lives of more than 55 million people. The Holocaust, the systematic annihilation of the European Jews, represented an unparalleled moral catastrophe for modern civilization.


Pablo Picasso "Weeping Woman", 1937




Latin America



Due to a booming export economy after World War I, Latin America experienced a period of relative domestic stability. However, social tension resulting from the world economic depression in the 1930s brought authoritarian regimes backed by the military to power almost everywhere. These regimes gained popularity due to their social reforms. In international affairs, almost all the Latin American states proclaimed solidarity with the United States and declared war on Germany and Japan during World War II.


Pan-Americanism and Economic Strength

In the 1920s, the economic strength and domestic stability of the Latin American countries led to greater equality with the booming United States.


1 "Christ the Redeemer" statue in Rio de Janeiro, built in 1931

After the civil wars and coup attempts of the initial phase of independence, the Latin American countries achieved internal consolidation after the 1880s. Politically, from the start of World War I, European influence in Latin America began to weaken, while US supremacy gradually increased. The Pan-American Union, an organization of all American states, was founded in 1889 for the promotion of mutual solidarity, but it soon developed into an instrument through which the United States could influence the economies and politics of the nations to the south.

Domestic tension— such as the general strike in Buenos Aires in 1919, uprisings in Brazil in 1924, and the brief intermezzo of a military dictatorship in Chile in 1924-1925— remained the exception during the general peace of the interwar period.

The opening of the hemisphere to the world market played an essential role in this stabilization.

The thriving 2 export of raw materials created high growth rates through the end of the 1920s, and the 4, 5 building industry flourished as well.

As everywhere else, though, the world economic crisis would abruptly end the economic growth and cause political turmoil.

The economic successes of the 1920s enabled the Latin American states to gain more equality in the Pan-American Union.

2 Selecting coffee beans, Brazil

4 Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro, 1935

5 Salvador de Bahia, Brazil: elevator
connecting upper and lower city,
built in 1930, photo, 2004

3 US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1936

At a conference in Santiago, Chile, the Latin American countries were able to achieve the election of the chairman of the Pan-American Union's administrative council; until then, the US secretary of state had held this office, 3 President Roosevelt adopted the "Good Neighbor" policy in 1930, which aimed to combine US claims to hemispheric leadership with mutual respect and solidarity on both sides.

In 1933, the United States signed a resolution that banned intervention in the domestic affairs of other American nations. American troops were withdrawn from the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Nicaragua.

Faced with the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, a common defense against foreign threats took priority at the Pan-American Union conference in 1940 in Havana. When the United States declared war on Japan and Germany on December 11,1941, the Central and South American nations entered the war one after another.



Latin America's Crisis during the Depression

In Latin America, social unrest resulting from the world economic depression brought military-supported dictatorships to power during the 1930s. In Brazil, Getulio Vargas established a personal dictatorship that combined subjugation with social charity.


The global economic crisis hit the 8 export-dependent economies of Latin America especially hard and led to an economic breakdown.

As a result, political uprisings took place everywhere.

Dictatorships, mostly of military origin, came to power promising to create jobs and fight 6, 9 poverty.

8 A boy harvesting coconuts, 1935

6 Slum area in Buenos Aires, Argentina

9 A boy offering a captured sloth
for sale, 1935

Many Latin American states attempted to reduce their dependency on foreign trade and investments through government-controlled economic policies. Consumer goods were to be produced domestically and the corresponding industries set up. Brazil exemplified this model.

7 Getulio Vargas, a failed candidate at the 1929 elections, led a revolt in 1930 in the wake of the world economic depression.

7 General Getulio Donelles Vargas

He instituted wide administrative reforms. After defeating the 1932 insurrection in Sao Paulo, his status was legitimized by an election in 1934, and he then governed from 1937 with dictatorial authority, alternately supported by the communists and the fascists. Attempts to overthrow him from both sides were suppressed. Following Portugal's example, Vargas established an authoritarian state he called the "New State" (Estado Novo), in which the individual person or minority factions were subordinate to the national whole. Social conflicts were to be regulated not by a "class struggle" but by cooperation between institutions and organizations. Despite the authoritarianism, the reforms made Vargas popular, particularly among the poor. Trade unions were allowed, and pension and health insurance schemes were set up. The state also guaranteed a minimum wage.

Although at the outset of the Second World War Vargas declared himself favorably disposed towards the Axis, after the United States declared war, in 1942, Brazil entered the war on the side of the anti-Hitler coalition, and in 1944 it sent troops to Europe— the only Latin American country to do so. An expeditionary corps of more than 25,000 men fought on the Italian front until the end of the war. Nevertheless, after the defeat of Hitler by the democracies, Vargas's position as dictator became unsustainable.

Vargas was ousted by the military in 1945, yet, as a result of his enduring popularity, he was elected president once again in a free election in 1950. However, political scandal led him to commit suicide in 1954.



Getulio Vargas

Getulio Vargas

president of Brazil
in full Getúlio Dorneles Vargas

born April 19, 1882 [see Researchers Note], São Borja, Braz.
died Aug. 24, 1954, Rio de Janeiro

president of Brazil (1930–45, 1951–54), who brought social and economic changes that helped modernize the country. Although denounced by some as an unprincipled dictator, Vargas was revered by his followers as the “Father of the Poor,” for his battle against big business and large landowners. His greatest accomplishment was to guide Brazil as it weathered the far-reaching consequences of the Great Depression and the accompanying polarization between communism and fascism during his long tenure in office.

Vargas was born in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, into a family prominent in state politics. Contemplating a military career, he joined the army when he was 16 but soon decided to study law. In 1908, shortly after graduating from the Porto Alegre Law School, he entered politics. By 1922 he had risen rapidly in state politics and was elected to the National Congress, in which he served for four years. In 1926 Vargas became minister of finance in the Cabinet of President Washington Luís Pereira de Sousa, a post he retained until his election as governor of Rio Grande do Sul in 1928. From his position as state governor, Vargas campaigned unsuccessfully as reform candidate for the presidency of Brazil in 1930. While appearing to accept defeat, Vargas in October of that year led the revolution, organized by his friends, that overthrew the oligarchical republic.

For the next 15 years Vargas assumed largely dictatorial powers, ruling most of that time without a congress. He held sole power as provisional president from Nov. 3, 1930, until July 17, 1934, when he was elected president by the constituent assembly. During this time he survived a São Paulo-led revolt in 1932 and an attempted communist revolution in 1935. On Nov. 10, 1937, Vargas presided over a coup d’état that set aside the constitutional government and set up the populist authoritarian Estado Novo (“New State”). In 1938 he, along with members of his family and staff, personally resisted an attempt to overthrow his government by Brazilian fascists.

Prior to 1930 the federal government had been in effect a federation of autonomous states, dominated by rural landholders and financed largely by the proceeds of agricultural exports. Under Vargas this system was destroyed. The tax structure was revised to make state and local administrations dependent upon the central authority, the electorate was quadrupled and granted the secret ballot, women were enfranchised, extensive educational reforms were introduced, social-security laws were enacted, labour was organized and controlled by the government, and workers were assured a wide range of benefits, including a minimum wage, while business was stimulated by a program of rapid industrialization. Vargas, however, did not change the private-enterprise system, nor did his social reforms extend in practice to the rural poor.

But on Oct. 29, 1945, Vargas was overthrown by a coup d’état in a wave of democratic sentiment sweeping postwar Brazil. He still, however, retained wide popular support. Although elected as senator from Rio Grande do Sul in December 1945, he went into semiretirement until 1950, when he emerged as the successful presidential candidate of the Brazilian Labour Party. He took office on Jan. 31, 1951.

As an elected president restrained by congress, a profusion of political parties, and public opinion, Vargas was unable to satisfy his labour following or to placate mounting middle-class opposition. Thus, he resorted increasingly to ultranationalistic appeals to hold popular support and incurred the animosity of the U.S. government, which encouraged intransigent opposition from his enemies. By mid-1954 criticism of the government was widespread, and the armed forces, professing shock over scandals within the regime, joined in the call for Vargas’s withdrawal. Rather than accept forced retirement, Vargas took his life on Aug. 24, 1954. His dramatic deathbed testament to the country led to a great resurgence of mass support, allowing for a rapid return of his followers to power.

Rollie E. Poppino

Encyclopaedia Britannica




Several generals and conservative politicians including Uriburu and Justo, backed by the armed forces, came to power in Argentina in the 1930s, but they were unable to solve the economic problems or control the growing domestic radicalism.

The country doggedly avoided entering the war in favor of the Allies and even occasionally indirectly supported the Axis powers.

The Army, however, was very much in favor of Germany, and it rebelled in 1943: Colonel Juan Domingo Peron, vice president and war minister since 1943 and later president (1946-1955,1973-1974) granted German secret agents asylum in Argentina.

Entry papers of Josef Mengele,
a doctor in the concentration camp of Auschwitz,
who settled in , in 1945 under a false name




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