Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Download this course

Share this free course

Roaring Twenties? Europe in the interwar period
Roaring Twenties? Europe in the interwar period

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

2 Modern populations

Rosalind Crone

Not everyone in Europe would have experienced the interwar period as a time of great social change, or ‘modernity’. This is particularly evident when we look at some broad demographic data from across the continent.

Table 1 Populations of Europe (in thousands)
Austria n/a6648 Footnotes   164266672
% in major citiesn/an/a2928.1
Belgium 6694742474068092
% in major citiesn/a13.813.817.5
Bulgaria 43384338 Footnotes   248476305
% in major citiesn/a2.43.24.6
Czechoslovakia n/a135991361214730
% in major citiesn/a1.655.8
Denmark 245027573104 Footnotes   33551
% in major citiesn/a20.318.121.7
Estonia n/an/a11051122
% in major citiesn/an/an/an/a
Finland 2656294331483463
% in major citiesn/a567
France 38451391923879841228
% in major citiesn/a12.212.611.9
Germany 5636764926 Footnotes   46318166030
% in major citiesn/a14.318.321.4
Greece 2434263250177201
% in major citiesn/a12.39.49.6
Hungary Footnotes   5n/a761579908688
% in major citiesn/a11.614.811.6
Ireland 445943902972 Footnotes   62963
% in major citiesn/a6.913.414.1
Italy 324753467136406 Footnotes   741177
% in major citiesn/a1011.312.7
Latvia n/an/a15961951
% in major citiesn/an/a17.919.4
Lithuania n/an/a21162597
% in major citiesn/an/an/an/a
Luxembourg 236260261300
% in major citiesn/an/an/an/a
Netherlands 5104585868657936
% in major citiesn/a21.921.922.3
Norway 2240239226502814
% in major citiesn/a10.29.79
Poland n/an/a2717732107
% in major citiesn/an/a5.86.2
Portugal 5423595860876826
% in major citiesn/a7.388.7
Romania Footnotes   8595772351563518057
% in major citiesn/a4.723.5
Russia/USSR126367 Footnotes   9n/a136900170467
% in major citiesn/an/a3.54.5
Spain 18594199272130323564
% in major citiesn/a7.999
Sweden 5,137552259056142
% in major citiesn/a9.210.512.1
Switzerland 2315375338804006
% in major citiesn/a6.66.89.3
Great Britain (excl. Ireland)37000408314276944795
% in major citiesn/a30.730.431.4
Yugoslavia n/an/a1198513934
% in major citiesn/an/a1.83.3
(Sources: compiled from data in Kirk, 1969, p. 24 and Mitchell, 1998, pp. 3–8)


Note: Not all countries held a census in 1900 or 1901, and in this case data is taken from the closest census to these years. Also, in the case of Russia, there was no census taken at or near 1910/11. Back to main text


Footnotes   1 This is the population of the geographical area which would be the Austrian Republic after the First World War. Back to main text


Footnotes   2 Between 1910 and 1920, there were several boundary changes, including the loss of Southern Dobrudja to Romania and the gain of rather larger territories from Turkey. Back to main text


Footnotes   3 In 1921, part of Schleswig was acquired from Germany. This is not counted in the data for 1920/21 but is counted in the data for 1930/31. Back to main text


Footnotes   4 Territory ceded after the First World War is included in the data for 1910/11 but not for 1920/21. Back to main text


Footnotes   5 Only population in territory that constituted the post-Trianon state (that is, after territorial adjustments made in the Paris Peace Settlement) is counted. Back to main text


Footnotes   6 Post-partition population, so not including Northern Ireland. Back to main text


Footnotes   7 Not including territory gained as a result of the First World War. Figure for 1930/31 does include this territory. Back to main text


Footnotes   8 Romania acquired territory as a result of the Balkan wars and the First World War, which is counted in the relevant figures. Back to main text


Footnotes   9 The population of the areas of the former empire excluded from the USSR was 21,734 in 1897 (excluding Finland).

Activity 1

Look at Table 1 and answer the following questions:

  1. Can you see any broad trends in the data on the populations of individual countries across Europe?
  2. What impact might the First World War have had on the presence or absence of any trends?

Specimen answer

  1. It is apparent that not every country has population data from the period before the First World War. Mostly this is because these countries only came into existence as separate states as a result of the Paris Peace Settlement. In all those countries for which data is available (with the exception of Ireland, whose population fell in the 1920s and 1930s as a result of partition and high emigration), the population grew over the period 1900–30.
  2. The impact of the First World War is noticeable in some cases. For example, the populations of Austria, Germany and France all experienced a slight decline (in the case of Austria, this is a real decline as the pre-1920/21 population is only that of regions that formed the postwar, or Trianon state; also, it is important to note that Germany lost territory at the end of the war, which is not allowed for here). However, all three countries had recovered and exceeded prewar population levels by the 1930s.


Even though the population of Europe continued to increase after the First World War, you might have noticed that the rate of growth was much higher in some countries and regions than in others. Generally speaking, populations of countries in the east and south of Europe tended to grow at a faster rate than those of the north-west. The slow growth of the latter is indicative of a decline in the birth rate in those countries, due in large part to the active limitation of family size. Starting with the upper classes and moving slowly down the social scale, parents chose to limit the numbers of their children. Whereas large families with four or more children were common across Europe at the turn of the century, in the interwar years the presence of such families declined in western Europe (for example, the average number of children born per marriage in Germany dropped from 4.7 before 1905 to 2 in 1925–29), a trend that both intensified and spread to southern and eastern Europe after 1945 (Ambrosius and Hubbard, 1989, p. 23; Usborne, 1992, p. 33). Anxieties about population growth before 1914 were exacerbated by losses of the First World War – around 1.3 million French, 2 million German and 750,000 British soldiers died in the conflict. Not only was there a sharp decline in the birth rate during the war, but recovering birth rates in the interwar years never again reached levels seen in the nineteenth century. However, some historians have argued that images of a postwar cohort of spinsters in western European countries were often the products of population panics and did not necessarily reflect reality (Pugh, 2009, pp. 124–7).

Table 2 Populations of major cities of Europe (in thousands)
Austria Vienna 203118661874
Czechoslovakia Prague 224677849
Germany Berlin 207138014243
Belgium Brussels 720685840
Bulgaria Sofia 103154287
Greece Athens 167301453
Russia Moscow 153310502029
Yugoslavia Belgrade 91112267
Poland Warsaw 8729311179
Italy Rome 5426921008
Netherlands Amsterdam 574642752
Hungary Budapest 88011851006
France Paris 288829072891
Great Britain London 725674888216
Denmark Copenhagen 559561771
(Source: Mitchell, 1998, pp. 74–7)


Note: Warsaw was part of the Russian empire before the 1920s, and Belgrade was part of Serbia before the 1920s.

Activity 2

Look at Tables 1 and 2 and answer the following questions:

  1. Looking at the populations of the major European cities, can you see any notable trends? Did the First World War have any impact on these cities?
  2. From the data in the tables, do any countries stand out as being more urbanised than others? Are there any notable trends to discuss?

Specimen answer

  1. In almost every city listed in Table 2, the population increased over the period 1910–30. However, Paris, Budapest and Vienna are the exceptions to this trend: in Paris the population declined each decade, but the small extent of that decrease suggests a fairly stable population; Budapest grew between 1910 and 1920, but then experienced a small decrease by 1930. These figures also suggest that the greatest increases in population happened during the 1920s. For the most part, the impact of the First World War was marginal: some cities in countries with a direct experience of combat found their populations decreasing slightly, but this was more than made up for after the war. However, Vienna’s population decline could be said to have been directly related to the war, as the city suffered in the 1920s because it lost its status as the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
  2. Even if the general trend was towards urban expansion in the interwar period, urbanisation was not the dominant experience in all European countries. The data in Table 1 on the populations of the major cities for each country show that European states with larger urban populations tended to be located in north-west Europe.

It is important not to equate the process of urbanisation with industrialisation. A large number of those states in eastern Europe had expanding urban populations in the interwar years yet were not industrialising at any significant pace. In the 1930s, when the agricultural labour force in Britain had shrunk to 5 per cent of the population, and in Germany, France and much of Scandinavia to around 20 to 30 per cent, in eastern Europe, and particularly in the Balkans, agriculture continued to dominate, employing between 50 and 75 per cent of the populations (Wasserstein, 2009, p. 213). Derek Aldcroft has described the periphery of states stretching from eastern Europe around the rim of the Mediterranean (for example, Greece, Spain and Portugal) as Europe’s ‘third world’ during the interwar years. These states tended to be dominated by an antiquated and inefficient agrarian sector based on peasant self-sufficiency, smallholdings, overpopulation on the land, primitive farming techniques, lack of capital investment and poor education. The general poverty of the countryside meant that the market for industrial goods was small and growth discouraged. For example, 40 per cent of Hungarians were poor peasants who lived at a minimum level of subsistence and considered the most basic items such as shoes and clothes a luxury (Aldcroft, 2006, pp. 175–7). R.J. Crampton adds that often any surplus money was spent on family, religious or community festivals, and not reinvested in agriculture or used to purchase modern industrial goods (1994, p. 35). Thus it would seem that we could hardly describe society in these countries as ‘modern’ (see Figure 1).

Described image
Figure 1 Harvesting in Hungary, 1935. Photographer unknown. Photo: Fox Photos/Getty. Note the traditional dress worn by the workers. It is worth bearing this in mind when we turn to consider changing fashions in women’s dress during the interwar years later in this course.

However, some historians have argued that the backwardness of life in these states has been overplayed. For instance, Robert Bideleux and Ian Jeffries caution us not to paint too bleak a picture of interwar eastern Europe, quoting the observations of Hubert Hessell Tiltman in his Peasant Europe, published in 1934:

The Bulgarian people have been ‘lifted off the floor’ … The poorest Bulgarian peasant today generally has his land, his house, some pieces of furniture and his self-respect … And with this psychological transformation the health of the people has improved. The death rate, though still high, is falling … The peasantry live in modern two-roomed dwellings, often built of designs supplied by the state, and their animals are housed separately. The earth floors have been replaced by brick and wood. There are windows that open … Many … now sleep on beds and eat sitting at tables. Separate plates for each person have replaced the old communal bowl. Electric light, even, has come to some of the villages.

(Quoted in Bideleux and Jeffries, 1998, pp. 451–2)

This source is a helpful reminder that the process of modernisation or experience of modernity was uneven, that we cannot necessarily divide Europe into those countries which were modern and those which were ‘backward’. Prague and Krakow became vibrant hubs of modernist culture during the 1920s, attracting intellectuals from the east and exporting new ideas in photography to the west (Fischer, 2010, p. 193). Conversely, Martin Pugh states that life in rural Britain demonstrated greater continuity than change in the interwar years (2009, pp. 260–1).