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The 20th century in review
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The 20th century in review

Table of contents
1 The world at the turn of the century
2 The Great War
3 Russian Revolution
4 The inter-war years
5 Global war
6 The world post 1945
7 The world at the end of the 20th century

The world at the turn of the century

The 20th Century began with excitement and uncertainty. With the increase in inventions in the late 1800's, the turn of the century was when inventions like the light bulb, the automobile, and the telephone, finally became mainstream. Thus the turn of the century was met with great expectation the world over. Alongside such progress in the 20th century, no one could have expected what a change 100 years would have on the political world. The United States made huge gains economically and politically, breaking the norm of a European-based world. Africa, Central and South America, and Asia also broke away from their European conquerors and would gain their independence. Thus the balance of world power throughout the 20th century gradually spread out from Europe.

In Europe the 20th century starts with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, she was regarded as the Grandmother of Europe, being related to most European dynasties. Not only did this signify the end of a popular royal, but it also signified the end of an era. The 19th century was the most prosperous for the British Empire. Never again would the British Empire be as strong as it was during her reign. The British, however, were determined to perserve the empire which had become so integral to their national identity.

Further, on mainland Europe, Germany and Italy had recently united. Both of these powers lagged behind in imperialism which their neighbours had participated in for centuries before. With nationalism in full force at this time, the young Germany longed to prove to its rivals it should be recognized as a world power. Grabbing several colonies in Africa and challenging France and Britain with its military build-up, Germany was determined to make its presence felt on the world stage.

Asia and Africa were, for the most part, still under control of their European conquerors. Exceptions existed, however, as in China and Japan. Furthermore, Japan and Russia were at war with one another in 1905. The Russo-Japanese War was one of the first instances of a European power falling victim to a seemingly inferior nation. The war itself would strengthen Japanese militarism and enhance Japan's rise to the status of a Great Power. Czarist Russia on the other hand, did not handle the defeat well. The war exposed their military weakness and increasing economic backwardness

The United States was only a minor player in world politics during the 19th century. Now, with an exponential growth in immigration and a resolution of the national unity issue through the bloody American Civil War, America was emerging as an industrial powerhouse rivalling Britain, Germany, and France. It had also made its presence known on the world stage by challenging the Spanish in the Spanish-American War, gaining the colonies of Cuba and the Phillipines as protectorates.

With such a rise in power in Asia, and especially in North America, and with increasing rivalry among the European powers, the stage was set for world politics to undergo a major upheaval.

The Great War

Main article: World War I

The First World War started in 1914 and ended in 1918. It was ignited by the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Empire's heir to the throne Erzherzog Franz Ferdinand by the Serbian nationalist organization called the "Black Hand". Bound to help the small Serbian state by Slavic nationalism, the Russians came to the aid of the Serbs when they were attacked. Interwoven alliances, an increasing arms race, and old hatred dragged Europe into war. The Allies (known as "The Triple Alliance") comprised the British Empire, Russia and France, as well as Italy and the USA later in the war. On the other side, Germany along with Austria-Hungary and later the Ottoman Empirewere known as "The Triple Entente".

In 1917 Russia and Germany signed a peace treaty in Brest-Litowsk which strongly favoured Germany and its allies, so from 1917 Russia ended hostile actions against the Triple Entente. The regime of the czar collapsed in October 1917 and the Bolsheviks negotiated peace with the Triple Entente, ceding a great deal of land to the Germans. Although Germany shifted huge forces from the eastern to the western front after the Treaty of Brest-Litowsk, it couldn't stop the Allied advance, especially with the entrance of American troops in 1918.

The war itself was also a chance for the combatting nations to show off their military strength and technological ingenuity. The Germans introduced the machine gun and deadly gases. The British first used the tank. Both sides had a chance to test out their new aircraft to see if it could be used in warfare. It was widely believed that the war would be short. Unfortunately, since trench warfare was the best form of defence, advances on both sides were very slow. Thus the war was drawn out longer and caused more fatalities than expected.

When the war was finally over in 1918, the results would set the stage for the next fifty years. First and foremost, the Germans were forced to sign the Treaty of Versailles, forcing them to make exorbitant payments to repair damages caused during the War. Many Germans felt these reparations were unfair because they did not actually "lose" the war nor did they feel they caused the war. Germany was never occupied by Allied troops, yet they had to accept a liberal democratic governemt imposed on them by the victors after the abdication of Kaiser Willhelm. Much of the map of Europe was redrawn by the victors based upon the theory that future wars could be prevented if all ethnic groups had their own "homeland". New states like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia were created out of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to accommodate the national aspirations of these groups. An international body was formed called the League of Nations to mediate disputes and prevent future wars.

The entire world got a taste of what world-wide industrial warfare could be like. The idea of war as a noble defense of one country in a good cause vanished as people of all nations relected upon the deficiencies of their leaders which had caused the decimation of an entire generation of young men. No one had any interest in another war of that magnitude. Pacifism became popular and fashionable.

Russian Revolution

Main article: Russian Revolution

With the success of the October Revolution, the first state based upon Marxist principles was born. Many conservatives within Europe and beyond were horrified at the prospect of a state based upon such a radical ideology. They were also terrified by the preaching from Lenin and his fellow revolutionaries that the collaspe of capitalism was inevitable and the Communists were going to work towards hastening its decline by supporting Communist parties in every nation of the world. Progressives were elated and many enthusiastically supported the new Communist state and spread Communist ideas throughout Europe.

When Lenin died in 1924, and Stalin displaced Trotsky as the de facto leader of the party, the idea of worldwide revolution was no longer in the forefront. Stalin concentrated on the idea of "socialism in one country" and embarked on a bold plan of collectivization and industrialization. Many Progressives became disillusioned with Stalin's autocratic rule, his purges and the assassination of his "enemies", as well as the news of famines he imposed on his own people.

Communism was strengthened as a force in Western democracies when the global economy crashed in 1929. Many people saw this as the first stage of the end of the capitalist system and were attracted to Communism as a solution to the economic crisis. Stalin and the Russian Communists continued to support Communist parties in other nations that obeyed their dictates. Communists were elected all over Europe and even in the United States much to the horror of the ruling classes.

The inter-war years

Economic depression

Main article:
Great Depression

The economy after World War I remained strong throughout the 1920s. The war provided a stimulus for industry and for ecomonic activity in general. There were many warning signs which lead to the collapse of the global ecomonic system in 1929 which were generally not understood by the political leadership of the time. The responses to the crisis often made the situation worse, as millions of people watched their savings become next to worthless and the idea of a steady job with a reasonable income fading away.

Many sought answers in alternative ideologies such as Communism and Fascism. They believed that the economic system was collapsing and new ideas were required to meet the crisis. The idea the existing system could be reformed by government intervention in the ecomony rather than a laissez-faire approach became prominent as a solution to the crisis. The early responses to the crisis were based upon the idea that the free market would correct itself, however, these ideas did very little to correct the crisis or alleviate the suffering of many ordinary people. This era also saw the birth (in the Western democracies) of the welfare state--the idea that government bears responsibility to provide needed services in society. These two political/economic ideas, the belief in government intervention and welfare state versus the belief in the free market and private institutions would define many of the political battles for the rest of the century.

The rise of Fascism

Main article: Fascism

Fascism first appeared in Italy with the rise to power of Benito Mussolini in 1922. It was supported by the Roman Catholic Church and a large proportion of the upper classes as a strong challenge to the threat of Communism.

When Adolf Hitler siezed power in Germany in 1933, a new variant of Fascism called Nazism took over Germany and ended the German experiment with democracy. The National Socialist party in Germany was dedicated to the restoration of German honour and prestige, the unification of German speaking peoples, and the annexation of Central and Eastern Europe as vassal states, with the Slavic population to act as slave labour) to serve German economic interests. There was also strong appeal to racial purity (Germans were the herrenvolk or master race) and a vicious anti-semitism which promoted the idea of Jews as subhuman untermensch and worthy only of extermination.

Many people in Western Europe and the United States greeted the rise of Hitler with relief or indifference. They could see nothing wrong with a strong Germany ready to take on the Communist menace to the east. Anti-semitism during the Great Depression was widespread as many were content to blame the Jews for causing the ecomonic downturn.

Hitler began to put his plan in motion annexing Austria in the Anschluss or reunification of Austria to Germany in 1938. He then negotiated the annexation of the Sudetenland, a German speaking mountainous area of Czechoslovakia, through one of the allies of Czechoslovakia, Britain. The British were eager to avoid war and believed Hitler's assurance to protect the security of Czech state. He annexed the rest of the Czech state shortly afterwards. It could no longer be argued that Hitler was solely interested in unififying the German people.

Global war

Main article: World War II (Suggest link to other pages rather than recount in any detail)

The Holocaust

Main article: Holocaust ''Definition article: Total war'

The nuclear age begins

The world post 1945

Israel and Palestine

The end of empire

An 'Iron Curtain' has fallen

'A giant leap for mankind'


War by proxy

Korean War Vietnam War

The end of the Cold War

Cold War

Secular conflict

European Union

Main article: History of the European Union

The world at the end of the 20th century