Teaching world history: from StudentsFriend.com

LOCATIONS: The Balkans, Hungary, Poland, Southeast Asia, Hawaii, Normandy, Scandinavia (These locations are superimposed over a contemporary political map of the world.)

141. the 20th Century

     Perhaps the biggest change of the 20th century was change itself. In the year 1900, there were no airplanes, televisions, or computers. There were only 50 nations in the world, and only a handful were democracies. A century later, population had tripled. Humans were exploring outer space and surfing the Internet. Empires had dissolved, the world had 180 nations, and most claimed to be democracies. It's been said that more change occurred during the 20th century than in the previous 19 centuries combined.

     At the beginning of the 20th century, Europe was at the height of its power, controlling most of the land surface of the earth. The French had built the Suez Canal in Egypt linking Europe to Asia, and Europe's powerful navies patrolled the oceans. Europeans believed in social Darwinism and the superiority of the "white race." They considered their society to be the greatest achievement of civilization and a model for all other peoples to follow. A major chapter in the story of the 20th century is how Europe destroyed its own dominance of the modern world. This gloomy tale begins with World War.I.

142. World War I

     At the dawn of the 20th century, Europe's competing nations were as quarrelsome as ever. Nationalism and imperialism increased tensions and conflict among the Great Powers of Europe as they competed for military power and colonial possessions. European countries strengthened their armies and navies and formed alliances so they would have friends in case of war. These entangling alliances meant that a quarrel between any two nations could drag more countries into the conflict. Europe was a powder keg waiting to explode.

     The spark that ignited World War I came from the Balkans, a region of many cultures and ethnic groups north of Greece that included the nation of Serbia. In August 1914, a young Serbian nationalist, hoping to trigger an uprising of Serbs living in Austria, assassinated Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. Austria blamed Serbia for the attack and declared war on Serbia.

     Serbia's friend Russia declared war on Austria, and the system of entangling alliances kicked in trapping Europe in an unstoppable chain of events. Six weeks after the assassination, much of Europe was at war. The alliance led by Russia, France, and Britain, was known as the Allies; the alliance of Austria-Hungary, Germany and the Turkish Ottoman Empire was called the Central Powers. With enemies on both sides, the Central Powers had to fight a war on two fronts. The fighting in Belgium and France was the Western Front; the war in Russia was the Eastern Front. Patriotic young men from both sides eagerly enlisted for the fight. They expected it to be all over by Christmas.

143. trench warfare

     War had always been a battle of men. The Industrial Revolution turned war into a battle of machines. Five new technologies changed the nature of warfare: the airplane, the tank, the submarine, poison gas, and the machine gun. Of these, the machine gun was the most devastating. At the beginning of the war, generals familiar with an earlier style of combat hurled heroic cavalry and infantry charges against the enemy, but horses and human bodies offered little resistance to machine gun bullets.

     As the first winter of the war approached, soldiers on the Western Front began digging hundreds of miles of muddy, rat-infested trenches where they tried to hide from machine guns and exploding artillery shells. Between the trenches lay a "no man's land" of barbed wire, shattered trees, shell craters, and rotting corpses. When ordered to attack, soldiers climbed out of their trenches, ran across no man's land toward the enemy trenches, and were mowed down like fields of wheat by machine gun, rifle, and artillery fire. In just one engagement, the Battle of the Somme in northern France, 1,100,000 soldiers died. Young men were being slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands, and neither side was gaining ground.

144. the Lusitania

     President Woodrow Wilson tried to keep the United States out of the war, but it became increasingly difficult. In 1915, a German submarine sank the British passenger liner Lusitania, which was carrying weapons, as well as passengers, from the United States to England. Of the 1200 people killed in the attack, 128 were Americans, mostly women and children. The sinking turned American public opinion against Germany. Economic interests also pushed America toward war. American banks had made large loans to the Allies, and if the Allies lost the war, these loans might never be repaid. When it looked like the Allies might be defeated, President Wilson took the United States to war.

     The U.S. declared war in 1917 "to make the world safe for democracy" in the words of President Wilson. With a million fresh American troops arriving in France, the Allies soon defeated the Central Powers. When the fighting stopped at 11:00 o'clock on the 11th day of the 11th month, soldiers from both sides came out of their trenches and cheered. November 11th is now observed as Veteran's Day in the U.S.

145. Treaty of Versailles

     The Great War, as it was called, changed the political landscape of Europe. Gone were the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the long-decaying Turkish Ottoman Empire. Their lands were broken up into smaller nations. Russia lost its tsar, and Germany's Kaiser was replaced by a new German republic. The war nearly wiped-out an entire generation of young men in Europe. Almost 30 million people were killed or wounded during the Great War, and over a million civilians died as a result of the fighting.

     The peace treaty ending the war between the Allies and Germany was signed at the palace of Versailles in June of 1919. Against the wishes of President Wilson, the treaty punished Germany for the war by taking away its overseas possessions and strictly limiting Germany's army and navy. Worse for the Germans, they were forced to make large payments, or reparations, to the Allies for war damages.

     The treaty also established the League of Nations, an assembly of sixty countries that agreed to work together for world peace. The League was the idea of President Wilson who hoped the Great War would be "the war to end all wars." The United States Senate, however, refused to approve the treaty largely because many in America wanted no more foreign entanglements, an attitude called isolationism.

146. crisis of meaning

     The huge numbers of both military and civilian casualties made World War I the first total war. When it was over, people had difficulty making sense of the war. What was the point when the results were weak economies, unemployment, and the destruction of a generation? Historian Pamela Radcliff calls this a "crisis of meaning." How could Europeans continue to consider themselves the smartest, most advanced culture in the world when Europe had nearly committed suicide? Colonial peoples wondered what gave Europeans the right to control others if they couldn't control themselves.

     People began to see a link between technology and destruction; some questioned if modern technology was such a good thing after all. This crisis of meaning was reflected in Dada and surrealist art movements that attacked basic Western values that went back to the Enlightenment, ideas like progress and the value of human reason. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychology, probed the unconscious mind and found a "human instinct [for] aggression and self-destruction." Freud questioned which side of human nature would win out in the end: the beast-like, emotional, irrational side or the side of reason.

147. communism

     The German philosopher Karl Marx invented modern socialism in the 1800s as a reaction to the working-class poverty of the Industrial Revolution. His slogan was, "Workers of the world unite!" Marx predicted that workers in the industrialized nations would one day rise up and overthrow capitalism.

     In the early 1900s, Russia was not yet an industrial nation; most of its people were poor peasants working the land. Nonetheless, a group of Russian socialists led by Vladimir Lenin thought Russia was ready for a socialist revolution. Their chance came with World War I. The war didn't go well for Russia. The army was poorly led, poorly fed, and poorly equipped, and eventually it fell apart. When soldiers were ordered to shoot women textile workers rioting for food, the soldiers opened fire on their own officers instead. As rioting spread in Russia, Nicholas II was forced to step down as tsar in 1917.

     Into this power vacuum stepped Lenin's well-organized political party, the Bolsheviks. Promising peace for soldiers, land for peasants, and better conditions for workers, the Bolsheviks took control of Russia in October 1917 and removed Russia from the war. The term "communism" has come to mean an extreme form of socialism that blends Marx's economic philosophy with Lenin's ideas about socialist revolution.

     Struggling to hold the Bolshevik (or Russian) Revolution together, Lenin executed thousands of Russians suspected of opposing communism. Among those killed were the tsar and his family. The communists banned other political parties, took over banks and industries, and set up a secret police. The Russian Empire was renamed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the Soviet Union for short.

148. social reform laws

     Workers in the industrial nations did not rise up in revolution as Marx predicted; they found other ways to improve their circumstances. Finding strength in numbers, workers formed labor unions and called strikes that shut down factories until owners agreed to better pay and working conditions. When all men got the right to vote (universal male suffrage) by the early 1900s, politicians had to listen to ordinary people. Governments responded by passing social reform laws to improve the lives of workers.

     Germany adopted laws that insured workers against accidents and sickness, limited working hours, and provided old-age benefits. British Parliament stopped the employment of children under age nine, and required them to attend free elementary schools. Britain was first to adopt a workweek of 5-1/2 days, giving workers more leisure time to attend theaters, play sports, and ride their newly invented bicycles.

     Since the mid-1800s, women in Britain and America had been agitating for equal rights with men. In 1872, for example, suffragists led by Susan B. Anthony were arrested for illegally voting in a U.S. presidential election. By 1939 women in the U.S. and 31 other countries had won the right to vote.

149. the Great Depression

     The situation for workers worsened again in the 1930s due to a worldwide economic downturn called the Great Depression. Several factors led to the Depression including damage done to European economies by World War I and the U.S. stock market crash of 1929. Businesses closed, farms stopped producing, and banks failed. People lost their jobs and their life savings, and they went hungry.

     The Great Depression contributed to the post-war crisis of meaning. Millions of men had died in the trenches of a senseless war, and now it made no sense that millions of strong, healthy men couldn't find jobs to feed their families. The old capitalist system didn't seem to be working anymore; some thought it was about to collapse. Many people, Americans included, looked for a newer approach that would give workers a better break. Some looked to the Soviet Union where communism promised a more equal society. Others looked to Italy and Germany where strong, nationalistic leaders promised a better future.

150. fascism

     In Italy, a powerful political leader emerged who pledged to end Italy's economic problems and restore Italy to greatness. He was Benito Mussolini, leader of the fascists, a political movement that opposed communism and democracy, but favored violence and war and promoted nationalism and obedience to the state. After taking power, Mussolini modernized Italian agriculture and improved the economy. To strengthen his control over Italy, he made himself dictator, took over the news media, and set up a secret police.

     Germany too was looking for a strong leader to end its economic problems. Half of the country's labor force was out of work, and inflation got so bad at one point that it took bags of money to buy a loaf of bread. An inspiring public speaker named Adolf Hitler rose to the leadership of a fascist political party called the Nazis. Hitler told Germans they must reclaim their lost territories and build a new empire in Europe. His nationalist ideas took hold in a Germany that felt humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles. With crowds wildly cheering Hitler in huge parades and rallies, the Nazi party grew in popularity until it won enough votes in national elections to make Hitler the new German leader.

     Hitler quickly moved to revive the Germany economy. In just five years, unemployment fell from six million to almost nothing, and the German standard of living rose. Encouraged by anti-communist businessmen, the German parliament voted to turn over absolute power to Hitler. Thus, Hitler used Germany's democracy to end Germany's democracy. Hitler used his absolute power to ban all political parties except the Nazis and to set up a secret police. His enemies were killed, tortured, or imprisoned.

151. mass culture

     Before the industrial era, people usually experienced their culture alone or in small gatherings. They might read a book or play music with friends. This changed when the Industrial Revolution began to manufacture culture as well as goods. By the late 1800s, mass-produced newspapers were a major cultural force as thousands of people read the same stories at the same time. Mass culture swelled in the early 20th century as the public flocked to buy movie tickets, radios, and music recordings. Sports teams formed leagues that competed nationally. Such shared experiences helped to create mass national cultures.

     Some critics were concerned that people were becoming spectators rather than participants by purchasing cultural experiences instead of making their own. Other critics warned that mass culture could be used to control the public by appealing to emotion rather than reason. This fear was realized in Nazi Germany where the state took control of radio stations and the film industry, and the government learned to skillfully use propaganda to manipulate the public through emotional appeals to nationalism and racism. (Propaganda is a systematic effort, usually by government, to spread ideas or beliefs.) In Nazi Germany, individual thought was overwhelmed by propaganda and mass public opinion.

152. totalitarian government

     For the first time, mass culture made it possible to reach everyone with the same message and to rally entire nations behind a cause. Hitler and Mussolini rallied the masses of Germany and Italy behind fascist nationalism. The Soviet Union mobilized its masses to support "the worker's revolution."

     After Lenin died in 1924, Joseph Stalin took control of the Soviet Union. He convinced Russians it was their duty to industrialize quickly. Stalin also confiscated peasants' farms and combined them into large state-run collective farms. In the process, some ten million peasants died or went to prison camps.

     Although communists and fascists had different political philosophies, they used similar methods. Both systems were led by strong, god-like dictators who symbolized the state. Citizens were expected to sacrifice their individuality to the will of the state, and many people were happy to give up personal freedom for a sense of belonging to a great cause. Both systems eliminated dissent; anyone disagreeing with the government could expect a terrifying visit from the secret police. Because these societies took nearly total control over peoples' lives, they are termed "totalitarian." Unlike liberal democracies where the state is seen as the servant of the people, the people in totalitarian societies are seen as servants of the state. Authoritarian states are similar, but the term implies somewhat less control by government.

153. Spanish Civil War     

     The years between World War I and World War II were a difficult time for democracies all over Europe as they were challenged by socialism on the left and fascism on the right. Not only were republics overthrown in Italy and Germany, most of the democracies of eastern and central Europe also fell during this period. Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, fascists led by Francisco Franco tried to overthrow the elected republican government in Spain. Volunteers from many countries including the United States (the Abraham Lincoln Brigade) went to fight in Spain on the side of the Spanish Republic.

     The fascists, however, were supported by Mussolini and Hitler. Hitler used the opportunity to test his modern German air force, the Luftwaffe, against human targets. A disturbing painting by Pablo Picasso portrays the bombing of defenseless civilians in the Spanish town of Guernica where 1600 residents were killed by German bombers during three hours of terror. The attack horrified the world, but it was only a preview of massive terror bombing raids against civilians to come in World War II. After three years of fighting, the fascists succeeded in defeating Spain's republican government. Spain remained under Franco's fascist rule until 1975 when Franco died, and democracy was reestablished in Spain.

154. the Nanking Massacre

     Back in the mid-1800s, the U.S. Navy forced Japan to open its doors to foreign trade. Shortly thereafter, America was distracted by its Civil War, and the U.S. left Japan alone for several years. This gave the Meiji government time to figure out how to respond to the threat of Western power. Japan had a long tradition of borrowing from other cultures, especially China, so it is not surprising that Japan chose to borrow industrialism from the West. With an educated urban work force, Japan's industrial revolution proceeded rapidly. By the early 1900s, Japan had a modern industrial economy.

      In 1905, Japan became the first Asian country to defeat a European power when it overcame Russia in the Russo-Japanese War. Victory gave Japan economic control in parts of Korea and the Manchuria region of China; Japan was now becoming an imperialist power, and the U.S. began to see Japan as a possible rival in the Pacific.

     Extreme nationalists came to power in Japan saying that foreign conquest was the only way Japan could get the resources it needed. Japan invaded Manchuria and Southeast Asia, claiming to be liberating Asia from Western imperialism. When Japanese armies took the Chinese capital of Nanking in 1937, they burned the city and massacred between 100,000 and 300,000 Chinese. In what came to be called "The Rape of Nanking," Japanese soldiers brutally raped some 20,000 Chinese women, then killed them or left them to die.

155. appeasement

     Meanwhile in Europe, Hitler promised Germans he would destroy the Treaty of Versailles, and he began by rebuilding the German army in violation of the treaty. Britain and France complained but did nothing to stop him. In 1936, in violation of the treaty, Hitler sent troops into the Rhineland region on the German-French border. It was a risky move, but Hitler calculated that nobody would stop him, and he was right. Hitler then brought Germany and Austria together in a union also forbidden by the treaty.

     England and France were following a policy of appeasement, which means they were giving in to Hitler's demands to avoid conflict and the possibility of another terrible war. As the world watched, Hitler's army grew stronger, and each success made Hitler bolder. Next, he took the German-speaking Sudetenland region in Czechoslovakia, and six months later he conquered the whole country.

     In 1939, when Hitler's armies invaded Poland, France and England finally declared war on Germany, and World War II was underway in Europe. The alliance of France and England (later joined by Russia and the U.S.) was called the Allies. Germany, Italy (and later Japan) were the Axis powers. Many historians consider World War II to be a continuation of World War I because the two sides were similar in both wars, and German resentment of the Treaty of Versailles set the stage for the rise of Hitler.

156. blitzkrieg

     To overcome the stalemate of trench warfare, Hitler's military planners developed a new battle tactic called blitzkrieg or "lightning war." Blitzkrieg meant attacking quickly with a strong force of concentrated troops supported by artillery, tanks, and air power. Hitler's powerful German military used the blitzkrieg to quickly overrun Poland and five more European countries. It took the Germans only seven weeks to circle around a French defensive barrier and conquer the strong nation of France.

     With France defeated, Hitler ordered massive bombing attacks against targets in England in preparation for a planned invasion. German bombs pounded London for 57 straight nights. These were dark days for the British people; Prime Minister Winston Churchill told his country, "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat."

     British fighter pilots battled the Luftwaffe in the skies over England, aided by radar that could spot enemy planes approaching the English coast. The Luftwaffe destroyed large areas of British cities, but German aircraft losses became so great that Hitler had to abandon his plan to invade England. Churchill praised British airmen by saying, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." In winning the Battle of Britain, the British dealt Hitler his first major defeat of the war.

157. World War II

     The United States was still at peace. Although America was officially neutral in the war, the U.S. supplied so much war material to the European Allies that war production helped pull America out of the Depression. In the Pacific, only one barrier stood in the way of complete Japanese control of Asia: the U.S. Navy's Pacific fleet based at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The United States insisted that Japan withdraw from the territories it conquered in China and Southeast Asia, and the U.S. imposed an embargo that stopped the shipment of key resources to Japan, a move the Japanese considered virtually an act of war.

     On December 7, 1941, the quiet of a Sunday morning at Pearl Harbor was shattered when carrier-based Japanese warplanes launched a surprise attack on the U.S. fleet. In just 30 minutes, American naval power in the Pacific was crippled. Despite the successful attack, the Japanese commander warned, "I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant."

     The next day, President Franklin Roosevelt went before Congress and declared, "December 7th is a date which will live in infamy." The U.S. and Britain declared war on Japan. Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S. Now the war in Europe was linked to the war in the Pacific creating a truly global world war. America immediately switched to a war footing.

     Factories began operating 24-hours a day, seven days a week. Chrysler stopped making cars and started making tanks. As American men were called away to fight, American women went to work in war plants making everything from socks to ships. U.S. war production soon equaled that of Japan, Italy, and Germany combined. The Pacific Fleet recovered sufficiently from the attack at Pearl Harbor to defeat the Japanese Navy in carrier sea battles in the Coral Sea and at Midway. These victories gave the United States naval supremacy in the Pacific for the remainder of the war. The giant was awake.

158. the Holocaust

     Hitler's empire in Europe stretched from Scandinavia to North Africa, from the Atlantic Ocean to Russia. People in lands conquered by the Nazis were expected to serve the German "master race." "Inferior" people such as Russians and Gypsies were to be enslaved or eliminated. Many teachers and other educated people disappeared. But the Nazis reserved their harshest treatment for the Jews.

     Hitler's plan for the Jews was called the "Final Solution," which meant complete extermination of the Jewish people. All over Europe Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps where they were forced to work or were systematically executed. Hitler diverted so many resources from fighting the war to killing Jews that his mass murder operation eventually contributed to Germany's defeat.

     Of Europe's eight million Jews, the Nazis succeeded in killing six million, an event that came to be known as the Holocaust. When the world learned about the full extent of Hitler's homicidal madness, the word genocide was invented to describe the intentional and systematic destruction of an entire racial or cultural group.

159. Hitler's invasion of Russia

     Hitler was about to make his biggest mistake of the war, the same mistake made by Napoleon over a century earlier. When Hitler couldn't conquer England, he invaded Russia, which brought the Soviet Union into the war on the side of the Allies. As the Russians retreated, they adopted the same scorched-earth policy used by the tsar's soldiers against Napoleon. The turning point in the Russian fighting, and in World War II, came in 1943 at the Battle of Stalingrad, where the Soviets captured an entire German army. The Soviets began to push the Germans back, and from then on Germany started losing the war. The Russians, however, paid a terrible price in World War II, suffering an incredible 23 million dead.

     From airfields in England, British and American bombers pounded Germany, wiping out entire cites and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. In 1944, the Allies launched the massive Normandy Invasion of France trapping the Nazis between Allied forces approaching from the west and Russian soldiers closing in from the east. With Russian troops only a few blocks from his underground bunker in Berlin, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in April 1945. Germany surrendered one week later.

160. Hiroshima

     Fierce fighting continued in the Pacific. American troops fought and won savage battles against determined Japanese forces trying desperately to hold strategic islands. American bombers began to strike inside Japan, pulverizing Japanese cities. Japan was on the verge of collapse, but it refused to surrender.

     Meanwhile, American scientists had perfected the atomic bomb. Hoping to avoid a costly invasion of the Japanese home islands, President Harry Truman ordered the atomic bomb used against Japan. The first bomb destroyed the city of Hiroshima where 200,000 people died. Three days later, a second bomb produced similar results in Nagasaki. The next day, Japan asked to end the war. Controversy still surrounds the use of atomic weapons against Japan. Critics say a demonstration of the awesome power of the bomb might have convinced Japan to surrender without using this terrible new weapon against people.

     Again, the nature of warfare had changed. Genocide and massive aerial bombing raids had made civilians, not soldiers, the primary targets of war. Of the 50 million people killed in World War II, an estimated two-thirds were civilians. The atomic bomb meant that a future world war might kill everyone.


Student's Friend Part 1

Unit 1 - Overview, Basic Concepts, Prehistory

Unit 2 - Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt

Unit 3 - Ancient India and China

Unit 4 - Ancient Greece and Rome

Unit 5 - Early Middle Ages: 500 to 1000

Unit 6 - Late Middle Ages: 1000 to 1500

Student's Friend Part 2

Unit 7 - 1500s and 1600s: Early Modern World

Unit 8 - 1700s: Enlightenment and Revolution

Unit 9 - 1800s: Industrialism and Imperialism

Unit 10 - 1900 to 1950: World at War

Unit 11 - 1950 to Present: Cold War and Space Age

Unit 12 - Current Issues: A Changing World Order

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© 2001-2016 Michael G. Maxwell, Maxwell Learning LLC

Unit 10 - 1900 to 1950: World at War