The Twentieth Century

The Twentieth Century, in the sense of being a historical period rather than a simple division of dates, began in August of 1914, with the First World War. Europe was no stranger to war, but she had relative peace since the end of the Napoleonic Wars a century before. In that time the fantasies of socialism, nationalism, and the strange combination of boundless optimism and bottomless rage caused by the traumas and changes of Industrial Revolution had created a belief that war was either wonderful or impossible. Nationalists believed that each nation's qualities were actual weapons, that an iron will and steel bayonet could overcome the technology of industrial war. They fantasized a quick, decisive, and marvelous war in which all national and even spiritual aspirations would be fulfilled. Socialists imagined that the working classes would see their real enemies not as each other but their militaristic, aristocratic, and capitalist masters and begin the world revolution. Both views were sorely mistaken. After 1871 the European powers strove to isolate Germany. After Bismarck was fired by the arrogant and incompetent Kaiser Wilhelm II, there was little to keep Germany from becoming isolated. He disdained alliances with powerful England and Russia for the declining Austro-Hungarian Empire, mainly out of a desire to be the unquestionably the senior partner in the alliance. In 1912 and 1913 the Balkans erupted in two wars, neither of which led to a satisfactory settlement in which borders and nationalities matched very well. Serbia, in particular, had large populations in Bosnia-Hezegovina (yes, the same). Bosnia was part of the very multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire. Though the Emperor and most of the higher echelons of the government were Austrian, the Empire made very deliberate attempts to mollify the nationalisms of her various Slavic communities. It was an uphill battle. Bosnia was a particular flashpoint, where the three south (or Yugo) Slavic nations, Serb, Croat and Bosnian (based on their religions, not languages or cultures) were often at odds. In August of 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand visited Sarajevo, the capital, and was assassinated by Serbs (weather these Serbs were nationalists, anarchists, or agents of Serbian Secret police is unknown and probably doesn't really matter). Austria jumped at the chance to bully Serbia into concessions. The demands were (by design) unacceptable, and Austria declared war. Russia backed Serbia, Germany backed Austria, France backed Russia, and soon Europe was at war. Wild enthusiasm was the near universal response to this war. Germany came very close to winning the war outright, defeating Russia in Prussia and coming close to taking Paris in September of 1914. But at the battle of the Marne France turned Germany's flank and the war dissolved into a bloody stalemate. The British had joined the French and Russians (generally called the 'allies', as opposed to the 'central powers'), honoring a secret treaty with Belgium, which Germany invaded to flank the French along the Franco-German border. But this seeming imbalance of forces was not so imbalanced. Germany had outstanding leadership, training, and elan, while its tactics were the least idiotic of the lot. France threw its soldiers away in cruelly incompetent offensives, Britain took until 1916 to build up its army fully and when it did threw away its men in droves at the battle of the Somme, and Russia's teetering Monarchy threw away the lives of its troops even more casually. Germany held off these three powers until by 1917 she had exhausted all of them. Russia suffered two revolutions, the second of which took her out of the war and gave birth to the Soviet Union. France suffered a mutiny of its troops, put down only with vicious reprisals and the installation of one of the few talented and considerate generals she had, General Petain. The British Army was spared mutiny in 1917 but was so mauled by heavy casualties that there was no hope of defeating Germany. Germany, despite arraying almost all of Europe against it through arrogance, was in a position to win the war in 1917. But again, she felt it necessary to add to her list of enemies by starting unrestricted submarine warfare with the Untied States. In 1918 her exhausted forces came very close to victory again, but the offensive ran out of steam just short of Paris and a flood of American troops drove Germany back. On November 11, 1918, the war ended, leaving Europe in ruins. Europe had been in near constant combat since the third century, and had reached levels of depravity and bloodshed in the Hundred Years and Thirty Years war that are unimaginable. But in the First World War she managed to top herself. The First World War was a massive, useless, disgusting conflict with almost no redeeming factors. But it was a picnic compared with the second. In the twenty years after the Peace of Versailles in 1919, Europe was rarely out of economic trouble. A new notion, the totalitarian state, took the imagination of almost all Europeans. Even democracies like Britain and France were led by semi-dictatorial coalitions determined to somehow pull through the hard times of the twenties, which after a brief respite gave way to the depression of the thirties. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and in this atmosphere thugs rose to the top. In the Soviet Union, Stalin killed millions, great and small, creating terror for the sake of terror. In Italy, a blustering journalist named Mussolini took power and set on grandiose schemes of domination of the Mediterranean. In Spain a republic dominated by feuding Communists and Anarchists fought a Civil War with Fascists led by General Francisco Franco, who after three brutal years won the war. And in Germany, a decorated Corporal steeped in mysticism and anti-semitism stood out among the many street brawlers and para-military thugs, of the left and right, to eventually become Furher of Germany. Hitler blustered and bullied his way to creation of a greater German Reich by 1939, which included all German populated areas save the Polish Corridor, which was rather unfairly taken from Germany in 1919. Hitler believed he could take it from the cringing democracies as easily as Czechoslovakia the year before, but on September 1, 1939 World War II began. Again, Germany would manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory through arrogance, manage to array the whole world against it, and worst of all make fantasies of racial purity become nightmares of murder and genocide. To conquer Poland, Germany had signed a pact with the Soviet Union, splitting the hapless country more or less in two. Hitler was thus free to turn all his forces towards the west, and in just over forty days in 1940 he conquered France and drove the British from the Continent. German plans to invade Britain (which Hitler never fully supported) never got of the ground. Instead of consolidating his victories Hitler let his pathological hatred for Communism and the Jews he believed led it (ironic, given Stalin's own virulent anti-semitism) get the better of him and invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. That same year Japan attacked the United States and Hitler, the consummate liar and breaker of pledges, honored his pledge to the Japanese and declared war on the United States, which was the only country capable of defeating Germany in the last war. The advance in Russia, brilliantly successful at the outset, was stalled and then turned back by a combination of shifting strategy, misplaced ideological crusading, and most of all a resurgent Red Army that changed from a chaotic rabble in 1941 to the most powerful army in the history of humanity by 1943. The United States and Britain landed in Normandy in 1944, and Nazi Germany was squashed between the Democracies in the west and the Soviets in the east by 1945. The largest and most catastrophic war in human history was over, and Europe was again shattered. The allies quickly parted ways after the war, and by 1948 were on the edge of war themselves. Nuclear weapons were now a factor, and the deterrence created by these weapons led to a 'Cold War'. Nationalism was submerged by ideology on both sides of the 'Iron Curtain' (better called the 'Concrete Curtain' as the commies loved concrete and used it to make everything from buildings to food). In the American-protected west, countries submerged their military and to a lesser extent economic policies into multinational confederations. In the east, the Soviets created a virtual empire, enforcing Socialism on their 'satellites', and using overwhelming force when violent and even non-violent resistance reared its head. But Socialism's ability to make tanks and western leftists swoon was not matched by an ability to make food or satisfy its supposed beneficiaries, the workers. In 1985 Mikhail Gorbochev came to power in the Soviet Union, and by 1989 his reforms had so weakened the facade of Soviet Power that the 'eastern bloc' was let go. In 1991 the Soviet Union itself fell apart. The nationalist tensions submerged by the Cold War have since resurfaced, very often in ugly forms. After four thousand years of more or less uninterrupted nastiness, Europe has yet to find true harmony through domination by a single power or confederation, and now depends on the United States to keep the peace in Bosnia, as she needed the United States to check Germany twice and Russia once. Europe continues to be divided into lots of little countries that stretch even a 265 Color palette. But that's a whole other issue. To use this page, click on underlined text to access information on various maps of The Twentieth Century.

Questions, comments, and corrections are welcome! Direct comments and such toTony Belmonte This page was created and is maintained by Ali Rezaian.