20th century events
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
1 The world at the beginning of the century
2 "The war to end all wars": World War I (1914–1918)
3 The Russian Revolution and communism
4 Between the wars
4.1 Economic depression
4.2 The rise of dictatorship
5 Global war: World War II (1939–1945)
5.1 The war in Europe
5.2 The war in the Pacific
5.3 The Holocaust
5.4 The Nuclear Age begins
6 The post-war world
6.1 The end of empires: decolonization
6.2 Mutually assured destruction: the Cold War (1947–1991)
6.3 War by proxy
6.4 The space race
6.5 The end of the Cold War
6.6 Information and communications technology
7 The world at the end of the century
8 World population
9 See also
12 External links
The 20th century events include many notable
events which occurred throughout the 20th century, which began on
January 1, 1901 and ended on December 31, 2000, according to the
The world at the beginning of the century
In Europe, the British Empire achieved the height of its power. Germany
and Italy, which came into existence as unified nations at the end of
the 19th century, grew in power, challenging the traditional hegemony of
Britain and France. With nationalism in full force at this time, the
European powers competed with each other for land, military strength and
Asia and Africa were for the most part still under control of their
European colonizers. The major exceptions were China and Japan. The
Russo-Japanese War in 1905 was the first major instance of a European
power being defeated by a so-called inferior nation. The war itself
strengthened Japanese militarism and enhanced Japan's rise to the status
of a world power. Tsarist Russia, on the other hand, did not handle the
defeat well. The war exposed the country's military weakness and
increasing economic backwardness, and contributed to the Russian
Revolution of 1905, the dress rehearsal for the conclusive one in 1917.
Already in the 19th century, the United States had become an
influential actor in world politics. It had made its presence known on
the world stage by challenging Spain in the Spanish-American War,
gaining the colonies of Puerto Rico and the Philippines as
protectorates. Now, with growth in immigration and a resolution of the
national unity issue through the bloody American Civil War, America was
emerging as an industrial power as well, rivaling Britain, Germany, and
With increasing rivalry among the European powers, and the rise of
Japan and the United States, the stage was set for a major upheaval in
"The war to end all wars": World War I (1914–1918)
The First World War, termed "The Great War" (or simply WWI) by
contemporaries, started in 1914 and ended in 1918. It was ignited by the
Assassination in Sarajevo of the Austro-Hungarian Empire's heir to the
throne, Erzherzog Franz Ferdinand, by Gavrilo Princip of the Serbian
nationalist organization "Black Hand". Bound by Slavic nationalism to
help the small Serbian state, the Russians came to the aid of the Serbs
when they were attacked. Interwoven alliances, an increasing arms race,
and old hatreds dragged Europe into war. The Allies, known initially as
"The Triple Entente", comprised the British Empire, Russia and France,
as well as Italy and the United States later in the war. On the other
side, Germany, along with Austria-Hungary , Bulgaria and later the
Ottoman Empire, were known as "The Central Powers".
In 1917, Russia ended hostile actions against the Central Powers
after the fall of the Tsar. The Bolsheviks negotiated the Treaty of
Brest-Litovsk with Germany, although it was at huge cost to Russia.
Although Germany shifted huge forces from the eastern to the western
front after signing the treaty, it was unable to stop the Allied
advance, especially with the entrance of American troops in 1918.
The war itself was also a chance for the combatant nations to show
off their military strength and technological ingenuity. The Germans
introduced the machine gun, U-Boats and deadly gases. The British first
used the tank. Both sides had a chance to test out their new aircraft to
see if they could be used in warfare. It was widely believed that the
war would be short. Unfortunately, since trench warfare was the best
form of defense, advances on both sides were very slow, and came at a
terrible cost in lives.
When the war was finally over in 1918, the results would set the
stage for the next twenty 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 (see Stab-in-the-back legend).
Germany was never occupied by Allied troops, yet it had to accept a
liberal democratic government imposed on it by the victors after the
abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm.
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 former Austro-Hungarian Empire to accommodate the
nationalist aspirations of these groups. An international body called
the League of Nations was formed to mediate disputes and prevent future
wars, although its effectiveness was severely limited by, among other
things, its reluctance and inability to act.
The Russian Revolution and communism
The Russian Revolution of 1917 sparked a wave of communist revolutions
across Europe, prompting many to believe that a socialist world
revolution could be realized in the near future. However, the European
revolutions were defeated, Lenin died in 1924, and within a few years
Joseph Stalin displaced Leon Trotsky as the de facto leader of the
Soviet Union. The idea of worldwide revolution was no longer in the
forefront, as Stalin concentrated on "socialism in one country" and
embarked on a bold plan of collectivization and industrialization. The
majority of socialists and even many communists 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 in what became known as the Great
Depression. 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, especially as the Soviet Union's economic development
in the 1930s was strong, unaffected by the capitalist world's crisis.
Between the wars
After World War I, the global economy remained strong through the 1920s.
The war had provided a stimulus for industry and for economic activity
in general. There were many warning signs foretelling the collapse of
the global economic system in 1929 that 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 capitalist economic system was
collapsing, and that new ideas were required to meet the crisis. The
early responses to the crisis were based upon the assumption that the
free market would correct itself. This, however, did very little to
correct the crisis or to alleviate the suffering of many ordinary
people. Thus, the idea that the existing system could be reformed by
government intervention in the economy rather than by continuing the
laissez-faire approach became prominent as a solution to the crisis.
Democratic governments assumed the responsibility to provide needed
services in society and alleviate poverty. Thus was born the welfare
state. These two politico-economic principles, the belief in government
intervention and the welfare state, as opposed to the belief in the free
market and private institutions, would define many political battles for
the rest of the century.
The rise of dictatorship
Fascism first appeared in Italy with the rise to power of Benito
Mussolini in 1922. The ideology was supported by a large proportion of
the upper classes as a strong challenge to the threat of communism.
When Adolf Hitler came to 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 honor 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
labor to serve German economic interests. There was also a strong appeal
to a mythical racial purity (the idea that Germans were the Herrenvolk
or the "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 economic 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, in the Munich Conference. The
British were eager to avoid war and believed Hitler's assurance to
protect the security of the Czech state. Hitler annexed the rest of the
Czech state shortly afterwards. It could no longer be argued that Hitler
was solely interested in unifying the German people.
Fascism was not the only form of dictatorship to rise in the post-war
period. Almost all of the new democracies in the nations of Eastern
Europe collapsed and were replaced by authoritarian regimes. Spain also
became a dictatorship under the leadership of General Francisco Franco
after the Spanish Civil War. Totalitarian states attempted to achieve
total control over their subjects as well as their total loyalty. They
held the state above the individual, and were often responsible for some
of the worst acts in history, such as the Holocaust Adolf Hitler
perpetrated on European Jews, or the Great Purge Stalin perpetrated in
the Soviet Union in the 1930s.
Global war: World War II (1939–1945)
The war in Europe
This section provides a conversational overview of World War II in
Europe. See main article for a fuller discussion.
Soon after the events in Czechoslovakia, Britain and France issued
assurances of protection to Poland, which seemed to be next on Hitler's
list. World War II officially began on September 1, 1939. On that date,
Hitler unleashed his Blitzkrieg, or lightning war, against Poland.
Britain and France, much to Hitler's surprise, immediately declared war
upon Germany, but the help they could afford Poland was negligible.
After only a few weeks, the Polish forces were overwhelmed, and its
government fled to exile in London (see Polish government in Exile).
In starting World War II, the Germans had unleashed a new type of
warfare, characterized by highly mobile forces and the use of massed
aircraft. The German strategy concentrated upon the devotion of the
Wehrmacht, or German army, to the use of tank groups, called panzer
divisions, and groups of mobile infantry, in concert with relentless
attacks from the air. Encirclement was also a major part of the
strategy. This change smashed any expectations that the Second World War
would be fought in the trenches like the first.
As Hitler's forces conquered Poland, the Soviet Union, under General
Secretary Joseph Stalin, was acting out guarantees of territory under a
secret part of a nonaggression pact between the USSR and Germany known
as the Nazi-Soviet Pact. This treaty gave Stalin free rein to take the
Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as Eastern
Poland, all of which would remain in Soviet possession after the war.
Stalin also launched an attack on Finland, which he hoped to reduce to
little more than a Soviet puppet state, but the Red Army met staunch
Finnish resistance in what became known as the Winter War, and succeeded
in gaining only limited territory from the Finns. This action would
later cause the Finns to ally with Germany when its attack on the Soviet
Union came in 1941.
After the defeat of Poland, a period known as the Phony War ensued
during the winter of 1939–1940. All of this changed on May 10, 1940,
when the Germans launched a massive attack on the Low Countries
(Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg), most probably to surmount
the Maginot Line of defenses on the Franco-German border. This witnessed
the incredible fall of Eben Emael, a Belgian fort considered impregnable
and guarded by 600 Belgians, to a force of only 88 German paratroopers.
The worst of this was that King Léopold III of Belgium surrendered to
the Germans on May 28 without warning his allies, exposing the entire
flank of the Allied forces to German panzer groups. Following the
conquest of the Low Countries, Hitler occupied Denmark and Norway,
beginning on April 9, 1940. Norway was strategically important because
of its sea routes which supplied crucial Swedish ore to the Nazi war
machine. Norway held on for a few crucial weeks, but Denmark surrendered
after only four days.
With the disaster in the Low Countries, France, considered at the
time to have had the finest army in world, lasted only four weeks, with
Paris being occupied on June 14. Three days later, Marshal Philippe
Pétain surrendered to the Germans. The debacle in France also led to one
of the war's greatest mysteries, and Hitler's first great blunder,
Dunkirk, where a third of a million trapped British and French soldiers
were evacuated by not only British war boats, but every boat the army
could find, including fishing rafts. Hitler refused to "risk" his
panzers on action at Dunkirk, listening to the advice of Air Minister
Hermann Göring and allowing the Luftwaffe, or German Air Force, to
handle the job. The irony of this was that the escaped men would form
the core of the army that was to invade the beaches of Normandy in 1944.
Hitler did not occupy all of France, but about three-quarters, including
all of the Atlantic coast, allowing Marshal Pétain to remain as dictator
of an area known as Vichy France. However, members of the escaped French
Army formed around General Charles de Gaulle to create the Free French
forces, which would continue to battle Hitler in the stead of an
independent France. At this moment, Italy, under Benito Mussolini,
declared war on the Allies on June 10, thinking that the war was almost
over, but he managed only to occupy a few hundred yards of French
territory. Throughout the war, the Italians would be more of a burden to
the Nazis than a boon, and would later cost them precious time in
Hitler now turned his eyes on Great Britain, which stood alone
against him. He ordered his generals to draw up plans for an invasion,
code named Operation Sea Lion, and ordered the Luftwaffe to launch a
massive air war against the British isles, which would come to be known
as the Battle of Britain. The British at first suffered steady losses,
but eventually managed to turn the air war against Germany, taking down
2,698 German planes throughout the summer of 1940 to only 915 Royal Air
Force (RAF) losses. The key turning point came when the Germans
discontinued successful attacks against British airplane factories and
radar command and coordination stations and turned to civilian bombing
known as terror bombing using the distinctive "bomb" sound created by
the German dive-bomber, the Stuka. The switch came after a small British
bombing force had attacked Berlin. Hitler was infuriated. However, his
decision to switch the attacks' focus allowed the British to rebuild the
RAF and eventually force the Germans to indefinitely postpone Sea Lion.
The importance of the Battle of Britain is that it marked the
beginning of Hitler's defeat. Secondly, it marked the advent of radar as
a major weapon in modern air war. With radar, squadrons of fighters
could be quickly assembled to respond to incoming bombers attempting to
bomb civilian targets. It also allowed the identification of the type
and a guess at the number of incoming enemy aircraft, as well as
tracking of friendly airplanes.
Hitler, taken aback by his defeat over the skies of Britain, now
turned his gaze eastward to the Soviet Union. Despite having signed the
non-aggression pact with Stalin, Hitler despised communism and wished to
destroy it in the land of its birth. He originally planned to launch the
attack in early spring of 1941 to avoid the disastrous Russian winter.
However, a pro-allied coup in Yugoslavia and Mussolini's almost utter
defeat in his invasion of Greece from occupied Albania prompted Hitler
to launch a personal campaign of revenge in Yugoslavia and to occupy
Greece at the same time. The Greeks would have a bitter revenge of
sorts; the attack caused a delay of several crucial weeks of the
invasion of Russia.
On June 22, 1941, Hitler attacked Stalin with the largest army the
world has ever seen. Over three million men and their weapons were put
into service against the Soviet Union. Stalin had been warned about the
attack, both by other countries and by his own intelligence network, but
he had refused to believe it. Therefore, the Russian army was largely
unprepared and suffered incredible setbacks in the early part of the
war, despite Stalin's orders to counterattack the Germans. Throughout
1941, German forces, divided into 3 army groups (Army Group A, Army
Group B, and Army Group C), occupied the Eastern Europe states of
Ukraine and Belarus, laid siege to Leningrad (present day Saint
Petersburg), and advanced to within 15 miles of Moscow. At this critical
moment, the Russian winter, which began early that year, stalled the
German Wehrmacht to a halt at the gates of Moscow. Stalin had planned to
evacuate the city, and had already moved important government functions,
but decided to stay and rally the city. Recently arrived troops from the
east under the command of military genius Marshal Georgi Zhukov
counterattacked the Germans and drove them from Moscow. The German army
then dug in for the winter.
Here marks the third great blunder of Hitler's. He could have won the
war in the USSR except for a few reasons. One, he started the war too
late to avoid the Russian winter. Second, he tried to capture too much
too fast; he wanted the German army to advance all the way to the Urals,
which amounted to one million square miles (2,600,000 km²) of territory,
when he probably should have concentrated on taking Moscow and thereby
driving a wedge into heart of the Soviet Union. Third, he ignored the
similar experiences of Napoleon Bonaparte nearly one hundred and fifty
years earlier in his attempt to conquer Russia. Despite this, Stalin was
not in a good position. Roughly two-fifths of the USSR's industrial
might was in German hands. Also, the Germans were at first seen by many
as liberators fighting the communists. Stalin was also not a very able
general, and like Hitler, at first tried to fight the war as a military
strategist. However, Hitler managed to turn all of his advantages
against himself, and lost the only remaining hope for Germany: seizing
the Caucasus and taking control of North Africa and the oil-rich Middle
Mussolini had launched an offensive in North Africa from
Italian-controlled Libya into British-controlled Egypt. However, the
British smashed the Italians and were on the verge of taking Libya.
Hitler decided to help by sending in a few thousand troops, a Luftwaffe
division, and the first-rate general Erwin Rommel. Rommel managed to use
his small force to repeatedly smash massively superior British forces
and to recapture the port city of Tobruk and advance into Egypt.
However, Hitler, embroiled in his invasion of the Soviet Union, refused
to send Rommel any more troops. If he had, Rommel might have been able
to seize the Middle East, where Axis-friendly regimes had taken root in
Iraq and Persia (present-day Iran). Here, Rommel could have cut the
major supply route of the Soviets through Persia, and helped take the
Caucasus, virtually neutralizing Britain's effectiveness in the war and
potentially sealing the fate of the USSR. However, Hitler blundered
again, throwing away the last vestiges of the German advantage on his
coming offensive in 1942.
After the winter, Hitler launched a fresh offensive in the spring of
1942, with the aim of capturing the oil-rich Caucacus and the city of
Stalingrad. However, he repeatedly switched his troops to where they
were not needed. The offensive bogged down, and the entire 6th Army,
considered the best of German troops, was trapped in Stalingrad. Hitler
now refused to let 6th Army break out. He insisted that the German army
would force its way in. Hermann Goering also assured Hitler that the
Luftwaffe could supply the 6th Army adequately, when it could in reality
only supply a minute fraction of the needed ammunition and rations.
Eventually, the starved 6th Army surrendered, dealing a severe blow to
the Germans. In the end, the defeat at Stalingrad was the turning point
for the war in the east.
Meanwhile, the Japanese had attacked the United States at Pearl
Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. This disastrous attack forced the
Americans into the war. Hitler need not have declared war on the United
States, and kept its continued neutrality in Europe, but he did not.
Both he and Mussolini declared war only a few days after the attack. At
the time, most German generals, preoccupied with war in Russia, did not
even notice America's entrance. It was to be a crucial blunder.
Throughout the rest of 1942 and 1943, the Soviets began to gain
ground against the Germans. The tank battle of Kursk is one example.
However, by this time, Rommel had been forced to abandon North Africa
after a defeat by Montgomery at El Alamein, and the Wehrmacht had
encountered serious casualties that it could not replace. Hitler also
insisted on a "hold at all costs" policy which forbade relinquishing any
ground. He followed a "fight to the last man" policy that was completely
ineffective. By the beginning of 1944, Hitler had lost all initiative in
Russia, and was struggling even to hold back the tide turning against
From 1942 to 1944, the United States and Britain acted in only a
limited manner in the European theater, much to the chagrin of Stalin.
They drove out the Germans in Africa, invading Morocco and Algeria on
November 8, 1942. Then, on July 10, 1943, the Allies invaded Sicily, in
preparation for an advance through Italy, the "soft underbelly" of the
Axis, as Winston Churchill called it. On September 9, the invasion of
Italy began. By the winter of 1943, the southern half of Italy was in
Allied hands. The Italians, most of whom did not really support the war,
had already turned against Mussolini. In July, he had been stripped of
power and taken prisoner, though the Italians feigned continued support
of the Axis. On September 8, the Italians formally surrendered, but most
of Italy not in Allied hands was controlled by German troops and those
loyal to Mussolini's (Mussolini had been freed by German paratroopers)
new Italian Social Republic, which in reality consisted of the shrinking
zone of German control. The Germans offered staunch resistance, but by
June 4, 1944, Rome had fallen.
The Second Battle of the Atlantic took place from 1942 to 1944. The
Germans hoped to sever the vital supply lines between Britain and
America, sinking many tons of shipping with U-boats, German submarines.
However, the development of the destroyer and aircraft with a longer
patrol range were effective at countering the U-boat threat. By 1944,
the Germans had lost the battle.
On June 6, 1944, the Western Allies finally launched the long awaited
assault on "Fortress Europe" so wanted by Stalin. The offensive,
codenamed Operation Overlord, began the early morning hours of June 6.
The day, known as D-day, was marked by foul weather. Rommel, who was now
in charge of defending France against possible Allied attack, thought
the Allies would not attack during the stormy weather, and was on
holiday in Germany. Besides this, the Germans were expecting an attack,
but at the natural harbor of Calais and not the beaches of Normandy; a
blunder that sealed the operation's success. They did not know about the
Allies' artificial harbours, and clues planted by the Allies suggested
Calais as the landing site.
By this time, the war was looking ever darker for Germany. On July
20, 1944, a group of conspiring German officers attempted to assassinate
Hitler. The bomb they used did injure him, but the second was not used,
and a table shielded Hitler in a stroke of luck. The plotters still
could have launched a coup, but only the head of occupied Paris acted,
arresting SS and Gestapo forces in the city. The German propaganda
minister, Joseph Goebbels, rallied the Nazis, and saved the day for
In France, the Allies took Normandy and finally Paris on August 25.
In the east, the Russians had advanced almost to the former
Polish-Russian border. At this time, Hitler introduced the V-weapons,
the V-1 flying bomb and, later, the V-2, the first rockets used in
modern warfare. The V-1 was often intercepted by air pilots, but the V-2
was extremely fast and carried a large payload. However, this advance
came too late in the war to have any real effect. The Germans were also
on the verge on introducing a number of terrifying new weapons,
including advanced jet aircraft, which were too fast for ordinary
propeller aircraft, and submarine improvements which would allow the
Germans to again fight effectively in the Atlantic. All this came too
late to save Hitler. Although a September invasion of The Netherlands
failed, the Allies made steady advances. In the winter of 1944, Hitler
put everything into one last desperate gamble in the West, known as the
Battle of the Bulge, which, despite an initial advance, was a failure,
because the introduction of new Allied tanks and low troop numbers among
the Germans prevented any real action being taken.
In early February 1945, the three Allied leaders, Franklin Roosevelt,
Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin, met at newly liberated Yalta in
the Crimea in the Soviet Union in the Yalta Conference. Here, they
agreed upon a plan to divide post-war Europe. Most of the east went to
Stalin, who agreed to allow free elections in Eastern Europe, which he
never did. The west went to Britain, France, and the U.S. Post-war
Germany would be split between the four, as would Berlin. Here the
territory of the Cold War was set. The boundaries of a new Europe,
stripped of some of its oldest ruling families, were drawn up by the
three men at Yalta.
At the beginning of 1945, Hitler was on his last strings. The
Russians launched a devastating attack from Poland, where they had
liberated Warsaw, into Germany and Eastern Europe, intending to take
Berlin. The Germans collapsed in the West, allowing the Allies to fan
out across Germany. However, the Supreme Allied Commander, American
general Dwight D. Eisenhower, refused to strike for Berlin, and instead
became obsessed with reports of possible guerrilla activity in southern
Germany, which in reality existed only in the propaganda of Joseph
Goebbels. By April 25, the Russians had besieged Berlin. Hitler remained
in the city in a bunker under the Chancellery garden. On April 30, he
committed suicide, after a ritual wedding with his long time mistress
Eva Braun. The Germans held out another 7 days under Admiral Doenitz,
their new leader, but the Germans surrendered unconditionally on May 7,
1945, ending the war in Europe (see V-E Day).
Rivalries that had begun during the war, combined with the sense of
strength in the victorious powers, laid the foundations of the Iron
Curtain and of the Cold War.
The war in the Pacific
Slave laborers at the Buchenwald concentration camp.
The Holocaust (which roughly means "great fire") was the deliberate,
systematic, and horrific murder of millions of Jews and other minorities
during World War II by the Nazi regime in Germany. Several differing
views exist regarding whether it was intended to occur from the war's
beginning, or if the plans for it came about later. Regardless,
persecution of Jews extended well before the war even started, such as
in the Kristallnacht (literally "Crystal Night", Night of Broken Glass).
The Nazis used propaganda to great effect to stir up anti-Semitic
feelings within ordinary Germans.
After the conquest of Poland, the Third Reich, which had previously
deported Jews and other "undesirables", suddenly had within its borders
the largest concentration of Jews in the world. The solution was to
round up Jews and place them in concentration camps or in ghettos,
cordoned off sections of cities where Jews were forced to live in
deplorable conditions, often with tens of thousands starving to death,
and the bodies decaying in the streets. As appalling as this sounds,
they were the lucky ones. After the invasion of the Soviet Union, armed
killing squads of SS men known as Einsatzgruppen systematically rounded
up Jews and murdered an estimated one million Jews within the country.
As barbaric and inhuman as this seems, it was too slow and inefficient
by Nazi standards.
In 1942, the top leadership met in Wannsee, a suburb of Berlin, and
began to plan a more efficient way to slaughter the Jews. The Nazis
created a system of extermination camps throughout Poland, and began
rounding up Jews from the Soviet Union, and from the Ghettos. Not only
were Jews shot or gassed to death en masse, but they were forced to
provide slave labor and they were used in horrific medical experiments
(see Human experimentation in Nazi Germany). Out of the widespread
condemnation of the Nazis' medical experiments, the Nuremberg Code of
medical ethics was devised.
The Nazis took a
sadistic pleasure in the death camps; the entrance to the worst camp,
Auschwitz, stated "Arbeit Macht Frei"—"Work Makes Free". In the end,
seven million Jews, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Gypsies and
political prisoners were killed by various means, mainly in the death
camps. An additional seven million Soviet and other Allied prisoners of
war died in camps and holding areas.
There is some controversy over whether ordinary Germans knew about
the Holocaust. It appears that many Germans knew about the concentration
camps; such things were prominently displayed in magazines and
newspapers. In many places, Jews had to walk past towns and villages on
their way to work as slaves in German industry. In any case, Allied
soldiers reported that the smell of the camps carried for miles. A very
small number of people deny the Holocaust occurred entirely, though
these claims have been routinely discredited by mainstream historians.
The Nuclear Age begins
The first nuclear explosion, named "Trinity", was detonated July 16,
During the 1930s, innovations in physics made it apparent that it could
be possible to develop nuclear weapons of incredible power using nuclear
reactions. When World War II broke out, scientists and advisors among
the Allies feared that Nazi Germany may have been trying to develop its
own atomic weapons, and the United States and the United Kingdom pooled
their efforts in what became known as the Manhattan Project to beat them
to it. At the secret Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico, scientist
Robert Oppenheimer led a team of the world's top scientists to develop
the first nuclear weapons, the first of which was tested at the Trinity
site in July 1945. However, Germany had surrendered in May 1945, and it
had been discovered that the German atomic bomb program had not been
very close to success.
The Allied team produced two nuclear weapons for use in the war, one
powered by uranium-235 and the other by plutonium as fissionable
material, named "Little Boy" and "Fat Man". These were dropped on the
Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. This, in
combination with the Soviet entrance in the war, convinced the Japanese
to surrender unconditionally. These two weapons remain the only two
nuclear weapons ever used against other countries in war.
Nuclear weapons brought an entirely new and terrifying possibility to
warfare: a nuclear holocaust. While at first the United States held a
monopoly on the production of nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union, with
some assistance from espionage, managed to detonate its first weapon
(dubbed "Joe-1" by the West) in August 1949. The post-war relations
between the two, which had already been deteriorating, began to rapidly
disintegrate. Soon the two were locked in a massive stockpiling of
nuclear weapons. The United States began a crash-program to develop the
first hydrogen bomb in 1950, and detonated its first thermonuclear
weapon in 1952. This new weapon was alone over 400 times as powerful as
the weapons used against Japan. The Soviet Union detonated a primitive
thermonuclear weapon in 1953 and a full-fledged one in 1955.
The conflict continued to escalate, with
the major superpowers developing long-range missiles (such as the ICBM)
and a nuclear strategy which guaranteed that any use of the nuclear
weapons would be suicide for the attacking nation (Mutually Assured
Destruction). The creation of early warning systems put the control of
these weapons into the hands of newly created computers, and they served
as a tense backdrop throughout the Cold War.
Since the 1940s there were concerns about the rising proliferation of
nuclear weapons to new countries, which was seen as being destabilizing
to international relations, spurring regional arms races, and generally
increasing the likelihood of some form of nuclear war. Eventually, seven
nations would overtly develop nuclear weapons, and still maintain
stockpiles today: the United States, the Soviet Union (and later Russia
would inherit these), the United Kingdom, France, China, India, and
Pakistan. South Africa developed six crude weapons in the 1980s (which
it later dismantled), and Israel almost certainly developed nuclear
weapons though it never confirmed nor denied it. The creation of the
Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty in 1968 was an attempt to curtail such
proliferation, but a number of countries developed nuclear weapons since
it was signed (and many did not sign it), and a number of other
countries, including Libya, Iran, and North Korea, were suspected of
having clandestine nuclear weapons programs.
Nuclear missiles and computerized launch
systems increased the range and
possible nuclear war.
The post-war world
Following World War II, the majority of the industrialized world lay in
ruins as a result of aerial bombings, naval bombardment, and protracted
land campaigns. The United States was a notable exception to this;
barring Pearl Harbor and some minor incidents, the U.S. had suffered no
attacks upon its territory. The United States and the Soviet Union,
which, despite the devastation of its most populated areas, rebuilt
quickly, found themselves the world's two dominant superpowers.
Much of Western Europe was rebuilt after the war with assistance from
the Marshall Plan. Germany, chief instigator of the war, was placed
under joint military occupation by the United States, Great Britain,
France, and the Soviet Union. Berlin, although in Soviet-controlled
territory, was also divided among the four powers. Occupation of Berlin
would continue until 1990. Japan was also placed under U.S. occupation,
that would last five years, until 1949. Oddly, these two Axis powers,
despite military occupation, soon rose to become the second (Japan) and
third (West Germany) most powerful economies in the world.
Following the end of the war, the Allies famously prosecuted numerous
German officials for war crimes and other offenses in the Nuremberg
Trials. Although Adolf Hitler had committed suicide, many of his
cronies, including Hermann Göring, were convicted. Less well-known
trials of other Axis officials also occurred, including the Tokyo War
The failure of the League of Nations to prevent World War II
essentially discredited the organization, and it was dissolved. A new
attempt at world peace was begun with the founding of the United Nations
on October 24, 1945 in San Francisco. Today, nearly all countries are
members, but despite its many successes, the organization's success at
achieving its goal of world peace is dubious. The organization was never
given enough power to overcome the conflicting interests and priorities
of its member nations.
The end of empires: decolonization
Almost all of the major nations that were involved in World War II began
shedding their overseas colonies soon after the conflict. In Africa,
nationalists such as Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana
led their respective nations to independence from foreign rule. The
tactics employed by the revolutionaries ranged from non-violent forms of
protest to armed rebellions, depending on the nation involved. The
United States granted independence to the Philippines, its major Pacific
possession. European powers also began withdrawing from their
possessions in Africa and Asia. France was forced out of both Indochina
and, later, Algeria.
Mutually assured destruction: the Cold War (1947–1991)
War by proxy
Two wars and a near-war in the 1950s became the foci for capitalist
versus communist struggle. The first war was the Korean War, fought
between People's Republic of China-backed North Korea and mainly United
States-backed South Korea. North Korea's invasion of South Korea led to
United Nations intervention. General Douglas MacArthur led troops from
the United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, and other countries
in repulsing the Northern invasion. However, the war reached a stalemate
after Chinese intervention pushed U.N. forces back, and a cease-fire
ended hostilities, leaving the two Koreas divided and tense for the rest
of the century.
The second war, the Vietnam War, was perhaps the second most visible
war of the 20th century, after World War II. After the French withdrawal
from its former colony, Vietnam became partitioned into two halves, much
like Korea. Fighting between North and South eventually escalated into a
regional war. The United States provided aid to South Vietnam, but was
not directly involved until the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, passed in
reaction to a supposed North Vietnamese attack upon American destroyers,
brought the U.S. into the war as a belligerent. The war was initially
viewed as a fight to contain communism (see containment, Truman
Doctrine, and Domino Theory), but, as more Americans were drafted and
news of events such as the Tet Offensive and My Lai massacre leaked out,
American sentiment turned against the war. U.S. President Richard Nixon
was elected partially on claims of a "secret plan" to stop the war. This
Nixon Doctrine involved a gradual pullout of American forces; South
Vietnamese units were supposed to replace them, backed up by American
air power. Unfortunately, the plan went awry, and the war spilled into
neighboring Cambodia while South Vietnamese forces were pushed further
back. Eventually, the U.S. and North Vietnam signed the Paris Peace
Accords, ending U.S. involvement in the war. With the threat of U.S.
retaliation gone, the North proceeded to violate the ceasefire and
invaded the South with full military force. Saigon was captured on April
30, 1975, and Vietnam was unified under Communist rule a year later,
effectively bringing an end to one of the most unpopular wars of all
The Cuban Missile Crisis illustrates just how close to the brink of
nuclear war the world came during the Cold War. Cuba, under Fidel
Castro's socialist government, had formed close ties with the Soviet
Union. This was obviously disquieting to the United States, given Cuba's
proximity. When Lockheed U-2 spy plane flights over the island revealed
that Soviet missile launchers were being installed, U.S. President John
F. Kennedy instituted a naval blockade and publicly confronted the
Soviet Union. After a tense week, the Soviet Union backed down and
ordered the launchers removed, not wanting to risk igniting a new world
The space race
In 1969, humans first set foot on the Moon.
With Cold War tensions running high, the Soviet Union and United States
took their rivalry to the stars in 1957 with the Soviet launch of
Sputnik. A "space race" between the two powers followed. Although the
USSR reached several important milestones, such as the first craft on
the Moon (Luna 2) and the first human in space (Yuri Gagarin), the U.S.
allegedly pulled ahead eventually with its Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo
programs, which culminated in Apollo 11's manned landing on the moon.
Five more manned landings followed (Apollo 13 was forced to abort its
mission). Nevertheless, despite its successes U.S. space program
couldn't match many major achievements of Soviet space program, such as
unmanned rover-based space exploration and image and video transfer from
surface of another planet, until early 21st century.
In addition, both countries launched numerous probes into space, such
as the Venera 7 and Voyager 2.
In later decades, space became a somewhat friendlier place. Regular
manned space flights were made possible with the American space shuttle,
which was the first reusable spacecraft to be successfully used. Mir and
Skylab enabled prolonged human habitation in space. In the 1990s, work
on the International Space Station began, and by the end of the century,
while still incomplete, it was in continual use by astronauts from the
United States, Europe, Russia, Japan, and Canada.
The end of the Cold War
In 1989, the Berlin Wall separating West and East Berlin fell.
By the 1980s, the Soviet Union was weakening. The Sino-Soviet split had
removed the USSR's most powerful ally, the People's Republic of China.
Its arms race with the U.S. was draining the country of funds, and
further weakened by internal pressures, ethnic and political. Mikhail
Gorbachev, its last leader, attempted to reform the country with
glasnost and perestroika, but the formation of Solidarity, the fall of
the Berlin Wall, and the breaking-off of several Soviet republics, such
as Lithuania, started a slippery slope of events that culminated in a
coup to overthrow Gorbachev, organized by Communist Party hard-liners.
Boris Yeltsin, president of Russia, organized mass opposition, and the
coup failed. On December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union was officially
disbanded into its constituent republics, thus putting a final line
under the already exhausted Cold War.
Information and communications technology
The creation of the transistor revolutionized the development of the
computer. The first computers, room-sized electro-mechanical devices
built to break cryptographical codes during World War II, quickly became
at least 20 times smaller using transistors. Computers became
reprogrammable rather than fixed-purpose devices. The invention of
programming languages meant computer operators could concentrate on
problem solving at a high-level, without having to think in terms of the
individual instructions to the computer itself. The creation of
operating systems also vastly improved programming productivity.
Building on this, computer pioneers could now realize what they had
envisioned. The graphical user interface, piloted by a computer mouse
made it simple to harness the power of the computer. Storage for
computer programs progressed from punch cards and paper tape to magnetic
tape, floppy disks and hard disks. Core memory and bubble memory fell to
random access memory.
The invention of the word processor, spreadsheet and database greatly
improved office productivity over the old paper, typewriter and filing
cabinet methods. The economic advantage given to businesses led to
economic efficiencies in computers themselves. Cost-effective CPUs led
to thousands of industrial and home-brew computer designs, many of which
became successful; a home-computer boom was led by the Apple II, the
ZX80 and the Commodore PET.
IBM, seeking to embrace the microcomputer
revolution, devised its IBM Personal Computer (PC). Crucially, IBM
developed the PC from third-party components that were available on the
open market. The only impediment to another company duplicating the
system's architecture was the proprietary BIOS software. Other
companies, starting with Compaq, reverse engineered the BIOS and
released PC compatible computers that soon became the dominant
architecture. Microsoft, which produced an operating system for the PC,
rode this wave of popularity to become the world's leading software
The 1980s heralded the Information Age. The rise of computer
applications and data processing made ethereal "information" as valuable
as physical commodities. This brought about new concerns surrounding
intellectual property issues. The U.S. Government made algorithms
patentable, forming the basis of software patents. The controversy over
these and proprietary software led Richard Stallman to create the Free
Software Foundation and begin the GNU Project.
Computers also became a usable platform for entertainment. Computer
games were first developed by software programmers exercising their
creativity on large systems at universities, but these efforts became
commercially successful in arcade games such as Pong and Space Invaders.
Once the home computer market was established, young programmers in
their bedrooms became the core of a youthful games industry. In order to
take advantage of advancing technology, games consoles were created.
Like arcade systems, these machines had custom hardware designed to do
game-oriented operations (such as sprites and parallax scrolling) in
preference to general purpose computing tasks.
Computer networks appeared in two main styles; the local area
network, linking computers in an office or school to each other, and the
wide area network, linking the local area networks together. Initially,
computers depended on the telephone networks to link to each other,
spawning the Bulletin Board sub-culture. However, a DARPA project to
create bomb-proof computer networks led to the creation of the Internet,
a network of networks. The core of this network was the robust TCP/IP
network protocol. Thanks to efforts from Al Gore, the Internet grew
beyond its military role when universities and commercial businesses
were permitted to connect their networks to it. The main impetus for
this was electronic mail, a far faster and convenient form of
communication than conventional letter and memo distribution, and the
File Transfer Protocol (FTP). However, the Internet remained largely
unknown to the general public, who were used to Bulletin Boards and
services like Compuserve and America Online. This changed when Tim
Berners-Lee devised a simpler form of Vannevar Bush's hypertext, which
he dubbed the World Wide Web. "The Web" suddenly changed the Internet
into a printing press beyond the geographic boundaries of physical
countries; it was termed "cyberspace". Anyone with a computer and an
Internet connection could write pages in the simple HTML format and
publish their thoughts to the world.
The Web's immense success also fueled the commercial use of the
Internet. Convenient home shopping had been an element of "visions of
the future" since the development of the telephone, but now the race was
on to provide convenient, interactive consumerism. Companies trading
through web sites became known as "dot coms", due to the ".com" suffix
of commercial Internet addresses.
The world at the end of the century
The geographic distribution of surface warming during the 21st century
calculated by the HadCM3 climate model if a business as usual scenario
is assumed for economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions.
figure, the globally averaged warming corresponds to 3.0 °C (5.4 °F).
By the end of the century, more technological advances had been made
than in all of preceding history. Communications and information
technology, transportation technology, and medical advances had
radically altered daily lives. Europe appeared to be at a sustainable
peace for the first time in recorded history. The people of the Indian
subcontinent, a sixth of the world population at the end of the century,
had attained an indigenous independence for the first time in centuries.
China, an ancient nation comprising a fifth of the world population, was
finally open to the world in a new and powerful synthesis of west and
east, creating a new state after the near-complete destruction of the
old cultural order. With the end of colonialism and the Cold War, nearly
a billion people in Africa were left with truly independent new nation
states, some cut from whole cloth, standing up after centuries of
The world was undergoing its second major period of globalization;
the first, which started in the 18th century, having been terminated by
World War I. Since the US was in a position of almost unchallenged
domination, a major part of the process was Americanization. This led to
anti-Western and anti-American feelings in parts of the world,
especially the Middle East. The influence of China and India was also
rising, as the world's largest populations, long marginalized by the
West and by their own rulers, were rapidly integrating with the world
However, several problems faced the world. The gap between rich and
poor nations continued to widen. Some said that this problem could not
be fixed, that there was a set amount of wealth and it could only be
shared by so many. Others said that the powerful nations with large
economies were not doing enough to help improve the rapidly evolving
economies of the Third World. However, developing countries faced many
challenges, including the scale of the task to be surmounted, rapidly
growing populations, and the need to protect the environment, and the
cost that goes along with it.
Terrorism, dictatorship, and the spread of nuclear weapons were other
issues requiring attention. The world was still blighted by small-scale
wars and other violent conflicts, fueled by competition over resources
and by ethnic conflicts. Despots such as Kim Jong-il of North Korea
continued to lead their nations toward the development of nuclear
Disease threatened to destabilize many regions of the world. New
viruses such as SARS and West Nile continued to spread. In poor nations,
malaria and other diseases affected the majority of the population.
Millions were infected with HIV, the virus which causes AIDS. The virus
was becoming an epidemic in southern Africa.
most importantly, it was speculated that in the long term, environmental
problems threatened the planet's liveability. The most serious problem
was global warming, which was predicted to frequently flood coastal
areas, due to human-caused emission of greenhouse gases, particularly
carbon dioxide produced by the burning of fossil fuels. This prompted
many nations to negotiate and sign the Kyoto treaty, which set mandatory
limits on carbon dioxide emissions.
A significant driver of many of the problems at the end of the 20th
century was overpopulation. At the century's end, the global population
was 6.1 billion and rising. There was some hope on this score, because
the number of children per woman had been decreasing throughout the
world, not only in the rich countries. In the long term, it was
predicted that the population would probably reach a plateau of nine
billion around 2050. However, it remained doubtful whether the planet
had the long-term capacity to sustain such numbers.