The 20th Century was a century of change. Countries were created, dissolved and even re-created. The economies of the western world boomed, busted and boomed again. At the beginning of the century, woman suffrage and universal healthcare were unthinkable for many people; yet by the end of the century, for many societies, it became unthinkable not to ensure woman suffrage and universal healthcare.
The century was dominated by:
World War One (1914-1918). After a century of relative peace, most of the European countries were aligned into opposing alliances. There were many contributing causes, but the final trigger was the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand of Austro-Hungary by Serbian-backed Bosnian insurgents. The war ended with victory by the Allies over the Central Powers, but even for the victorious countries the end of the war came at a staggering price – millions of people killed, economies smashed and societies in revolution. Within the space of four years, the whole world had changed.
The Great Depression (1930s). Following the end of WW1, tremendous efforts were invested in re-starting western economies. Further, there was a strong popular desire to forget the pain of the war and start lives afresh – lives of prosperity, progress and glamour. Arguably, such social pressures fuelled reckless commercial speculation. Overheated economies eventually collapsed, sparking the Great Depression that dominated the 1930s.
World War Two (1939-1945). In contrast to WW1, WW2 was not expected or planned in advance by the major belligerents. The war emerged largely out of the expansionist plans in Europe of the Nazi led regime in Germany, and the militarist party in Japan in Asia. The western powers were constrained by the continuing economic consequences of the Great Depression, and a general popular unwillingness to repeat the bloodletting of WW1. Therefore, both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were allowed to grow and dominate their neighbours. In the case of Nazi Germany, the western powers had permitted Germany to repudiate the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles and re-arm itself, break-up neighbouring Czechoslovakia, and absorb Austria before finally deciding that the invasion of Poland was a step too far. In Asia, Japan’s initial neutrality in WW2 enabled it to grow unchecked, even absorbing French Indo-china. Only with the simultaneous attack on their own territories did Britain and America feel compelled to intervene in Asia against Japan. The war ended with much of Europe and Asia in ruins, and the old powers of Britain and France eclipsed by the rise of the new post-war superpowers: United States and the USSR.
The Cold War (1947-1991). In contrast to the world wars, the leading participants of the Cold War (US and USSR) never directly engaged in armed conflict. Instead, the whole world was divided into mutually opposed groupings of countries – united by ideology, economics and military alliances. The Cold War shaped fears of international Nuclear Holocaust, and overshadowed the independence movements throughout the former European colonial territories in Africa and Asia, and in the revolutionary movements of Latin America. The Cold War ended with the unification of the two Germanies (divided after WW2) and the dissolution of the USSR.
The Space Race (1957-1969). From before the beginnings of powered flight, human beings have speculated and desired to voyage beyond earth and into space. The development of rocketry and other advanced technologies in the 20th Century, especially for military purposes in WW2, made possible the beginnings of space travel. The emergence of the Cold War following WW2 ensured the investment of tremendous sums of national wealth, industrial resources and intellectual expertise. The USSR obtained an early lead, with the successful launch of unmanned and later manned probes into earth orbit. The Space Race climaxed with the successful landing on the moon and return to earth of America’s Apollo 11 mission in 1969.